by Claire Hardwick
As a senior playwriting and screenwriting-focused theatre and radio-television-film double major, I thought I was done with acting forever. Once a girl who dreamed of seeing her name in a Broadway playbill, my goals had shifted throughout college, not necessarily away from Broadway but instead away from what I had originally thought to be my dream: acting. I had been writing short stories and small scenes since I was a child. When I took my first playwriting class, I discovered a whole new world of theatre that I had never thought existed before. When I realized someone had to write all of those movies and television shows I watched while tented under my blankets in my freshman dorm, I was elated. That person was going to be me.
I followed that writing path throughout college, co-creating a sketch and improv comedy showcase titled “Uncastable,” that was written and performed by my best friends and me for the 2017 Cohen New Works Festival. In the fall of my junior year I got the chance to fully produce and perform my first full length play, “The Not Knowing” through the student organization, Round About Players. I had found the aspects of theatre and film that inspired me, that pushed me to create better work. But entering my last year of college after seeing show after show proved to me that I was itching to get back into a performance space. Well, maybe not itching, but intrigued. I wondered what it would feel like to act again. I had been performing pretty consistently with my improv troupes on campus but I knew that memorizing lines and performing them for a doting audience and making up narratives on the spot for laughs were two very different art forms.
So when I heard there were auditions being held for an all-student run production of “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play,” I was drawn to audition. The other big draw for me was the environmental commitment of this production: The entire team, from the director to the set designer, costumer and stage manager, was committed to creating a theatre production that was zero-waste and ethical.
As a young person living in today’s world, I’m terrified of the possible effects that global warming will have on my generation and many generations after that. It makes someone like me, who wants to create art for a living, feel a little pointless sometimes. Why write plays or make films if the world is going to be on fire by the time I’m 40? So the commitment to making a piece of theatre, but making it with a conscience, was a huge draw for me to audition for “Mr. Burns.” It was a clear sign that if you just simply think about ways to be better for the environment, to reduce your waste not only personally, but in the art you are making and in the creative endeavors you are pursuing, the pieces you create can actually be a force for good in more ways than one.
After joining the production, I also was introduced to other ethical aspects through our director Khristián Mendez, who was committed to having an ethical rehearsal room where actors felt safe to question, explore and try new things out of our comfort zones. It was a rehearsal space I hadn’t been aware of, but one that made it much easier as a self-proclaimed “non-actor” to join and feel welcome.
“Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play” tells the story of the United States after a nationwide grid failure that has left society with no electricity. We see these struggles play out in Acts 1 and 2 as a group of ragtag survivors band together, at first for warmth and stability and then to remember what happened in a specific episode of “The Simpsons,” with no help from Google or Wikipedia. Seven years later, they begin performing those episodes as a staged form of modern entertainment. Pop culture (and more specifically, having an extensive knowledge of pop culture) becomes valuable currency in a world where food and shelter aren’t certain and electric lighting is no longer a possibility.
For that reason it makes even more sense that this show would be produced with a zero-waste approach. In the play’s world, we are trying to live seemingly normal lives with the absence of electricity. In the rehearsal world, we are trying to reduce and reuse our materials in order to keep our carbon footprint small while still providing a fully formed show for audience entertainment.
And being a part of this zero-waste show has opened my eyes to how wasteful theatre and in general all art forms can be when we don’t consider their environmental impacts.
All of our costumes are being upcycled from thrift stores and distressed to add meaning to our own personal characters. Our sets are being made from recyclable materials that can be broken down and used again for future sets that need to be built in the department. Our programs will be online only, and all of our props, set dressing, etc. have been collected from thrift stores, people’s donations, or excess waste that would otherwise be in landfills, like leftover newspapers that some would just toss in the trash.
HowlRound Commons, a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide, has been creating content and even hosting conferences yearly about how as art makers we can move toward a more sustainable and inclusive future in the work we create. While these conferences are helpful and educational, it becomes much harder to actually utilize these strategies in professional theatre productions when money, time and resources are limited.
That’s why this production of Mr. Burns is so exciting to be a part of, because we are proof that it is possible. With planning and enthusiasm for sustainability, a piece of theatre can be entertaining without having a negative impact on the environment.
I know that as I move forward as a theatre and film creator, I will take these zero-waste lessons with me. If we all just took a second to see how we can change our habits to ones that are less harmful and more helpful, we can greatly affect the amount of waste we produce.
While sustainability in the arts can seem like an easy change, there is a clear reason why more theater companies aren’t following suit. It takes moments to think about making a change but months or years and a lot of funding to make it possible. Thankfully, the “Better” Mr. Burns production received a $50K grant from Green Fund, a competitive grant program that funds sustainability initiatives on campus. We also partnered with other organizations on and off campus such as Austin Resource Recovery, the UT School of Architecture, Campus Environmental Center, the Office of Sustainability and Texas Performing Arts. Without these partners, the work we are doing would be virtually impossible.
It takes initiative to be sustainable but it also takes support, whether that be with funding or partnering with other organizations to protect the Earth while creating art that will hopefully impact the people that inhabit it.
***Claire Hardwick is the communications intern for the College of Fine Arts Deans office and plays Marge in "Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play," Dec 14-17 in the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre. For more info, go to bettermrburns.org.