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Colorado Playwright Digs Deep For Play About 'Dirt'

Stacy Nick
Tabitha Tyree stars as Estella in the Bas Bleu Theatre debut 'Dirt: A Terra Nova Expedition.'

When Jeffrey Bigger heard about the subject matter of Bas Bleu Theatre’s upcoming show, he wasn’t immediately sold.

“I thought, ‘Really, someone’s written a play about dirt?’” Bigger said. “And then they asked me to assistant direct, and I said, ‘Could I read it first?’”

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Jennifer Bray in a scene from 'Dirt: A Terra Nova Expedition.' The play explores the critical importance of the soil beneath our feet.

The story of “Dirt: A Terra Nova Expedition” follows a young Fort Collins scientist surviving in an underground bunker after a catastrophic event. She’s trapped there as she waits for the soil above her to heal.

It quickly won over the skeptical Bigger.

“As soon as I read the opening scene to the play, I knew it was something that I had to do,” Bigger said.

The story was inspired by author Laura Pritchett’s essay about the link between bacteria and soil and our bodies titled “An Ode to Germs, Guts and Gardens.”

“But I wanted to turn that into something dramatic,” Pritchett said. “I mean, I really am in love with science and soil science and the things we cannot see. And I wondered what would it be like to get that on the stage -- get nematodes dancing on the stage, get bacteria singing and bring it all to life so that it’s visible to the human eye.”

The play was commissioned by Fort Collins’ Bas Bleu Theatre partially to celebrate the company’s agricultural history. The theater’s home is the historic Giddings Building where farm augers were manufactured.

“Now we manufacture actors who tell stories and hopefully, change the world 99 seats at a time,” Bas Bleu founding artistic director Wendy Ishii said.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
A scene depicts dancing nematodes.

The idea behind “Dirt” began in Ishii’s living room as she and Pritchett watched the documentary “Symphony of the Soil.” The discussion turned to how to get people to understand the critical role that soil plays and why we must protect it.

“And we just went, ‘Let’s put it on the stage,’” Ishii said. “That’s kind of how the world gets changed -- is through stories.”

Ishii was already familiar with Pritchett’s writing, which often focuses on science. But this is her first play. Ishii said she knows a first-time playwright -- especially with a topic like dirt -- is a gamble, but Bas Bleu was built on the ideas of another theatrical risk-taker.

“We live by Sam Beckett’s words: You try, you take risks. You do things and you don’t know if they’re going to work or not,” Ishii said. “The joy is in the process and the discovery and the trying to figure out how to do this.”

Pritchett worked with local soil and climate scientists to research the play. It was important to her that both art and science played leading roles.

Credit Courtesy of Laura Pritchett
'Dirt: A Terra Nova Expedition' is author Laura Pritchett's first play.

“I think it’s perhaps been one of our failures as a society to merge the two in a more meaningful way,” Pritchett said.

The challenge for Pritchett was figuring out how to tell her story in a riveting and dramatic way to draw audiences in.

“Cause I can really geek out on science,” Pritchett said. “The whole play could be three hours of science, but I tell you, it’s not.”

She said the trick is all in tapping into science that appeals to people’s emotions.

“What we know about soil, for example, or carbon sequestration or climate change or bacteria or fungi,” Pritchett said. “And bring it out to a story that involves love and compassion and tears and fear, and then you’re not preaching to the audience about, ‘You should know this, this and this about science.’”

Her method has already made a believer out of Bigger. After directing rehearsals for several months, he’s already made changes to his day-to-day life — driving less and recycling more. Now he hopes to inspire others.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Tabitha Tyree stars as Estella in the play 'Dirt: A Terra Nova Expedition.'

“I want people not to look at the title and say, ‘Dirt: A Terra Nova Expedition? I don’t want to watch a play about dirt,’” he said. “Yes, you do. You really do, trust me. You wanna go learn about dirt. And when you do learn about dirt, it will change you.”

Because art needs science and science, Pritchett said, needs art. Which is why she wants scientists to see the play and get inspired to use art in their work.

“I hope that they say, ‘Somebody saw what I see, which is: We have six inches of stuff saving us from oblivion and it is beautiful and complex and gorgeous. And no one has appreciated it the way that I have, and now they can.’”

“Dirt: A Terra Nova Expedition” runs through May 6, 2018 at Bas Bleu Theatre in Fort Collins.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.