By Cory Phare
If you promote water conservation in the Denver area, chances are good that you’ve already heard of Water Wise.
John Stulp, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s top water advisor, has – and that’s how the MSU Denver theatre troupe got to bring its brand of advocacy-based performance to the 2017 Colorado Water Congress’ annual convention this past January.
The Water Wise ensemble does what’s known as theatre for social change. And, as Marilyn Hetzel, Ph.D., chair of the University’s Department of Theatre noted, it’s a vehicle for delivering important messages that leave a lasting impression.
“The power of theatre for social change is immense,” she said. “They’re stories that can teach.”
The Water Wise troupe owes its founding in part to when Tom Cech felt the impact of this kind of performance firsthand.
“My wife, Grace, and I attended [Dr. Hetzel’s] production of ‘Here’s to Ears,’ and it was fabulous!” said Cech, the director of MSU Denver’s One World One Water Center for Urban Water Education and Stewardship program. “There were no props – they just told a great educational story about hearing protection.”
Cech reached out to Hetzel, and they strategized a way to develop and stage a similar production – only this time in conjunction with Denver Water, Aurora Water and the City of Boulder’s water department. The agencies had originally contacted MSU Denver looking for innovative ways to enhance their water education programs.
The show needed to convey the importance of conservation and a deeper understanding of natural resources. It would be performed at annual water festivals, and performances would also be integrated within the conservation-rooted school curricula already in place for fourth- through sixth-graders in the region.
For Miles LaGree, the question of logistics was part of the creative solution when he approached writing the theatrical piece as a member of the original Water Wise theatre group.
“The challenge was taking a list of facts, and then translating them into theatrical performances without any props or scenery,” said the senior ensemble member, who is wrapping up a bachelor’s degree in applied theatre technology and design. “How were we going to do the show with just us?”
The answer was simple: a powerful narrative, with an innovative means of conveyance.
Thus, Water Wise performances were born.
When you do something well, word tends to get around. And just as a soft trickle builds from headwaters into a mighty roar downstream, buzz got louder about what the ensemble was doing.
That’s what led to the Colorado Water Congress stage, where Water Wise circa 2017 performed for members, including engineers and water providers from around the state. After the troupe’s performance (greeted with thunderous applause), representatives from across Colorado approached the group to discuss future performances.
According to Cech, another key value of theatre for social change was demonstrated: constructing a career pipeline to keep the message flowing.
“With the students from the troupe still in the room, we asked [conference attendees], ‘How many of you are hiring right now?’” said Cech. “Hands shot up, and immediately we had connections; students provided resumes to people who were interested in what they had to say and what they could do. That’s how it works.”
According to Natalie Brower-Kirton, senior water conservation specialist with Aurora Water, who served on a post-performance panel at the event, the very process of developing the piece proved transformative for students.
“[Ensemble students] made an empowering and positive message about where our water comes from, why Colorado is unique, and what people can do to conserve it,” she said. “The best thing is not only that they reached a large audience but that they became water advocates themselves.”
LaGree attested to this. He also pointed out that theatre works particularly well as a vehicle because it’s a live art – and one that most younger students haven’t had much experience with.
“Not many kids are heading down to the Buell, so it’s great to bring the work to them,” he said. “And to see that fire lit in their eyes from the performances – that’s what it’s all about.”
And so, lighting that passion for conservation is really the greatest impact of Water Wise theatre for social change. As Cech and Brower-Kirton attest, it’s an indisputably valuable tool for organizational change, and why Hetzel fondly refers to theatre as “equipment for living.”
It’s why LaGree speaks of his time with Water Wise and the lessons learned from Hetzel as “more valuable than anything money could buy.”
“It’s seeing that light turn on in the kids’ heads, knowing they’ve learned something,” he said. “Those smiling faces are what let you know firsthand that it’s effective, that what you’re doing matters.”
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