Web Exclusive: Moving Mountains with Theatre: An Interview with Playwright Sarah Moon

Katrin Redfern May 18, 2009

Mountaintop removal coal mining is obliterating vast swaths of Appalachia in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. PHOTO: FLICKR.COM


The weekend of May 29-31 will mark the second annual NY Loves Mountains Festival, consisting of a reading of Sarah Moon’s new play Light Comes, a rally in Union Square and a concert at the Bell House in Brooklyn (see for details).


NY Loves Mountains, an all-volunteer environmental advocacy New York-based organization committed to raising awareness about the devastation of mountaintop removal coal mining, bills the festival as, “A weekend full of theatre, music, and activism promoting an end to mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia and natural gas drilling in the Catskills.”


Mountaintop removal is a new and especially invasive form of strip mining in which explosives are used to blast away the tops of mountains to uncover coal seams in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. The waste rock is dumped in valleys below, filling in hollows and streams, burying over 1,200 miles of Headwater streams. Over one million acres of hardwood forests have been clear-cut, almost 500 mountains have been flattened, and over 100 million pounds of heavy metals have been released in to the waterways.


This mining practice is threatening the watershed of the southeastern United States, as well as the land and culture throughout Appalachia. New Yorkers, as well as many Americans, contribute to this form of mining. Local power plants purchase electricity from coal-fired power plants that are fuelled from the burning of coal from mountain top mine sites.


Sarah Moon is a cofounder of the festival, along with Stephanie Pistello. Moon’s play Light Comes connects the dots of our modern-day coal-fired electrical empire, from Manhattan — home to Edison’s first electric power plant — to the land laid bare by mining in Kentucky and West Virginia. She calls out the backroom energy deals on Wall Street, exposing how the United States came to run on coal.


The Indypendent spoke with Moon on May 11th about mining, theatre and everything in between.


KATRIN REDFERN: First off, let’s talk about what mountaintop removal coal mining is, and its effects.


SARAH MOON: The Appalachian forest is one of the most biodiverse regions in the entire world, so you’ve got this wealth of life there. That forest persisted during the Ice Age so it was the seedbed for all of North America once the glaciers receded. It’s so diverse there because it’s had so many centuries to proliferate. There are animals there whose continuation has been threatened from the 1,200 miles of streams buried as well as the water being polluted from runoff from the mines.


When I started researching for the play in 2007, I did a flyover tour of West Virginia and the mountaintop removal sites there with a group called SouthWings, which is a really amazing organization that does free flight tours of environmental disasters all over the southeast. I saw tons of these mines from the aerial perspective and was able to get more of a realistic idea of what was going on, the level of destruction.


Once the coal is extracted it’s washed with a mix of water and thousands of chemicals, creating coal slurry. There are currently 330 known coal sludge impoundments throughout Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia holding billions of gallons of liquid coal waste.


I was on a reclamation site just north of Hazard Kentucky, they had this massive slurry pond, this black toxic stew and they let it sit there figuring over a long enough period of time it’s going to evaporate. The other thing they do is inject it into underground mines and that gets really dangerous because they don’t know where that’s going to go, there’s supposed to be regulations but its really not controlled so there’s often seepage so it is because of that seepage for example that a community in West Virginia has really high levels of liver disease, gallbladder disease, cancer, their well water has gotten seepage from slurry from underground mines.


KATRIN REDFERN: How is it different from underground mining?


SARAH MOON: They’re working from the top down so first they clear-cut then they plant the heavy explosives to loosen up the top of the mountain. That debris is then loaded up into trucks and dumped into valley fills, which is how streams get buried. You have the whole top of a mountain blown up and trucked away to expose the coal seams. Then they use these massive machines called draglines to get the coal and dump it into trucks to go to the railroads. So it’s this massive scale operation that’s only possible with heavy machinery powered by fossil fuels so just the extraction itself is putting carbon monoxide into the air.


KATRIN REDFERN: There used to be over 150,000 coal-mining jobs in West Virginia. But because mountaintop removal and other forms of strip mining are heavily automated, that number has been reduced by roughly 90 percent, and there are now around 20,000 coal-mining jobs. Meanwhile, those living around mountaintop removal remain some of the most impoverished communities in America. So why does the coal industry have such power, and support from local government and local people?


