DIRT in Development

The setting is a garden, any garden, perhaps not a particularly well maintained one. But we’re not that interested in what’s above the surface anyway. The time is now, until it’s later.

This imagery sets the scene for my newest play, DIRT, conceived with playwright Ran Xia. As environmentalists and theatre artists, Ran and I share a passion for the well-being of our planet, justice for all beings, and food (and naturally, where that food grows). While we are in the early stages of developing this play, I wanted to reflect on our process thus far.

DIRT began as a discussion after Ran and I went to see the film Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock. We quickly realized the urgency we both feel about climate justice. Ran also voiced her interest in putting scientific topics on stage. I brought Ran my idea of a play about soil, featuring Rachel Carson in some way. Over this past year, our seed of an idea has grown into decisions about storytelling (What type of arc are we interested in?), characters (Do we need human characters?), and production elements (choreography, music, and sound).

rachelcarson sketch
RACHEL CARSON 2copyright Joanna Barnum

DIRT is part of a larger endeavor, The UPROOT Series, comprised of in-development plays about our cultural relationship to food and the land it comes from, as well as community programs to supplement the conversation on these issues within and outside of the theatre. DIRT elucidates the world beneath our feet and evaluates our connection to these subterranean systems. We are specifically inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which reminds us that “nature is not so easily molded,” despite the attempts of humans – who are also deeply natural. With DIRT, Ran and I hope to honor Carson’s contribution to science and culture through her fight for clean air, water, soil, and her legacy as a female pioneer in the environmental movement. As we consult Silent Spring to build the world and characters of DIRT, we seek to craft a play that sheds light on the climate crisis in a visceral and theatrical way.

Our first phase of development for DIRT was these conversations between Ran and I, which we transcribed for future reference. Maybe we’ll be in the play, we thought. We considered what organisms in soil we would want to see interact. Who plays what role for the ecosystem to thrive? Surely, in this case, there needs to be an earthworm. As an indicator of time passing (or not), we added a snail. What would urban soil be without some fungi? We decided that a dying bird brought us to this patch of soil. Ran and I know that these organisms will be anthropomorphized, brought to human-sized form through dialogue, movement, and sound, to welcome audiences on a journey about interconnectedness.

Gus Arriola comic strip (11 April 1970)all rights reserved © 1970 Gus Arriola

As characters joined the roster of our fictional dirt patch, we drafted dialogue, and started to puzzle together a plot, centered around the lifecycle of a seed, and beyond. With characters sketched and a structure in mind, we were ready to bring in some actors. We hosted a weekend workshop to read and discuss and play with the texts and questions Ran and I had developed. Interspersed with our readings and discussions were movement sessions. I led the actors through basic exercises to translate visualizations of their non-human characters into physical choices. How does one embody the roots of a tree? What are the qualities of movement for a decaying bird? What does growth look like for each organism? Ultimately, we devised “statues” for each character, as a sketch for the future physical life of the organism. Additionally, a prominent motif of fractals emerged, both conceptually and content-wise. Fractals – structures in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales – play a major role in nature, and will therefore inform our choices as we continue to mold DIRT.

Nature’s Fractals

These findings are the groundwork for the eventual physicalizations and movement sequences that we will fully realize during DIRT’s production. Our next steps include staging a reading of the script, experimenting with a full movement score, and composing music to accompany Ran’s lyrics. Just as the subject of our play spans great lengths of time, so too will our development process.

Learn More
Learn more about the role of soil in climate change mitigation via documentaries, like Symphony of the Soil and Soil Solution.
For a look at Rachel Carson’s legacy today, see Susan Fishman’s post about Carson’s writings on oceans, as related to contemporary environmental activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s poems.
Explore Ran’s other works here.

(Top Image: Plantable seed paper, by Ran Xia.)


Julia Levine is a creative collaborator and vegetarian. Originally from St. Louis, Julia is now planted in the New York City downtown theatre realm. As a director, Julia has worked on various projects with companies that consider political and cultural topics, including Theater In Asylum, Honest Accomplice Theatre, and Superhero Clubhouse. She is on the Marketing team at HERE Arts Center and is Artistic Producer of The Arctic Cycle. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative, The UPROOT Series, to bring questions of food, climate, and justice into everyday life.

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