Broken River is a theatre production aiming to raise awareness of water usage in New Zealand, through the play's narrative and kinetic visual features, through the play’s subject matter, and by holding a series of public forums to encourage discussion about increasing the sustainability of dairy farming.
Playwright and director Ralph McCubbin-Howell is very familiar with the way that the life of a small New Zealand town can alter under pressure from the hugely motivated dairy industry. In the programme note he describes the hunger for dairy-dollars as “the pursuit of Dairy’s white gold”.
This is Dairy with a capital D.
Broken River's underlying provocation to its audience is to consider the things that we are willing to be complicit with, and set them against the things that we are willing to sacrifice. It’s an at times visually transcendent production, with both set and setting serving as an epic backdrop against which we meet a community presented with the prospect of releasing the dairy industry onto their landscape.
The production hosted a accompanying Freshwater Forum that focused on irrigation and the state of our rivers. Speakers including leading freshwater ecologist Dr Mike Joy, Canterbury artist and water rights activist Dr Sam Mahon, and Green Party water spokesperson Eugenie Sage MP all contributed to the forum. There was also a Sustainable Theatre Forum in which lighting designer Marcus McShane, producer Hannah Smith, and designer/director Sam Trubridge spoke about their experiences of attempting to make productions more sustainable in practice as well as thematically.
The impressive part of the Sustainable Theatre Forum was the speakers' frankness and their clear intent of open discussion around what they see as a pressing issue to discuss with fellow theatre practitioners and with the public.
In Broken River, the production's designers tried to be as sustainable as possible within their limited budget; they operated the production on under 3kw of power as compared to the 60-200kw used at larger Wellington venues (from Circa to the St James Theatre). The water that fell from the animated sculpture-come-nightmarish-irrigator set during the performance drained into a catchment from which water was also reused each night.
Visually this also drove home the reality of dairy industry water consumption – the 500 litres of water that spilled through the stage and that was filtered back to spill again equates to roughly half the amount required to produce one litre of milk.
Take a moment to soak up that statistic.
Where will all the water required to sustain a growing dairy industry come from? And how will our thus diminished rivers cope with the chemical and effluent run-off that’s the principal by-product of Intensive dairy farming? Despite their best intentions and in spite of disposing of set's water to various aquatic features (such as the bucket fountain) at the end of the production's season, Broken River fell short in other aspects of sustainable theatre practice.
The production was open about these shortcomings. To list a few, they flew several people around the country, introducing approximately 140 kilograms of CO2 directly into the upper atmosphere, per person, per trip. Even with the purchase of carbon offsets, (which may or may not actually have any measurable positive impact over the next few decades) this is still unsustainable. Their stage was also made partially of tantalized timber (timber treated with a mixture of cyanide and formaldehyde that prevents the timber's natural decay), as without this treatment the stage would have rotted during the seven weeks of immersion in water it suffered.
Despite these weaknesses, and because of the exchange of ideas Broken River was attempting to set in motion, most at the forum felt that broken river was a step towards becoming more sustainable. Ultimately, any step in that direction requires both considerable innovation and a change of mindset.
The Arts, along with other industries, are good at trumpeting their own sustainability when it comes to being sustainable in one specific area, and are adept at using the sustainability as a marketing tool, but are often blind to the true and total impact of their work.
Theatre is inherently consumptive, and exists over a very short time frame. Sustainable practice can be expensive (as you’re paying the true cost of the production) and so is seen as a luxury that the industry, which is renowned for having a lack of financial excess, cannot afford. Low budgets and a lack of know-how rather than a resistance to sustainability are the factors that tend limit the industry's transition to a more eco-friendly model.
That said, there is hope. In both the United Kingdom and in Spain there are now theatres that have been revamped with sustainability at the forefront of their design, and there are government-funded initiatives and programmes, such as juliesbicycle.com, that assist creatives and arts businesses in tailoring their practices towards more sustainable output. Let's hope this trend spreads to New Zealand, but right now any moves in that direction here tend to be practice-initiated and unsupported by government.
As the second speaker Sam Trubridge pointed out, in the entertainment industry humour and spectacle are used as a means of distracting the general public from the larger issues; but they are also indispensably useful tools to craft productions that illustrate the very issues that are being hidden from us. Trick of the Light stimulated discussion and created visual and narrative magic for their audiences, and then provided forums discussing these things that were accessible and inclusive to both theatre folk and to us Muggles.
Theatre is confronting when witnessed, and the experience irreversible. Once exposed to it, it changes your reality and experience. Throughout history, theatre has been the venue for political discourse and enlightenment on issues of the day.
Too often today theatre is simply entertainment, trying to compete on a back foot with film and television. It’s a fine idea to repurpose part of the stage floor as a means to address some of the looming issues and realities that face us all.
To find out more about Trick of The Light's latest productions, head to: www.trickofthelight.co.nz/