Six years ago I wrote a play about waste, assuming it would be a singular jaunt in environmental themes; now I collaborate with climate scientists, run an eco-playwriting program for Brooklyn 5th-graders and am beginning work on the seventh in a series of ecology-inspired Planet Plays. I am searching for a new model of theater, not because there is a need to reinvent the wheel, but because I believe that a holistic approach—uniting concept, content, process and production around the tenets of ecology—is my best chance at making a difference in the world.
To paraphrase Anne Bogart, making theater proposes a model of how we might live in the world; every production is a microcosm of society at large, an arena where a community of individuals gathers each day and attempts to make something together. What we make and how we make it depends on what is invested and what is valued.
I choose to value sustainability, not only because I want to use my art to ignite environmental conversations, but also because every definition of the word “sustainable” implies endurance, discipline and creativity. Inspired by the resourcefulness of children (and the definition of eco, which means “house”), I call my theater company a Clubhouse, because I want my organization to remain grassroots, non-profit, community-driven and playful. I continue to fill this figurative Clubhouse with a gaggle of artists and environmental advocates who flow in and out of membership at will. I call them superheroes, as I do anyone who is working for the betterment of the Earth. Together we make eco-plays, practice green production, gather as a community and talk about sustainability.
To be sure, it’s all an experiment. Eco-theater didn’t exist a decade ago (it still sort of doesn’t); therefore there is no precedent, not to mention I’m making it in an age when irony has all but killed old-school political drama. Thankfully I have more interest in dance than I do old-school political drama; nevertheless, a dense and didactic discussion is the first impression most folks get when they hear the term “eco-theater.” This misconception is one of many obstacles that I have yet to fully overcome. I am not an authority, merely a scientist in the field, asking questions, continuously trying and failing.
Writing about eco-theater, I am struck with a conundrum. On one hand, I do not wish to preach, for who am I to tell fellow artists what the content of their plays should be, or that it is their duty to recycle building materials? Other than encourage, all I can do is my work. But I also want to be as effective as possible, and theater artists who actively practice sustainability are the extreme minority. It occurs to me that if I actually care about making an impact on the world, I can’t be the only one doing it.
Tangible, Green Theater
Tanja Beer is an Australian eco-designer, in both philosophy and practice. She has constructed expansive sets that can fit into a single backpack, created worlds out of ready-made backstage equipment, transformed old plastic into acrobatic silks, and suspended hundreds of local apples (which she then donated to children’s charities). Currently, Tanja is tackling one of eco-theater’s great obstacles–the theater space itself—by designing and constructing living stages. Built from things like donated vegetable crates and inspired by the agriculture of the area, her living stages are half actors’ playground and half community garden; indeed, engaging with the community is a major goal. Locals help Tanja grow and tend the plants that become the stage walls, the set, the props and the refreshments. Audiences are welcome to eat from them before the show starts, after which point the space becomes an interactive theater, where performers climb, tell stories and eat.
In reference to how we make artistic decisions in directing and design, we often say that the needs of the play trump all. This is an important rule, and honoring the playwright and maintaining a consistent vision are values many of us share. But if we also value sustainability, and the needs of the play demand that we make artistic decisions that negatively affect the way we live in the world, which value is trumped? In other words, what is our global responsibility, as people who use energy and materials to make temporary experiences? If an author values the preservation of trees but her publisher cannot use recycled paper, how does she publish the book?
The ethical conundrums are as big as the environmental ones, and I’m not about to answer them. We are free artists; there is no law preventing us from using foam core and luan and spray paint, curtailing the amount of water and chemicals we use laundering costumes, or capping our electricity use while we tech long shows with old lights. But there are also few incentives (economic or otherwise) supporting more efficient approaches; it is still cheaper and easier to throw an entire Broadway set into one dumpster than it is to hire multiple crews to sort, recycle and store what is salvageable.
Assuming these incentives are slow in coming, we can problem-solve in other ways. I’ll take a good guess and suppose that most Broadway productions are designed with the dumpster in mind. To green a production without an added economic burden requires a decision to consider sustainability much earlier in the process. To quote Tanja’s website: “Just as an experienced stage designer generally designs with budget limitations in mind, I have also begun incorporating an environmentally responsible approach to the way in which I create work. This begins early in the design process, and is integrated into every aspect of the procedure; from the development of conceptual ideas, to the realization of the design concept, to the manner in which the finished product is disposed of.”
In the big-budget world, this kind of pre-production planning requires intense cooperation between the artistic team, the producers and the owners of the theater itself. But, as Broadway’s extraordinary eco-designer Donyale Werle has proven, even if this level of collaboration is not currently attainable, a designer with a commitment to sustainability can still make waves on her own; since design is where green values are first seen and most easily understood by those to whom green theater is a new concept, perhaps designers are the ones best equipped to lead the charge. Certainly the NYC theater community thinks so, as they have honored Donyale with several awards in recognition of her innovation.
