StageStruck: Citizen Artists
By Chris Rohmann
“In nature, nothing exists alone,” wrote Rachel Carson in The Silent Spring, the 1962 best-seller often credited with launching the environmental movement.
The idea that events, natural and unnatural, have overlapping, interrelated consequences is behind a new year-long initiative on the UMass campus. The Academic Deans’ Theme engages departments and disciplines in diverse approaches to a common topic. The inaugural theme is the catastrophic Gulf oil spill caused by the explosion, two years ago this month, of BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, whose farreaching effects touch on numerous academic and research disciplines.
The UMass Theater Department has risen to the deans’ challenge by creating three original works that “map and explore our changing relationship to the natural world and offer models of community response to ecological crisis.” Beyond the Horizon is an exercise in “devised theater,” explains dramaturgy grad student Megan McClain, the project’s curator. The pieces were co-created by the participants—two dozen students from three of the Five Colleges—using research, found texts and their own words and ideas. This approach, says McClain, mirrors and extends the notion of interconnectedness in the campus-wide theme.
“I’m really interested in the teamwork that’s inherent in ensemble theater creation,” she says. “Everyone in the process has ownership of the work.” Fittingly for the deans’ interdisciplinary theme, the participants—actors, dancers, musicians and environmentalists—represent a variety of majors and interests. “Because many different points of view are incorporated into a devised project,” says McClain, “the people participating become citizen artists, and the piece becomes the culmination of many voices rather than the singular voice of one playwright.”
Each of the performances looks at one or more aspects of the Gulf disaster “and our evolving relationship to nature,” says McClain. What Have We Learned? uses letters, songs and other material to explore the oil spill’s human cost. To Whom It May Concern addresses “how we struggle to communicate during times of crisis in a world that’s already pulsing with the din of suffering.”
The third piece, Nightingale, is a post-apocalyptic fantasy connecting Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale of that title to modern-day environmental pollution and media manipulation. McClain, who was the dramaturg for the piece, says the creative process was sparked by director Brianna Sloan’s interest in Rachel Carson and the author’s exposé of the noxious pesticide DDT, which at the time was falsely touted as harmless to humans.
“There was a stunning picture on the cover of Life magazine, of a model in a cloud of DDT spray, to show it was safe,” she says. “We thought, ‘What is this bizarre world where women are used to sell this kind of toxic product?’ We started generating ideas about who might populate a world where everything is toxic.” From these ideas and images, the group evolved characters for the piece, including a “toxic beauty queen” and Andersen’s nightingale trapped in an anti-natural world.
The performances, in the UMass Curtain Theater this week and next, are accompanied by post-show talkbacks with the creative teams and panel discussions with experts and activists (visitbeyondthehorizonfestival.wordpress.com or umass.edu/theater for full info). There’s also a public reading of The Way of Water, a new work by Latina playwright Caridad Svich exploring the human toll of the disaster, at Amherst’s Food for Thought Books (April 10, 4:30 p.m., free).
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.
While I call Philadelphia my home, I have been working long-distance on a project for playwright Caridad Svich’s new play The Way of Water about the aftermath of the BP Oil Spill. So far, it has been a rich research project (that I will hopefully post about later this month as now over 40 theater companies and universities are reading the play to raise awareness about the two-year anniversary of the disaster), it has also been an opportunity to collaborate with other dramaturgs! Dramaturgy is often a solo act, so it is quite delightful when I have the chance to be a part of a dramaturgy team. Since January, playwright/dramaturg R. Alex Davis has been a part of the team preparing for the reading scheme in April 2012 and it’s been great to ‘divide and conquer’ as the research on the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill is quite extensive. Together, we have created both a research website and a blog so that all the theaters participating can access our dramaturgy.
We were then thrilled to discover that UMASS Amherst was also creating new work in response to the BP Oil Spill disaster. Tasked by their Dean to devise new work to the theme “The Gulf Oil Spill: Lessons for the Future”, dramaturg Megan McClain has been organizing a festival for their Theatre Department. Not only did Megan arrange for Caridad’s new play to be read during their festival, but she’s also shared with us her research from the Gulf region. It’s not just ‘good timing’—but an example of artistic generosity and the spirit of dramaturgical collaboration. And if we also count dramaturgs Adewunmi Oke and Alison Burke who have worked on these devised pieces for UMASS’s festival—that makes five dramaturgs concurrently researching and creating new work responding to the BP Oil Spill crisis. We hope you enjoy this article by Megan as we’re all responding artistically to the crisis by asking those dramaturgical questions of this continuing national crisis. The BP Oil Spill has long-ranging impacts and these new works created will hopefully raise a dialogue of how we can engage with this issue and not forget those Americans who are currently struggling because of this disaster.—Heather Helinsky, freelance dramaturg
Beyond the Horizon: A Devised Theater Festival
by Megan McClain
On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon off-shore drilling unit exploded, killing 11 people. For the next three months nearly 5 million barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, negatively impacting plant, animal, and human life. The full extent of the catastrophe’s aftermath is still unknown. Though the news media’s coverage of the spill has dissipated in the ensuing years, artists and activists continue to give voice to the lasting devastation of this event. Addressing the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its position in a long line of environmental disasters, the Beyond the Horizon Festival presented by the UMass Amherst Theatre Department seeks to use performance to map our changing relationship to the natural world and offer models of community response to ecological crisis. Developed by a interdisciplinary community of theatre artists, musicians, dancers, and environmentalists, the Beyond the Horizon Festival offers three original devised theatre pieces that use the power of performance to illuminate the interactions between humans and the environment.
