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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 5.21.2009

Words to Connect and Heal

Ecological theater takes over the UO campus

By Suzi Steffen

A river runs through the floor of the theater. Is it blood running through veins; sap running through trees; the electrical impulses that connect past to present, the planet to the people on it, the living to the dead?

Kind of heavy questions for the little space on the UO campus. But those involved with the Earth Matters On Stage festival can’t wait to take them on. The answers will shift and change with the two award-winning new plays produced during the festival in the even newer Hope Theatre.

Performance artist Rachel Rosenthal. Photo by Annie Liebovitz
Darrell Kunitomi and Lori Yeghiayan in Song of Extinction onstage in L.A.
Playwright and director José González leads a playwriting workshop
Song of Extinction playwright em lewis
Atomic Farmgirl playwright C. Denby Swanson

A good night of theater can transform an audience, not to mention those involved with  the play. The characters — turning, dancing, grieving, fighting, loving — cut through defenses to touch tender, anguished, human hearts. In what organizers call this “ecodrama” fest, a good night of theater weaves strands of community and awareness into the transformative artistic experience.

Nothing’s quite complete at a university unless it comes with analysis, and Earth Matters doesn’t fall short either on performance or on thoughts about how to understand that performance. During the 11 days the festival runs, it offers something for just about anyone who cares about the planet. Festival director and theater prof Theresa May can hardly keep track of the massive schedule even with her considerably organized spreadsheets and web page (www.uoregon.edu/~ecodrama). Times and plans and a cycle of events pack the hours. 

Bring a highlighter when you snag the program. The festival teems with ideas about theater and the planet: a talk by a pioneer of performance art; professional theater folk from Portland and Ashland; ecotheater experts; a day devoted to environmental theater by Native Americans; workshops, speakers, yoga and performance art. If you missed the UO’s Metamorphoses, there’s even a special revival production in the Robinson Theatre on May 24. The (literal) tons of water onstage will look different, the actors moving through the pool cast in an altered light, under the glow of the festival’s gaze. And LCC revives Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia for Memorial Day (May 25) and the night after.

But let’s get back to that river, the plays that lie at the festival’s beating heart: two full scripts picked out of the pack submitted to the Earth Matters competition. Each centers around love, tenuous connections, loss and a thin thread of hope. The competition’s first prize winner is Song of Extinction by EM Lewis, and the second prize is Atomic Farmgirl, by C. Denby Swanson.

The idea of ecodrama isn’t new. In 2004 at Humboldt State University, Theresa May and her husband/collaborator Larry Fried (now a familiar face in Eugene’s theater scene) put on an Earth Matters whose core was a festival of new plays. In the UO’s case, an international playwriting competition brought in 158 scripts. From a narrowed group of finalists, outside judges selected the winning plays.

Song of Extinction has piled up various awards since its first days on the competition circuit, the most recent American Theatre Critics Award at the recent Humana Festival. Lewis describes it quickly as “a play about a boy who is dealing with the death of his mother and the teacher who reaches out to him and reluctantly ends up trying to help him,” but that’s not how the play began its life.

“There are several big science initiatives for playwrights out there,” Lewis said during a phone interview. Apparently, plays with working scientists in them aren’t as common as scientists and engineers would like. “I thought, ‘I should write a science play!’ and ‘Wow, I don’t know anything about science,’” Lewis said. But suddenly all of the characters appeared in her head. “I had no idea where they were going to go, but from that first crystal moment, I knew who they were and who they were to each other,” she said. “Then it was a matter of following their journeys through the course of the play.”

Instant characters notwithstanding, Lewis did plenty of research to understand those characters and their intentions. There’s 15-year-old Max, a musical genius who carries his viola wherever he goes; his mother Lily, who writes high school science textbooks and who’s dying of stomach cancer; his father, Ellery, a biologist who researches insects in the Bolivian forest; and Khim, Max’s high school biology teacher, a survivor of genocide in Cambodia. And there’s industrialist Gill, whose company has bought the forest where Ellery’s insect lives and who plans to log it, providing work and clearing land for many Bolivians. The idea of jobs vs. the environment isn’t new to Lewis, who grew up in Oregon and heard all of the arguments of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Song of Extinction is set in Portland. Lewis, who now lives in Santa Monica, Calif., was raised near Woodburn and Salem on what she calls a “fourth-generation family farm.”

