"Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie," writes Stephen King in his autobiography "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft." If so, playwright Marcus Renner is on a quest to find the truth of the Arroyo Seco community in his play, "Washing of the Water," which tries to uncover the hidden connections between the communities of Altadena, La Cañada Flintridge and Northwest Pasadena.
"Washing of the Water" zooms in on three story threads. There is Lissa Navarro, the newcomer to the neighborhood, who automatically goes in to "save-the-world" mode without yet coming to terms with the fact that there is a lot she needs to know about the community. Perrin Reinhart is a mother trying to keep her relationship with her La Cañada High School daughter while going through a divorce. Then there is Raphael Rios, a homeless high school student making do until a strong African-American woman takes him in. While working through their own issues, they all find themselves entangled in each other's lives, fighting to keep the local John Muir High School (located right by the Hahamongna Watershed Park) open.
To craft this play, Renner returned into his past connections in Pasadena and was able to interview more than 60 people to form these story arcs. In the early 2000s, he was part of the Arroyo Seco Collaborative, a community group that that conceived the Arroyo Seco Fest, an event that closed down the historic parkway, turning it into a bikeway and street festival.
"It was a two-year odyssey of managing permits," says Renner, "but I met all these great people who were community advocates, so I went back to a few of them and explained the projects. They gave me a list of names those people gave me more names. As certain issues came up, I would follow those threads."
Those threads eventually came through in his play. During the course of his 1.5 years of research, he talked to everyone -- from the homeless to artist-activists trying to make a difference in the community. "It's a pretty broad cross section because the communities are so diverse."
In "Washing of the Water," Renner took inspiration from the geology of water specifically under the Arroyo Seco watershed. "The water in the Arroyo Seco watershed that soaks into the ground north of San Rafael Bridge feeds the Raymond Basin, and so does the northern half of the Eaton Canyon watershed," explains Renner, who earned a Bachelor's and a Master's in environmental studies before embarking on his Master of Fine Arts at University of California, Riverside. The Raymond Basin aquifer under Pasadena provides more than half of the local water supply. Altadena, La Cañada Flintridge and Northwest Pasadena fit "almost perfectly onto the Monk Hill Sub-basin, which is one section of the Raymond Basin Aquifer."
"Some people say, 'What do those communities have to do with each other?' They're all physically bound by that groundwater basin," says Renner, "In this play, and in geography, what's important to note is what flows under the surface."
During the 1940s and 50s, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory disposed of its waste through cesspools. The Environmental Protection Agency says the waste comes from "35 seepage pits where liquid and solid wastes were reportedly disposed of, a settling chamber in the JPL storm drain system, contaminated soil excavated from part of that system, and an area where waste solvents were dumped into three separate holes." Though JPL has ceased the use of these cesspools in the late 50s, the contamination continues to affect the area and NASA is currently working to clean up the damage by pumping the water up, filtering it and returning it down to the ground, says Renner. In much the same way, "Washing of the Water" shows how a community solves its problems, by confronting its deep-seated issues.
"Washing of the Water" recently had a staged reading presented by the Experimental Performance Laboratory at Caltech and directed by Theater Arts Caltech director Brian Brophy. Renner's next step is to tweak the play based on the feedback it got and to stage a community-based production. Like the water it was modeled on, Renner says the play is similarly mercurial. "It was written with a lot of opportunities for people to jump in and participate. The characters could change, switch genders, depending on who comes."
No matter who ends up taking the stage, Renner says his goal is simply this: to see themselves within a larger context. "The idea is to take stories from a community and put them in one story. The story provides the frame. I don't think people think about themselves and how they connect with people right next door."
Get on the "Washing of the Water" mailing list by emailing Marcus Renner at firstname.lastname@example.org .