Earthwatch Goes Broadway!

Participating in seven Earthwatch expeditions over ten years was the inspiration behind playwright Nikki Harmon penning five animal-inspired plays. Nikki’s plays have been performed all around the globe, from the United States to the UK and her latest production will be live in theaters this fall.

Each of her plays has been a hit with audiences both young and old, and I spoke to Nikki about two in particular, both being performed at the University of Central Missouri.

“My entire life I wanted to do two things: work on a dig, and go to Africa.” Nikki said earlier this week. “When I turned 50, I realized that I hadn’t done either. Then I saw an article in the New York Times about Earthwatch and knew that was my opportunity. These expeditions gave me knowledge that I would never have found anywhere else. You see a picture in a book or listen to a lecture, but to actually find something on a dig that hasn’t been touched in thousands of years, that’s a whole different kind of learning.”

From her expedition experiences, Nikki has written plays based on the zebra research team she was on in Kenya, a the Hopi archaeological dig in Arizona, the Cheetah Rescue Project in Namibia, and a Bronze/Late Neolithic Age Dig in Thailand.

A Thai Tale

A Thai Tale, inspired by a 350 year old Banyan Tree she saw on her dig in Thailand recently won the Theatre for Young Audiences National Playwriting Competition, and is scheduled to premiere this September at the University of Central Missouri.

During her expedition to Thailand, Nikki absorbed as much of the culture as possible once she realized her experience would make for the perfect production. “On one of our days off from the dig, we were taken to the Banyan Tree where vendors were selling birds, fish, eels, and turtles all around this tree. The pottery expert on the project explained that at night, the vendors go into the tree and recapture the goods that were sold that day and resell them the next morning. I was so enamored with the story and culture, I knew there was a play somewhere in this.”

The inspiration for Nikki’s most recent play stems from her experience at the Banyan Tree. “Set inside a huge, 35,000 sq. ft. tree, three birds escape with the help of a magician and a bird vendor who rediscovers his lost kind nature. It’ll be a lot of fun for the kids, and hopefully they’ll learn some life lessons from it. There is also this Thai concept that I learned on the expedition that the kids love. ‘Mai Pen Rai’ means ‘not to worry’ and is the Thai way of dealing with life when things get tough.”

Inside the actual Banyan Tree that inspired A Thai Tale

Inside the actual Banyan Tree that inspired A Thai Tale

Kalifa’s Amazing Adventures

A decade earlier, the University of Central Missouri performed another one of Nikki’s plays. Kalifa’s Amazing Adventures, about a young elephant whose life was saved by a local conservationist, was inspired by a firsthand account of a rescue on the Kenyan zebra project.

“One evening at dinner, Ian Craig, the Founding Executive Director of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy told us about how he rescued a baby elephant from a well,” Nikki explained. “For several days the local villagers had heard a baby elephant crying but didn’t know where the cries were coming from. Someone looked down one of the abandoned wells and saw the baby elephant stuck inside.”

Because of the size of the elephant, Ian needed to request backup. “He tried to save her, but because of her size, he needed to call for a helicopter. Once the helicopter arrived, he jumped into the well with a rope, landed on top of the elephant, and wrapped the rope around her. The helicopter flew off to an elephant orphanage with Ian and the elephant safely inside. The orphanage later said that it was their first helicopter delivery they had ever seen! Eighteen months later, the elephant was released into the bush and was so confident that she became the leader of her herd.”

Nikki realized this play needed to be unlike anything she had done before. “Up until this time, I had only written for adults, but I knew this story had to be written for young audiences.  The staff’s passion for the animals helped me to understand their perspective, and showed me that the only way to write the play was for the animals to tell their own story.”

University of Central Missouri production of Kalifa’s Amazing Adventures

University of Central Missouri production of Kalifa’s Amazing Adventures

Coming Full Circle

“My hope is that after seeing my plays, if one child saves an animal in his lifetime, or one parent talks to their child about endangered species, then I have succeeded. And so have the scientists and the projects.”

The plays also help to translate education learned on the projects into schools. “The schools create study guides with drawings of the animals, country maps, and glossaries of terms and languages, so the kids are learning about cultures and sustainability outside of the theater.”

“This is not anything that you can get from a book or a documentary,” Nikki says of her experience in the field. “You have to be there, in the bush, looking eye to eye with a rhino, be near enough for a lioness to pounce, to understand Africa, you have to be there. And not just in a tour bus taking pictures, but be part of it. To feel the dirt between your fingers, the dust in your hair, the scent in your nose, and the joy in your heart. That’s what the Earthwatch projects give you and that’s where the inspiration for my plays come from.”

Nikki Harmon on a Chankillo dig in Peru.

Nikki Harmon on a Chankillo dig in Peru.

Check out some of Nikki’s other plays inspired by Earthwatch expeditions. Your Earthwatch experience could lead you to write a book or direct a film, with more than 50 expeditions all over the world to choose from, it’s impossible not to be inspired!