SARAH MOON: I think it’s a testament to the shadow that coal casts over that region — it has been the primary industry for as long as anyone can remember. Their lives, their parents’ lives their grandparents’ lives, and psychologically, even though the number of actual jobs that exist now aren’t as great as they were then, coal still maintains the same power it always had. Also those figures are important but it’s not entirely accurate in reflecting how many people are connected in some way financially to the coal industry. Because you might work for a company that makes chemicals that are used in coal processing, or you might work for a company that provides maintenance for a coal processing plant or leases machinery to a plant.


KATRIN REDFERN: What’s appealing about this method for the coal companies?


SARAH MOON: It’s cheaper than underground mining because you’re able to remove more coal at a faster rate, not dealing with a small space and human beings taking that coal out. It’s a bigger scale.


Strip mining, the precedent, started in the 1970s and mountain top removal started in the 1980s and picked up during the Bush administration because of a change in the Clean Water Act. They changed the definition of the word ‘fill’ in 2001 and that allowed mountain top mines to have the freedom to dump pretty much everything into the valleys. Prior there had been stricter regulation. This meant that mountaintop mining increased in the early 2000s, which is when the movement started to pick up steam as well. Now that we have an administration that seems to be more favourable to restoring the regulations that existed prior to Bush the movement is starting to see bigger progress.

It’s no surprise because the coal industry gave a great deal of money to the Bush administration and winning West Virginia was a huge boon for him, it allowed him to get past the Florida recount — he had the stability of these folks from West Virginia. It was a gift to the coal industry, to allow the practice of mountain top removal to amp up.


KATRIN REDFERN: It’s great that the Obama administration is challenging some of these 11th hour changes made by Bush in relation to coal, but it’s important to note that they’re just that, a return to the oversight that had originally been intended with the Clean Water Act, and not a ban on mountain top removal mining.


SARAH MOON: It’s a positive thing that we’re going back to the oversight of the Clean Water Act but we need something more aggressive. I don’t think the Obama administration absolutely opposes mountain top removal, they oppose it as it exists right now which is a great place to start. But the movement has a lot of work to do to convince them that it shouldn’t exist under any circumstances.


We live in this time where we’re getting more and more reliant on electricity so more reliant on coal. We’re also becoming more aware of climate change so that is starting to filter into the government but nothing’s really happening yet in a big way. We just have this fight over cap and trade versus a carbon tax but neither has been implemented and meanwhile coal burning continues apace.


KATRIN REDFERN: What about the bill the New York legislature will be introducing to possibly ban the use of mountaintop removal coal.


SARAH MOON State Senator Daniel Squadron (D-Brooklyn/Manhattan) is submitting the bill. It’s not terribly controversial because coal isn’t mined in New York so politicians don’t have to worry about alienating coal producers. Pricey Harrison in North Carolina was the first to introduce legislation at the state level to ban mountaintop removal coal. It’s moving forward in Georgia now as well.


KATRIN REDFERN: Tell us about your play.


The play intertwines the life of an Appalachian family whose land is threatened by mountaintop removal with the history of electricity that precipitated the destructive practice that now threatens an entire land and culture.


The play talks about the inception of electricity and how it was turned into a business, driven by Samuel Insull who started as Edison’s financial person, and ended up becoming the leader of the electrical empire in Chicago. At his time, he was as famous as Al Capone. He built the largest power plant ever in the early 1900s to power the first electric train. He brought electricity to the farmlands around Chicago and showed the common person what electricity can do to improve lives, he did a lot to make it indispensable. He engaged in questionable business practices that caused his company to collapse and his shares that had been sold everywhere to go to zero. Roosevelt spoke about him specifically, as being an example of what need to change in American business in terms of holding companies and securities fraud — selling when he knew that they weren’t backed up, and not worth what they were being sold for. It was a fascinating time because these names we know were all there for the birth of electricity — JP Morgan, Edison.


It’s about how electricity was built into an empire, how it became this thing that was in its inception a novelty but became this huge monopoly that has created one of the most egregious environmental catastrophes. It’s because electricity was developed as private industry with a few people controlling it that we’re still so dependent on coal today.


Things changed in the electricity industry in the early 1990s because of deregulation. Any company could come in and produce electricity and use the existing wires or a company could be a middleman and buy electricity from Mexico and funnel it into the grid. That changed things. That’s why Enron was able to come into the system and claim to do things differently and everyone got really excited about that potential. They abused that excitement. The hope with deregulation was that it would bring fresh energy into the electricity industry but it ended up making problems worse because it was still promoting cheap electricity. And coal is the cheapest you’re going to get when it comes to electricity. So if the hope was to bring innovation that didn’t happen at all. You also had in the 1990s the natural gas bubble, which took some money away from coal, but then the bubble burst, the supply petered out and coal came back strong. You could see it in Wall Street in the early 2000s that people were pumped up about shares in coal. It would be strange for the common person to hear this because most people aren’t aware that 50 percent of our energy comes from coal.


