By Amanda Shur
On a beautiful Tuesday morning in October, one University of Pennsylvania Theatre Arts class made the trek down to the Schuykill River to board a boat. It was an unusual and unprecedented class for Dr. Marcia Ferguson’s Introduction to Directing class, an exercise in eco-theatre. No one was really sure what to expect going into the class, nor was it possible for any of us to fully grasp what the WetLand project even was before boarding the installation currently docked in the Schuykill. At the boat, Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Sarah Standing of CUNY were waiting for us. As we boarded the boat, we were all somewhat surprised by the comparison between the inside and the outside of the structure. On the inside, WetLand looked like any normal boat, complete with electricity from the solar panels–a stark contrast to the dismal appearance of a sinking house from the outside.
Students in Dr. Marcia Ferguson’s class discuss eco-theatre on WetLand with PPEH guest, Dr. Sarah Standing. Photo credit: Brooke Sietinson/Penn Arts & Culture.
As the cars zooming by on 676 subtly wavered in the background as the boat rocked above the light waves, Dr. Standing began a discussion on what eco-theatre is. We discussed what we personally felt were main environmental concerns, occasionally interrupted by the slight bump of the boat against the dock. We came to the understanding that eco-theatre can be any form of theatre ranging from realism to the absurd, and not necessarily site-specific, but unified by a focus on environmental issues. As the class delved into a discussion about our personal ecological concerns, the conversation grew serious, with some students mentioning how overwhelming and emotional these topics can be. This, Dr. Standing explains, is exactly why we have eco-theatre: to come to terms with these overwhelming feelings and emotions, and convey important messages about the state of our environment.
From there, the class split into groups of three to devise pieces in 10-minute rehearsals, inspired by the concerns we’d just raised and the environment of the boat. The variety in the scenes produced was incredible: from abstract tableaux about rising water levels to full-blown melodrama scenes about air pollution, we demonstrated that eco-theatre can be nearly anything its creators want. Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Standing even pressed students to perhaps incorporate song into their pieces. Eco-theatre, we learned through practice, was not the abstract and distant theatre we’d imagined, but could be completely accessible realism.
As a train horn screeched across the river, we came to a close discussing the installation itself. It premiered in 2014 at the Fringe Arts Festival, with artist Mary Mattingly actually living on the boat for three to four weeks. I began to notice for the first time my surroundings–the microwave in the corner, the outlets all around deriving their power from the solar panels on the roof of the boat. I finally came to terms with the project. While a sinking house on the outside, the WetLand project was a fully functioning house boat on the inside–a message both inside and out about our possible future should water levels continue to rise, and an experimental production of eco-theatre.