Listening to the 'Voices of the Earth'

Stanford Repertory Theater tackles environmental and social justice themes

This summer, Stanford Repertory Theater (SRT) is not shying away from some big -- global, in fact -- topics, with its annual festival taking the theme of "The Environment and Social Justice."

Running July 11-Aug. 12, the festival includes three new plays ("Voices of the Earth: From Sophocles to Rachel Carson and Beyond...," "Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids" and "Anna Considers Mars"), plus a partnership with Stanford's Planet Earth Arts, which will screen environmental documentaries over the course of five Monday evenings and host discussions with faculty, filmmakers and special guests.

The topics of environment and social justice are deeply intertwined, festival participants said. And while theater productions and film screenings may not solve problems, they can go a long way toward shedding light on them.

"Art is a reflection of life and vice versa, right? Art is pivotal in shaping how people think and approach the world. I think this is going to help change how people perceive these issues," said SRT actor and Stanford student Victor Ragsdale.

"Voices of the Earth," running July 11-14 and compiled by SRT Artistic Director Rush Rehm and Stanford dean-admin Charles Junkerman, consists of a variety of staged readings on the environment, from the ancient world to current events, representing around 70 diverse voices of scientists, philosophers, poets, activists and more, including climate-change skeptics and deniers. The play is structured around numerous themes, such as creation, animals, the sea, and "what's left and what's left to do?"

"I have to say, putting this together so far has been the delight of the summer, reading all these amazing environmental writers," Rehm, who is also directing the show, said. "The ultimate story of it is that these are all voices responding to the natural world and although they take many shapes, there is a way to shape it."

Delightful as selecting the "Voices" has been, he also sees this summer's theme as a critically serious one.

"I think of this as an opportunity for everybody -- the people working on the show from the inside and the people seeing it from the outside -- to realize in a deeper, harder way that we are facing an existential crisis. There is not a doubt about that in my mind at all," Rehm said, naming flooding, wildfires, plastic in the ocean and fracking among some of the many facets of the crisis, and adding that he's been taking a closer look at his own environmental impacts and what people can do on both small and larger scales to help.

"I don't know if the theater can do anything about this. I've lived long enough now to be dubious about everything, except that you have to try," he said, "It's a terrific opportunity to do something that we think matters. Even if it only reminds people, in a sense, of what's being lost."

"Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids," running July 18-28, is a new one-act written by Vincent Terrell Durham and also directed by Rehm that imagines a confrontation between well-meaning white liberals in Harlem and members of the Black Lives Matter movement, and considers gentrification, the privilege inherent in many environmental issues, and police brutality, among other topics.

"I usually work with old plays," Rehm said, "but I'm very excited about this."

The third show, "Anna Considers Mars," by San Francisco playwright Ruben Grijalva, was commissioned by Planet Earth Arts and production partner PlayGround. It recently had its debut in San Francisco; that production will be imported to Stanford for the festival, running Aug. 1-11, with SRT actors serving as understudies. The show takes place in the near-future, where the gap between poor and rich is ever widening, many species have been lost and technology reigns supreme. A young woman, Anna, dreams of being chosen for a one-way move away from Earth.

"Environmentalism is such a pressing issue," said Stanford student Sequoiah Hippolyte, who's taking part in all three productions and said she's honored to be involved. "Especially as someone who was just able to vote for the first time, contemplating that responsibility, my job as an actor and as a politically active person," she said. "It's so great when theater can intersect with politics."

Gianna Clark, another SRT actor and a recent Stanford graduate, hails from Chicago and said she's seen winters and summers grow more intense with climate change.

"Within our lifetimes we've really seen the effects humans have been having on the planet. We see in 'Voices' pieces that talk about the Keystone pipeline, water access in Flint, and it's poor people, black and brown people, who are going to be the ones that feel it first," she said. "The people coming from affluence that are able to live here in Silicon Valley ... are going to be able to push it off onto disenfranchised communities." At the same time, "environmentalism has become this white, liberal upper-middle class issue. That's something I really appreciate about 'Polar Bears,' a lot of different voices are coming into the conversation."

Though the plays and films tackle life-and-death issues, the festival is not all doom and gloom. "Voices" also explores the wonders of the natural world, and the extraordinary heroes who've fought to study it, protect it, or simply celebrate it. Hippolyte named Margaret Walker, who in her poem "Southern Song" desires "to touch the rain-soaked earth and smell the smell of soil," as one of her favorite "Voices" to portray.

"What do you get when you allow yourself to immerse your consciousness in some small natural thing? A cloud; a flower. All these people have these moments of mystical union with something," Rehm pondered. "It's not just human survival in the sense of having water to drink and air to breathe, but a whole way of relating to the world beyond yourself."

Immersing himself in the world of environmentalism has included, for Rehm, a new appreciation of Palo Alto-born author and environmental activist Bill McKibben, whose latest book, "Falter," has become his go-to gift for graduating students. While making a difference in the grand scheme of things can seem overwhelming, Rehm said, he finds in the work of McKibben some inspiration, a view which he paraphrased as, "until we can't do anything, we need to do things. And we can do things."

For Ragsdale, who considered majoring in environmental engineering before switching to performing arts, this summer's festival is a fitting way to combine his love of theater with his interest in the environment and social justice.

"I've always looked for ways to be parts of solutions. I'm so glad that we're finding ways to incorporate that in an artistic way. It's not, 'Oh the scientists can take care of it.' No, we can all contribute."

"I think we have to," Clark agreed.

What: 'The Environment and Social Justice,' Stanford Repertory Theater's summer festival, in partnership with Planet Earth Arts and Playground.

Where: Theater productions take place at Nitery Theater, 514 Lasuen Mall, Stanford. Check online for film-screening schedule and locations, which are subject to change.

When: July 11-Aug. 12. Theater productions are held Thursdays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Film screenings are held Mondays at 7 p.m.

Cost: Theater tickets are $10-$15. Film screenings are free.

Info: SRT.

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