KATRIN REDFERN: Your partner at Headwater Productions, Stephanie Pistello, describes your vision of theatre as being inspired by the traditions of Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal — theatre that builds political consciousness.


SARAH MOON: I was most inspired as a theatre student by Brecht and his bravery in addressing social issues in 1930s Germany, an environment that was growing more and more totalitarian and oppressive. And Boal with his Theatre of the Oppressed was a great contemporary offshoot of Brecht because what Boal criticizes in mainstream drama is this Aristotelian model of tragedy — the spectator comes in with all their thoughts and potentially revolutionary ideas and they see this play and this character go through something and then have this catharsis, that then purges the spectator of their frustrations, those feeling that might be impeding their ability to function cooperatively in the society as it exists. I thought it was such a fascinating idea that drama could be used a means of state control by purging people of their oppositional instincts.


KATRIN REDFERN: So audiences come seeking resolution and experience it without upsetting the social fabric. What about Brecht?


SARAH MOON: Brecht obviously was not following the Aristotelian model. He created what he called Epic Dramas, with these episodic experiences and heroes that were going against whatever the mainstream power was and often succeeded. In The Caucasian Chalk Circle Grusha ends up winning the child at the end of the play from the king’s wife. She’s totally an autonomous person not under the control of the government and yet she succeeds. Whereas a character like Oedipus, who ends up being punished for his fatal flaw, that creates a catharsis that purges people of their oppositional traits. ‘Oedipus was too proud, he disregarded the Oracle and continued on his path.’ When the main character suffers a downfall because of their headstrong behaviours, someone who sees that who thinks they can accomplish whatever they really want is put in check by that. ‘Oh Icarus flew too close to the sun I need to remember my place and be humble’.


You see it today in storytelling all the time as well. It’s enforced impotence. It’s interesting when you start looking at film and TV that way — what kinds of behaviours are being encouraged and discouraged — in what context is it okay to succeed and in what context do we need to shove someone back in their place. Look at a film like Flashdancer, a really popular film for example. It’s emotionally satisfying, you get so swept up but if you sit back and look at it critically it’s interesting to consider the social implications of the film. But you’re not going to because you’re emotionally attached to this character and following her on her journey.


So Brecht having heroes that were opposed to the powers that be provided a template for spectators to see that this was possible. He liked creating that distance to interfere with that emotional attachment and encourage critical faculties. Also he saw having an emotional catharsis [from storytelling] as diluting activist tendencies or tendencies towards autonomy.


KATRIN REDFERN: He kept his audience from going on an emotional journey.


SARAH MOON: He wanted to have this very presentational theatre. He encouraged people to smoke a cigar while they were watching and he had signs that would give the titles of scenes and have characters dressed really over the top, everything really presentational to distance people emotionally from what they were seeing on the stage so they could view it critically and intellectually and be processing what the message was instead of getting so swept up emotionally that their intellectual faculties go away.


KATRIN REDFERN: And Boal pushed it a step further.


SARAH MOON: Stemming from the same observation he took a different tack, a really radical tack, saying lets bring the spectator into the action, really asking people to engage their brains to problem solve.


KATRIN REDFERN: By having the spectator become the protagonist.


SARAH MOON: Right, let’s take situations where a person comes up against the dominant power structure and fails and let’s have the spectator change the story in whatever way they believe will make the protagonist succeed in challenging that power structure. So people witness and experience what it is to overcome oppression, what it is to gain autonomy. Boal’s thing is having the ability to perceive the potential for alternate outcomes and that being a really radical thing. You know, ‘man beats his wife, woman stays submissive.’ Let’s bring this situation into the rehearsal room and have this woman who gets beaten and is submissive, let’s have her act out her story and show us that moment when the husband decides to hit her. And let’s have a ‘spect-actor’ as he called them step in and say okay this is how I see this story going differently. And the director saying okay get up and try it out. And the actor playing the husband has to do everything the same until that moment of change and then they react and we see what happens. Can you change this outcome, how do you stop perpetuating the victim-oppressor paradigm. So many of us are locked into that.


