On Friday, April 25th, ArtLab proudly joined the Big Green Theater Festival to celebrate the intersection between environmental education and creativity in honor of Earth Week. Following a special performance of this year’s eco-inspired Big Green Theater plays, ArtLab sat down with director Jeremy Pickard, The Bushwick Starr’s creative director Noel Joseph Allain, and BGT guest environmental scientists Dr. Jennifer Jacquet + Dr. Katherine Alfredo for a conversation exploring our ecological relationship with food and water and the role of the arts in enhancing science education. Please enjoy audio from the evening’s discussion below!
Now in its fourth year, Big Green Theater [BGT] is a community-based program that brings theater professionals and environmental researchers into Bushwick’s PS123’s 5th-grade classroom to develop a series of original environmentally themed plays. A collaborative effort between eco-theater collective Superhero Clubhouse [SHC] and nonprofit theater The Bushwick Starr, BGT at once promotes environmental awareness while providing students with a creative outlet for the exploration of ecological concepts and concerns. The resulting plays are performed in an annual Big Green Theater festival by an ensemble of professional actors, directors, and designers using green theater methods.
From start to finish, Big Green Theater epitomizes the many merits of weaving the arts into science education. Coming from a science background, what struck me most about the evening’s conversation was how much the eco-experts actually gained from working in the BGT classroom. Discussing scientific research to a room of 10-11-year-olds posed an interesting challenge in and of itself, forcing them to pare back the jargon and plan a lesson that was both informative and engaging. But incorporating the tools of the theater trade—the warm-ups, the hands-on participation, the performative elements—served to ease the transition from the Ivory tower to the 5th-grade classroom, while fostering a more active + collaborative environment than a traditional lecture-based science class. Drawing these youngsters into a creative conversation about their relationship with the planet had the added benefit of providing further insights into how to grow the public discussion about these ecological concerns by talking about the science behind them in a productive and meaningful way.
I am still in complete awe of the resulting plays themselves—how they brought to life the spirit and unique perspective that can only manifest in the mind of a 5th-grader. From our role in climate change to our devastating impact on the planet’s long-standing ecological systems, environmental science is laden with hard truths that we as adults, so prone to guilt, often shy away from. So to see these young playwrights grappling with these ideas to create their own stories is incredibly inspiring. Rather than simply regurgitating facts, they have fashioned ecological concerns—from colony collapse disorder to water pollution—into tales of bees facing alien abduction and oysters hell-bent on revenge. But what’s more, they’ve infused their own distinctive voices, personalities, and preoccupations into the characters. In so doing, these students have managed to actually insert themselves into the environmental issues at hand, crafting stories that simultaneously reflect their relationship to the BGT’s eco-lesson and mirror their relationships with each other + their community.
Many thanks again to Big Green Theater for inviting ArtLab into their incredible festival and sharing their insights + experiences with us. To learn more about their program, be sure to check out their official website here. And with that, I’ll leave you with my favorite quote of the evening from BGT director Jeremy Pickard:
Really soon into it, the students realize that this program is about them. It’s not about us or the state curriculum; it’s about them. And that is connected to the way we talk about environmental information in the world. If we think that we should change our lives and our perspective for someone else, it’s not going to happen. But if it’s about us—if the story is about us—then change happens.
Jeremy Pickard is the founder and captain of Superhero Clubhouse for which he has written and directed over a dozen productions including his signature series of ecology-inspired Planet Plays. In addition to acting as lead artist on Big Green Theater, Jeremy has collaborated with climate scientists to create site-specific performances at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a project commissioned by PositiveFeedback and Columbia University’s Earth Institute. In honor of Earth Month, he is currently documenting his April-long quest to not throw anything away, in a weekly eblast you can subscribe to here!
Dr. Jennifer Jacquet is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at NYU. She is an environmental scientist interested in human cooperation, with specific interests in overfishing and climate change. Her book about the evolution, function, and future of the use of social disapproval, Is Shame Necessary?, is due out in early 2015. She formerly wrote the Guilty Planet blog at Scientific American, and now contributes to Edge.org. This year, she spoke to BGT students about our impact on trophic cascades and marine food webs.
Noel Joseph Allain is the Artistic Director + co-founder of The Bushwick Starr, an Obie Award winning non profit theater that presents an annual Season of new work in theater, dance, and puppetry. As Artistic Director of the Starr, he has presented over 50 companies in the last 5 years and served hundreds of artists. Noel created Big Green Theater with the Starr’s Executive Director Sue Kessler as part of the theater’s commitment to contributing to the local community’s environmental awareness through a creative and interactive process.
Dr. Katherine Alfredo is a Columbia University Earth Institute Postdoctoral Fellow. Katherine’s research interests center on drinking water issues in rural, developing areas of the world. She is currently working with Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center, on fluoride and arsenic drinking water issues in India. This year, she spoke to BGT students about international water problems like flooding and drought, and led the students in constructing homemade water filter on a budget of $5.