Theater has long been at the forefront of conversations about human injustice. But we might not think of the stage as a space to consider questions of environmental justice as well. Two leaders at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), one of the nation’s largest and oldest repertory theater companies, are trying to change this. Alison Carey, a playwright, environmental activist, and cofounder of the community-based Cornerstone Theater Company, directs OSF’s American Revolutions project to commission new plays about moments of change in US history, including Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer winner Sweat (2015), about the decline of industrial America, and Robert Schenkkan’s Tony winner All the Way (2012), about LBJ’s presidency. Amrita Ramanan is the Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy at OSF; she has also worked as a producer and dramaturg for the justice-focused Double Edge Theatre in Massachusetts, created a program to engage audiences and artists in dialogue at DC’s Arena Stage, and conducted research with the India Foundation for the Arts in Bangalore.
Together, Carey and Ramanan have begun an initiative to use the tools of dramaturgy—putting plays in context, facilitating conversations between artists and audiences—to address the environment: a green dramaturgy. They call it “greenturgy”: a program to promote theatrical awareness of the natural world and help audiences make connections between the environments onstage and their choices outside the theater.
Daniel Pollack-Pelzner (DPP): Last year, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival put on As You Like It, one of Shakespeare’s plays that leaves the world of the court for a “green world.” How could greenturgy help us envision Shakespeare’s green worlds in a different way?
Alison Carey (AC): I might reverse the question: How can Shakespeare’s plays help us look at the world today in a different way? Where would characters go in As You Like It if there were no Forest of Arden? That doesn’t happen in the production, but these are the kinds of conversations we can have.
You can’t have a world if the world is taken away from you. And you certainly can’t escape what’s happening to our environment. No one can. Do you want to lose the magical possibilities of human beings gathering somewhere and discovering new things about themselves, because the place that frees them to have those experiences is destroyed?
Amrita Ramanan (AR): You know, having worked on Shakespeare’s history plays, the amount of conversation about how the environment is affected by war and political division that’s happening in those plays is astounding.
In Henry IV, Part Two, Rumor’s opening monologue speaks to the environment so explicitly. It gives you a context of how the acts of humanity have affected this environment, which was once a more fertile place and now speaks to the blood seeping in the ground.
For As You Like It, director Rosa Joshi felt that the play is a comedy that begins like a history. It begins in a world that deals with tyrannical oppression, that deals with the change of leadership, that has banishment and exile. So much of our design for that production was looking at a regime that is structured and oppressive, and how nature provides a sense of freedom of discovery to allow one to find one’s authentic self. We intentionally created a set design that allowed the world of the court and the world of Arden to be synergetic. There is a spirit to the environment of Arden that feels really connected to Rosa’s vision of how we go from oppression to freedom.
DPP: Let’s back up. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea for greenturgy?
AC: I was hanging out with Anthony Leiserowitz, who’s head of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, and he talked about the importance of reconnecting Americans with their environments. And I thought, Oh! Plays exist in the world. There is no play that doesn’t take place in a context, whether it’s an explicitly environmental context, or it’s just in a dining room, or a kitchen. There is a world beyond. So many plays already mention relationships with the environment. But we don’t call it out, because we don’t think about the environment, partially because so many of our performance spaces are indoors.
The classic example is in All the Way. The play shows LBJ trying to get support for the Civil Rights Act, and, in exchange for a vote for the bill, he offers some of the water rights to the Colorado River. It’s not what the scene is about, and it’s easy to miss. But then if you talk to audiences, you can say: “Look at that decision that was made, and the impacts that it had and is still having on our lives. Let’s talk about that.”
AR: With that, we came up with the proposal for greenturgy. As Alison said, all theater takes place in an environment, whether that’s imagined or speaking to a point of reality. How can we take that sense of environment on stage and transfer it into our greater consciousness, our relationships as human beings who are in an environment?
The most literal experience that I had of greenturgy was working for a theater company called Double Edge Theatre. It’s based in Ashfield, Massachusetts, and occupies a former dairy farm. The company created performances in that environment, all with a consciousness toward permaculture, and how we support the natural environs in concert with the artistic work that we’re doing. We would have these outdoor performances called “summer spectacles,” where the audience would travel to multiple locations in and out of doors. We created a piece my final season there that spoke to a flood in Argentina that disrupts a town. And we were able to use our ponds and our lakes to represent the effect of the flood. So much of the consciousness of that theater company was: How do we look at this environment, this action in our own environment, and have a dialogue with them?
