The Only Animal

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.