The Surprising History of Eco Theatre

by Dillon Slagle

in Activism,In the Trenches

Post image for The Surprising History of Eco Theatre

(Bread and Puppet Theatre – Photographed by Walter S. Wantman, Scanned and photoshopped by Samuel Wantman [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Contemporary Eco Theatre is dynamic, integrated, and necessary. As a holistic approach to performance, most companies and artists involved in the movement are not satisfied with merely raising awareness of ecological issues. For this new generation Eco Theatre must exemplify the world it attempts to create. Sustainable building practices for sets are a good start, but artists such as Tanja Beer take this a whole step further with biodegradable sets, and even edible components. Jeremy Pickard’s Superhero Clubhouse follows similar production methods, seeking to remain sustainable whenever possible. The Green Pages theatre festival, organized by Theater in Asylum, is a play development platform using only digital records, scripts, feedback, etc. to wean theatre off its considerable paper usage. While practicing environmental sustainability in production is not new, Eco Theatre artists followed these principles as early as 1992, recent advances in technology and our understanding of sustainability have made this approach far more accessible and commercially viable (Downing Cless, Grass Roots is Greener, p. 80).

These are just a few examples of the exciting, new, and inventive work the Eco Theatre movement has created. Building for decades in the local and avant-garde theater scenes, the brave pioneers in this field’s formative years and the new creative generation have pushed Eco Theatre into the mainstream. Hopefully now when discussing Eco Theatre we will no longer lament its obscurity (Cless, Downing. p. 79).

As a codified artistic movement, Eco Theatre began in the mid 1980’s, though its formation can be traced to the 1970’s and earlier. These first self-proclaimed Eco Theatre artists acted out of political disillusionment with large corporations, environmental dangers, and existing social structures. These performances were local, focused on specific events, meant to inform the populace, change policy, and act as a form of protest. Both based in the logging industry heartland of the American North West, Timber and upROOTED discussed the use and misuse of forest resources from multiple perspectives. The production of upROOTED took community and audience feedback to heart and created a sister piece ReROOTED that lead to tangible policy change. Following this performance the County Forest Advisory Committee took action forcing Mendocino county to pursue sustainable forestry practices. (Cless, Downing. pp. 80-83)

The early efforts in Eco Theatre were almost exclusively local and specific in their content and intent. Their efficacy was measured by policy or social change. This tradition continued as the movement grew into University and Regional Theatre. In a small group of University Theatre departments, most notably University of Oregon, Humboldt University, and later York University, Eco Theatre was given an academic study. Fledgling courses in sustainable production and the theory of Eco Theatre allowed this movement to engage with the theatre community on a much larger scale. Not to mention setup the conditions for the contemporary movement.

Professor Theresa May has been a particular champion of this movement in academia, from her numerous articles, to particular projects such as Salmon is Everything, to the formation of the EMOS festival and symposium in 2004. These University based efforts have been answered by regional and urban theatre companies. Continental Divide focusing on political and environmental issues in a fictional California is a great example; “Divide was commissioned by Berkeley Repertory Theater and Ashland Shakespeare Festival for their 2003-04 seasons, and subsequently played at the Barbican theatre in London.” (May, Theresa J. p. 98) This production in particular shows the partnerships that were formed between an academic institutional theatre, regional theatre, and a large urban centered theatre.

As a result of partnerships and productions like those mentioned above, Eco Theatre worked its way into mainstream theatre. For example, in 2006 Portland Center Stage opened their new space and received an LEED platinum certification (Arons, Wendy, and Theresa J. May, eds. p. 204). This is a new era for Eco Theatre. It now engages with all levels of the theatrical world. While the particular methods and widespread recognition of this movement are new, the movement itself has been steadily congealing over the last century. Plays such as The Cherry Orchard, Waiting for Godot, and even shockingly Death of a Salesman are all examples of theatre highlighting our dependence on, and intimate relationship with, the ecology of the Earth (May, Theresa J. pp. 84, 91). The centrality of environmental themes can be traced in works from the avant garde of the last half of the 20th Century such as the Bread and Puppet theatre, to earlier artists and work such as Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. If Eco Theatre is conceptualized as a philosophical and material concern for our relationship to, and inclusion in, nature this trend could be extended to Shakespeare and beyond to the very formation of Western Theatre in Ancient Greece.

The specificity of contemporary artists, their scientific understanding of our ecological situation and consequences of material resources, and the maturity and complexity of their methods is truly something to marvel at and take pride in. In theatre, as in any discipline, ideas and movements are formed far in the past and only reach fruition after countless contributors force them into being. The concept of the atom formed independently in Greece and India melina before it was refined into a workable and testable theory and finally proven as the basic building block of matter (McEvilley p. 317 and Ponomarev pp. 14-15). In much the same way, Eco Theatre began with reverence to nature and ecological balance in Greek theatre, incubated slowly in Shakespeare, Ibsen, Arthur Miller, Bread and Puppet Theatre, academics such as Theresa May, Downing Cless, and Una Chaudhuri, to finally be realised as the integrated and complete practice we find in contemporary artists.

Works Cited

Arons, Wendy, and Theresa J. May, eds. Readings in Performance and Ecology. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Cless, Downing. “Eco-Theatre, USA: The Grassroots Is Greener.” TDR 40.2 (1996): 79-102.

May, Theresa J. “Greening the Theater: Taking Ecocriticism from Page to Stage.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies; New Connections in Ecocriticism 7.1 (2005): 84-103.

McEvilley, Thomas (2002). The shape of ancient thought: comparative studies in Greek and Indian philosophies. Allworth Press.

Ponomarev, Leonid Ivanovich (1993). The Quantum Dice. CRC Press.


253081_3940667118736_664508506_nDillon Slagle works in New York as a dramaturg and biological anthropologist. His experiences range from dramaturgy for puppet performances exploring the nature and formation of mono-theism with Kevin Augustine, to excavating pre-Greek burial sites in Menorca, Spain. In both anthropology and dramaturgy Dillon believes in rigorous research, cultural awareness, and creative approaches to the process. Dillon is constantly searching for new, engaging, and relevant work. Dillon is a member of LMDA and dramaturg for the Carroll Simmons Performance Collective. dramaturgytea.com, @dramaturgytea, facebook.com/dramaturgytea

  • maya

    yeah for you to have researched and written this article on this still often not known of or misunderstood topic: Eco-theatre, And you cited some of my favorite people. Thank you, Maya Apfelbaum ( struggling eco-theatre and eco-arts installation and ritual artist). See my facebook page for some of the fun work I do at “Serendipity Stilt Dancers.”

  • Dillon Slagle

    Thank you for the support! I’m glad that you liked the article. I really wanted to accurately display this often mentioned but rarely understood movement/genre. The people I cited are some of my favorites as well! Especially Theresa May.

  • Julia

    I am in the early stages of developing a production about human relationships with the environment for my undergraduate honors thesis, and the artists and sources you cite are incredibly helpful! Thank you for this succinct, yet informative article! – Julia (juliaslevine.com)