Once I arrived here at OSF, we came up with this idea: How do we take this philosophy and put it into some form of practice? Alison shared with me this deeply meaningful idea that environmental activists face the challenge of [figuring out] how you motivate, as opposed to how you discourage. Usually, speaking about the environment is really discouraging; the usual discussion is not necessarily motivating individuals to action.
So with our sense that the theater can be an agent for change and for motivation, we thought that identifying the environments, and analyzing them, could be an exercise that creates motivation.
AC: Right. If we’re having the conversation about what’s happening in the environment on the stage, then later, when audience members are driving down the street, they will carry that kind of analysis around what they see into their lives. That’s the goal.
One of the challenges that people who care very much about the environment have faced is getting the conversation past the gatekeepers. I’m speaking specifically about artistic directors, about people saying, “I don’t want to do a play about climate change. It’s a bummer.” Or: “We did a play about climate change five years ago, and we’re done.” Those gatekeepers were preventing the conversation from spreading across the field.
But with greenturgy it doesn’t matter what play you’re doing. Any play you put on has an environment, and greenturgy gives you the tools to highlight that environment both onstage and off. The dramaturgs are able to open up conversations. We can look at the plays and analyze them with the audience through this lens. Actually, greenturgy reminded me of the power of the dramaturg, and the power of all the collaborating artists who create the conversation that they want. Even if the institutional gatekeepers are not encouraging that conversation.
DPP: That’s great. How do you bring that sensibility to OSF specifically? Perhaps another question is: How does OSF receive greenturgy?
AC: Amrita and I annually give a little “greenturgy hello” to audiences in August. In 2017, there was someone who said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” So, we said, “Well, what plays have you seen while you were here?” He had just seen Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of The Odyssey. We said, “Okay, tell us what in The Odyssey is nature.” He said, “I don’t see any connections.”
But someone else in the audience said, “Well, Odysseus goes to a lot of places that are islands. What happens if those islands go away?” The whole story gets undone. And the person who started this conversation said, “Oh!! I get it!” There are always connections.
AR: We had an OSF greenturgy bootcamp that was a conversation: What are the questions, what’s the process? Eventually, we’ll create a toolkit for it. Something we talked about was the relationship between colonialism and imperialism and how we look at environments. When environments have been colonized or taken over, that creates a disruption in terms of who makes that land home, as well as the way in which that environment is viewed.
Melory Mirashrafi (MM): In a similar vein, I know that OSF tries to tell lots of diverse stories. I’m wondering how greenturgy changes or evolves when you are working on productions that are culturally specific, and dealing with a specific person’s land, or approaching the environment on an international scale, like Snow in Midsummer—Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s adaptation of a classical Chinese drama, about a poor woman whose wrongful execution causes unseasonal weather.
AR: I think it is rooted in having deep awareness, sensitivity, and respect for how the cultural context—as defined by the writer and by the world of the play—looks at environments. Snow in Midsummer is a great example.
Francis Ya-Chu Cowhig, a transnational playwright who has lived in China and the US, was thinking through the effects of global capitalism on the environment, and the constant effect of climate change in China that she experienced as a child and still continues to see as an adult.
Cowhig took that perspective and brought it to bear on the classical drama of The Injustice to Dou Yi that Moved Heaven and Earth. In so doing, she was able to say: I can find a contemporary link between the original conversation about the environment here—that, in the original play, is viewed in this context of the supernatural or the spiritual—and question the reality of it. It takes some time to reconcile how the treatment of the environment has been deeply affected by the human injustice that we see in the world in the play.
MM: OSF is a destination theater. So, in order to get there, you have to have a carbon footprint of some kind. How do you think about the cost of drawing audiences to OSF and the environmental challenges that you’ve all been facing in southern Oregon with forest fires?
AR: It connects with greenturgy, but Alison has also been doing some incredible work about the greening of the organization in conversation and trying to make that into a practice.
AC: Yeah, we did have a green task force. A lot of the greening we do is through participating in government programs that reduce our electricity by suggesting new efficiencies to the company, which almost inevitably lead to cost savings.
I do want to acknowledge, though: I don’t think anybody doesn’t know about OSF’s footprint. And so, yes, there is a case to be made that we should close down.
But that’s not going to move the needle in any broad, transformative sense. Personal choices are important, but if we close down OSF, it will not make the difference it needs to make. Instead, there is a great challenge in this collective work—which greenturgy speaks to—that we as a species have to do. Because what we need is popular collective action.