It is also not up to the rest of us to wait for big-budget theaters to create a precedent. Talking with Tanja Beer over tea last month, I came to understand that her designs are not complicated or expensive, nor do they lack artistic merit or require artistic sacrifice. Instead, they are cheap, easy and affective, offering new possibilities in the rehearsal room and unique visual storytelling to audiences. What Tanja offers by example is a practical model of design that could be approached by anyone, from carpenters volunteering at their local community theater to resident designers at regional houses.
Imagine a regional or off-Broadway theater devoting an entire season to green production. Think of how many ingenious designers would meet the call-to-arms with immense creativity and pride, something the theater could brag about, audiences could wonder at, and American Theater Magazine articles could promote as game-changing. Imagine the college theater programs that would follow suit and how many future professionals would grow up knowing creative green solutions not as cute anomalies or fashionable trends but as increasingly standardized ways of making theater.
My long-time collaborator R.B. Schlather describes designing with my company as a process of “creating maximal images through minimal means”. He focuses on one central design choice that can solve many problems and communicate a great deal. For instance, in our dance-theater event MARS (a play about mining) that we premiered at Center for Performance Research (a LEED-certified dance space in Brooklyn) in March, everything onstage was white, including the recycled Tyvek suits worn by the entire 25-person cast; this created a “blank canvas” effect, which simultaneously allowed audiences to project their imaginations upon the stage, illustrations to be projected against the back wall and for the play’s theme of development vs. destruction to be highlighted. In SATURN (a play about food), R.B. evoked the contrasting worlds of city and farm with a carefully curated selection of used chairs. In both productions, the choice to work with minimalism kept things green, but it also put more attention on the bodies and voices of our multi-talented performers, whose athleticism and physical storytelling prowess were qualities I celebrated and sought.
Minimalism is not the formula for making green theater, however. My other regular designers, Michael Minahan and Preesa Adeline Bullington, build epic and magical worlds for our annual Big Green Theater Festival. Michael and Preesa are by now expert scavengers, gathering as much from sidewalks as they do from Materials for the Arts, Build It Green and Craig’s List. Together with Jay Maury, whose ambitious lighting designs are made entirely of LED, fluorescent and household instruments, our designers transform The Bushwick Starr Theater every April with as much creativity and skill as any of the non-eco-designers that grace the Starr each season.
Of course, determined designers require an encouraging and flexible director. I begin rehearsing Big Green Theater with a ground plan, but I know that it might change depending on what my designers are able to find. I do not see this as a problem or sacrifice, but an opportunity to keep my actors on their toes and all of us brainstorming. When our rehearsal room promises variability, it becomes more akin to a laboratory, where change is inevitable and trial/error is god. I have found that actors are swift to embrace this type of process, even if it means more work for them: when the entire production team is working toward a larger, unified goal, good artists rise to meet it.
Undoubtedly, theater artists can be leaders in the global environmental movement; by visibly valuing sustainability in our production practices, we ally environmentalists and proclaim that our relationship to the natural world is something worth talking about.
But I have the insane tendency to reach for the next rock before I’ve secured a firm foothold in the place I’m standing. To me, green theater production is only one part of eco-theater. I am interested in how all aspects of theater making might connect to my sustainable values. In ecology, it is impossible to isolate one species in an ecosystem without considering the many other species and natural forces that act upon it. So I want to consider and connect everything in my theatrical ecosystem, from script to strike.
As Anne Washburn shows us so magnificently in Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, theater in its purest form is how we began, and it is what we will return to—especially, in the case of Mr. Burns, after a catastrophe such as an electric apocalypse. When all the screens are turned off, when all convenience is gone, everyone becomes a theater artist, building a new society out of the stories that remain.
I believe eco-theater is ultimately about defining and articulating new mythologies for a tumultuous and changing world. As the climate becomes more unpredictable, as drought and severe storms throw what we love into precarious positions and as basic necessities become increasingly more threatened, the status quo under which we’ve been making plays for so long will shift, and so will our stories.
Already, our changing environment is changing us. Though we are not writing plays in drought-afflicted Mongolia where the effects of climate change are more immediate and visible, we are writing plays on laptops powered with coal from ancient American mountain ranges now permanently destroyed, we run from our day jobs eating take-out made from factory-farmed meat and high fructose corn syrup, we stay awake to write by drinking imported coffee in Styrofoam cups which we immediately ship in inefficient trucks to overflowing landfills, we print our scripts with paper made from old-growth forests now nearly extinct. Ecology is the silent conflict at the heart of our days. Can’t it also be at the heart of our plays?
