Theater In The Ground

Last night Kish and I joined Dr. Science and the GV Jogger at the Franklinton Playhouse for the world premiere performance of Dirt, a play by Creighton James.  Dirt tells the story of two brothers who return to the structure where they killed and buried their father, needing to dig up his remains to avoid their discovery when an immediately impending construction project requires tearing down the structure and excavating the area.  The two brothers clearly have been affected by the killing of their father, and let’s just say that, as the play progresses, they end up discovering a lot more than dear old Dad’s bones.

But the purpose of this post isn’t to discuss the curious psychological journeys of Rusty and Jimmy in Dirt, but rather to note what interesting and flexible performance space is afforded by the Franklinton Playhouse.  When we last visited the Playhouse, for a play featuring a debate between Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy about Christianity, the theater was configured so that patrons sat around a small, spartan, raised stage.  For Dirt, the former stage had been torn down and a completely different, much bigger and more elaborate stage and set had been constructed.  Instead of the former theater in the round, you might call the current configuration theater in the ground.  The stage and set included doors, windows, and an area where the characters could dig, patron seating on three different sides of the stage, and dirt — lots and lots of dirt.  (In fact, one of the “special thanks” in the program went out to Kurtz Bros. Mulch & Soils.)

Red Herring Productions, which is presenting Dirt as part of its ambitious, 10-play production schedule for 2019, tore down the prior stage and built, and then dirtied up, the current one in only 18 days.  That’s pretty impressive, but the fact that the theater itself could be so radically reconfigured is pretty impressive, too.  It makes you want to come to a future Red Herring performance of a different play, as much to see what the theater looks like as to watch what’s being portrayed on stage.

Getting Down And Dirty

The New York Times carried an interesting article recently about how the “dirt cure” can make children healthier.  The theme of the article, which featured an interview with pediatric neurologist and author Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein, is that children are better protected against illness and infection if they are routinely exposed to dirt — by eating natural, non-processed foods and by playing outside, with hands and knees on the soil.

2501c9ff68b8ed08549c745f9bddd4c0In the article, Dr. Shetreat-Klein relayed two fascinating things about dirt.  First, in one teaspoon of soil, there are more organisms than there are humans on our planet.  (That sounds impossible, but it’s one of those factoids that is often cited in articles about soil.) Second, soil is home to about 25 percent of Earth’s biodiversity — in the form of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, mites, microbes, and microarthropods.  There’s a lot going on below our feet that we never even think about.

Studies show that kids who play outside tend to be healthier, do better on standardized tests, have lower cortisol levels, which means they’re calmer and less stressed, and be more creative.  Dr. Shetreat-Klein thinks all of those attributes might be related to exposure to the teeming population underground.

I can’t speak to the science of it, but I suspect that Dr. Shetreat-Klein is right . . . and that there’s an additional reason for the results reported in those studies, which is that playing outside is just a lot of fun.  Of course kids who get away from their houses and play with their friends outside, explore a wooded area, build a dam in a stream, and turn over rocks just to see if there’s anything underneath are going to have stronger immune systems, because of what they’re exposed to, but they’re also going to be more curious, more self-reliant, and more willing to take risks because that’s what playing outside is all about.

Our mother used to groan when UJ and I came home with faces streaked with dust and shoes caked with mud, carrying caterpillars or crayfish or a captured garter snake or a big, weirdly shaped toadstool that we and our neighborhood friends found in the woods that encircled our houses, but I think it did us a lot of good in a lot of ways.