Street Theater: The Art of Capturing Hearts and Minds

Free-Range Thinking | July 2000

How do you interest people in an issue as complex as genetically engineered food? If you’re John Beske and Jim Slama, you begin by writing a play starring a nine-foot tall vegetable.

It’s high noon in Chicago, and on this chilly November day a crowd of about a hundred people has gathered in Federal Plaza, smack in the heart of the city’s business district, to gawk at a gigantic ear of corn. The eerily oversized ear is actually a costume for “Corn Man,” a character in a piece of street theater which is about to dramatize the dangers of genetically engineered food. Just moments earlier, John Beske, the local activist who conceived the piece (and now serves as its narrator), delivered this cue for Corn Man’s dramatic entrance:

“Once upon a time, there was a mighty scientist who thought he was very wise, but was, in fact, very foolish. (An appropriately deranged-looking scientist stands nearby, leering at the crowd.) One day he thought to himself, ‘The bugs are eating some of our corn, so why not make corn that makes its own poison to kill bugs before they can eat it?’ And he presented his magnificent new corn to the people.”

As the story unfolds, a swarm of monarch butterflies (portrayed by children) flutters into view and begins flying around Corn Man. One by one the tiny creatures fall to the ground, writhe in pain, and die – unintended victims of the corn’s poison. “Are we going to let this happen?” Beske demands of the onlookers. The crowd shouts back, “No!” and as they begin chanting “Butterflies, yes! Frankenfoods, no!” several cameras and microphones record their reaction. In the days that follow, Corn Man, the baby butterflies, and the story they told will appear in Time, People, and The New York Times; on ABC, CBS, CNN, and NPR; and in dozens of local newspapers across the country. The industry trade publication Chemical Week will even feature Corn Man on its cover with the caption, “Killer Corn Not the Label that Biotech Wants.” And all of this exposure will have cost Beske and his compatriots less than $1,000.

Such is the potential impact of street theater. Done well, it can generate as much public awareness and outrage as a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign. “It forces people to look at an issue,” says Beske (rhymes with pesky), who works as creative director for Sustain, a public interest environmental group based in Chicago. The group’s president, Jim Slama (rhymes with drama), is also a believer. “It captures people’s attention and gives easily understood images that elicit an emotional response,” he says. “And if you engage people on an emotional level, you’re much more likely to get them to buy in and actually do something.” The pesky drama John and Jim produced had the desired impact because it maximized all the important elements of issue-oriented street theater:

Right Place
When the Food and Drug Administration decided to hold public hearings on genetically engineered food, Chicago was the first city selected. An overflow crowd of 600 people attended the hearings, and media interest in the story was strong on both local and national levels. Federal Plaza, the “stage” for Sustain’s street theater, was right outside the building where the FDA hearings were held. “We knew they were going to stack the inside with pro-biotech expects,” recalls Slama, “so we wanted the outside of the hearing to reflect the voice of the people.”

Right Timing
The hearings broke for lunch at noon, so that’s precisely when Beske and Slama scheduled their show to begin. Journalists covering the event literally could not walk from the hearing room to nearby restaurants without passing Sustain’s performing troupe. After the play was over, a reporter from the Washington Post told Slama he thought there were more media on hand than protesters. The timing was also propitious in a larger sense: just a few months earlier, Cornell researchers had released the study that showed pollen from certain strains of genetically engineered corn was killing Monarch butterflies. The news had received front-page coverage in many important newspapers and was helping to put the issue on the public’s radar.

Right Approach
espite all the complexities and nuances of the GE food debate, Beske and Slama kept their story simple and their images stark. “Street theater is the protest equivalent of a political cartoon,” explained Beske. “It can take a very complex issue and put it in a form the average person can understand.” Choosing children to depict the butterflies not only added to the story-telling (“When there is a chemical problem,” Beske points out, “children and the aged are always the first affected”), it also provided a cuteness factor that softened what might have been perceived as a heavy-handed allegory. And a nine-foot tall ear of corn is the kind of visual that TV cameras swarm around faster than butterflies.

Beske and Slama are rightfully proud of the media coverage they attracted, but they still have their eyes trained on the real goal. “We’re in the middle of the corn and soybean belt,” Slama said, “and GE seed sales are down about twenty to twenty-five percent this year. I think our protests probably had a small impact on that.”

(For current information on Sustain’s campaign for higher safety standards and labeling of genetically engineered food, go

 free-range follow-up

How Important is One Word? (In a word: very.)

Pat Mitchell, the new president of PBS, is imposing a $1 fine on any colleague who refers to the network as “dysfunctional.” That’s not to say PBS is really one big happy family, but the d-word had taken such hold within the network that dysfunctionality was becoming an accepted norm. “I think language reflects the way you think,” Mitchell recently told the Los Angeles Times, and she may have been drawing on her experience at CNN. Ted Turner, Mitchell’s previous boss, banned the use of the word “foreign” in favor of “international.”

G. Clotaire Rapaille, an expert in archetype research, studies words to help companies market more effectively. “Nearly every word we know has an emotional response,” Rapaille contends. After analyzing the way people feel about trees he concluded, “For Americans, trees are human beings. We hug them. They are raised in nurseries.” Provided with this insight, the Timber Association of California changed its name to the California Forestry Association.

So, the next time the word “nonprofit” is about to pop out of your mouth, think twice. Is that the best way to describe what your organization is and does? Perhaps it’s time nonprofit took its place on the etymological shelf next to its predecessor, charity. Something forpublic interest groups working in the quality of life sector to consider, anyway.