EcoSummit presentation puts global issues in local perspective

Editors' note: Ball State University writer Sara Dreibelbis wrote this story about one of our Youth Board of Advisors, Julia Levine.

“Why does life seem so entwined? And where are we going?”

The play starts with a question, but it doesn’t end with an answer. It’s called Gaia, named after the Greek goddess of the Earth. Julia Levine, a senior theater major at Butler University, wrote and directed Gaia to make audiences think about issues of sustainability and the environment.

Levine presented Gaia on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2014, at the third annual Indiana Student EcoSummit at Ball State University. The event was a forum for students to share ideas on a variety of environmental issues, from climate change to political policy. Gaia served as an example of how the arts can get people thinking about sustainability in creative ways.

Levine showed a recording of the play to a crowd of about 20 students and community members from throughout Indiana to start a discussion about the process and product.

Gaia is an unusual piece of theater. It is in the genre of eco-theater, which focuses on presenting global environmental issues in select bits and more personal ways. Levine said the format is intended to make audiences think differently about how their own lives might affect the world outside of their community.

In Levine’s play, performer Alexander Borrello summed up the common message of eco-theater: “People think that we’re outside of nature. They don’t take into themselves that we’re actually a part of nature.”

That concept of human interaction with the environment was the main focus of Levine’s play.

Levine formed the script for Gaia around everyday interactions, often humorous and lighthearted, that concern sustainability issues. From dinner table discussions on food quality to the stressful shouts of a mother-son driving lesson, Levine presented global issues in a personal way so that audiences could easily relate.

Gaia did not follow the format of most traditional plays. It had no single, structured plot, and the characters were not clearly defined. Five actors in nondescript gray clothes switched in and out of roles. Each performer played several different characters and served at times as a musician, a dancer or even a member of the technical crew.

The actors went by their own names on stage – when names were used at all – which removed yet another layer of traditional theater’s separation of audience from actor. The barefoot performers looked less like fictional figures on a stage and more like people you’d see on the street. Levine said she did this on purpose so that audiences could see how much the concepts in the play relate to their own lives.

Through short scenes, silent comedy vignettes, dances, folk songs and even some moments of beat boxing, Gaia questioned several distinct concepts related to sustainability and human interactions with the natural world. The play brought up questions about organic and genetically modified foods, recycling, driving, the isolating effects of technology and modern society’s disconnection from nature.

Levine said she was inspired to include these concepts based on what she saw in her own community of Indianapolis, as well as global issues. She spent the summer of 2014 researching and preparing for the play, which premiered at Butler in September.

“I was reading about climate change and environmental theories,” Levine said. “And then also just popular culture, how we talk about climate and the environment and nature, and how humans are linked in with all that.”

Levine presented these issues in her play, but she didn’t offer any solutions. She said that wasn’t the goal of the play. Instead, she intended to make audiences think about the outcomes of their actions and look at their lives in new ways.

“That’s what I wanted,” Levine said. “For people to continually question and not accept answers that are presented to them.”

Levine was confident in her goals, but she said she wasn’t so confident about how audiences would respond to this unorthodox piece of theater. She was unsure of how people would react when the play was first performed at Butler in the fall, but she said she was overwhelmed by the how well audiences received the show.

“They were engaged and responded really positively,” Levine said. “People appreciated the use of humor with this really heavy topic, and it was really positive all the way around. It’s amazing to have something that I was inside of for so long, and then be able to step back and hear from audiences what they thought of it.”

Reactions from the audience at the EcoSummit were similarly positive. Emma Laut, a biology major at Marion University who attended the conference, said she had never before seen a play like Gaia with an environmental mission, but she thought it was an effective concept.

“I think that the arts are a really beautiful and outspoken way to get anything across,” Laut said. “When you use art and when you use humor instead of just bluntly saying things, people have to try and figure it out, and people like to try to figure things out. That’s something she [Levine] did really well in this. It kept you captured the whole time.”

Allison Turner, a student at Purdue University majoring in natural resource and environmental sciences as well as political science, said she appreciated Levine’s creativity in finding a new way to present environmental issues.

“We need anything anymore,” Turner said. “If one person can be changed by it, it’s worth it, because you just want to get things out. If it makes somebody think, it’s just one more way to start this conversation.”

Levine’s play left audiences with plenty to think about and discuss. The half-hour show covered diverse topics and brought up lots of questions about the way people interact with the Earth and with each other. Although it didn’t offer any solutions, Gaia did end with a call to action.

“We stand at a critical moment at Earth’s history, at a time when humanity must choose its future,” actress Sonia Goldberg said near the show’s end. “As the Earth becomes increasingly independent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. It is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare responsibility to one another, to the great community of life and to future generations. We are at once citizens of different nations and of one world, in which the local and global are linked.”

The play that started with a question ended with another one, in glowing white words projected into the darkness, which sent a message to audiences that the next step is in their hands. “What now?”