Alexander Hehr, a UCF alumnus who graduated this May with a degree in theatre studies and a minor in business, has won the Planet Earth Arts award for his one-act play Biodegradable Seagulls.
Hehr received the award, which is given for plays that discuss sustainability and human impact on the environment, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., on April 16.
Planet Earth Arts, which sponsors the award, is a nonprofit organization funded by Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley and the Sustainable World Commission, among others. According to its website, the mission of Planet Earth Arts is “to create a body of work that fosters a strong commitment to a world where people thrive and nature flourishes.”
Biodegradable Seagulls follows two seagulls, Don and Charlie, who are stuck in two soda rings on a Florida beach.
“As the sun goes down, [they’re] waiting to die and ... asking the questions of life up to that point,” Hehr said. “It’s these questions that humans should be asking themselves ... the issue is that they’re talking about these questions at the last moment of their lives, not when they could’ve actually done something about them. It’s a retrospective.”
Before its national recognition through the Kennedy Center American College Theater festival (KCACTF), Biodegradable Seagulls won the regional Planet Earth Arts award at the February Region IV KCACTF festival in Charleston, South Carolina. There, Hehr’s play was also chosen as a finalist for the John Cauble Award for Outstanding Short Play, for which it received a staged reading at the national festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
However, Biodegradable Seagulls had been performed before at UCF as part of Project Spotlight’s one-act festival in spring 2015. Hehr, who was creative director of Project Spotlight at the time, directed the show.
According to the organization’s Facebook page, Project Spotlight is the only student-run theater organization on campus. Founded in 2004, Project Spotlight hosts a four-day festival of student-written one-act plays on the UCF campus every semester. Hehr remained consistently involved until his graduation; his one-act play Hate was performed as part of last month's one-act festival.
In the original Project Spotlight production of Biodegradable Seagulls, Jean-Michel Rousseau and Sariel Toribio played the roles of Don and Charlie, respectively.
“That show was important to me because it honestly gave me a new perspective on how we view life,” said Toribio, who just completed his junior year. “So much is happening in the world, so much horror, so much chaos, and also great things like creation and advancement. All of this is going on, and yet we do nothing about it or even acknowledge it. It is just like how the two seagulls were trapped by human creation and yet no person was around to help. We destroy and do nothing to prevent it. I believe [Biodegradable Seagulls] can help others acknowledge what can be done to help others even if it isn't other humans but animals and plants, too.”
Biodegradable Seagulls also helped strengthen Rousseau’s friendship with Toribio.
“During the show, it was like a building block as we started to get to know each other more,” Rousseau said. “Now he is like a brother to me.”
Hehr said his childhood experiences growing up in Clearwater Beach partially inspired him to write Biodegradable Seagulls.
“Clearwater Beach has a lot of problems with tourists and trash, so my schools growing up were very into environmental sustainability because we see [those problems] firsthand,” Hehr said.
Many tourists don’t consider the effects of littering on beaches because they don’t live near them, said Hehr, who named the play Biodegradable Seagulls to drive home how humans’ lives are temporary and fleeting — biodegradable, in a sense — but humans’ effects on the world can be permanent.
As Don says near the end of the play, “We followed our instincts. We copied the seagulls before us. We supposedly did everything right. But here we are: two birds nearing the ends of our tailfeathers. Watching a sunset. Not surviving.”
Hehr is grateful for UCF’s theatre program and its focus on professionalism, and said that UCF theatre students are often better prepared for the world of professional theater than students of other programs.
“All the faculty treat you like an adult; they’re not sitting there babying you,” Hehr said. “[Their attitude is] ‘if you’re representing our school, you’re going to represent it well.’ I think that’s what a lot of schools miss, is that we’re representing a university.”
Hehr is currently the production assistant for the Orlando Fringe Festival, a two-week arts festival that includes 140 works of theater and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. He plans on staying in Orlando for now, but hopes to eventually move to Chicago for its thriving experimental theater scene and to obtain a master’s degree in playwriting at Northwestern University.
Alex Storer is the Entertainment Editor of the Central Florida Future. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.