An Environment for Change?

by Caridad Svich

in Activism,Artistry & Artistic Innovation

Post image for An Environment for Change?

(Photo from Univ of Pretoria, South Africa reading of THE WAY OF WATER. Courtesy of Univ of Pretoria.)

“Oh, environmental plays,” a UK playwright-colleague said to me during a Winter Writers Retreat at the Lark Play Development Centre this past, mild December in NYC, “they’re bloody hard to write.” A few weeks later another UK playwriting colleague and I email about our ongoing twinned passions of art and activism, and go back and forth in our correspondence on the inherent risk and non-monetary value that these passions can engender in the process of art-making . It’s now April 2012 and the two-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill disaster is making headlines with a plethora of lawsuits, cover-ups and a nasty and enormous health scandal affecting the US Gulf region. I’m sitting in a practice hall in NYC in workshop with my new play THE WAY OF WATER, which is, in effect, set in the heart of the devastating aftermath of BP’s environmental disaster, and looks at the lives of four characters whose very lives and livelihoods are damaged by the complex fall-out of the spill and the even more complex, layered threads that link lack of health insurance, poverty, and racism in the economically strapped fishing towns along the coast of Louisiana.

We discuss with a talented quartet of NY-based actors how waves of convenient cultural “amnesia” seem to maintain what has often been described as a “culture of forgetting” in US society, wherein disasters go viral and lose their “cache” time and again to make room for the next disaster scrolled on the media waves of a computer screen. The conversation in the practice hall turns again and again, when we’re not tracking emotional arcs in the script or looking at newly posted articles about new findings in the US Gulf of shrimp with no eyes surfacing in the waters, to what theatre’s role can be in a thorny US theatrical landscape that is driven in both the commercial and not-for-profit sector on the vagaries of real estate and the out-moded subscription-audience model adopted forty or so years ago by the regional/resident theatre system. Again, the issue of how to address environmental damage and issues of sustainability come to the fore as we work on the depiction of four fragile lives caught in an equally fragile eco-system.

Thousands of miles away, Pat the Dog Playwrights Centre and the University of Waterloo are collaborating on a site-responsive reading of the play in a reflecting pool in the Kitchener-Waterloo City Square in Ontario, Canada, whilst at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, the University of Tasmania in Australia and Aberystwyth University in Wales, different drafts of the script are being read (accent adapted) with a mix of student and faculty actors. Blog posts from these and other venues taking part in an international reading scheme for the play come in via email to the respective laptops of a dramaturge with us in NYC in the practice hall, and another dramaturge (working remotely long distance). Most of the blog posts are written either by actors, educators or practitioners and their reflections circle again and again on how, despite the fact that BP and the anniversary of the disaster have been making headlines these last few weeks, precious little awareness has made its way into the corridors and dressing rooms of theatres at the university and not-for-profit level. In fact, most of the reflections contain a similar refrain: “How can theatre-making address environmental issues, and what kind of effective change is possible after witnessing a play?”

The word “mobilisation” is used in its noun and verb form throughout many of the blog posts, and as my four actors, director and dramaturges wrestle with the finer points of script revision, clarity, and the crafting of emotionally resonant moments – the nuts and bolts of any work room devoted to new writing – the word threads its way through our practical conversation and into the chit-chat of coffee breaks and the ubiquitous habit of checking voicemail and text messages on our mobile phones. We ask ourselves, in effect, if it’s even possible for theatre to be a Mobile/mobilising force in the era of an already-waning Occupy X movement in the US. After all, this is a Presidential election-year. Stump speeches flood the primaries with sound bytes and empty rhetoric, diffusing the complicated and necessary national conversations that need occur regarding, among many other issues, health care, oil drilling, fracking, and the continued voracious plunder of oceans that do not belong to us for the sake of pocket-deep multinational corporate investments and the byzantine top-down levels of “minor” corruption and lobbying that allow convenient lies to be disseminated and variously “accepted” by a variety of multi-platform media outlets. One petition signed, a line in a script read out loud to a roomful of people – what change, real change, is possible? Is it futile to even think about? Is the age-old (seemingly) question of the validity of theatre-making’s civic engagement at odds with the immensity of the big ol’ world itself?

The actor playing the role of the Jimmy, a fisherman eking out a beggarly living on the Louisiana coast as he suffers from exposure to toxic solvents and a toxic environment, sits down on a folding chair in our NYC workshop, and rests his head on the work table of our practice hall. He utters the word “politics” and the catch in his voice is urgent. “What interests me in this play, in plays, is the politics,” he says. Soon, our discussion turns to what we think of when we say the words “political theatre,” especially in the US. Creeping into the conversation one of US theatre’s “dirty words,” rears its head. It is a word bandied about quite often pejoratively by administrators, marketing folks, and even within the creative personnel of our wide-ranging industry.

