O.P.C. Program: Making Magic Out of Waste
December 4, 2014

What is garbage? In O.P.C., this question is a rallying cry. The play centers on, and stages, a shift in perspective: are we really so sure that our garbage has no value? These questions have deeply informed not only the content of O.P.C., but also its construction. Incorporating recycled, found, and trashed materials, O.P.C.'s production design has turned this ethics of reappraisal into an aesthetics of rediscovery. 

Early in the play, Romi, the main character, urges that “We need to see it, and know it, and touch our garbage.” The A.R.T. has taken this statement as an artistic challenge. Inspired by O.P.C.'s insistence that much of our trash still has value when we toss it, the production strives to find, and show off, the creative potential latent in the materials we so casually throw away.

Brett Banakis, the set designer, began his process with an unusual question: “What can we find?” Rather than pre-ordering wood and other supplies, O.P.C.'s scenic artists took their inspiration, and their raw materials, from local waste. The upstage wall is composed entirely of cardboard grocery boxes and wooden shipping palettes; water bottles adorn the ceiling of the theater. All these objects were either found, donated by local businesses, or given to the theater by the Harvard Recycling Center. 

Banakis's set design emphasizes the sheer mass of these materials. Towering above the stage, these boxes and bottles represent a constant presence in US production, distribution, consumption, and garbage. Almost 40% of hardwood harvested in the US goes to the production of pallets, which transport goods from factory to store. Approximately 200 million pallets end up in US landfills each year — half of them after being used only once. A 2010 study found that only 29% of single-use water bottles are recycled — meaning that over 50 million bottles end up in the trash each day. If not recycled, each bottle takes at least 450 years to decompose.

Rather than simply exposing audiences to this massive waste, this production experiments with these materials as the source of an alternative, bold style. Many costumes in the show, in the tradition of “High Trashion,” showcase the glittering potential of traditionally overlooked materials. Costume designer Emilio Sosa and A.R.T. Costume Shop Manager Jeanette Hawley have found inspiration (and alternative fabrics) in candy wrappers, plastic straws, newspaper, and other unconventional materials.

The style of these materials is balanced by their surprising utility. As production artists have been busy discovering, plastic garbage bags can be crocheted, and candy wrappers can be quilted. The wood from discarded shipping pallets makes sturdy sets. The incorporation of these materials into this show's design hints toward a distant, but exciting possibility: theater as a reinvigorator of the discarded, as well as a display of the dismissed.

In the play, Romi is the leader of this garbage revolution. As a Freegan, Romi lives on materials cast off by stores and other individuals. As a Maker, she celebrates the artistic possibilities in found materials. In creating Romi's world, production artists have transformed shopping carts, street signs, burrito-bowl tin foil, cut-up magazines, and much more into both functional and decorative pieces.

The idea of finding value in trash is not new, even if theater is just catching on to its creative potential. In 2011, the US sold $10.8 billion worth of metal and scrap paper to China. And bottled water sales totals topped $11.8 billion in 2012. Concerned with our country's massive waste, this play tries to look at trash from a new perspective: instead of the finger-wagging of apocalyptic news reports, Eve Ensler is urging to see in trash a source of potential, joy, and, ultimately, sustenance (both creative and physical). 

Like Eve Ensler's legendary The Vagina Monologues, O.P.C. refuses to separate comedy from conscience. Romi's trepidation, and her mother's ambition, are comic reflections of forces deeply responsible for shaping the rapidly-approaching future. Like Ensler's other dramatic work, O.P.C. ultimately views the theater as a means of waking people up, and activating their own sense of agency. 

Prompted by these aims, the A.R.T. has partnered for this production with community leaders in a reinvestigation of garbage in the larger Boston area. The lobby experience showcases the work of local groups turning trash into art and activism, while a series of post-performance talkbacks will give audiences a chance to dialogue with these local activists, as well as with environmental thinkers from the Harvard community. Additionally, a series of “Really Free Weekend” events will give audiences a chance to practice these techniques themselves — check the theater's website for skill shares, trashion shows, and other opportunities. 

Investigating, and proudly sharing, the creative potential in “garbage,” this play offers a possibility to turn the discarded into something discovered.

 

Robert Duffley is a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T./Moscow Art Theater School Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.

Author:
Robert Duffley
Publication date:
December 3, 2014
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