The Rising Sea, on Stage
Every other year, Barnard’s New Plays series commissions a new play written by a woman-identified playwright. This year’s commission, Jeune Terre, explored the timely subject of how residents of a small town in southern Louisiana try to cope with the dangerous problem of climate-related sea-level rise that is literally putting their homes underwater.
Barnard’s Department of Theatre has been a leader in both the College and the nation in developing guidelines and practices to help improve its own environmental impact. Thus, Jeune Terre, a play about sustainability, was produced sustainably. The Magazine gathered the Jeune Terre team—director Alice Reagan, writer Gab Reisman, designer Carolyn Mraz, and Associate Professor of Professional Practice in Theatre Sandra Goldmark—to tell us more about how that happened and what it can mean for theatre and for us all.
How did Jeune Terre come into being?
Gab: I was living on the edge of this restoration battle in Southeastern Louisiana. My girlfriend was a coastal ecologist there, working for a non-profit pushing to save the Louisiana coast. Her intense frustration gave me a lot to work with.
Alice, did you think, “Oh, we want to commission a play about global warming and land loss in Louisiana” or did Gab’s proposal really stand out?
Alice: It stood out. It was a happy accident that Gab is interested in a topic that’s very much in the Barnard air right now.
How does the theatre department’s commitment to sustainability work in practice?
Sandra: Our initiative actually had its origins in another New Plays commission, The Egg-Layers, in which the set was made almost entirely of found objects. Building with new, green materials is helpful. But reuse is much more effective environmentally. We’ve expanded on that and now we’re working on how to track and budget for sustainability on all of our departmental productions.
Carolyn, did you come in knowing about the sustainability guidelines?
Carolyn: I thought they were exciting, and also happened to fit with the themes of this play. So I was always thinking about that when designing. The platforming—the islands that people were acting on and that the audience was sitting on—was all cobbled together from existing platforms. And the collage walls—the Barnard shop went through materials they had, to see if they could match what I made in the model. It was sort of amazing how closely those things lined up.
Alice: When you’re costuming a contemporary piece, especially with a lot of young people in it, you go to thrift stores. So almost nothing was new, except for the cardboard marionettes, which were kind of hybrid costume/prop pieces.
Sandra: Actually, a lot of that cardboard was salvaged from my office. [laughter]
Carolyn, I was struck by the way that you made the audience part of the land-loss problem. Rather than have us sit facing a stage, the audience was sitting on the parts of the bayou that were still above water.
Carolyn: A lot of that was not only in response to the physical idea of land loss, but also the content and flow of the play itself. We had a few scenes on moving boats. And that made me think we needed an environment we could flow through.
Then there’s the opening monologue where the ecologist has the audience stand and says, “You are all the wetlands we ever had in Louisiana.” Soon, almost half of us sit, representing the “forty percent of the coast” that’s already been lost. Is there something you hoped we would learn from this experience?
Gab: I very much wanted the audience to see themselves inside the story, but never in a finger wagging or didactic way. The truth is, this was a difficult play to write. I thought, “Uch, this is such a huge problem. There are no easy answers.”
At the same time, I don’t want people to think, “This is hopeless.” We didn’t fix the problems of climate change and land loss in two hours. But continue to be aware that it’s happening right now, really quickly. Maybe that will effect some change. •