At least, this is the question I am asking myself. Not all artists feel agenda-driven, but I do. I feel responsible to use my art form—an art form particularly good at stimulating change of thought—to address the most pressing and alarming issues humans currently face. The environmental science community is eager for artists to be the harbingers of a cultural revolution, in which the tree-hugging minority evolves into a policy-shifting majority. Theater artists have the influence of intimacy and the power of imagination. We may not be able to directly change government, but we can change minds, person to person and community to community, simply because we are engaged in the most primitive and intuitive human meme. In the 1980’s, homosexuals were being blamed for spreading AIDS on public toilet seats; today there are twelve states where gay marriage is legal. It is no coincidence that Angels in America was written in between. So yes, I feel responsible.
But mostly, I feel inspired. I’m passionate about nature, and I see a bounty of theatrical possibilities in ecology. There are endless human stories waiting to be told about our relationship to the natural world. There are legends and scandals and disasters not yet unpacked onstage. There are big, controversial questions without answers, and big, positive people rousing hope. Imagine characters based on Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, Julie “Butterfly” Hill, the less famous but no less charismatic scientists working to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, or the nameless individuals making daily decisions that unwittingly affect my way of life. The need for cheap fuel, the price of food, the ownership of land… theatrical conflicts inspired by real ecological ones are suspended in front of me like swelling fruit, aching to be plucked. I stroll through the woods or browse the news, and I see a lifetime’s worth of playwriting fodder.
How far might I go with connecting the playwriting process to my sustainable values? Can I write shorter plays for shorter techs and runs, thereby significantly decreasing the electricity, heat and AC usage? Can I splatter disclaimers on my proposals, demanding green design and efficient production houses? Can I back up these demands by demanding more from myself? Perhaps I mimic another constant seen in nature, waste nothing, by recycling my words and stories ala Chuck Mee. Or write fewer, better plays ala August Wilson, plays that never quite disappear but continue to be rewritten and improved as the world changes. Once I ask the question, once I decide that my values will directly influence not only what I write but also how I write it, the possibilities pour forth.
And then, when I go into a rehearsal process, I ask myself similar questions: can I echo my plays’ ecological themes in the way I direct? Often I approach answering this question by defining physical limitations for my actors. For instance, in URANUS (a play about waste), I had the actors generate a series of gestures that they could recycle. And then we took it a step further: halfway through the play, the entire staging of the first half was physically rewound, even as the text of the second half progressed forward. Intellectually, the play’s story asked questions about entropy and cycles; the actor’s movement asked the same viscerally.
I like to use limitation in as many ways as possible. For MERCURY (a play about poison), a piece that was devised collaboratively with my cast, our poverty caused us to rehearse in a very small room. Instead of feeling forced to cope with the room until we were able to stretch our legs in a larger space, we took advantage of the limitations it provided, allowing the space to influence our setting and staging. Based on the history of the Danbury, CT hatting industry (the cause of rampant mercury poisoning in western CT as well as in the brains of many hat makers), we set the play in a cramped, one-room hat shop, typical of 1780’s New England, and allowed the constraints of size to compliment the mad mental journey our protagonist was to take.
Theater is poor, but I feel better for it. As artists, we understand that great innovation often comes from great limitation, yet we spend an immense amount of energy fighting for limitless resources. Ecologically, we lost this fight long ago: we now know there is a limit to things like trees, clean air and fresh water. Today, environmentalists fight to protect the things we still have and to find creative ways of using them.
When I create a play, it’s as if a new species has been born. I feel obliged to nurture it, and see that it coexists with the other species. For this reason, I produce my plays in drafts, mounting full productions before the play is finished growing. A fully produced first-draft may be clunky, but it makes the second-draft much better. This approach also allows me to keep up with the changing world: I’ve produced two drafts of VENUS (a play about energy), but I’m ready to scrap them both and start again, because I’m not convinced the existing drafts are properly serving the questions of alternative energy—a vast, heated topic that changes every day, as fuel prices fluctuate and new technologies are invented. When the entire Planet Play series is complete, the nine plays (each between 60-90 minutes in length) will connect to each other in theme, character and chronology, like an ecosystem and a mythological family tree. And like ecosystems and mythology, there will always be room to grow.
Time will tell how eco-theater will fit into the fold. It rightfully hovers between the science community, interested primarily in education and outreach, and the theater world, interested primarily in truth and beauty. There are certainly kinks to work out, but I’m confident they will be, especially considering the trailblazing being done by visionaries like Tanja Beer, Donyale Werle, The Civilians (check out their Next Forever Initiative), the Broadway Green Alliance and TCG's own Caridad Svich. I hope their work signals a movement; I’m giddy to see what a new breed of resourceful and enterprising eco-artists will come up with. In the meantime, I’ll keep experimenting.