It’s immensely idealistic and Boal admits that he doesn’t know if this can work but he wants to try, and there’s no reason not to imagine that through theatre we can give people the tools to envision different outcomes and break that pattern of disconnect, of victim-oppressor, of tragedy — that certain people are doomed. Lots of stories of Appalachia present them as doomed people. There’s a really famous play called The Kentucky Cycle by Robert Schenkkan and that message seemed to pervade the work. Light Comes connects to electricity but also to the symbol of the light at the end of the tunnel that we’re not doomed; there is the opportunity to evolve consciousness beyond these power imbalances, of who controls energy. The play is saying that there is potential to change the outcome and where better to make that happen than the source of coal in Appalachia or the birthing place of electricity itself, New York. Both places are symbolically powerful in the energy situation that we have today.


KATRIN REDFERN: You teach writing at Baruch, freshman composition.


SARAH MOON: I find myself thinking so much about how writing is such an important tool for being a complete, democratic citizen, being able to articulate what you believe and having the confidence to do that. It allows you to have a voice, it gives you power. Especially being able to craft arguments and especially with evolving media where everybody has a blog, where you can post responses on the New York Times website in response to articles, having the ability to articulate your belief in the written word is in a way getting more important because there are more opportunities to have that in public now. Once you can do that you can have a discourse, and learn from that discourse. But until you can articulate what you think you can’t really have a legitimate discussion.


KATRIN REDFERN: How well do your students navigate the media landscape?


SARAH MOON: A lot of them come into class totally overwhelmed by the media — ‘It lies, it’s over the top, I don’t trust it’ — and because of that they’re also politically disengaged, because they get most of their politics from mainstream media. They spend a lot of time on social networking sites. I know they don’t watch the news. A lot comes from what their parents say, or catching snippets on some rock radio station. They get these ideas in their heads and don’t question them.


KATRIN REDFERN: How do you steer them to better sources?


SARAH MOON: They’re not confident about where to find good sources for info. Teaching them that there’s a really wide diversity of sources, NBC and CNN and the Times are not the end all be all. So having them do research empowers them in where they get their information and having them learn to write well gives them confidence in forming their own ideas. A lot of them don’t trust their own ideas. They’re learning tools that will help them being politically engaged.


KATRIN REDFERN: Where do you see the solution to our energy predicament?


SARAH MOON: We really have a responsibility as a society to decide collectively where our energy comes from and make that a responsible decision. The responsible decision is not coal. I think the solution is really diverse, there isn’t one energy source that’s going to replace fossil fuels. We have to embrace all the options. I don’t support nuclear as it exists right now, anything that produces toxic waste isn’t a good option. The problem is that there are these entrenched interests that see energy and see dollar signs. If you give an inch they’ll take a mile. It’s true of oil and also true of nuclear.


KATRIN REDFERN: What are your thoughts on so called “clean coal?”


SARAH MOON: It’s silly. It’s cleaner, the carbon dioxide and heavy metals that get sent out when coal is burned are sequestered and put in the ground so it’s still there. You’re using fossil fuel to dig out the coal, to ship the coal, to ship the sequestered carbon to its deposit site, and then taking the risk of having the sequestered carbon released — seeping up from a broken pipeline. It’s labor intensive, fossil fuel intensive, and not sustainable.


KATRIN REDFERN: In New York state, there are currently 13 power plants in 11 counties burning coal from Appalachian mountaintop removal coalmines. Over 240,000 tons of coal strip-mined through mountaintop removal operations are consumed by New Yorkers every year, requiring over three million pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel-oil explosives detonated to blow off the tops of mountains. According to the Coal River Wind Project we could replace that coal by developing only 3.8 percent more of the state’s wind potential.


In New York, there’s a growing awareness of the local movement. Knowing where your food comes from and a desire to be healthy. Energy is the same way. We get our energy in this practice that degrades the land and emits chemicals. From the city that’s invisible, but I think that through the awareness about food … collapsing that divide between the rural source of energy or food or water and the urban consumption of those things.


I read today in The Economist about this contingent in California that wants the western portion of the state to secede and become the 51st state, partly because of gay rights and partly because of the food issue. You have people in California on agricultural land fighting for water rights related to irrigation and people in the cities that have no connection to that being an important thing. These really divided needs when in fact they should be united. They love the fish, but hate the fishermen. I thought about how true this is about big city environmentalists. I think that it’s a reflection of something all over the country, people in cities enjoy the fruits of rural labour but we want to belittle the people who provide for us by saying they’re ignorant or their political beliefs are ridiculous, this old fashioned idea that they’re savages. Yet the people saying that are eating food that they produce or saying that coal mining is a terrible dirty thing yet we’re enjoying the energy that comes out of it. This has to be reunified. It can’t be each person for themselves. New York can’t say we’re going to go green, and you people out there with your SUVs and big screen TVs, go burn coal and live the big American lifestyle we’re going to evolve here in New York. It’s impossible, we’re so interconnected. And vice versa. People farming or coal mining need us who are buying that product. This myth that we are separate needs to be redressed. The urban needs to understand the rural perspective and vice versa. We’ve lived too long with this artificial sense of disconnect and it’s time for us now to reconnect with the rural spaces that support our survival.