The word is “darkness.” It is a word that tends to send shivers down some people’s spines in this field, as they try to pitch plays to their constituents and disguise “darkness” in blurbs and press packets with any number of adjectives in order to obscure its visceral presence. Darkness, even in dark times, or the intimations of a jangling, upset theatrical universe where not every question is answered by the theatre-makers and/or presented in pop-friendly forms, is the dirtiest of dirty words next to the word “politics” in US theatre. Will the world presented on stage be too bleak? Will we run the risk of alienating the audience? And if we indeed want the audience to mobilise, to feel empowered to at least try to effect a measure of change within their local community, what tools can we offer them through our storytelling in order to instill the possibility without wrecking all reasonable hope altogether?

Gulf spill cleanup photo courtesy of Abigail Feinberg and Quentin Farr.

A recent New York Times article in the Arts and Leisure (Sunday 22 April) was actually devoted to the subject of darkness in plays in lieu of the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a text that is being met by a new generation of theatre-goers with a mixture of awe and mild shock at the “depressing” nature of the piece’s downwardly spiraling story. Has US theatre, for good or ill, and time will be the judge of that, retreated from the portrayal, without exploitation, of the troubling nature of much of the lives of those who live in the US in order to instead “do good?” In this “doing good” is theatre’s potency as a live medium of expression, as a meeting place and communal gathering of strangers, being castrated? What new lies get told in this “do-gooder-ness” and what markings on theatre’s pages are left unsaid in the fear of losing an audience?

These are questions that playwrights committed to expressions of the body politic, who work in the stacked deck of US theatre’s economy, contend with on a daily basis, Even in a practice hall, in a workshop, where the focus is on the text, its intentions, and how it can indeed further engage with the difficult and beautiful stuff that makes up our world. The urgency felt in the actor’s voice when he utters the word “politics”, as he sits on the folding chair giving heart and soul to the work for very little pay, resonates outside the practice hall and into the streets of NYC, as my collaborators and I wind down after a long day of tough, merciless and compassionate creative decision-making. The air is crisp and a sudden rain chills what has been a remarkably pleasant spring. An email comes in from colleagues in Kitchener-Waterloo, as the site-responsive reading of THE WAY OF WATER has come to an end. The temperature there had dropped immeasurably and the performed reading had to be moved mid-stream, indoors, into City Hall, of all places, where the local arts presenter offered a dedicated audience coffee to warm them up, and the play continued under the glare of fluorescent light. My collaborators in NYC alight on their separate paths, to their separate subway trains, to Brooklyn, Bushwick, and Inwood. We say our good nights and promise to gather again tomorrow for another day of work. Precious time is all we have, and our workshop will soon come to an end. I think about how one audience was figuratively mobilised in Kitchener-Waterloo because of the vagaries of an intemperate environment, and I think about how “politics” and making theatre can huddle us around all kinds of honest, fearless, and vulnerable places of darkness and light.

[Caridad Svich’s The Way of Water, a play set in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill, is part of an international reading scheme across the US and abroad in April and May 2012 commemorating the two-year anniversary of the disaster.

Caridad Svich is a US Latina playwright, translator, lyricist and editor whose works have been presented across the US and abroad at diverse venues, including Denver Center Theatre, Mixed Blood Theatre, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, 59East59, McCarren Park Pool, 7 Stages, Salvage Vanguard Theatre, Teatro Mori (Santiago, Chile), ARTheater (Cologne), and Edinburgh Fringe Festival/UK. She received the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for her play The House of the Spirits, based on the novel by Isabel Allende.

Next season her new play GUAPA will receive its NNPN rolling world premiere at Borderlands Theater in Arizona, Miracle Theatre in Portland/OR and Phoenix Theater in Indianapolis, and her play Love in the Time of Cholera, based on the novel by Garcia Marquez, will premiere at Repertorio Espanol in NYC.

She has edited several books on theatre including Out of Silence: Censorship in Theatre & Performance (Eyecorner Press), Trans-Global Readings and Theatre in Crisis? (both for Manchester University Press) and Divine Fire (BackStage Books).

She is alumna playwright of New Dramatists, founder of NoPassport theatre alliance & press, and Drama Editor of Asymptote journal of literary translation. She holds an MFA in Theatre-Playwriting from UCSD. Website: