Theater Troupes Set Stage for California Drought Discussion

The East Bay Municipal Utility District recruits theater groups to deliver performance-based water conservation messages.
Theater Troupes Set Stage for California Drought Discussion
Benny Buettner performs as a scientist in a Benny & Bebe’s Magic Circus presentation focusing on the science of water.

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In the shadow of the iconic Hollywood sign, the newest soldiers in the battle against drought in Southern California are not those you’d imagine.

Using song, dance, acrobatics and even improvisational comedy, several theater troupes have partnered with the East Bay Municipal Utility District to bring the importance of water conservation to a wider audience.

The idea was born of an early-spring brainstorming session, as personnel in the district’s community outreach department spitballed new ideas to spread the conservation message. “We’ve been in a Stage 4 drought for a while now and are constantly looking at additional and unique ways to reach our communities,” says Michelle Blackwell, a community affairs representative with the district.

“It was one of those things that started as a seed and just grew from there. I had previous event planning experience, so I was happy to take on a big role with it.”

The district hired three California theater troupes — EarthCapades of Pacifica (, Benny & Bebe’s Magic Circus of Rafael (, and Shows That Teach ( of Woodland Hills — to produce abbreviated 20-minute acts.

The programs highlight the drought restrictions put in place by Gov. Jerry Brown in April 2015, calling for a 25 percent reduction in water usage. After the troupes received the project parameters, they were free to shape their presentations.

“We leveraged our position in the community to get the word out, scheduling the shows at schools and community events with a built-in crowd,” says Blackwell. “It was something completely new for us.”

Educational theater

In the Shows That Teach presentation, a man called Tuba channels his inner Alanis Morissette as he riffs, urging his audience to “Turn it off, turn it off, turn it off! Please.” That and other drops of water conservation wisdom are part of the troupe’s “H2O, Where Did You Go?” musical.

In addition to “Turn It Off!,” which preaches shorter showers, efficient toothbrushing and smart irrigation, the show features ear-catching tunes like “I Love Water,” “From Solid to Liquid” and “Ballad of the Aquifer.” The grand finale features hula-dancing audience members and lessons about condensation and evaporation that get them laughing, and thinking.

The EarthCapades theater group highlights environmental issues with the help of acrobatics, juggling and deft unicycle work, all performed while discussing water-saving devices such as reusable water bottles and low-flow showerheads. They also use a prop plunger to introduce the importance of promptly fixing plumbing leaks.

Benny & Bebe’s Magic Circus presented “The Amazing Science Water Show.” Using science learning and comedy magic, the program taught audience members how to survive the drought by taking small steps to conserve water every day.

“Our goal is to drive home those basic requirements that everyone can adhere to,” says Blackwell. “We want to foster the next generation of Southern California residents who are wise stewards of our region’s natural resources.”

Despite a relatively late start, Blackwell was able to book nearly 30 drought education shows for the three troupes across Southern California, far exceeding the district’s goal.

“We got a lot of positive feedback on our drought theater programs from a lot of people,” she says. “I think many appreciated that it was a fun way to spread an idea that isn’t always fun to spread.”

Immediate results

Water restrictions have been largely successful in the East Bay region. June and July saw a 31 percent reduction of water use across all customer groups compared with 2013, surpassing the district’s communitywide goal of a 20 percent reduction.

Blackwell says residents should prepare to make lasting changes to their water usage as long as the drought continues: “Even if the drought were to end this coming winter, there’s another drought around the corner. That’s why it’s important we remain proactive in our outreach and education, and keep looking for new ways to reach the community.”

The success of the theater program has Blackwell looking to improve it. She was hindered by a relatively late start in 2015, and even when she managed to get the troupes into entertainment lineups, they often weren’t a part of the main program.

“Many of the community events our groups performed at were able to get them in out of the kindness of their hearts, but they were often an undercard presentation,” says Blackwell. “To get these type of shows on the main program you have to schedule early, sometimes as early as January or February for early summer events.”

Bigger picture

Scheduling early also helps local media to report on the programs. Blackwell was excited to see several newspapers and television stations pick up on the story, but there’s always room for more. “Of course, anytime we can get media coverage, not only is it a great thing for the theater groups, it gets our conservation message to an even wider audience,” she says.

The drought theater is only a small portion of the district’s outreach. In addition to a water conservation website, the district does media outreach, erects billboards, and gives dozens of school and community presentations annually. “We do a wide array of outreach as a district, but the majority is headed by our in-house staff,” Blackwell says. “That’s why drought theater was such a great way to augment that. It got other people involved.”

Noting that droughts are becoming more frequent and severe in the West, the district hopes to help people make water conservation efforts permanent habits. “There’s a high awareness that water is a community resource,” she says. “It’s not up to one person but the entire community that needs to do the right thing.”


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