Oral Histories

Interview of Susan Suntree

Playwright, director, and performer with environmental activist theater groups Earth Water Air Los Angeles (EWALA) and Frogworks.” Author of Sacred Sites: The Secret History of Southern California.
Series:
Environmental Activism in Los Angeles
Topic:
Social Movements
Environmental Movement
Interviewer:
Collings, Jane
Interviewee:
Suntree, Susan
Persons Present:
Suntree and Collings.
Place Conducted:
Suntree's home in Santa Monica, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interviews are located in the office of the UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Jane Collings, interviewer and senior editor, Center for Oral History Research. B.A., Communications, Antioch College; M.A., Communications, University of Iowa; Ph.D., Critical Studies, UCLA. Collings prepared for the interview by researching the Earth, Water, Air, Los Angeles (EWALA) theater troupe and the movement to preserve the Ballona Wetlands.
Processing of Interview:
The transcript is a verbatim transcription of the recording. It was transcribed by a professional transcribing agency using a list of proper names and specialized terminology supplied by the interviewer. Suntree was then given an opportunity to review the transcript and made a few corrections and additions. Those corrections were entered into the text without further editing or review on the part of the Center for Oral History Research staff.
Length:
7 hrs.
Language:
English
Copyright:
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Audio:
Series Statement:
The series documents environmental activism in the Los Angeles area from the 1970s through to the present day. The majority of interviews are with either founders or knowledgeable participants in major regional environmental organizations. Represented groups embody a wide range of issues, including conservation, restoration, environmental justice and toxic waste disposal.
Family background—Father’s interest in theater—Grandmother’s innate engineering talent—Mother’s study of microbiology—Father’s radio career—Father’s career in the entertainment industry—Suntree’s parents settle down and raise a family—Grows up in a suburban environment—Father’s civic involvement—The role of religion in Suntree’s upbringing—Mother’s interest in the John Birch Society—Suntree’s attraction to ritual in the Catholic Church—Parents' efforts to construct a happy family life—Suntree’s enjoyment of school—Enjoys theater as a child—Grandfather’s glass shop in the Antelope Valley—Enjoys visits to grandparents' farm.
Seminal outdoor experiences at grandparents’ ranch—Suntree pulls up survey stakes at nearby development tracts—Relations with grandparents—Father’s civic involvement—First exposure to the segregated south—Housing covenants in Arcadia—A family move to the Bahamas—Attends high school in the Bahamas—An unhappy experience at boarding school—Attends Antelope Valley High School—Finds the goal of getting married unsatisfying—Parents reject the idea that Suntree attend college—Pursues a nursing major—Efforts to fit in at Antelope Valley College—Attends University of Arizona as a nursing major.
The formative experience of being in the desert as a child—High level of extracurricular participation in high school—Declares a nursing major at University of Arizona—Formative professors at the University of Arizona—An introduction to folklore—A transformative experience when attending a ceremonial Hopi snake dance—An influential professor, Nigel Alexander—Attends University of Kent—Develops an interest in mumming plays—Plans to go to New York to do alternative theater—Early teaching jobs—Meets future husband while teaching at Modesto College—Teaches ritual theater—Attends a winter solstice ceremony in Finland—The prevailing sense that the dominant culture had foundered—Suntree’s need for a new spiritual path—Uses San Francisco as a base while engaging in a nomadic life—Gender relations in the early seventies—Contributes to women’s theater while in Berkeley—Discovers the women’s movement—Decides to have a baby as an expression of femininity—Lives in a community of writers—Suntree’s pregnancy with her daughter—Gives birth at home with a midwife—Ceremonial treatment of the placenta.
Pursues an interest in ritual drama—A connection between ritual drama and expressions of nature—Researches bear ceremonialism in Finland—Witnesses transformation ritual folk drama while in Finland—The prevalence of earthworks in diverse societies—Participation in women’s theater while in Berkeley—Improvisational work based on the myth of Antigone—Works as a folklorist in the public schools in Nevada County, CA—Embraces her identity as a woman—Efforts to live daily life as a feminist—Forms the Primitive Arts Institute with California Arts Council funding—A nurturing community of friends and artists—Teaches theater and mask making at a special needs workshop—Performs a cycle of ritual drama called Seed to Snow: Plays for the Seasons—Presents her theatrical work as a secular but potentially transformative piece—Negative feedback to one play from a few self-identified feminist audience members—Finds doing theater with a developmentally disabled population to be enlightening—Continues work on arts production with special needs population in Los Angeles—Performs Origins of Praise at the Manhattan Theater Club—Reception of Origins of Praise differs according to locales—Performs Skins: A Woman’s Mystery Play in the Playmates of Hollywood store window—A poor response to Skins from some feminists.
Performs improvisational mythic theater—Responses to Suntree’s non-technologically oriented performance—Her outdoor performance at Pacific Palisades called Sacred Sites—Continues research work on sacred spaces while living in Los Angeles—Attends the opening of Gary Snyder’s Zen center—More on performing Sacred Sites at Pacific Palisades—Performs versions of the Sacred Sites play at a number of local schools and colleges—Differing responses to the play at a variety of community college venues—Historical information about Compton—Vera Rocha—Ruth Galanter’s position on development at Marina del Rey—Struggles among native American groups over the Ballona wetlands—Selected performance pieces—Begins writing of the book Sacred Sites Los Angeles—Gathers stories about sacred sites—Constance Stoddard Du Bois—More on research for Sacred Sites L.A. —Finds a publisher for Sacred Sites.
Origins of the performance piece Sacred Sites, Santa Monica—Learns about the archaeological importance of the Ballona wetlands site—Joins the movement to save and place monument at the Ballona site—Councilwoman Ruth Galanter's pro-development position concerning the Ballona site—Conflict among local Native American groups with regard to the Ballona site—The importance of the notion of place in Native American culture—More on conflict among local Native American groups with regard to the Ballona site—Local Native American family genealogies—Problems with the archeological survey group that evaluated the Ballona site—Joins a neighborhood group called Mid-City Neighbors in Santa Monica—Efforts to save the typical original housing in Santa Monica—The Santa Monica College Annex opera venue—The ethnic composition of the 11th Street neighborhood in Santa Monica—Considers a career in local politics—Local Santa Monica politicians—Suntree's contribution to the neighborhood preservation efforts—More on local Santa Monica politicians—Pressures that politicians must resist from those who want favors—The power of developers in city politics in Santa Monica in the eighties—The re-development of the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica—Locales in Los Angeles that were important Native American sites in the ancient past—The mission system in the Los Angeles area.
Suntree's last name—Becomes disenchanted with political involvement—Develops FrogWorks—Public responses to FrogWorks—Street theater influences on Suntree—Performance venues—Efforts on the part of DreamWorks to discourage participation in FrogWorks—Performs Saving Private Pickleplant—FrogWorks performs in New York City—Jan Williamson's involvement in FrogWorks—Funding for FrogWorks—Marcia Hanscom's facilitation of FrogWorks performances—Pressure on actors to not participate in FrogWorks—The development of EWALA—The EWALA opening ceremony—The first EWALA walk—Subsequent EWALA walks—The success of the struggle to save the Ahmanson Ranch—The success of the movement to save the Gillette Ranch land—The importance of persistence in efforts to save open space—Possible reasons why Spielberg pulled out of the proposed Dreamworks development of the Ballona site—The many-pronged efforts of activism on behalf of the Ballona wetlands site.