Winning play for Earth Matters on Stage inspires deep reflection on climate change

As Larry Fried and Theresa May were looking around for support and an incubator for plays that addressed an important theme for the two of them — environmental issues — they came up with the idea to hatch Earth Matters on Stage and the Ecodrama Playwrights Festival. That was in 2004, and the event has been going since.

The latest festival is being hosted by Emory University, Theater Emory and The Playwriting Center of Theater Emory through Nov. 6. The event was originally scheduled for 2020, but Emory officials decided to postpone it due to the pandemic. Theater Emory is hosting the festival as part of its first full season since 2019.

ExploreReview of Theater Emory's foreboding "Transmissions"

Lydia Fort, assistant professor in theater studies and director of the Playwriting Center of Theater Emory, heard about the festival several years ago and decided to attend in person. She fell in love with the experience and subsequently got in touch with May to pitch Emory as a host. “Emory has a legacy of dealing with sustainability as an institution,” Fort says. “They had never done the festival here or in the South and were excited about doing it here.”

Having to wait two years to host the event because of the pandemic was tough for Fort. One of the aspects she loves most about Earth Matters on Stage is the communal experience, and she didn’t want this to exist in a virtual space. “Many people go to all kinds of conferences; it can be draining and you may not know people and feel you have a connection,” she says. “Earth Matters on Stage allows that to happen because it’s small enough you can sit and have conversations and get to know people outside of sessions. It was heartbreaking (to wait) because we had . . . entered a world where we were not connecting at all; we were isolated. I knew how great it would be in person and not online. Live theater is so exciting and powerful; theater on Zoom is not theater, technically. These needed to be seen on stage.”

May recalls she was delighted to have Emory reach out. “Every time it moves to a different part of the country, the local producer can craft a lot of the programming into their own sense of place,” she says. “We were excited to have it in Atlanta and craft the call for play around environmental justice. It was a new part of the country, and we are excited for the cultural perspectives.”

Most of May’s work has focused on what she calls ecodramaturgy, which the festival is intended to nurture. Her goal was to inspire dramatists to begin to address ecological concerns and realities as human beings. The first festival drew 160 submissions, and the winning play was “Odin’s Horse” by Chicago playwright Rob Koon. A total of 320 plays were submitted for this go-around.

The winning play — Jessica Huang’s “Transmissions in Advance of the Second Great Dying” — is receiving a full production in the Mary Gray Munroe Theater, directed by Melissa Foulger and with a cast that includes professional actors and students. It centers around the intersecting lives of earth’s human and non-human inhabitants in 2045, as Katrina and her unborn baby head north looking for snow, Hugo seeks purpose, and recently widowed Carla begins a cosmic relationship with an ageless being.

Two readings will also take place. The runner-up — Katherine Gwynn’s “An American Animal” — will be presented in the Theater Lab at Schwartz Center for Performing Arts at 2 p.m. Nov. 5, directed by Addae Moon, associate artistic director of Theatrical Outfit. The honorable mention selection, Genevieve Simon’s “Bloom Bloom Pow,” will bow 2 p.m. Nov. 6, directed by Emory alum Wanyu Yang.

“Transmissions” features a set made of reclaimed materials and plastics designed by artist/designer Elizabeth Jarrett. According to the designer, she works with sustainable materials as much as she can, and Earth Matters on Stage was a good opportunity to utilize materials and the theater space in a new way. “I really wanted to create something that felt cavernous and play with the architecture of the space as it exists now,” she says. “We talked about the idea of submerging the audience in the world of the play, and one way we did that was we sat the audience across from each other. I made that decision because I wanted the audience to look at their peers. The play is very self-referential — a lot about humans and the stains we leave on the planet. I wanted people to look at each other critically and look across the aisle and see almost a mirror of themselves.”

She utilized plastic because it is a hard-to-recycle material and used it to cover the space and create different legs out of rock-landscaping bags and shopping bags. Her goal was to create a surface that works well with light but doesn’t look pretty. “If you look at it without theater magic, there is a simplicity to it that is reflective of our everyday lives,” she says.

As the reading committee dug into the most current slate of submissions, “Transmissions in Advance of the Second Great Dying” quickly rose to the top. “It’s the first play that I have read that dealt head-on with grief — what we call climate grief,” says May. “That is what was moving to me. There have been other plays with themes such as polar bears and Arctic and Inuit people, life changes, logging in the Pacific Northwest, spotted owl issues, plays about the death of rivers — but this was the first play just about loss that dealt with it in a ceremonial way. That is what touched me about it, as well as the language, which is stunning in its poeticness. We don’t want just political or protest plays, but good literature and drama.”

THEATER PREVIEW

Earth Matters on Stage

Through Nov. 6. $12-$15; staged readings free, though reservations are suggested. Mary Gray Munroe Theater (at Alumni Memorial University Center on the Emory campus), 630 Means Drive, Atlanta. 404-727-5050, theater.emory.edu.


Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

MEET OUR PARTNER

ArtsATL (www.artsatl.org), is a nonprofit organization that plays a critical role in educating and informing audiences about metro Atlanta’s arts and culture. Founded in 2009, ArtsATL’s goal is to help build a sustainable arts community contributing to the economic and cultural health of the city.

If you have any questions about this partnership or others, please contact Senior Manager of Partnerships Nicole Williams at nicole.williams@ajc.com.