It’s a tradeoff. We can tell stories and talk to people. That, hopefully, may lead them to support collective action. Maybe that’s enough justification to have people drive their cars here from four hundred miles away.
DPP: I’m thinking of a wonderful play that Melory and I took our class to see in Portland called Magellanica, by E. M. Lewis, at Artists Repertory Theatre. The play is about looking back at a moment when scientists from all over the world came together to solve the problem of figuring out the cause of the hole in the ozone layer. It was a play that even offered a collective experience for the audience: because it took six hours to see it, and there was dinner together as part of it, and you become friends with the person popping their gum next to you. We were being cajoled and inspired to form the kind of collective that we were seeing on stage. The same collective engine that you were describing, Alison, the engine of transformation.
I know you’ve been thinking a lot about how change takes place, and how you stage it, and how you motivate it. Has anything made you feel like there’s a connection—not just between individual consumer or artistic choices and something bigger—but between that kind of collective spirit that you’re trying to harness and dramatize, and a popular will that could emerge from it? Are there shows or conversations that have helped you make that connection?
AC: Theatre Communications Group had a convening of people who were focused on this issue (at Theatre in the Age of Climate Change, in Boston, in 2018), which was very helpful. If we can build a collective community among theater people, that will be extremely helpful, because there is a lot of loneliness if you don’t hear the conversation that you want to hear at your workplace.
One of the challenges of Western dramaturgy is the focus on individual action, rather than on collective action. That is extremely hard to overcome. Especially because of the way Western culture has traditionally seen the place of story, and certainly the way American culture is very much designed around the individual. You can look at plays about collective action, like Waiting for Lefty, which is everybody’s favorite example. I would say that there are plays, like Sweat, that are not about collective action, but they are about collectives that are, potentially, starting points for that conversation.
But such plays are not directly making the connection between collective will and inspiring that to reproduce itself outside the theater. We do have the metaphor of theater itself, which is a whole bunch of people working together.
MM: You mention theater as a collaborative art. What work is happening beyond OSF that really inspires you?
AC: I think a lot of the work is happening in communities that are facing the challenges most immediately. I look to the smaller companies as a source of inspiration.
AR: There was a show in New Orleans called Cry You One, by an ensemble called Mondo Bizarro, set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which examines the storm’s impact on society and the environment. For the course of the performance you travel two miles through the Louisiana wetlands. They’ve toured it as well; they’ve taken that same story, but then transported it into different environments.
I’ve also been very inspired by companies who are ensembles that create performances that respond to the environment and become caretakers of the land. So, Double Edge Theatre does that, and the Dell’Arte Center does that beautifully, at Blue Lake in California. Adishakti, which is a theater in India, in Pondicherry, cultivates its own orchard and land with its performance work.
AC: I don’t want to suggest that OSF is at the forefront of this work. Una Chaudhuri, a pioneer in eco-theater at NYU, has a manifesto about “AnthropoScenes.” There’s Superhero Clubhouse that does eco-performance in New York.
AR: Many have been doing this work much earlier than we have and have called it a number of things. We’re grateful for all of those who have been exceptional stewards and thinkers around these processes.
AC: If we can help spread the good word because of the size of our organization, we’re happy to do that. There’s a whole lot of stuff happening. It’s just not necessarily being viewed by people outside the theater as a movement. We’re waiting for that tipping point.
MM: You’ve spoken a little bit to this, but what do you think is the connection between art and activism?
AC: It’s a tricky question. I don’t think all the theaters, especially those that get the majority of funding in this country from foundations and governments, are interested in promoting activism. Some are, and that’s great. It could be as simple as having brochures about local environmental agencies outside when you see the play. There aren’t a lot of theaters that take even that step. So we’re left to try and create worlds in which people can imagine enacting change. Change is possible.
DPP: Is the individual production the most helpful scale for thinking about enacting the kind of change that you are advocating for, or are there other ways to think about this?
AC: I think the individual production is important. I think the conversation with the audience is more important, in terms of the context for the whole thing. Okay, you saw the show about the environment. That’s cool. Look at all these other shows and see that they’re also about the environment. We want you to value it. We encourage you to care about it. Individual productions suffer from being an island, right? We have to be the ocean, not the island.
DPP: Have there been other light-bulb moments—either in your own process or with audience members in conversation—where you felt like that cognitive transformation was occurring?
