Less Is More In Big Green Theater

Jeremy Pickard moved to New York City in 2005 to make theater. Looking for inspiration in his surroundings, he was struck by New York’s “excess and mountains of trash—the visible neglect, how easy it is to use disposable everything and how New York is such a take-out culture.”

Pickard wrote Uranus, a play about waste. Invigorated by the intersection of art and environmental activism, he founded Superhero Clubhouse, an eco-theater company which utilizes the the tenets of ecology to make plays.

In 2009, Superhero Clubhouse partnered with The Bushwick Starr to create the Big Green Theater Festival, a yearly program which explores environmental education through playwriting.

Beginning each January at Bushwick’s P.S. 123, a group of fifth graders meet for three afternoons a week. They attend seminars given by eco-experts from Columbia University’s Earth Institute, NYU, Solar One, and the Lower East Side Ecology Center. The environmental problem detailed that week, (ie: drought or overpopulation), becomes the central conflict of the play.  From there, the young writers dream up fantastical landscapes and scenarios, their free-flowing imaginations drawing uncanny parallels to the post-modern aesthetic seen in much of today’s downtown theater.

On a Tuesday in March, I sat down with 10 year old playwright, Heaven, to work on the final draft of her play for this year’s Big Green Theater Festival. The first read-through with professional actors was in two days. The room of young playwrights, teachers and volunteers was buzzing with scrawling pencils, new ideas, and nerves.

The Big Green Theater Program aims to adhere to the tenets of ecology—namely conservation and recycling.  Pickard and Noel Allain, Artistic Director of The Bushwick Starr, encourage the young writers to ask themselves, “What do I really need? What can I get rid of?”

When she deemed a scene extraneous, Heaven tore the page in two and walked to the recycling bin, “I call this drowning my darlings” she explained, tossing the page away with a detachment many adult playwrights would envy.

Superhero Clubhouse strives to maintain an art practice which counters the normal paradigm of “I want this and must materialize this. I am the playwright! That’s my vision!” Instead, they work with what they have, utilizing existing resources of time, rehearsal space and even mental energy.

“If I assign a homework assignment and an actor only has his commute to finish it, that’s fine, that’s what that is. Those ten minutes are exactly right” Pickard says.

In his own writing practice as well as his teaching, Pickard believes in the value of placing limitations and pushing against them. He posits that resourcefulness, minimalism and recycling stimulate creativity in addition to making art that is more environmentally friendly.

Artists of all mediums report that limitations in the form of time, materials and theme are liberating. These limitations can support a sustainable art model, challenging artists to create with the intention of cradle to cradle rather than cradle to grave. Big Green Theater strives to reuse and repurpose, rather than throw away. Sets, composed of recycled materials from Materials for the Arts and Build it Green, are saved year after year, often circulating into the rest of the Starr’s season.

Since the inception of the Big Green Theater Program, The Bushwick Starr has transitioned towards a more green process for all of the shows in their season. They now use LED work lights and have incorporated LED and fluorescent units into the light plot. All paper and cleaning materials are recycled and/or compostable.  And you can now find all of their programs online rather than in the trash bin.

If children are the future, the Starr is working to set a sustainable example now.

Witnessing the Big Green Theater process begs the questions: what do we need in order to tell the essential elements of a story? How can one contribute to the health of an ecosystem, be it a community or a theater or the planet at large? What if we don’t treat the city—from raw materials like coffee cups to collaborators to hours of the day—as disposable? How high can we set the bar of personal and institutional responsibility?

Heaven puts her forehead to the cool metal desk. She’s trying to finish her play. “It’s so hard! Because I have so many ideas. And they’re all so good.”

See what these fantastic young writers have dreamed up on April 26 and 27th at The Bushwick Starr 4pm, free. Benefit performance on April 27th at 8pm, $18. Reserve tickets at www.thebushwickstarr.org

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