This article is from the November 2010 issue of KC Stage
“Recycled, repurposed, reused, re-imagined.” These are words to live by for the production team of the University of Central Missouri’s upcoming environmental staging of Aristophanes’ The Birds, who will be creating the design elements out of recycled materials in an effort to promote the idea of green or sustainable theatre, the producing of theatre that creates a smaller carbon footprint.
The Birds tells the story of two travelers, Pithetaerus and Euelpides, who leave Athens in search of their idea of utopia. They expect to find it amongst birdlife and execute a plan to make their haven in the sky, thereby interfering with both the lives of the humans below and the gods above. Dr. Julie Rae Mollenkamp, the director of the production, selected the show for production because it is hilarious and there are issues of distrust of government, commercialism, and environmental protection that resound today as much as when The Birds premiered in 414 B.C.E.
In an effort to think “green”, nearly all of the design elements will remain unpainted and there will be no program distributed at performances. “We realize that we’re going to leave a carbon footprint, but this production will take a small step toward environmental awareness,” said Mollenkamp. “We will celebrate that small step and issue a call for action to both the UCM Department of Theatre and the community.” Actors and staff members have already been issued the task of committing to one thing that they are going to do to help the environment, which will become part of the projected scenery, reminding the audience of the need to change behavior in order to save our planet.
The first challenge for the company was compiling enough materials to make this concept a reality. A recycled items drive was held over the course of two weeks, bringing in a substantial amount of items, including cardboard boxes, plastic bags, food containers, plastic bottles, board games, and video tapes in bulk. A caravan commuted from Warrensburg to Kansas City to collect surplus steel that was used in the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s latest production of Saved. Larger items that will be used in the execution of the scenic design, such as steel frames and sheets of insulation, will be borrowed from UCM’s Surplus Center.
Costume designer Ronnie Chamberlain plans to re-imagine the body structure and texturing of birdlife through the use of these materials. For example, Epops, the King of the Birds, will sport a Mohawk crown built entirely out of plastic bottles, the Priest-Bird’s costume will be made out of film strips from old vhs tapes and newspaper, and human beings will have a game-board motif, with game pieces serving as buttons, belts, and accessories. For instance, the Poet will be fashioned out of old Scrabble pieces, the Real Estate Woman out of Monopoly money, and the Lawyer out of Trivial Pursuit cards. Costumes for the gods and goddesses will be constructed out of plastic bags.
Matthew Bennett is the guest scenic designer from Quixotic Fusion, a Kansas City-based “ensemble of musicians, dancers, aerialists, composers, designers, and choreographers collaborating to produce new forms of artistic expression and eliminate the barrier between performer and audience”. Bennett envisions an “urban rooftop” locale for the action onstage. Steel structures, including a satellite dish sculpture, will allow areas for performers to hang from and climb upon. Only stock platforms will be used in creating levels that range from 8’ to 21’, which will allow for another aspect of the production: the flying of the birds.
Bennett, a 2004 UCM graduate, and Angelina Sansone, a member of the Quixotic Fusion company and the Kansas City Ballet, were brought to UCM through the newly instated Meridith Harmon Sauer Guest Artist Series, an endowment that will bring both regional and national theatre artists to teach and work alongside students. Both Bennett and Sansone have extensive experience with aerial performance and will assist with the rigging of apparatuses, trapezes, zip-lines, and harnesses, as well as aerial movement.
In addition to the design principles, Mollenkamp will follow environmental staging practices when staging the production. Audience members will be seated onstage in pods, surrounded by scenic elements and the performers both onstage and overhead. “Everywhere you sit, you’ll see something different,” said Mollenkamp. “The audience will get to be a part of the action, because we want them to take action.”
Tyler A. Mullen is a Theatre Design and Technology student at the University of Central Missouri. He is currently the stage manager for The Birds, which runs Nov. 10-18.