A real-life fourth-generation family farm, this one in Eastern Washington, features in the second play, Atomic Farmgirl. Playwright C. Denby Swanson adapted the multi-character play from Teri Hein’s book of the same name. Anyone who listens to or reads the news of our area will know some details about the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, not to mention a bit about the farmland in Eastern Oregon and Washington, so the play feels like it’s set in our backyard — a large, open, dangerous backyard. 

Swanson says she didn’t know anything about Eastern Washington when she started reading the book. “I have a fascination with farms, our relationship to land and to the food that we grow,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Austin, Texas. “The play’s really about a mistake that was made, that we’re working out together.” 

Both Lewis and Swanson say their plays weren’t written with any environmental didacticism in mind. The environment “wasn’t my agenda,” Swanson said. “I fell in love with the people, with the families, and I had strong connections to the idea of home, the place that people run to and run away from.” 

Lewis, whose biology-minded characters know whereof they speak about extinction, said, “I think [Song’s] ecological concerns are talking mostly about our interconnectedness as human beings, how we are to each other, how much we depend on each other.” Song director Theresa Dudeck, a Ph.D. student at the UO, said that the messages of the play connect personal loss to the larger world. “Losing someone we love is as final and as definite as losing a species,” she said, and Song “interweaves it so that it’s not didactic.”

Dudeck also talked about the river theme that ended up being part of the scene design. Scenic designer Jarvis Jahner said that creating a design that took into account the needs of both plays — and of the many other events that take place during the conference in the Hope Theatre space — was a bit of a challenge. And, of course, the design needed to acknowledge the purpose of the festival and symposium, which Theresa May talks about as something that can help influence theater practice in a more green or environmentally aware direction. 

“We talked about how both shows contain flashbacks and are evoking memories,” Jahner said. “We used that idea of memory to create set pieces that are reused materials; no new wood was purchased for this play.” The set, which gestures quite clearly at the style of artist Louise Nevelson, contains all kinds of broken furniture pieces from the UO’s scene shop. 

Jahner said that working on the set for these shows has already influenced his thinking about design for other shows. “You know, we could build a huge set made of rainforest wood, or we could take a minimalistic approach, get creative with the scenery,” he said.

The casts contain familiar faces like Mary Buss, who starred in the Lord Leebrick’s Rabbit Hole earlier this season, Ellen Chace and William (Bill) Campbell, along with students and other community members. Song of Extinction opens Friday, May 22, and plays twice more during the festival. Atomic Farmgirl opens Saturday, May 23, and also plays twice more, closing out the festival with a matinee on Sunday, May 31. The playwrights will be at talkbacks after the productions during the first weekends, and there are also talkback sessions scheduled for the other performances.

Of course, the plays are only a part of the larger festival. Theresa May laughed when she thought about when the next Earth Matters fest might take place. “There probably won’t be a symposium!” she said — the symposium contains almost everything, everyone and every topic that can be related to critical thought and action on ecologically aware theater. On Friday, May 29, a day of discussions and performances centering on indigenous peoples incorporates a panel on the future of the Klamath watershed, following a play reading of the Klamath Theatre Project’s Salmon Is Everything. For high school students, a two-hour panel about greening high school theaters runs on the night of Wednesday, May 27.

Then there are the tall trees of the conference. Keynote speaker Una Chaudhuri, an NYU prof who writes about human relationships with animals, shares the spotlight (though not the stage) with performance artist Rachel Rosenthal, whose face graces our cover and whose legendary status can hardly be described (learn more at www.rachelrosenthal.org). José Cruz González, an award-winning playwright and director, leads a playwriting workshop and readings from that workshop. Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch joins artistic directors from Seattle and Portland, with the Lord Leebrick’s Craig Willis representing Eugene as they discuss the theater of place.

During the ecodrama festival, currents of despair, grief, healing and hope combine with a push to think critically about what, exactly, theater means and how it can effect change, reflect on our history and connect us to each other. “The theater has been behind in this effort,” May said. Now, she’s trying to jump-start a national conversation on theater and the environment, all from the environs of the new Miller Theatre Complex. It begins here.

For more information about schedule and tickets, visit www.uoregon.edu/~ecodrama or call 346-4363. A full pass for the festival runs $75 for nonstudents and $45 for students, and some individual workshops, performances and panels have single tickets for sale. Watch for interviews with various artists and reviews of the plays online at blogs.eugeneweekly.com, and follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/eugeneweekly for up-to-the-minute info.