Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange, Los Angeles

“Sacrifice Zone: Los Angeles” uses theatre and media arts to explore climate change in the community

Playwright and librettist Paula L. Cizmar's theatre project explores environmental injustice and racism.

Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange, Los Angeles (Unsplash/Photo by Denys Nevozhai)

What are you willing to sacrifice? The food you eat? Having clean water? The air you breathe?

Well, when it comes to sacrifice zones, you essentially have no say in the matter.

“Sacrifice zone,” a term that materialized during the Cold War, is an area blighted by environmental contamination. As described by writer, commentator, and labor and community organizer Steve Lerner, sacrifice zones are often “‘fence-line communities’ or ‘hot spots’ of chemical pollution” where residents, often economically disadvantaged people and/or people of color, live “immediately adjacent to heavily polluted industries or military bases.”[1] In the United States, the term is believed to have been used first during the 1970s with regards to strip mining; and then again in the 2000s by Lerner, Robert Bullard (author, activist, Distinguished Professor), Chris Hedges (journalist, minister, author, and host), and Joe Sacco (cartoonist and journalist).[2]

Playwright and librettist Paula L. Cizmar, Associate Professor of Theatre Practice at the USC School of Dramatic Arts (SDA), harnessed theatre arts to explore the stories at the heart of sacrifice zones. Marshalling media arts, theatre-makers, and USC students, she spearheaded the creation of Sacrifice Zone: Los Angeles to illuminate the impact of the environment on society. It’s a project that illustrates not only the power of environmental theatre, but also theatre’s muscle with regards to social justice and change, and the toxic reach of systemic environmental racism.

Sacrifice Zone: Los Angeles art

A virtual theatrical production of Sacrifice Zone: Los Angeles, performed at the USC School of Dramatic Arts.

A theatre project two years in the making

A collaborative, documentary theatre project that utilizes the words of local residents and environmental activists, Sacrifice Zone: Los Angeles asks the question, “Are any of us safe from environmental harm if we allow communities within our midst to become wastelands?”

“‘Sacrifice Zone’ emerged over time from a variety of impulses and inputs and ideas,” Cizmar said. “I grew up in a dying steel mill town, so I have been aware of pollution and the negative effects of industry on health for a very long time. I went to college in coal country – and knew about black lung.

“As I grew older, I became aware of the problems with our over-dependence on oil, and then, arriving in Los Angeles, I took one look at the smog and knew that this couldn’t be healthy,” Cizmar continued. “As an adopted Californian, experiencing years of drought for the first time was so foreign to me. But it took me a while to put all of this together with climate change… an equal opportunity destroyer.”

Over a two-year process, playwrights, a director, multimedia arts designers, theatrical designers, technical theatre artists, translators, scientists, physicians, professors, students, community activists, and city residents merged their skills and perspectives in the name of environmental justice.

The brainchild of Cizmar, Sacrifice Zone: Los Angeles focuses not only on environmental justice, but also on environmental racism. As Lerner points out, sacrifice zones have a “disturbing commonality… They are largely populated by poor, minority populations.”[3] The disparity of toxic exposure and systematic skirting of resolution affirms this disparity as the system “continues to build and maintain these pollution centers while ignoring the massive safety risks involved” with Black Americans “79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where pollution poses a health risk.”[4]

Holly Refining Co, Woods Cross, United States

Holly Refining Co, Woods Cross, United States (Unsplash/Photo by Patrick Hendry)

Climate change and environmental injustice

While the project is focused on Los Angeles, Cizmar points out that sacrifice zones exist globally. There are several in the U.S. (to name a few: Illinois, Texas, Louisiana and Pennsylvania – and the creative team’s choice: a site two blocks from an elementary school and a high school near the USC campus).

“… it’s too easy to think of climate change as just a buzz word, as something that is happening in a far-off time in a distant land, when some of the most horrific effects of climate change are happening in our own backyard,” Cizmar pointed out. “… we often equate climate change with simply saving the polar bears or reclaiming a salmon run… but there is a much uglier side to it.”

“As I started to look into the subject more deeply, I realized… the effects of climate change were more devastating for people who have less money or who have very little political clout,” she continued. “Sacrifice zones are all about sacrificing a group of people, sacrificing a portion of the land, so that others could profit. If people understood what was happening to their neighbors, people close to them, people right down the street, then they would be less likely to put off dealing with climate change and more likely to take action to stop the degradation of air, soil, water, human health – and therefore slow down the warming of the planet.”

An intersection of theatre and media arts

With a significant documentary theatre project in her trajectory (she wrote Seven with six other writers about female human rights workers battling to stop violence against women) and a successful USC Arts in Action project (Warrior Bards, which uses ancient Greek tragedies to help veterans process returning from war), Cizmar focused on creating a theatre project blended with media arts that centered on a sacrifice zone in a USC-adjacent Los Angeles neighborhood.

Cizmar is the co-creator of the project with Michael Bodie (aka Bodie) of Media Arts + Practice (MA+P), USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA). Her long-time dream of creating theatre in conjunction with multimedia came to fruition in Sacrifice Zone: Los Angeles. The COVID-19 pandemic, its restrictions, and virtual theatre online heralded the birth of new ways of creating theatre.

