We Are All Downstream

Photo Credit: Jorge Vismara

By Leese Walker, Artistic Director, Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble

New York State may soon lift its moratorium on fracking, putting our air, food and water at risk.  Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is a controversial shale gas-drilling technique that the industry claims is safe and clean.  But you don’t have to drive very far into Pennsylvania to find it’s anything but.

My theater company, Strike Anywhere, spent the last two and a half years interviewing people about how fracking has affected their lives.  We developed SAME RIVER, to share these stories and ignite debate and action.  When the ensemble was invited to perform SAME RIVER at the Irondale Center in Brooklyn, we decided to partner with the nearby Brooklyn High School of the Arts.  Having performed a pilot program a year earlier, I knew we could make a greater impact by engaging local students in the creative process. With Community Catalyst Fund support, we designed an intensive residency with students researching fracking, tracing the source of NYC’s drinking water and ultimately designing a large-scale art installation.

A Student from Brooklyn HS of the Arts sculpts with clay a mini river through dead trees. Photo Credit: Leese Walker

We began by taking the students to the Brooklyn Museum to experience conceptual art, and they watched the documentary “Gasland.”  Then we worked with each class in their area of study: science, theater and technical theater.

It was important to the teaching-artists not to dictate the content.  The students collaborated in designing each section.  We served as facilitators, helping them to animate their ideas from the research.

The Science Class researched the water cycle and how fracking impacts the hydrologic cycle. Students beaded strands of “rain”, built mountains, constructed a 30-foot river, designed clouds and crafted a window with condensation.  They wanted the audience to experience the water cycle to highlight what was at stake. The tech theater class imagined a future where clean water could no longer be spared for Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.  Mannequin heads were painted to represent “nagas” – water goddesses in various stages of decay. Dead trees dotted the periphery.  One student constructed a life-size water fountain with a small skull and crossbones on the tap.  Dead leaves were scattered under foot.

The theater class created a labyrinth, “The Fracking Funhouse”.  Audience members entered through a large colorful gate, then moved down stairs in single-file and encountered a series of masks. One set, plaster molds of students’ faces, had their minds chained together.  A giant contract at the base of the stairs signed away any rights for the landowner to speak publicly or sue should their water be contaminated.  A hallway of scary clown heads and cracked mirrors bathed in red light led the audience to their seats.

Facts about the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing hung throughout the installation, which served as the “first act” of our professional production. Every audience member entered through the students’ work.

Students watching SAME RIVER – March 2, 2012 – Irondale Center, Brooklyn, NY. Photo Credit: Dave Walczak

On March 2, student artists attended a matinee of SAME RIVER with 175 of their peers, and students from other city schools. In the post-show discussion, students expressed pride in their work, and discussed the issues raised by the show. They empathized with the woman whose water had been contaminated.  They felt for the couple driven apart by the decision to lease.  They understood how a poor farmer could be misled.

Pictured: Donna Bouthillier in “SAME RIVER” at the Irondale Center, 2012. Photo Credit: Lorenzo Ciniglio

All in all, it was a highly successful residency.  The science teacher was overjoyed by how deeply engaged his class became, and he plans to incorporate some of our techniques in his upcoming unit.  One student, who rarely came to class, become so passionate about the project that he worked on his lunch periods and on several days after-school. Art has the power to awaken minds, to energize youth, to startle jaded audiences, and in the best case to shift people’s perspectives and incite action.  We feel privileged to share our artistry with young people by connecting to current issues.  Sadly, there seems no end to the gas rush.  So we will keep rolling with SAME RIVER.

The Same River Project with Strike Anywhere at Brooklyn High School of the Arts offered our students the rare opportunity to integrate their art skills which they are very comfortable with into the research and understanding of a topic that they are studying in their science classes.  Our students are still discussing the dangers of fracking and really understand now how artists use their voices to fight for issues that are important to them.  I was able to see in my students new gifts and talents in the art of technical theater and in creating art installations. These are now skills that I can use in my future work with them.   I am so proud of the growth in my students and am grateful for the opportunity they had in creating Same River with the artists of Strike Anywhere. – Jill Coon, Theater Teacher, Brooklyn High School of the Arts

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