Temple theater’s production of “Urinetown” highlights issues of sustainability.
In Tomlinson Theater, two rolls of toilet paper hang from a display board. At first they may seem like playful decorations, emphasizing the almost crude name of the musical Tomlinson played host to. Upon a close look, one’s mind will reel at the devastating facts on water consumption displayed on each two-ply square of tissue.
“On average, it takes 2,072 gallons of water to make four new tires,” reads one square. Directly below it: “1.1 billion people live without clean drinking water.”
Temple theater department’s recent production of “Urinetown” served as a musical platform to expose facts such as these, and incite a dialogue.
Written by Greg Kotis after his experience with pay toilets in Europe, the musical explores themes of water shortage and over-consumption in society. The work does not claim to have any answers to the water crisis, but seeks rather to encourage personal responsibility for water usage.
“This musical was chosen to serve the needs and talents of the students at Temple,” Director Peter Reynolds said. “It was an added bonus that the musical could raise awareness about sustainability.”
“Urinetown,” without time or place, is set in a sort of metaphysical world hanging in a grey balance of struggle and shortage. The issues are modern, but the 1950s-inspired costumes, and music seemingly influenced by ‘20s jazz and ‘60s gospel music lends a timeless feel to the work: These hardships are not just our own, but shared across generations.
The narrator, Officer Lockstock, leads the cast and audience through the world of the play, giving it a highly reflexive nature that does not allow the audience to forget that they are watching a theatrical work.
This show is neither escapist nor completely fictitious.
The hero, Bobby Strong, is tired of the fear and struggle his people live with. After receiving the inspiration to follow his heart from the ever-optimistic love-interest, Hope Cladwell, he takes control of a pay toilet and opens it to the public free of charge.
Katie Johantgen, a sophomore musical theater major, played Hope Cladwell, the daughter of water tyrant, Caldwell B. Cladwell.
“Although Hope’s steadfast positive outlook is admirable, she also serves as a warning of the dangers of blissful ignorance,” Johantgen said.
Cladwell is taxing the livelihood out of the people by raising fees to use the public amenities. While he is corrupt and greedy, he is also practicing safe water conservation techniques.
“Hope desires happiness and equality for all people so strongly that it blinds her from the hard facts, resulting in the exploitation of resources and eventually complete depletion,” Johantgen said.
The revolution against the tyrant seems like a great leap forward for the people and their freedom, but in the end, the water shortage cannot be blamed on one person and resources continue to dwindle.
The narrator, LJ Norelli, a senior theator major, said he hopes that audiences will get a sense of the fragility of human life from this work.
“I hope the audience takes a minute or two to sit back and reflect on how they live their lives,” Norelli said. “Are they taking the opportunities to be kind to our planet?”
Kathleen Grady, the sustainability coordinator for the Office of Sustainability, said this particular musical lends itself well to a discussion of sustainability issues.
Grady had planned to present a panel of people involved in the sustainability movement before one of the performances, to give the musical more context and drive home the points of the musical.
After last Wednesday’s showing of “Urinetown” was cancelled, so was the panel. The panel would have discussed ways to address our changing consumption patterns, the levels of intervention we can take and how one can make change through personal behavior and in policy at the grassroots level.
Gary Burlingame, a representative of the Philadelphia Water Department, would have been one of the panel’s contributors. He said the most important steps for students to take are to be informed and be involved.
“So much is available on the Internet, but you have to know where to get the right information,” Burlingame said.
He also advised that students define a list of values for themselves when looking for possible career paths.
“Some fields may not pay six figures, but you can’t put a price on the health of our environment,” he said.
There are many aspects of the sustainability movement, including economic and human resources, but the main issue is the quality of the environment.
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘how do we continue to move forward and still improve the qualities of our rivers and streams?’” Burlingame said.
Mercedes Lyons-Cox, a senior theater major, played a demanding owner of a public amenity in “Urinetown,” found motivation for her character by reflecting on real-life facts.
“One thing that aided me enormously in justifying the strictness with which she runs Amenity No. 9 was researching water shortage facts about our world today,” Lyons-Cox said. “Before doing ‘Urinetown,’ I was unaware of just how imminent the water shortage issue is.”
But it’s possible to lose this sense of urgency about resources while bopping along to high energy musical numbers.
“I hope our audiences have a great time in the theater, but also consider the complexities of the problems facing our world,” Reynolds said. “Musicals are a good way to share an important message, [but it’s important to remember that] easy slogans will not solve our current challenges.”
“Many shows choose to leave their audiences with happy, optimistic endings,” Norelli added. “I would have to argue, though, that ignorant optimism is just as dangerous as wise pessimism.”
Lyons-Cox said she holds the same view.
“The show represents a message less obvious and more urgent than an audience might guess, that this is a mere caricature of what our world could become if we fail to make amends with our planet,” she said.
Rachel McDevitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.