Stanford Repertory Theater and Planet Earth Arts tackle environmental and social justice issues

A strong collaboration motivated by the desire to address critical issues of the day compels Stanford’s professional theater company to mount its 21st summer festival.

The final three performances of Anna Considers Mars, the story of a young woman who dreams of being chosen for a one-way journey to Mars, take place in the Nitery Theater this Saturday and Sunday, and The Guardians, about the indigenous community in Mexico that is the guardian of imperiled monarch butterflies, screens at Cubberley Auditorium on Monday. Both the play and the film are part of the Stanford Repertory Theater (SRT) and Planet Earth Arts 2019 Summer Festival.

Melissa Ortiz, Katie Rubin, Aaron Wilton (foreground) and Christian Haines perform in Anna Considers Mars, by Ruben Grijalva. (Image credit: Courtesy

The programming, dedicated to the environment and social justice, is a departure from the usual repertoire for Stanford Repertory Theater’s annual summer festival, which is in its 21st year. This year’s festival is a collaboration between SRT, Planet Earth Arts and the National Center for New Plays at Stanford. It featured a film series and mostly sold-out performances of three original theatrical works: Voices of the Earth: From Sophocles to Rachel Carson and Beyond…, a compilation of voices on humans and the natural world; and two new plays commissioned by Planet Earth Arts and Playground, Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids, a play in which well-meaning environmentalists confront the tragic realities of Black Lives Matter, and Anna Considers Mars.

Sam Duke, a rising senior and the festival’s film series and outreach producer, said the contemporary themes brought an influx of diversity in the audience. “We are particularly excited that these works have been able to empower new generations of young activists to enact substantive change.”

In an effort to further the reach of the plays and diversity of the audience, Planet Earth Arts sponsored tickets for more than 100 low-income Bay Area high school students participating in the Summer Math and Science Honors (SMASH) Academy summer outreach program at Stanford to see Polar Bears. Additionally, the Voices script is being made available to local groups to perform as a way of activating their communities about the climate crisis.

“Judging from this summer’s frequently sold-out houses, the many emails I’ve received in thanks and appreciation and the enthusiastic responses during the post-show discussions, I would say that the productions have touched a nerve,” said SRT Artistic Director Rush Rehm. “The festival has been a call to action.”

Second life

Last summer, as award-winning SRT was celebrating 20 years of summer festivals, Rehm announced that the 2018 festival would be the last. Despite multiple drama awards and nominations, an impressive roster of regular and guest actors, directors and designers as well as a devoted regional audience, Rehm thought it might be time for the festival to take a final bow. In addition to running SRT, Rehm is an actor, director, writer and professor of theater and performance studies and of classics in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences.

“It is at times like this that we need our artists – and each other. We need to gather together in theaters and auditoriums to find the intellectual and emotional encouragement to fight back and survive.”

—Charles Junkerman

Dean Emeritus, Stanford Continuing Studies

Enter Michael Fried, artistic director of the nonprofit organization Planet Earth Arts, who has collaborated with various arts and non-arts organizations on campus for five years and was familiar with SRT.

Fried proposed co-producing a summer festival of performance and film devoted to what he felt were the two most urgent and connected issues of our time: the environment and social justice. Rehm agreed, citing the themes as the inspiration to reverse his decision to end SRT’s summer festivals.

Sweetening the deal was the continued vital support from Charles Junkerman, then dean of Stanford Continuing Studies (now emeritus), and the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education. The Department of Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) also pitched in with necessary administrative support as well as space for rehearsals and performances.

Said Fried about the importance of the collaboration and the urgency of the themes: “Since the Greeks, theater has always been a powerful forum for exploring and mirroring the issues each generation faces. Planet Earth Arts is dedicated to the role that theater and the arts can and must play both in social change and transforming the human presence on this planet away from destruction.”

With specific reference to Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids, by Vincent Terrell Durham, Fried said he believes that the play gave audiences at Stanford the courage to wrestle with uncomfortable truths and created a safe space for honest conversation and necessary dialogue about “the haunted legacy and still-raw wounds of race in America.”

Looking ahead

The SRT summer festival will go on hiatus next year, but there are SRT and Planet Earth Arts projects in the works that will be realized throughout the year.

Planet Earth Arts and Stanford Continuing Studies will co-present two fall programs: “Seeing the World from the Air: An Evening with Aerial Photographer George Steinmetz” and “Symphony for Nature: The Story of an Extraordinary Collaboration Between Classical Musicians and the Klamath Tribes at Crater Lake” with composer Michael Gordon, conductor Teddy Abrams, the Steiger Butte Singers and filmmaker Anne Flatté. Voices of the Earth returns to campus in October with some casting changes and possibly new material.

“It is at times like this that we need our artists – and each other,” said Junkerman. “We need to gather together in theaters and auditoriums to find the intellectual and emotional encouragement to fight back and survive.”