Conscious themes in mainstream performance art.
Two recent London plays have had audiences grappling with environmental issues. The National Theater’s production of Greenland, slammed as partisan, dull and rotten theater by the critics, dealt with sea levels rising in the Maldives and the failed UN talks in Copenhagen. Another show, The Heretic, a black comedy by stand-up Richard Bean, drew raves over its comedic approach to atmospheric doom and gloom, focusing on an earth scientist at York University. When her studies on rising sea levels fail to yield a major grant, she appears on BBS’s Newsnight and is fired, only to end up with a column in the Daily Telegraph. Both shows feature what else? A polar bear as symbol of our shame. As one Guardian critic put it, “Climate change drama is the new growth industry.”
As green creeps into art and seeps subliminally into our global consciousness, we wonder if it makes a dent in our behavior, the true test of a shift. While New York Times reviewer, Matt Wolf, dismissed Greenland as a “falsely stitched patchwork quilt” of worse case scenarios alongside a few facts, he also admitted muttering “Recycle, recycle, recycle,” all the way home. Easily distracted as we tend to be in bad theater, his review says he also became painfully aware of the mundane activities of audience members as they crumpled packets of snacks and popped plastic water bottles. “Hang on!” I wanted to call out,” he shares. “Is no one paying this show any heed?”
It is a good question, one posed in 1971 when The Lorax was first published, Dr. Seuss’s post-Sixties warning not to fool with Mother Nature and her magical Truffula Trees, Swomee-Swans, brown Bar-Ba-Loots and Humming-Fishes. The yellow Lorax, who spoke on behalf of the trees, convinces the Once-ler to resist chopping them down to mass produce Thneeds. The lesson of greed leading to environmental destruction is being reintroduced to a new audience four decades later as an animated 3-D feature to be released March of 2012.
Arguably catering to the adult brain, the same way the irony in Shrek went past young viewers, the Lorax’s undeniable message comes at a better time now than its dawn in the 70’s, when many people still thought it was okay to throw potato chip bags out the window, run sprinklers with no end in sight, and were watching blockbuster movies like The Graduate, where a young Dustin Hoffman looked at “plastics” as his future. Nowadays, film and theater goers are much more sensitized to these underlying messages, young and old alike, thanks to the groundwork of environmentalists who act as stewards of the planet and creative writers relying on entertainment as their hybrid vehicle of transformation.
Fine art also relies on subtle interpretations of symbolism in producing change, and like many theaters, the conscious mission means process as well as product. At Eco-Logical in Los Angeles, the emphasis is on exhibiting the work of a community which uses repurposed and recycled materials.
The gallery provides salvaged billboard vinyl as canvases to artists in exchange for exposure, sparing an estimated 450 million square feet of toxic, non-biodegradable billboard vinyl tossed into landfills each year. The fine art, billboard art viewed by thousands weekly, and functional art naturally deals with eco themes, such as works premiered in its highly successful EartH exhibit, visited by more than 400 art goers.
The notion of urban blight reborn as art and theater crafted to spare trees and polar bears offers hope at a time when green as a popular movement has neared the saturation point, risking the chance of making us immune to the message. In this way, playwright Bean’s brand of humor in The Heretic and Seuss’s quirky metaphorical verse in The Lorax might be the tonic for the catatonic, and even those resisting the green bandwagon’s cultural hold will be muttering “recycle, recycle, recycle,” all the way home.