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One Lesson of the Wirtz Center Production of “Stellaluna”? Recycle and Repurpose

Caitlin Lowans always believed theatre could work harder to help the environment. In her children’s production of Stellaluna, playing now at the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts, the design team led by Lowans, an MFA Directing candidate, transformed belief into action by constructing the entire set and its puppets out of recycled and repurposed materials.

“I love theatre, and part of what I love about it is the ephemeral nature, that we make experiences that stay with people, rather than objects that stay with people,” Lowans says. “But in order to make those ephemeral experiences, we often construct a lot of set or make a lot of waste that we then need to throw in a Dumpster at the end of a few weeks. There are growing efforts, like the Chicago Green Theatre Alliance, to have artists think more sustainably, more long-term.”

Lowans thinks it’s an important step to take.

“Many people in the arts believe climate change is happening, believe in human beings’ effects on the planet. At the same time, in theatre, we often think of ourselves as under-resourced and think that we can’t find new ways of making,” she said. “We have to start working in accordance with our principals.”

Stellaluna does just this. While Lowans said the design team purchased few new materials like tape and paint, everything else seen onstage first came from somewhere else — think packing boxes, thrifted clothes, cloth from upholstery sample books, tinfoil from chocolate bars, bubble wrap, or old lamp shade covers.

Adapted by Saskia Janse with music by Guus Ponsioen, the production runs at the Hal and Martha Hyer Wallis Theater from now until November 19. The production is based on the picture book by Jannell Cannon and tells the story of a fruit bat named Stellaluna who finds herself separated from Mother Bat in the forest. She’s adopted by a family of birds, who teach her their rambunctious baby-bird ways. The production is a work of Imagine U, Northwestern’s dedicated programming for families, and is targeted to children ages 3 to 8.

“In particular with this show, it’s a show about the natural world, for the next generation. It’s essential to center sustainability,” Lowans says.

And center they did. Lowans and company worked with Northwestern’s Facilities Management to gather branches from on-campus tree trimming for set design; they repurposed (and will continue to use) carpeting from another theater; and they made leaves for those collected branches using pages of the actors’ scripts and scores.

“The biggest challenges are patience and flexibility. It’s harder to find things re-used rather than just going to a store and buying them,” she says. “Similarly, if a material comes to you, you have to be flexible and excited about what it is, rather than what you want it to be. The branch you have is the branch you have!”

Northwestern senior Isadora Porte worked as the sound designer for the show and said she was thrilled to be part of an all-green production.

“I do hope that the Northwestern theatre community continues to move in the direction of incorporating sustainable theatre practices and recognizes that not only can they impact people emotionally, but ecologically as well,” says Porte, who saved more than 350 batteries by using rechargeables. “I hope that people will be purposeful with each decision they make on a production, because that is the way that we will find innovative and exciting methods to continue making the art we want, that can change the world for the better.”

Lynn Thompson Kelso, Theatre Department lecturer, praised the show’s efforts and ingenuity.

“This innovative production of Stellaluna is offering our family audiences some exciting elements,” she says. “The use of natural and repurposed materials to create the world of Stellaluna is modeling for our families. Our story is told using puppets, dance, and songs, and before each performance the children will have the opportunity to make ‘bugs’ to be used in the telling of the story.”

Lowans said she hopes the show helps people think about recycling in a different way.

“First, I hope that the show reframes in terms of ‘reuse’ and ‘reduce,’” she says. “We often focus on ‘recycling’ which helps but it’s actually reducing our consuming and re-using those materials we already have which do the most to benefit our planet. And re-use can be the ultimate exercise in creativity! How do you transform something into something else?”

A few of the shows are already sold out. Lowans said demand remains high and she encourages families interested in attending to buy tickets now. Adult admission is $12 and students/children are $10.

Additionally, in the spirit of sustainability, Imagine U is holding a “sock drive” ahead of its winter production of Knufflebunny. If you’re going to see Stellaluna, bring in old socks that have lost their mates. They’ll be put to good theatrical use.

– Cara Lockwood