For many years now, I’ve worked with theater scholars and artists on a range of projects and studies that seek to build a theory and practice of ecological theater. To touch the kind of nerve that prompts audiences to rethink how they interact with the non-human world, theater that seeks to explore ecological and environmental messages needs to build complex and sophisticated theater events akin to Tony Kushner’s achievement with Angels in America, which was a play not just about homosexuality but about larger philosophical and social issues as well. A big challenge for theater about non-humans is that non-humans are hard to stage: real animals are unpredictable in live theater, and humans portraying animals (or plants) risks sending the wrong messages because of the dangers of anthropomorphism – that is, as soon as we start attributing human feelings to nonhumans, we lose all sight of the irreducible differences of their needs from our own and of the many ways “our” needs and wants only threaten “theirs.” Puppets provide an attractive solution to this dilemma, allowing for the potential staging of non-human otherness and strangeness in contexts that can expand, defamiliarize, and prompt new thinking about the ecological challenges humans currently face.
Presenting an ecological fable is certainly the aim of Flight: a Crane’s Story (by Heather Henson’s IBEX Puppetry at the University of Pittsburgh), which uses puppetry, kite work, and dance to tell the story of Awaken, a crane that must find her migratory way after having been abandoned by her parents at their Canadian breeding grounds. The narrative of Flight, transmitted in voiceover, draws on tropes of Native American storytelling and myth to convey a familiar “take care of your Mother (Earth) and she will take care of you” moral; the ideal audience member for this simplified fable will not yet have celebrated his or her ninth birthday. Even given this, the writers may have underestimated their audience: the story is virtually devoid of conflict, tension, or danger, presenting instead a series of vignettes in which Awaken is rescued by frog and insect friends, learns to fly, finds the migration route, locates and rejoins her parents, and successfully reaches winter feeding grounds in the south. The point in the journey that should present the central obstacle, from both an ecological and dramatic point of view – the disappearance of wetlands to human industrial activity – flies by (or is flown by) with what feels like merely a passing mention, and the happy ending of the birds’ journey threatens to erase the magnitude of human impact on bird migration routes.
More disconcertingly, in its attempt to wrap an ecological message into an animal’s story, Flight: A Crane’s Story not only occludes the eco-politics of the story it aims to tell, but also mis-educates its young audience. The program materials (which are fulsome) include a map of crane migration routes, a chart depicting the crane annual cycle, and several pages explaining human efforts to help re-establish crane populations and crane migration patterns after hunting and habitat destruction reduced the wild population to just sixteen individuals in the mid-twentieth century. We learn there that baby cranes must imprint on another crane in order to learn to fly and follow the migration route, and that in the absence of parents, cranes “must be guided by humans in crane costumes and ultralight airplanes.” But in the play itself, Awaken not only learns to fly without parents, but also finds the correct migratory route on her own, both of which not only fly in the face of biological fact but also undermine one of the show’s purported purposes, which is to raise awareness of what people can do to promote planetary “health and healing.”
While more mature members of the audience may be with me in finding the narrative’s moral timeworn and cliché, and its disregard of biological and ecological fact questionable and puzzling, they’ll still find plenty to enjoy in the puppetry and kite work, which is exquisitely crafted and lyrically executed. Cranes and butterflies made of parachute silk soar over the audience, rain and lightning are animated by ribbons of cloth, and insects and reptiles of many kinds populate the stage, all seemingly animate and imbued with spirit. With so many compelling puppets, it’s a mystery why creator Heather Henson and writer Ty Defoe felt it necessary to include the figure of “Mother Earth,” a solo dancer whose costume evokes Native American traditions (complete with feathered headgear), and who has a central physical presence onstage, but who seemed superfluous (and at times visually obstructive) to the telling of the story, and a throwback to hippie aesthetics to boot. As a framing device for the crane’s story, the presence of Mother Earth may be useful, but her constant presence onstage feels overdone and trite.
One of the problems ecologically-oriented theater faces is the difficulty of escaping the stereotype of what my friend Henry Bial once jokingly referred to as “The Peace and Love Community Player’s original production of ‘Save the Spotted Owl’ (post show discussion with yoga circle and group rendition of Kumbaya to follow)”. Despite the sophistication and lyrical beauty of its puppetry, Flight: A Crane’s Story falls a bit too readily into that stereotype, offering an oversimplified, sentimental, and, in the end, unscientific eco-fable for a young audience that could probably handle more nuance than the story offers.