“It had already been changing – with the use of more and more sophisticated projections, with more tech, etc.,” Cizmar stated. “So I thought, ‘Why not start experimenting with multimedia while we’re doing online theatre?’ That’s where Bodie comes in.”

Cizmar noted Bodie’s expertise in video and filmmaking, and his ideas about interactive media. They started brainstorming and decided to focus on the people who live next to Allenco Energy, an oil extraction site that causes health problems in the University Park neighborhood.  In addition, they wanted to involve students and the community. They approached SDA graduate students in the Master of Fine Arts in Dramatic Writing program and SDA undergraduate playwriting students who were fluent in Spanish to join as writer/interviewers. They also invited students and colleagues from the USC Keck School of Medicine and the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, SDA design students, and SCA MA+P students.

March at Union Square, San Francisco, United States

March at Union Square, San Francisco (Unsplash/Photo by Li-An Lim)

Examining sacrifice zones beyond Los Angeles

Funded by a USC Arts in Action grant, the three-phase arts project, “Sacrifice Zone” will move beyond “Sacrifice Zone: Los Angeles” to examine environmental injustices occurring in other regions. Phase One was an SDA spring practicum production for the School’s undergraduate actors. Cizmar described the challenges of creating that they faced with the project.

“We started without a text,” she explained. “We started only with ideas, enthusiasm, a lot of research, and the voices of community members. Fortunately, enough people were brave enough to jump in and help make this piece.”

That enthusiasm notwithstanding, the artists and community organizers had their hands full and then some.

“It was a mad dash to get enough of the interviews done, and enough of the design and video elements created in a very short span of time, about six weeks,” Cizmar said. However, the process was meaningful for the creative team because it provided them with a prototype on which they can build as the project moves forward. With the prototype, the team can “breathe a little bit, and let the ideas and images percolate.”

“We’ll be adding additional interviews, weaving in more material, adding additional video, etc.,” Cizmar described. “We’ll also be creating a tool kit and [cultivating the] interactive website. But at least now we have a jumpstart on all of that and won’t be starting from a blank page anymore.”

Screenshot from virtual production of Sacrifice Zone: Los Angeles

Screenshot from a performance of the virtual production of Sacrifice Zone: Los Angeles.

Illuminating on the issues through theatre

Cizmar emphasized the powerful part that the arts can play in society, and the importance of coalescing theatre arts with other art forms.

“Someone who might not read a non-fiction article about a social justice issue might be affected by a theatre presentation of that issue,” she stated. “People are curious about other people; they want to hear about other people’s business, they want to be connected. So, theatre and other media can provide this connection. And when someone listens to a story that also happens to slip in some important information about a social justice problem, then they become emotionally attuned to that problem. And with any luck, they will want to be a part of that change.”

Moreover, Cizmar affirmed the intersectionality of environmental theatre.

“Climate change affects us all,” she said. “Environmental justice affects us all. The stories, the casting – all transcend gender, race, ethnicity, age.” Nobody escapes the toxic injustice.

“Even though a sacrifice zone might very well be in a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) neighborhood and have the most negative consequences on the local residents, the fact of the matter is that the wind blows,” she pointed out. “Toxins don’t care if you are male or female, Black or white, young or old.”

This community relativity is another reason why the creative team included theatre in the project’s foundation.

“Theatre is communal,” Cizmar stated, “so what better way to convey this message of interconnectivity than through a communal and ancient art form that has always been about using stories and poetry and song to affect the hearts and minds of the polis?”

Besides illuminating sacrifice zones and environmental injustice via theatre, Cizmar and the “Sacrifice Zone: Los Angeles” team wants this fundamentally theatrical endeavor to provide tools to empower other communities to counter toxins in their communities in active ways. Cizmar sees the project as a “classic example of how the highly creative nature of theatre people” can partner with the community to do something that has a profound impact on society.

—Written by Velina Hasu Houston, Playwright, Librettist; Distinguished Professor, Director of MFA Dramatic Writing, Head of Undergraduate Playwriting, Resident Playwright, USC School of Dramatic Arts; Faculty, The Iovine Young Academy


[1] Lerner, Steve. “Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States,” Environmental Health Perspective,” June 2011. 119 (6): A266. doi:10.1289/ehp.119-a266. ISBN 978-0-262-01440-3. ISSN 0091-6765. PMC 3114843. Web. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Downloaded April 9, 2021 @ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3114843/. Produced from: Cambridge, MA:MIT Press, 2010. 346 pp. ISBN: 978-0-262-01440-3, $29.95.

[2] Wikipedia. “Sacrifice zone.” Web. www.wikipedia.org. Downloaded on April 9, 2021 @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacrifice_zone.

[3] Express. “Think Globally, Act Locally: Steve Lerner, ‘Sacrifice Zones,’ at Politics and Prose.”  The Washington Post, 22 Sept, 2010. Web. www.washingtonpost.com. Downloaded March 6, 2021 @ https://www.washingtonpost.com/express/wp/2010/09/23/steve-lerner-book-sacrifice-zones/.

[4] Ibid.