KATRIN REDFERN: What about countries like China where every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant opens that is big enough to serve all the households in Dallas or San Diego.


SARAH MOON: China gets about 50 percent of its energy from coal too but since they have a larger population that’s even a greater concern and their coal use is increasing. They’re investing in alternative energy. They’re growing so fast their attitude is were going to look at everything. In a lot of countries the attitude is America got to develop for 100 years that way, why can’t we. We consume more energy per person than any other country on earth.


KATRIN REDFERN: The first electric power plant was built by Thomas Edison, in Lower Manhattan wasn’t it?


On Pearl Street, and JP Morgan financed it, in 1882. This is the birthplace of electrical industry, the system we know it as today. The first generator ever was in JP Morgan’s house, Edison built that.


KATRIN REDFERN: So this year the festival will also focus on natural gas and its affect on the city’s drinking water. Why are you expanding to include natural gas as a focus?


We’re bringing in an awareness about natural gas drilling upstate [New York]. It’s an extraction issue and affects the mountains, the Catskills, so we want to bring it in. Governor [David] Paterson has placed a moratorium on drilling in Marcellus Shale while they review the potential for water pollution and land degradation, but depending on what they decide the drilling could start next fall. It’s a new thing where they’re extracting gas from shale rock with hydrofracking. They have to use tons of water with these inch wide pipelines with eight tons of pressure on the rock which creates fractures and the natural gas is forced out. A tremendous amount of water is used and polluted. There’s a real threat to our drinking water and has happened already in Pennsylvania where the same rock formation extends. For a couple days people couldn’t drink the water. The heavy metals that come out when you fracture the rock go into the water, which gets back into the water supply. Also they use chemicals in the water they force through. To mess with your water is just stupid.


KATRIN REDFERN: Water is the big issue of our time it seems.


The good thing is that new coal plants aren’t getting built. There’s a nexus now between nuclear and coal and water. Both coal and nuclear plants need massive amounts of water to produce energy. So in regions like the Southwest or the Southeast now where they’re facing drought situations, where water is tight, they’re not going to look to coal and nuclear plants, they’re going to look to solar and wind. There are activist efforts to shut down existing coal plants as well. But we don’t have anything ready to switch over to so there has to be a transition. They can’t acknowledge that in the coal industry, that we need to start making that transition.


It’s interesting that because water is becoming such a big issue, that’s threatening the fossil fuel industry on the extraction and burning level. A plant in Denver was shut down because it requires so much water to burn coal. The power plants, nuclear and coal, are basically steam turbines so you’re using the burning of these substance to heat water and turn turbines.


We’re at a potentially exciting place because people are seeing that fossil fuels aren’t the answer for so many reasons and that’s energizing our great thinkers, our scientific thinkers. Our system has been so clamped down and remained so static because the powers that fuel electricity haven’t wanted the source or method to change. But now you’re getting this infusion of scientific thought. The challenge is to prevent us from moving into another monopoly situation, this grab for power and the biggest chunk of the pie. My ideal vision is municipally owned power generators, whether that be wind farms or solar panels, a network of all of those things regulated through net metering so that people are generating electricity, sending it back to the grid. Doing that locally is the first thing that people can do who really want to make a change. Transition communities are springing up all over the country that are working to get off the grid both for their energy and their food. People don’t want to wait for the federal government to make it happen. That’s the human instinct for survival, at the fundamental level. It encourages cooperation among individuals and communities because you’re relying on each other for your power source. Community is a real issue in our culture. People are isolated. To me it’s everything — all the issues we face in society today can be solved by changing our attitude about where we get and how we use our resources. More and more people are seeing it that way as opposed to something scary. There’s always a fear of change that we have to deal with.


KATRIN REDFERN: What got you into environmental issues?


I didn’t get involved in environmental issues until working on this play. My previous play, Blue Ground, was about a fictional place where mining interests take over the government, but it was more political. The play before that was about women’s rights and the evolution of the female identity in American society.


KATRIN REDFERN: What are you working on now?


Finishing this play, I’ll do more refining after the reading for a production in August we’re planning to do at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville.

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