AR: One that I remember from 2017: audiences were seeing Hannah and the Dread Gazebo, by Jiehae Park, a play set in the Korean demilitarized zone, without fully knowing what the story was about or having much context. Then they recognized this kind of duality that the DMZ holds, as the literal border between North Korea and South Korea, but also the most biodiverse landscape in the world. Some of the audience members figured out that when you look at the environment, there’s often a duality: there’s the present, and that can be in conflict with the place’s history or its journey since then.
AC: I would say that, sometimes, the aha moment is just realizing that everything is connected. You can’t divorce what happens on the stage from what happens outside. The lives of people are connected, and the stories are connected. Every time you can align someone with that, you’re taking a step toward a better world.
DPP: I know you’ve thought a lot about the intersection of environmental issues with other forms of injustice. Could you just tell us how conversations that OSF is leading about equity, diversity, and inclusion intersect with conversations about sustainability and greenturgy?
AC: Well, they’re all the same thing. Injustice is injustice. But we’re also trying to help people understand that the very communities that are impacted by white supremacy and racism and capitalist exploitation are also the communities that are most—and first directly—affected by environmental degradation.
That’s true, and we should talk about it. There’s no longer any time separation between us and climate change. That’s the luck of the world. It actually makes it much easier to create works of art that can capture the immediate moment. Unfortunately, what has happened is that a lot of this work is coming from these frontline communities, and they’re not getting enough support.
MM: It seems like both are dealing with trauma—trauma on a personal or a cultural scale, and then also environmental trauma.
AR: Absolutely. We are in a space and place where the land that we currently sit and stand on is land that has been colonized. The effects of colonialism have deeply impacted the nature of that land, as well as how the land can live in its present.
So, what is the way in which we look at the injustice toward the land and the caretakers of it as part of our inquiry? Because that’s the other thing, too, that I always find interesting. You look at any play, and you can also look at it in the context of colonialism and imperialism. There’s always that context underneath it in one way or another.
AC: Idris Goodwin wrote a play we produced in 2018 called The Way the Mountain Moved, about African Americans and Native Americans in Utah and the contact they have with white surveyors mapping the transcontinental railroad in the 1850s. The play tried to correct some of the imbalances in the historical record, and really to look at what happens when the world changed and all these people came together. There was a great line it: “The train allows the delivery of oversight.”
One of the things we have to do to move forward is come to a better understanding of what our past actually is. And, I do think Idris’s play flipped a lot of expectations about what it was like to be there, before the train tracks went down and the white people killed all the buffalo.
DPP: The Way the Mountain Moved really decentered a conventional white, male, Western narrative structure. Is there a way to tell a story in which, whether individually or collectively, humans are not at the center?
AC: Plays for young audiences seem to be more forgiving of this idea you mention: that nonhumans have agency or value in the world.
AR: I often also see it in plays that personify elements of the environment, such as Marcus Gardley’s … And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, where the Mississippi River is a character. Or with Octavio Solis’s latest play, Mother Road, where there’s a chorus that makes up the road that’s really speaking to the duality of the environment and human beings. I see it especially in plays in a cultural context that shares a belief that the environment is an inherent part of how humanity has to recognize themselves in the world.
AC: Una Chaudhuri has a manifesto that specifically talks about decentering the human experience in theater. Because if we don’t, we just continue to pay attention to ourselves, and not to the fact that there are no insects left.
MM: What gives you hope for the future?
AC: Among scientists I have visited with—and also activists in this area, especially large, predominantly white environmental organizations—there is a sense that you can’t scare people, because if you scare people, you’ll paralyze them. How do you inform without destroying, because the reality is really big and scary? I simply don’t agree.
Look, the most likely scenario—assuming that we start doing stuff—is that we’re going to be increasing between 2°C and 4°C by the end of this century. Not good. And then, of course, if we don’t do anything, and we go up to a 6°C increase by 2100, we are well and truly fucked.
We need really good art scaring the crap out of people, so that they then engage. We need to tell what’s happening together in an honest way, or we’re not going to be able to do anything. Then theater’s job will simply be taking care of people as they watch the world die. I don’t want that to be my job.
There is hope, but only if we do something. I hope that the funding community looks more seriously at the importance of storytelling in communication. Amrita and I were involved in a convening of some artists and scientists. One of the scientists said, “We just need to give more information to people.” And I thought, Nope, that’s not going to work.
We have to recenter storytelling in our culture, and value the stories that are told, and believe people who tell their stories. If we open our hearts to the stories of the people on the frontline—and now we, even here at OSF, are people on the frontline in terms of smoke—then we can do this together.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.