Placing Concern for Earth Center-Stage

Recently a Friend brought to our attention Sarah Moon’s original play, Tauris, which invites audiences to consider contemporary environmental concerns in the context of Greek drama. Tauris will soon have its world premiere as part of the 5th Annual Planet Connections Theatre Festivity in June 2013. Following is a Q&A interview with the playwright, along with information about where you can see Tauris and how you can help support the play.

BFC: First, how did you get started writing plays in general, and writing about environmental themes in particular?

Sarah: I started writing plays in college. My friend Hallie Beaune started a playwriting group the spring semester of my sophomore year. Having always written poetry, I was excited at the new challenge. I started writing a drama loosely based on the experiences of my friends and I called it Inside Inside. My theatre friends liked it and we decided to work on it as a summer project. I found a director and we double cast it and worked with two casts all summer long. We presented a one-hour version in our college’s theatre as part of Orientation Week.

I spent the next year mostly acting and the following year directing, but when I got out of school, I realized it was playwriting that tapped the deepest into my desires and creativity. With a play called Art Deco for Emotional Cripples, I applied to eight MFA playwriting programs. A lesser known program gave me a full ride and a well-known program gave me no funding. I chose the middle ground and attended Brandeis University where my play Losing the Game was produced in the spring of 2004 and won the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Award for Best Original Play.

My earlier plays tended to be psychological dramas exploring the complexity of romantic and family relationships from a women’s perspective. I would say some of these plays held social commentary, but none of it was really pointed. I became interested in plays with an environmental message when my theatre company in New York, New Mummers, was asked to put together a street theatre performance outside the U.N., drawing attention to the environmental crisis of mountaintop removal. My theatre company partner and I became so involved in the issue and the activism that we formed a volunteer group called New York Loves Mountains to raise awareness about mountaintop removal and sever New York’s connection to it (New York state burns mountaintop removal coal).

With that group, I started working on a full-length play that would address the issue. We presented the play, Current Changes in Empire, at the downtown experimental theatre hub Dixon Place in 2008. However, it wasn’t all that I wanted it to be and decided to take a different tack on the issue. Taking elements from that play, I wrote another play in a more realistic style called Light Comes. I presented an excerpt of Light Comes at Boston Greenfest in 2010. I submitted it to a few theatres, but it didn’t find a home for a full production. So, I decided I would try a third tack. Inspired by a call for proposals to a conference at York University in Toronto called Staging Sustainability, I proposed a paper on using Greek drama to discuss contemporary environmental issues. I started working on an adaptation of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Tauris that would do that and the parallels just flowed.

A rehearsal outdoors in Cape Cod for the Boston Greenfest presentationBFC: How does your Friends’ tradition connect with or inform/inspire your efforts?

Sarah: My great-grandparents were Quakers and my father took us to a Friends meeting in Milwaukee for a year when I was 11. Though I wasn’t forcefully drawn to Friends at that young age, I remembered my experience when I was older and seeking to reincorporate a faith practice into my life.

While living in Brooklyn after graduate school, I decided to go to Brooklyn Friends Meeting. My very first visit was an intense one. Apparently, there had been a problem in the meeting that one woman chose to address publicly. While at first I wanted to run and avoid the conflict, listening to the way the community responded and worked through the problem in the context of meeting gave me absolute confidence that this was the faith community in which I belonged.

In that one meeting, the qualities exhibited included patience, thoughtfulness, honoring of complexity, moral accountability, “sitting-withness,” and forgiveness. When I decided to go seeking for a faith practice, I wasn’t looking for pablum or uplift. I was looking for acknowledgement of the pain and difficulty of living, alongside guidance from spirit. I found that among Friends and it made me feel less lonely amidst the goal-oriented culture of New York City.

I don’t think I could have begun to confront the immensity of mountaintop removal, resource extraction, and climate change without the strength I received from a community of like-minded Friends and the guidance of Spirit. Though he’s not a Quaker, early on I was really inspired by a speech by Bobby Kennedy Jr. and something he said: ‘’To me, the environmental work is spiritual work -- we have a biological drive to consume the planet, to compete, and ultimately to destroy what God has created, and that can only be overcome with a spiritual fire. I don’t think nature is God, or that we ought to be worshiping it as God, but I do believe it’s the way that God communicates to us most forcefully.” I agree with that. I left New York City in 2009 because I wanted a stronger relationship with nature and, for me, that also means a stronger relationship with God.

The Wild Project reading in New York in March 2013BFC: Describe, if you can, the feeling of experiencing an audience connect with something you've written. Is there a spiritual component here for you? What does that feel like?

