In Conversation with Food

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Last month, I put my food play up onstage in its most fully produced iteration. Even though I had heard it aloud in front of an audience before, I didn’t really know what was going to happen. That’s the beauty of theatre, right? We never really know. But I had expectations, anxieties, hopes. I hoped audiences would connect with the piece, with the issues, with moments in a personal and political way. I hoped they would tell someone in their lives about the experience. I hoped everyone would have a good time.

Logo graphic design by Lucy Ressler.

For the most part, it felt like everyone – audiences and actors – did indeed have a good time. But in the weeks since, I’ve been ambivalent about UPROOT’s effectiveness. How does my play fit into a world where tragedies like the violence in Charlottesville and disasters like tropical storm Harvey are coursing through news media and every-day conversation? I consider this because I hold my processes and work to a socio-political standard, because myself and my collaborators and my work do not exist in a vacuum. Stepping back, I’m considering some of the moments of UPROOT that held particular socio-political resonance.

Over the past decade, I’ve been consuming various food documentaries and writings, which expose another side of the food industry not seen in the restaurants and stores where we actually get our food. These investigations have directly informed my food play, in which I raise questions about where our food comes from and how we in Western society got to be disconnected from those sources. I attempt to address metaphysical ideas in a pedestrian mode, through anthropomorphized foods, and utilizing multiple theatrical conventions. I use group scenes and two-handers and monologues and movement because I want to tear down the artifice of theatre. I am not looking for audiences to have an emotional catharsis by the end of the show: I am looking for audiences to feel a collective energy, to be ready to share their thoughts and questions with others. Not that these are mutually exclusive, but I personally prefer to circumvent and reutilize theatrical conventions to more aptly make space for dedicated conversation around pressing issues.

UPROOT, August 22, 2017. Photo by Ran Xia.

What I found in making a play about food is that I naturally took a route of exploration through words. I used my characters and their circumstances as a vehicle to explore my own ideas about food in America – a very particular Western, privileged culture. My food characters grappled with the existential questions that I ask my peers and myself on a regular basis: What is our purpose? Where do we have control? How do we have agency? In thinking about food, I think about existence, and thus, these broad, human questions arise.

The play also had moments without dialogue – moments between the lines, music, movement. My favorite element was the movement sequence in which the foods go through their physical life at the opening up of the grocery store. Choreographed by my collaborator Tyler Thomas, the store-opening movement sequence encapsulated the experience of a hectic grocery store from the foods’ perspectives. Without words, this part of the play opened up room for interpretation, but was also clear enough – with sounds of price-checkers and cash registers – for the audiences to identify and track the story. This sequence was fun, fast-paced, participatory, and provocative. It brought a new level of energy into the room, and I realize now that it needed a reprise, another offering of action between the lines.

UPROOT, August 22, 2017. Photo by Ran Xia.

This production had double the instances of audience interaction as the staged reading. This came most prominently in the form of audiences receiving things – coupons, snacks, resource sheets. Breaking the convention of the fourth wall in this way suggests to me that I take my play out of a conventional theatre space altogether, so that I might better position audiences to participate. At the same time, I am accustomed to the traditions and boundaries of theatres, and will remain interested in forging new dynamics and practices within such spaces. It was exciting to de-formalize theatrical norms, and I was pleased by the audiences’ receptiveness to the direct-engagement moments, when the house lights turned dimly on and the actors crossed into the seats, to either ask questions or pass out something.

At one point, the actors pass out coupons, to be “redeemed later.” About forty minutes later, they cross back into the audience to receive these coupons in exchange for one of two snacks: carrots or Cheetos. I could not have expected the responses – some audiences were disappointed in their snack, some were guilty at feeling disappointed, some were content with food of any form. While the snacks are being passed out, one actor tells the story of a town with different neighborhoods. One neighborhood has substantial economic resources, the other does not. I chose the snack types on impulse – carrots, a literal and symbolic fresh food, for the neighborhood with means; Cheetos, an epitome of processed, packaged food, for the neighborhood without. Audiences clicked into similar connotations: Cheetos are cheap, everyone is supposed to want to eat their vegetables, we aren’t supposed to eat the highly-processed fake-cheese crunchy goodness. I didn’t expect such excitement or aversion to one food or the other, or the degree of consideration that landed amongst audiences at this scene. It felt satisfying.

I was particularly excited about the post-show conversation on the first performance night. As a frequent theatre-maker and go-er, I am apt to steer away from such very hit-or-miss experiences as a talkback. But given the universal need to eat, audiences stuck around to hear from our panelists – Onika Abraham from Farm School NYC, Ashley Rafalow from CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, and Benjamin Sacks from the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University – who localized the issues in the play, and spotlighted the people working on them. Our panelists broadened the topic of food and food justice, and hit on the intersectionality of the food movement, which cross-cuts immigration, workers’ rights, and trade.

I will continue to develop UPROOT, to write and edit, and to talk about food. Through this production process, I’ve felt that the topics and themes I want to hit upon, the vision I have for what role my art can play in society, both encompasses and transcends words (especially in the English language). In this way, I will continue to involve actors and audiences and experts in the development of UPROOT, to cultivate communities, and to usher in the spirit of a sustainable and equitable future for all.

UPROOT, August 22, 2017. Photo by Ran Xia.

Take Action
Donate to the Houston Food Bank to support victims of Harvey.
New York City has a primary mayoral election coming up. Know who’s on the ballot, and where they stand on issues of immigration, workers’ rights, and other justice issues.

About Artists and Climate Change:

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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