The Urban Animal: A conversation with Theresa May & Larry Fried (part I)

First I am going to gush just a bit: having a conference call with Theresa May and Larry Fried for me is the equivalent of a Harry Potter crazed child getting a call from J.K. Rowling. Well, almost. But seriously, considering the niche we are in, the concerns we have for today’s theater and the work in which we are engaged, who better to have a heart to heart with than the folks that (literally) wrote the book?

The book, as you may recall from a post earlier this month, is called Greening Up Our Houses: A Guide to Creating An Ecologically Sound Theatre, and it is the only book of its kind. It examines the idea of sustainable theater and offers practical information and solutions for the theater practitioner. Its only problem is that it was published in 1994, and therefore lacks somewhat in the up-to-date department. It remains, however, an important book and a great starting point for any theater artist interested in pursuing a green approach to their art.

During my conversation with the duo, Fried posed the rhetorical question that sums up what I am trying to do with ecoTheater and what others that have appeared endlessly in this blog are trying to do as well: “What is it,” he asked, “that theater can do to contribute to sustainability in our communities and on our planet?” The question itself found its way into our discussion through a sort of back door, for I was trying to get to the bottom of what I saw as a discrepency between putting real-world sustainable practices into theatrical production versus what academics refer to as ecocriticism, or looking at the planet’s Ecological situation through the work being produced. I have long stood up and said that one (the practical implementation) is most certainly more important than the other, but May and Fried put out most of that fire. Fried continued that the answer to his question “naturally leads to the whole,” meaning that in order to truly examine the greeness of theater, one must look at both sides of the equation–the so-called practical and the artistic. The work being produced and how it is being produced. “Once you start looking into one,” Fried said, “you have to ask yourself, ‘are we really walking our talk?'” In other words, putting environmentally themed work on the boards without considering how you’re putting it there is naive, and arguably fruitless. Likewise, producing theater with meticulous attention paid to the sustainability of the implementation of the design and production without addressing the concern in any of the work also seems to be missing the point.

“I don’t think that there is a great crevasse between the practical side of theater and the artistic side,” May told me. “I think they really come together and, of course, where they come together is on stage.” And how they come together on stage, she reminded me, is vital. “What we use on stage,” she said, “is a way to demonstrate that we are accountable to our relationship with the planet.”

And so Fried and May demonstrated once again that there cannot exist a disconnect between what we do and how we do it. “Theater has the potential to disemble that false boundary between ecology and human culture,” May said. Fried also articulated that he believes theater, and its uniqueness as an art form, offers an ideal way to approach the subject of environmental justice, providing a platform for scrutiny through its ability to propose new ways of thinking and living without directly, or immediately, imposing them on people. Environmentalism and environmental justice, by the way, are not mutually exclusive ideas, argues May. “To care about people really is to care about the planet, and to care about the planet is to care about people,” she said.

She supported this notion by citing the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. “[It] really demonstrated that all of the social justice issues come into play along with all of the environmental policy that was behind taming a river in that way.” In other words, the hubris of what John McPhee has called “the control of nature,” does not merely affect the planet, or some intangible nature aesthetic, but instead will inevitably affect people too.

So, what does this have to do with an “urban animal?” Well, alright, if you must know: At one point in our chat, May made the somewhat obvious though entirely revealing observation that we theater artists tend to be, you guessed it, “urban animals.” “Cities are incredible places to forget the dirt and the land that lies underneath it,” she said. I found this thought quite intriguing, and not just because it seemed like a good header (though, come on, good headers matter). It seemed spot on, and I immediately began thinking about all of the times I found myself wishing I was somewhere in the mountains or the desert with my pack strapped to my back instead of sitting behind a light board, or staring at cue light waiting for it to go off. I also recalled my time at American Players Theatre, an outdoor classical theater about an hour into the country from where I live now in Madison, WI. In my two years with that company, I used to think I’d found the perfect combination of the outdoorsy life, and the theater–for I was able to work in theater while outside in the woods, basking in the sun and playing in the rain. So, May’s point was well taken by me, and I think it points to yet another reason why so many theater practitioners around the world have a hard time accepting nature and the environment into their work, and perhaps more significantly, into how they think about their work. I think it’s time we “urban animals” venture out into the wilds, and reclaim a little bit of that heritage in our souls. Maybe then we’ll be able to see it just that much more clearly.


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what’s in a color?

"It should be about different kinds of symbols than the color green—wind farms, solar, renewable-energy laboratories, those things that are symbolic of the new energy economy. People think that we overuse the concept of green, and it could become trite in its expression.”
“This idea about green in a lot of people’s minds still conjures up this notion of a fringe or something that’s out-there. It doesn’t inspire this notion of a new America. It just seems more substantive than a color.” - Colorado governor Bill Ritter, Jr. in The New Yorker
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