Creativity and Sustainability at Passage Theatre

March 8, 2010

Today we welcome guest blogger Kacy O’Brien of Passage Theatre with an inspiring look at nonprofit collaboration between arts and environmental groups here in New Jersey.

My interests have always been varied, but fallen mostly into two camps: arts and nature. I could spend equal hours reading plays, watching and producing theatre as I could hiking, watching and caring for wild animals. I count myself extraordinarily lucky, then, to be on the ridge where these two camps overlap; where I can begin to see both the congruencies and unique traits of the arts and environmental fields.

Passage Theatre, where I am the producer, is now in its third year of an unprecedented partnership with New Jersey environmental organizations including D&R Greenway, Green Faith, Isles, NJ Conservation Foundation, Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, Sustainable Lawrence, and Sustainable Princeton. Together, we have created a series of events designed to educate, inspire and promote conservation of our natural treasures, placing live theatre at the center of this four-month series ranging from Pine Barrens tracking, to poetry readings, to watershed reclamation. There are myriad ways in which Greening: Common Connections, Growing Community (as our partnership is named) has proved fruitful and engaging to all of us and our respective audiences on both sides of the “ridge,” including: workshops and talk backs that connect audience members with our artists; joint efforts on new initiatives; and changes to “green” basic operations. What started as a seed of an idea from my Artistic Director has blossomed, with the collaboration of our partners, into a sizeable brain trust spanning the state of New Jersey.

The importance of what our initiative is doing was reinforced at a session on sustainability and theatre at the 2009 Theatre Communications Group national conference in Baltimore last June. Of the five audience members (mostly LEED-certified designers and architects) at this session, I was – alarmingly – the only representative of an artistic viewpoint. The crossover between sustainable practices and environmentally-themed art wasn’t on the table for discussion, but I (admittedly) hijacked the conversation and was able to pull ideas from the presenters to bring back to our initiative, while sharing information on artists with whom we had worked. It was an invigorating conversation! The wonderful presenters included Ian Garrett of the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, Marda Kirn of EcoArts, Lisa Phillips of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, and Gideon Banner of Green Theater Initiative.

It became apparent at that conference that Greening: Common Connections, Growing Community is one of the first of its kind, and though I could continue to detail the day-to-day operations of our initiative, I really just want to talk about why I find it so cool.

#13 - Solo Flights-Greening initiative - Kaiulani Lee A SENSE OF WONDER

Kaiulani Lee.  Photo courtesy Haskell Wexler.

First, I have met three incredible teams of artists working on this project: Kaiulani Lee brought A Sense of Wonder, a brilliantly performed bio-play about Rachael Carson, to Passage in our inaugural year. Peter Donaldson followed in year two with Salmonpeople, a play enlightening viewers on the importance of watershed stewardship. On March 25th and 26th of this year, we are thrilled to present Brooklyn-based Climbing PoeTree’s Hurricane Season, a tapestry of poetry, theatre, dance, and multi-media, woven with a breathtaking musical score performed with live instrumentation. Rhythmic and uplifting, raw and moving, Hurricane Season takes the view that environmental justice and social justice are one and the same.

Salmonpeople Poster image with Title.300 web

Peter Donaldson, Salmonpeople

Climbing Poetree-Hurricane Season

Climbing PoeTree, Hurricane Season. Photo courtesy Layla Love.

Second, these artists live and breathe their work, foregoing more lucrative jobs in order to carry their messages to audiences: that it is up to us to save our ridges and valleys, no matter what camp we fall into. In the process we will be saving a core part of our humanity – our connection to each other and the world we live in. This will become the mission of my generation over the next 50 years. I have watched these artists bring tears of shame and joy and hope to the eyes of audience members, elicit laughter and stoke imaginations. There is an emotional and interactive aspect to live performance that can make information a reality in ways paper cannot.

Third, I have been privileged to work with leaders and practitioners in the fields of urban reclamation, land conservation, sustainability and watershed restoration (to name but a few) who are as passionate about their life’s work as the artists on our stage. It has been incredibly gratifying and humbling to watch these women and men in action in the state of New Jersey, fighting the hard fight of science, numbers, money and politics to move us toward a sustainable future. It has been equally gratifying to participate in and witness events our partners host as part of this initiative, which entertain and educate in physical, visceral ways.

What I have learned, from both artists and environmental practitioners, is that the common connections exist all around us. Where there is just enough overlap in mission and passion we can find ways to pool resources, get the word out, and support each other. It is always better to ask, “Where can we collaborate? Where can we help each other? Who do I know that you should know and vice versa?” than to ask, “Can we collaborate at all?”

I don’t know if I’m giddy because the air is thin up on this ridge, or the heights are dizzying, or if it is simple elation at seeing the cross-pollination of our industries and strategies working to change people’s minds and behaviors. I do know that I’m having a blast up here, where the air is clear enough for me to see a future that I am not afraid of, because our partnership is only one of the first to find common connections between us and our audiences, which have strengthened our community and our solidarity as citizens of this world. My hope – my belief – is that there are many more partnerships to come.

The Dodge Foundation has been instrumental in making Greening: Common Connections, Growing Community possible with its generous support. We give our deepest, heartfelt thanks to the staff for their continued encouragement and enthusiasm for our initiative.

To read more about Greening: Common Connections, Growing Community, visit Passage Theatre’s website or click here. You can also see a sneak peek of Hurricane Season by watching the video below:

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