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Green Theater/Alex Buderer[Part_1]

The arts are "going green" along with everything else. Missouri State faculty members are about to embark on a three-year "green theater" project based on climate change in the Mississippi delta region, that will culminate in a theatrical production here at MSU. Randy Stewart talks with Dr. Kurt Heinlein in the morning feature. In the afternoon segment, Randy profiles area artist and sculptor Alex Buderer, for whom "recycling" has always been a way of life.

RANDY: It seems that all aspects of everyday life are "going green"--that is, becoming more environmentally friendly, more environmentally aware. The world of theater might not seem at first blush to have much of a connection to environmental concerns, but there are individuals who are trying to change that. One of them, Dr. Kurt Heinlein, Assistant Professor of Theater Performance here at Missouri State University, is devoted to using the theater to draw attention to environmental concerns. He's just written a book on the subject, and is about to embark on producing a "green" theatrical production. When I talked to him earlier this month, he was in the middle of rehearsals for Tent Theater's "Cyrano de Bergerac." I asked Dr. Heinlein to discuss the concept of "green theater."

KURT HEINLEIN: "Green Theater" is theater that focuses primarily on environmental issues.

RANDY: Can you give me a little bit of background on how this project came about?

KURT: Well, you know, I finished up my Doctorate--oh gosh, a few years ago. My dissertation is on Green Theater. One of the things I found in my research is that there isn't a lot of it. There's really not been a lot of theater that treats environmental issues in sort of the "traditional" theatrical sense. There's a lot of "protest theater," but nothing really that says, "These are the issues regarding the environment that we need to deal with." You know, theater is one of the ways that we learn about ourselves. I mean, we're post-Katrina, we have all sorts of environmental issues. We're selling "green" cars; we're selling "green" all over the place. And I think it's about time theater started putting it on stage and letting people observe it there. Theater can, in some way, shape or form, shape us socially, shape us personally. If we see theater about environmental issues, about the human stories that are revolving around environmental issues, we can consider the impact on our own lives. And hopefully, the theater can induce us to make some sort of changes in our own lives, or at least question our own lives and think about the way we do things.

RANDY: Dr. Heinlein is partnering with Dr. Inno Onwueme, Associate Dean of the College of Natural and Applied Sciences at Missouri State, to research, write and produce a Green Theater project in the Missouri State Theater and Dance Department in the spring of 2010. Its working title is "Green Theater: Vanishing Wetlands, Vanishing Cultures."

KURT: It's a pretty non-traditional relationship: he's a biologist, I'm an actor! The project ultimately aims to create a theater production here at Missouri State the embraces environmental issues. What we're trying to do is really isolate a human story that really has--

RANDY: A specific story.

KURT: A specific story that really shows the correlation between environmental issues and their impact upon human culture. The fact is, we have cultures that are disappearing because of environmental issues. So for the next two years Inno and I are searching for that story, we're creating a play.

RANDY: Where are you going to search for this story?

KURT: We're going to the bayou country in Louisiana for obvious reasons: they have disappearing wetlands down there, not to mention the hurricanes. And environmental issues are in the forefront down there. You know, Katrina has been a nightmare in the making for the past 200 years! It's created a culture that is really hanging in the balance. It's going to take (just) one event that's going to disrupt that entire culture. But in the meantime, we have Cajun culture disappearing, we have Native American cultures disappearing down there, all relevant to the disappearance of the wetlands.

RANDY: So it's a crisis of, really, both environmental AND cultural degradation.

KURT: Absolutely. Ultimately, what you put on stage has to relate to your human audience; it's pretty difficult to put "Issues of the Environment" on stage and have people relate to it! But if you put a HUMAN story on stage, people can identify with that, and see how it relates to their own lives.

RANDY: Now, you get started on July 1st--you guys are going down to Louisiana and you're going to do what?

KURT: Well, we're going down to bayou country and we're starting with interviews with people in all facets of life, whether they be politicians or artists or fishermen or people who work--their lives depend on the delta territory. And we are conducting initial interviews to really start to look for that story.

RANDY: So you don't really know what the play is going to be yet, exactly.

KURT: Honestly, we have no idea at this point. (Chuckles) It's a little bit scary in a sense, but exciting at the same time. But we really don't want to be forming a story until we get there and we really experience the culture and the people that are experiencing this first-hand. The project lasts for a total of three years. The first year we conduct interviews, extensive travel, all the while making notes. At the end of a two-year period we're producing the play at Missouri State.

RANDY: To conduct this research, Heinlein and Onwueme received a substantial grant from the MSU Provost's Office.

KURT: It's a $38,000 grant. Kudos to our Provost, kudos to the administration at Missouri State, because that's rare! I mean, you don't often see that kind of money being given to an arts project based out of a university. And they're recognizing the importance of this type of work, and my hat's off to them.

RANDY: So you hope to have a production on the boards in the spring semester of 2010.

KURT: That's correct. It's a daunting task, but exciting.

RANDY: But you almost feel like the play will write itself in some ways.

KURT: I have to say, I think it will. The challenge is going to be, how do we format it and make it work for an audience?