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Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009

Playwright Sarah Moon’s Appalachian Inspiration

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For Milwaukee-raised playwright and actor Sarah Moon, professional success is hardly the main objective. Though lauded for her work onstage and off, Moon found her true calling when cast in a little-known Tennessee Williams play about coal mining in 1930s Appalachia. After an eye-opening trip to Louisville, Ky., to perform, Moon returned to New York determined to use her craft to educate and inspire.

How did you realize you wanted to write and act?

I started writing poetry in adolescence and that served as a pressure release valve for the intense feelings I had. [In high school I was] cast in Evita. Seminal, it showed me another level of emotional experience—a level in which my deep feelings were not overblown, but perfectly suited.

You’re passionate on the subject of mountaintop-removal coal mining. What is that and how did you become aware of it?

It’s a form of coal mining where companies clear-cut forest, then use heavy explosives to break apart the mountain. They dig up the broken earth—up to 1,000 feet—and deposit it in nearby valleys, often burying streams. Then they use massive machines called draglines to harvest the exposed coal seams. The coal gets shipped to power plants all over the world, destroying the Appalachian Mountains for cheap electricity. I became aware of this process in May ’07 when our theater company was asked to create a street theater piece on the subject for a media action event outside the U.N. and a fund-raising concert in Harlem. Out of that grew a full-length project which I’m working on now.

What was your relationship to the natural world prior to your visit to Appalachia?

As a kid, I collected pieces of plants. I’d make a mixture, drop it inside a leaf, fold it up and, making a wish, tuck it into the crevice of a lilac bush. [My wishes] tended to be pretty idealistic, things like world peace. Living in N.Y.C. was the first I felt completely cut off from [nature], so, getting away to Appalachia, looking at these untouched green hills, it was like this desiccated sponge inside me just welled up. It was hard to go back to the city and stand in a subway tunnel again.

Why do you believe theater to be an effective tool for political and environmental change?

Political theater presents a much-needed alternative lens on our reality. Health care is the topic lately. There’s a lot of pathos around it in the media—look at this poor, little grandma with no health insurance. That’s not compassion. It’s exploitation. Its effect is not to galvanize people to make change, but to get us feeling sorry for ourselves, which is, hands down, the best way to neutralize a person or group; they’ll be so busy looking at the ground, they won’t see what’s going on around them.

To start feeling inspired, people must see activists, self-starters, rule breakers who are not settling for what they’ve got. I want the play I’m writing now to confront this issue and show a person who goes from feeling put upon and constrained to feeling empowered and free. Theater is one of the only public forums where we can celebrate the rising up of the human spirit, where we can show people acting on behalf of other people or the environment and succeeding. That is something our world needs badly right now. We need to believe that there’s an alternative path—because there is.

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