The first piece, What Have We Learned, uses letters, dance, and song to explore how the BP Gulf oil spill has effected the lives of those in the Gulf and beyond. To whom it may concern addresses how we struggle to communicate during times of crisis in a world pulsing with the din of suffering, disconnection, and corruption. The final piece, Nightingale, imagines a post-apocalyptic society in which natural organisms are strictly controlled and shows what happens when one bird throws the whole system into shock.
Members of the Beyond the Horizon artistic team are also participating in a reading of Caridad Svich’s new play, The Way of Water, presented in collaboration with NoPassport Theatre alliance and press as part of a nationwide and international reading scheme. The Way of Water interrogates the BP Gulf oil spill by exposing the continued negative effects of the disaster on the health and livelihoods of those in the region. This network of readings across the country joins theatre artists in a larger conversation about the hidden and ignored human suffering of those exposed to contaminated water in the Gulf.
Silent Spring author Rachel Carson once wrote, “In nature, nothing exists alone.” The same can be said of theatre. Though theatre has been described as the site for exploring the human condition, that human condition is intrinsically linked to the conditions of all other life on this planet. Theatre gives us a space to play out sites of connection and disconnection. It creates a place to reassess our destructive actions and celebrate the most beautiful wonders of the world around us. Above all, it offers the chance to rediscover and announce what poet Mary Oliver calls our “place in the family of things.”
The Beyond the Horizon Festival runs April 5-7 and April 10-14 at 8pm and April 14 at 2pm in the Curtain Theatre of the Fine Arts Center on the UMass Amherst campus. The reading of Caridad Svich’s new play, The Way of Water, will be held at 4:30pm on April 10th at Food for Thought Books, 106 N. Pleasant St. Amherst, MA. For more information visit our festival blog.
What Have We Learned is directed by Carol Becker, dramaturgy by Adewunmi Oke, and actors: Ryan Hill, Tyler Appel, Shailee Shah, Corrina Parham, Jenny Jin, Tori Clough, Kathryn McNall, and Alex Dunn.
To Whom it May Concern is directed by Daniel Sack, dramaturgy by Alison Burke, creative consultant Phoebe Vigor, and actors Rachel Garbus, Tiahna Harris, Ella Peterman, Kevin Cox, Christina Mailer-Nastasi
Nightingale is directed by Brianna Sloane, dramaturgy by Megan McClain, and actors Anneliese Neilsen, Katrina Turner, Devyn Yurko, Samantha Creed, and Brianna Sloane.
The Way of Water by Caridad Svich was developed at the 2011 Winter Writers Retreat 2011 at the Lark New Play Development Center in New York City and was further developed at a Lark round-table reading in February 2012 directed by Jose Zayas, dramaturgy by Heather Helinsky, R. Alex Davis, and Suzy Fay, and actors Lanna Joffrey, Alfredo Narciso, Caitlin McDonough-Thayer, Bobby Plasencia. For more about the project: http://nopassport.org/wayofwater
Way of Water Blog
Updated: 11 min 10 sec ago
Thu, 04/05/2012 – 13:44
Two of the participating institutions: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and UMASS Amherst have used THE WAY OF WATER to respond to their school’s mandates to initiate campus-wide discussions about water. Take a moment to check out these articles published by UNC’s University Gazette and The Valley Advocate:
ACADEMIC THEME LAUNCHED ON WORLD WATER DAY. 27 March 2012
“The things that are wrong with water today are pretty big, and the pressures on water are huge. But it is within the grasp of human kind to use it as a tool for good,” said Jamie Bartram, professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the Gillings School of Global Public Health and director of The Water Institute at UNC.
The UMASS Theater Department has risen to the deans’ challenge by creating three original works that “map and explore our changing relationship to the natural world and offer models of community response to ecological crisis.” Beyond the Horizen is an exercise in “devised theater,” explains dramaturgy grad student Megan McClain, the project’s curator. The pieces were co-created by the participants—two dozen students from three of the Five Colleges—using research, found texts and their own words and ideas. This approach, says McClain, mirrors and extends the notion of interconnectedness in the campus wide theme.