Kitimat Production Raises Awareness Through Theatre

This past
weekend, Pomona College’s Seaver Theatre hosted the world premiere of Elaine
Avila’s Kitimat April 8-12. While the play’s characters are fictional, many of
them—and their stories—are based on real people, events and ecological
concerns in the Canadian town of Kitimat.

During the
summer of 2014, Pomona commissioned Elaine Avila to write a play under the
Mellon Elemental Arts Initiative grant. Under this grant, Pomona has debuted
plays inspired by natural elements; this year’s element is ‘fire.’

In order to
prepare for the production, Avila conducted research for a week in Kitimat, a
small district on the northern coast of British Columbia, alongside director
Janet Hayatshahi.

The play
explores the theme of sustainability by following the journey of the Vivieros
family, tracing their Portuguese origins through three generations. Conflict arises when the two Vivieros sisters are pitted
against each other: A proposed oil pipeline forces them to choose between what
will maintain Kitimat’s pristine environment and what will provide
security for the town’s economy and livelihood.

In preparation
for the production, Hayatshahi had each actor research how environmentalists
rise against the pipelines and how people fight for the implementation of
pipelines to further understand their roles. She was confident that everyone
working on and watching the play would find it educational.

“I knew
nothing about Kitimat before this play,” Hayatashi said. “The arts constantly
expose us to things that we might otherwise never be exposed to.”

Both actors
and audience found the production to be a useful platform for addressing
environmental issues. Katia Mafra
Spencer PZ ’18, who played Marta, wanted to be part of the production in part
because environmental issues lack attention in the theatre world. 

“I feel like
the theatre has the power to change people’s perspectives in a way that other
forms of activism cannot,” said Spencer.

Peter Atkin PO
’18, who played Nuno, was also intrigued by Kitimat’s environmental

“I had never
been in a play that had a separate agenda other than entertaining the
audience,” Atkin said.

Sarah Lopez SC
’15, who played Julia, felt very connected with the efforts of the people of
Kitimat to save their environment.

“There is so
much unique wildlife—white bears, purple starfish, and giant halibut,” she
said. “All of this is endangered, and once I understood that, I felt

This extensive
research and passion impacted audience members. 

“The play was
a great forum to bring awareness to environmental causes in an engaging way
showing both sides of the pipeline issue and allowing audience members to think
about where their interests lie,” KC Read-Fisher SC ’17 said.

Spencer noted
that developing Kitimat was a special
process in which students, director and playwright all contributed to the creation
of the final version.

“It was really
exciting to have been able to work with Janet and Elaine to create Marta,”
Spencer said. “It’s such a rare opportunity to work alongside the
playwright throughout the entire process.”

Lopez agreed
with Spencer, and added that characters were developed and fleshed out until the play’s production. 

“Edits were
being made, and characters were growing and changing up until the week before
the performance,” Lopez said. “Elaine took all our input on our

The impressive
student participation was new for Hayatshahi. With trying schedules, she had to
diligently organize rehearsals for a sixteen-person cast. 

“It was
difficult to balance,” Hayatshahi said. “It made the weeks leading up
to the productions dangerous. We really had to get everything together.”

scheduling challenges, Hayatshahi loves working with students.

“There is a
sense of rigor that is different from a theatre company that acts all the
time,” Hayatshahi said. “Having that energy is invigorating.”

The students
were impressed by their director’s grasp of the production. In auditions, Lopez
was immediately eager to work with Hayatshahi. 

“She was full
of wonderful ideas about how to bring the story to life,” Lopez said.
“I knew I wanted to be part of the play because of her direction and

Lopez captured
her view of the play’s essence with her words, “It takes your breath away!”

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