The play Pig Farm, which is currently receiving its UK premiere at London’s St James Theatre, is written by American Greg Kotis, who also wrote the book for the Urinetown, the musical which also received its UK premiere at the St James before transferring to the West End last year.
Attending Pig Farm’s opening last week, I was immediately struck by the parallels between the two pieces – not just the shared address, nor the presence of Richard Fleeshman (who starred, magnificently, in the original London run of Urinetown, and was on hand in the audience for Pig Farm).
First off, as I tweeted on the night, both pieces are fixated on bodily excretions – Urinetown with, well, urine, and Pig Farm with faeces. Albeit, in the latter, the ‘faecal sludge’ – which is everywhere – emanates from “around” 15,000 offstage pigs rather than leg-crossing, fee-paying humans. Also featuring in both: much comedy violence and buckets of stage blood.
But, while in both Kotis deploys humour, the points he’s making – about sustainability and the stresses and strains that rampant humanity and consumption are placing on our planet – are deadly serious. So it’s little surprise that much of the timeline and inspiration for Urinetown and Pig Farm is shared.
Kotis himself explains in a programme note, which I have the pleasure of reprinting here, with permission of the playwright and producers.
Stephen Tompkinson and Erik Odom in Pig Farm at the St James Theatre, London. ©Tristram Kenton
Greg Kotis on sustainability and theatrical inspiration
Times are good! In some ways, they’ve never been better. Scientific advances astound us every day. Catastrophic world wars like those of the last century seem to be a thing of the past. Food is cheap, products are plentiful, and soon there will be eight billion of us scrambling around the planet. Humanity is doing well. And yet…
Evidence continues to mount that our success as a species will be our undoing. Man-made climate change is increasingly an accepted fact. Some say we’re in the midst of a mass extinction the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the time of the dinosaurs.
Some say we’re in the midst of a mass extinction the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the time of the dinosaurs.
Others argue that the “Green Revolution”, that particular collection of interventions and processes that allowed us to dramatically increase food production and, with it, our population, is at a tipping point. We’ve reached “peak food”, along with peak oil, peak water, and peak whatever else you care to mention.
Times are good. But they’re about to change.
If you’re like me, this fear – that a collapse of some kind is not only imminent, but in process – occupies much of your thinking. This fear is also what fuels my creative engine. Two examples…
In 1995, I began working as a location scout for film and television, a job which involved driving around New York City and its surrounding areas for many hours every day. What I came to understand as a scout was the absolute immensity of the megalopis in which I lived. New York went on and on in every direction from Newark to Long Island to Yorkers, gobbling up resources and spewing out waste at unimaginable levels.
And even though my city was America’s largest, it was only one of hundreds across the country, and thousands more worldwide. This realisation became a major source of inspiration for Urinetown.
Richard Fleeshman and Jenna Russell starred in Urinetown, which had its UK premiere at the St James Theatre in March 2014
A few weeks after Urinetown premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in 1999, Hurricane Floyd struck the Atlantic coast of North Carolina, flooding the industrial pig farm operations built along the state’s rivers and then sending 110,000 drowned pig carcasses back down those rivers toward the sea.
Here again was more evidence of the unsustainable trap we had stumbled into as a species. Pig farms, apparently, were no longer the idyllic family affairs described in Charlotte’s Web or Babe or The Big Red Barn, but corporatised, mechanised meat factories designed to deliver food to the consumer as quickly and cheaply as possible. Pig farming wasn’t agriculture, as most of us think of agriculture. It was an industralised, chemical-soaked horror show.
Accounts of Hurricane Floyd and its aftermath became the inspiration for the play, Pig Farm. And even though Pig Farm is something of a parallel world, more figurative than literal, the core ideas are true: we grew big to survive and, perhaps, prosper, but our size is what will doom us in the end.
Sustainability, unfortunately, is an evergreen issue
Sustainability, unfortunately, is an evergreen issue, one which Urinetown and Pig Farm wrestle with as best they can. One play imagined a world too far gone to save. The other imagines a family farm trying to operate on an industrial scale.
Both pieces, in their fashion ask the same unspoken questions:
How can eight billion of us share the same planet, particularly given the living standards some of us depend on and all of us desire?
Will technology be our salvation? Political enlightenment?
Or, as Malthus predicted, will we only change when our environment forces us to change?
Pig Farm is directed by Katherine Farmer and stars Dan Fredenburgh, Erik Odom, Charlotte Parry and Stephen Tompkinson. It continues at London’s St James Theatre until 21 November 2015.