A new wave of theatre is inviting the natural world back on stage
Everyone is “for” the earth today–from the masses of Americans who want clean air but can’t imagine life without cars, to the corporations who appropriate stunning natural imagery for their ad campaigns while despoiling the pictures’ originals.
In such a climate, it’s difficult to create environmentalist theatre without getting swallowed up by a fatuous, feel-good consensus. Earth Drama Lab, a project of San Francisco’s Life on the Water Theatre, has tested out a variety of strategies in its three-year history: It has staged outdoor pageants of endangered species, presented Australian aborignial elders’ song cycles, produced improvisational comedy on environmental themes, and sponsored on Eco-Rap contest that was so successful it has spun off on its own.
So what is “earth drama,” anyway?
Earth Drama Lab director Bill Talen flicks on the laminated smile he’s perfected in his other career (as a fictional presidential candidate, George Cudahay, in a series of performances pieces): “I feel that’s my personal isometic exercise, trying to produce a rhetorical gem that will capture that.” Then he hazzards an answer, gemlike or not.
“Earth Drama Lab is about finding new words for newer, bigger problems. Intuitively, artists and producers all across the culture are starting Earth Drama Labs–Act Green up in Seattle, the Eco-Festival at Theatre for the New City in New York . They’re concerned about our life systems, concerned about our impact on the natural world.”
Talen took another stab at a definition in notes to this year’s festival program: “The modern environmental movement started its story when we looked back at the Earth from the Moon. That photograph forced us to feel the Earth’s individuality. The Earth became a character on a stage. It will or it won’t get its lines in time.”
From the perspective, of course, “earth drama”–theatre that addresses the troubled relationship between humankind and the natural world–is at least as old as the Greeks. (The curse Oedipus must lift takes form of an environment disaster visited upon the city he rules.) In more modern terms, An Enemy of the People stands as a rebuke to anyone foolish enough to claim that Green drama is the invention of our own times.
Still, “earth drama” of the kind envisioned by Earth Drama Lab’s founders is anything but well-made living-room plays about people taking stands against pollution. Says Talen: “When you pick the ultimate politically correct item and ask for performances about it, what happens is, 95 percent of the artists go through an initial development period, which is didactic and not interesting. They have to deal with their own sense of loss about the earth, their own need to shake people by the lapels.” Only after that phase, according to Talen, does the work get interesting, moving “seamlessly beyond the obvious questions.”
Tarzan on top of the food chain
The Lab itself has gone through something of a similar process of development, launching itself in 1990 as a four-day getting-acquainted session between Bay Area activists and scientists and theatre artists. “We started out in a general way with the big environmental movement,” Talen says, “and now we’re becoming more educated–the artists have been teaching us, and we’ve started understanding the drama of evolution.”
The centerpiece of the 1991 festival was The Passion of Lucy, the creation of playwright Leslie Mohn and the Mineapolis-based Red Eye Collaboration. As it expounded a feminist-revisionist view of history and spirituality, Lucy drew a clever and playful, thought not always clear and never straight, line from Lucy the hominid fossil to St. Lucia to Lucille Ball–a Lucy for each of the three great modern faiths; science, Christianity and television.
This year’s month-long festival, from mid-April to mid-May, continued the evolutionary theme with choreographer Ann Carlson’s Animals–a quintet of pieces examining the interplay and interdependence of Homo sapiens and other species. Like a dance-theatre counterpart to photographer William Wegman, Carlson’s works incorporate animals–here, a pair of goats, a friendly big dog and a tiny kitten–less to exploit them for cuteness and unpredictability than to force human spectators to question their own status as the Tarzan on top of the food chain.
In the most arresting piece, Visit Woman Move Story Cat Cat Cat, a nude Carlson scratches, leaps, rolls and spins in pure primate fashion; she damages from a metal frame and carries a kitten across the stage, holding its scruff in her teeth. The soundtrack–the subline adagio of Beethoven’s Quartlet #15, Op. 132, which by many accounts represents a pinnacle of Western culture and achievement–offers “civilized” counterpoints to the “bestial” spectacle.
The boundary between humanity and nature is similarly porous in Native American playwright William S. Yellow Robe. Jr.’s The New Forest Order, which received a workshop reading at Earth Drama Lab in May. The play presents a series of sketches in which hikers wake to find themselves imprisoned in owl scat, trees confront loggers, and the passing of a natural order is mourned. It’s a rowdy, funny and sometimes angry chorus of voices in–and of–the wilderness.
The most extraordinary evening in this year’s Earth Drama Lab was Rosalie Sorrels’ Raindance. A hit at last fall’s Solo Mio performance festival in San Francisco (a project of Life on the Water and Climate Theaters), Raindance is simple on the surface–an evening of folksongs and stories from the singer’s native Idaho, telling of life in her family’s creekside house through flood and drought. But as Sorrels weaves her hushed, resolutely unsensational narrative voice in with her tense, bare-boned singing, she assembles a magnificently subtle tapestry of observation and emotion. In Raindance, nature isn’t “celebrated”; it’s sometimes challenged, sometimes cussed, and always respected as a force that will have the last word.
In trying to speack up for nature–to give the earth its lines, as it were–there are risks for an institution like Earth Drama Lab: What if audiences don’t like what they hear? What if the lines being written for the earth are the wrong ones? Talen sees the answer to that in the same combination of community-based work and an “originating artist” aesthetic (in which artists assume some or full responsibility for their productions) that has made the Life on the Water Theater an unconventional success in San Francisco since he founded it in 1986 with Ellen Sebastian, Leonard Pitt and Joe Lambert.
Bio-region by the Bay
“Our ideal would be if the stories were really entertaining and the stage events really mattered to people because the characters, the information and the setting came right out of the natural world–right out of our bio-region. This is the kind of theatre that’s atrophied so badly in the glory we’ve given to our pathology–the studies of our darkness, the big ticket-selling themes of the storytelling juggernauts of Madison Avenue and Hollywood. The earth, the natural world, life systems just get filtered out.”
“Our theatre here is called Life on the Water, and we’ve increasingly enjoyed the title. It wasn’t an environmental issue or reference for us at the beginning–we got it off a billboard advertising a yuppie condo development. But now it’s a bioregional phrase: We have a drama in our lives that is visually framed by the Bay. We’ve killed off, pushed back or poisoned most of the natural world that was supported in this bio-region. But we can evoke its spirit, and invite back part of it that we might coexist with.”
The festival’s urban roots and wilderness consciousness connect in a song the festival commissioned from a local rapper named A.K. Black. The ghetto saga of desperate struggle for survival, it’s also an ode to the California grizzly bear–the beast whose portrait on the state flag could not save it from extinction.