Sarah: That's a good question. I think it's a hard thing to feel as a playwright. It's easier as an actor because you're really in the role and you're in a direct relationship with the audience. As a playwright, you're watching as an audience member like everyone else. You can't quite connect with the actors like they do because you're thinking about the words, about how well they work. You try to sense the audience, but all you really have is sound and usually that means laughter. It feels wonderful when an audience laughs, but it's not really spiritual. There is a spiritual connection in those rare moments when you are able to experience the piece as an audience member. You stop analyzing and you get wholly engrossed in the moment. In those moments, I'm guessing and hoping the rest of the audience feels what I do.

Writing is so solitary. I think the closest the writer gets to sharing his or her piece is actually in the rehearsal room, if he or she has the opportunity to take part in rehearsal. The most spiritual part of writing is probably when the words are first being put down, there's a joy and a sense of "rightness" sometimes that feels like something greater is working with you.

BFC: What surprises has this path offered you?

Sarah: One of the surprises it has offered is music. Without having the intention to write musicals or even a single song, I find myself writing songs. They just come out! And the joy of that is that the words need music, so that's necessitated me working with composers, which I love. It's definitely one of the most joyful parts of bringing a play to life.

Another surprise, honestly, is how painful it can be. Writing forces me to dig into things that I may not want to look at in myself or in the world. Sometimes it elicits anger that can be difficult to deal with. But I guess I have decided that it is something I have to do, I have to work with it to understand it. Maybe I'm a young soul or something because it feels like the world as it is and my own being as it is have been painful challenges, but not challenges I can back down from and there is a kind of aliveness, not joy exactly, but something incredibly powerful about allowing myself to feel those challenges fully. I'm not a "relax and accept it" kind of person. That said, I've found that my writing as I've aged has become less reactive, there's less of that anger there and more of a forgiveness for "the way things are" -- without a resignation. 

BFC: From your vantage point, how do you see this type of work contributing to raising awareness about Earth's needs and our opportunities for transformation?

Sarah: I think it definitely engages everyone involved in the play by asking tough questions of them about the way they exist in the world. Even though that may be only 10 to 12 people, that's quite significant. I think really confronting the problem of your disharmony with nature and the nature or your own being is something you cannot forget for the rest of your life. I also subscribe to the “drop in the ocean” theory. Every piece of art, every article, every public talk that calls attention to this problem, and our responsibility as individuals and a society to change and base the foundation of our existence on a respectful and sustainable relationship with nature matters.

I would present one caveat, though, that that messaging can be a challenge. You hear and see a lot of "greenwashing" in the mass media which really doesn't change perception at all. It sort of reminds me of papal indulgences. It's this message that you can buy your way green, it has this simplistic, moralistic hook to it that offers people a quick, easy way to absolve any sense of guilt they might feel about contributing to environmental degradation. But it doesn't address the root of the problem. And it is a root-level problem. If we don't go deep in our messaging, we're not really doing much.

I think drama can help us strip away the protective covering of contemporary culture to encounter our world as pure humans. I believe that all humans have the potential for wisdom, goodness, grace, and enlightenment. But the ways we access those qualities are through gaining distance and perspective. Sitting down and watching a play helps us do that. We are pulled out of our own daily grind. By watching a story unfold on stage, there is the power to interpret our lives and our world and have a moment of awareness that we wouldn't otherwise have had. That's my hope for people who see Tauris.

A performance in Indianapolis, IndianaAbout the play: Tauris: Living Our Testimonies An adaptation of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Tauris, this epic musical adventure engages its audience in questions both personal and social: cultural attitudes toward environmental change, the complicated relationship between personal drive and public usefulness, and the conflict that arises when ideology gets in the way of love. Incorporating contemporary environmental concerns like mountaintop-removal coal mining and the tension between fossil fuel companies and the EPA, Tauris asks audiences to consider how we transcend old enmities to find a way forward for society as a whole.

The June production of Tauris will be the play’s world premiere. The production will be a part of the 5th Annual Planet Connections Festivity which presents eco-themed and socially minded theatre pieces linked to non-profits to promote “theatre for a cause.” Tauris partners with New York Loves Mountains, an organization sponsored by Appalachian Voices, co-founded by Sarah Moon and Stephanie Pistello in 2008. New York Loves Mountains’ (http://www.newyorklovesmountains.org/) mission is “to support the movement to end mountaintop removal and lead and inspire a state-wide transition to renewable energy. We raise awareness among New Yorkers about the practice of mountaintop removal through various means including arts, education and innovation and by partnering with other organizations who share this mission. We work toward a ban on the importation of mountaintop removal coal in New York State and are a state-wide voice for New York’s leadership in the national energy debate. Our mission is rooted in the belief that no group of Americans should be, nor need be, harmed, poisoned, or sacrificed to power America’s electric grid.” You can make a Kickstarter donation to help the production effort here (through May 27): http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1310353082/tauris-in-planet-connections-theatre-festivity.

Recognizing Disharmony

I think really confronting the problem of your disharmony with nature and the nature of your own being is something you cannot forget for the rest of your life.

Sarah Moon