Diego Samper

If you go down to the woods today...

Here on the coast of British Columbia, where there are many more trees than people, and many of the people are artists, what's a theatre company to do but use the forest for a stage?
Set for the first scene

Deer Crossing, The Art Farm, was the first to mount a spectacle using the natural environment as both set and subject. Its Synchronicity Festival began in 2010, based on an idea from Diego Samper, who envisaged a circus in the rainforest. The Festival has continued and expanded and moved to a different part of the woods since then and become a feature of the summer festival offerings on the Sunshine Coast.

Now The Only Animal Theatre Company (whose artistic director Kendra Fanconi has long entertained Vancouver audiences with ambitious, site-specific work) enters the local picture with an adaptation of Paul Harding's Pulitzer Prize winner, The Tinkers. A preview of next summer's full production took place over the weekend at a magical location near the end of a very long gravel logging road. The first scene opened with a man in black tie speaking about the wonder of being alive as he waded into, stood and eventually swam in a spring-fed pond. The audience sat on stumps and hand-hewn benches. The aisles were defined by slices of trees decorated with moss.

"Theatre" entrance
Sound designers encouraged spectators to buzz like bees as they climbed a gentle slope to an orchard full of old apple trees where the seating choice was limited to the hay on the ground. Then it was up into the deep forest, where the family of the tinker man gathered around a rough-sawn table set for dinner before the table flipped over and turned into a bed for five. These were just tastes of scenes that will be further developed. Also a chance to try out some of the wonderful props specially designed for the production: the metal horse head and the cage behind it in which an actor nickered and whinnied as the tinker led him across the bridge. Amazing how easy it is to fall for for a well-realized illusion. A three-part metal dog tried to burrow into the family bed. Musicians played saws, a harmonica melody sounded particularly plaintive in the scene at the pond, as did the mother's voice calling her son from a window frame woven out of deciduous tree branches.

The audience, whom the director applauded for our adventurous spirit, drank cedar tea and a few even dressed for the occasion in woodsy gear. One woman wore an English ivy hat and carried a cedar handbag, both of which she had woven herself. She was also carrying a basket of cedar bark she had found. Lucky, she said, because the bark harvesting season was over. Who knew there even had been one? Ah, the things there are to discover in the woods.

A Fable with Cell Phones

Forest spirit mask by Sandy Buck and Diego Samper.Photos by Diego Samper.

Difficulty at the beginning. How can everything be accomplished in five days? And a rocky gala, not the gala part but the under-rehearsed Fable. Most of the audience seemed not to notice but enjoyed the first formal performance Friday evening. Then Saturday, and rain. I stayed away. But Sunday! Deliverance! A crowd that grew larger for every show, a sky that brightened, lines, bits that became smoother, sometimes inspired. Spectators were eager to try the stunning masks Sandy and Diego created, open to what would happen next. Most things worked, or worked well enough that no one noticed the glitches. People returned from the forest smiling, many of them moved, touched. I was so happy for Chad, Sandy and Diego. Their vision became a reality. The dream from the earth, that they didn't know they had. Or maybe they did.

As for me, still pondering. I would write a different forest scene. Why, when the three different environments of the three different locations had given me the narrative arc I worked with, why was I surprised by the effects the three places had on the text and the performance? Not so much the spiral in the open; the cozy cobhouse, which invited play; but the simple solemnity of the forest. The changing light! Sun on moss-gloved limbs, rain. The first two acts worked better than the last. The forest absorbed voices. I would write stronger lines, create more tension, more of a ritual before the actual end, when a wonderfully conceived (by Sandy) spirit, in black and white, appeared in front of a burnt stump.


Steve Wright recording the sounds of Geoff Smedley's Descarte's Clown
Homage to the concept in a Festival at deercrossingtheartsfarm. The planned events reflecting some synchronicity among creators, and spontaneously creating something among the spectators, we hope. Production week began today. A risky venture in that we're hoping to put the pieces of this event together in five days. It will be intense, revealing. For my part so far, A Fable with Cell Phones. Fun to imagine. Visual, active, playful. A challenge for me, and I'm hoping it inspires the visual artists, the musicians, sound artist, not to mention the actors. But I think I have imagined characters that will draw out qualities of both actors. What I had to consider: it will take place outdoors, in three different locations, so a promenade play; it must be for all ages yet must reflect my desire to avoid platitudes, the facile. There must be lots of room for other imaginations to play, ie the visual artists Diego and Sandy, the sound/music artists Serena and Steve. Eilis contributed six juicy lines from her poem Grimm. That Chad and Lani will bring imagination to their roles is assured by their motivation and the broadness of both characters. The land has a natural narrative shape, in my view. Cell phones as magic wands capable of transforming a situation. Here we go...

And then there's The Strength of Materials, based on Geoffrey Smedley's immense sculpture, Descarte's Clown. Steve Wright recorded the sounds of the machines. I jotted down words and rearranged them into a kind of list poem, guided by the rhythm of syllables and the sound of words, the potential for alliteration. I hope the piece gets its due during Synchronicity, but, because of place, time, other constraints, it may not. Already I have more ideas for the list poem. Diego and I should mount an exhibit somewhere, with his photographs and this sound piece. Much to contemplate --- a happy state.