The Tree Rings Project
Strange Futures in collaboration with The Chelsea Theatre
We are very grateful for funding for this project (originally titled Fishing for Conversations in the Earth and Sky) Arts Project grant from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea as a research phase for a performance project about trees.
Strange Futures consists of Will Moore, Matt Simmonds and Jane George; the company formed in 2018, and has subsequently developed a reputation for contemporary physical theatre that addresses pertinent issues, often with an environmental slant, in offbeat humorous ways: “Powerful physicality… a thought-provoking and very well-composed show” (4* review There’s Something Missing, Edinburgh 2019, The Scotsman).
In 2020, we were awarded an Arts Council of England Project Grant to develop The Endling, a show about species extinction, which premiered at Chelsea Theatre (RBKC fringe festival, August 2021) receiving positive audience responses – “This show is a springboard to talk about difficult things that are affecting everybody on the planet, but not everyone knows how to talk about it” – and a 4 star review from London Theatres1. We are now touring The Endling nationally alongside developing a new Postcode Lottery funded community project in Malvern, The Whole World Can Come to Dinner, about food and the environment, and in the early stage development of this new project, The Tree Rings.
The Tree Rings project.
Trees are often planted in celebration of significant events in individual’s lives, as well as the lives of a community or nation. They are planted to celebrate or to remember people, events and times. In 1952, a girl called Elizabeth was sitting in a tree house in a far-off country when she received the news that she was to be queen. That sounds like the beginning of a story, doesn’t it? Trees hold stories, in more ways than one. They hold personal stories and memories for individuals; they hold traditional folk takes and mythical stories, and they hold historical, environmental stories. The rings within a tree’s trunk are story archives of changes and events in our environment. What if they could tell those stories? In the same year that the queen was crowned, London suffered from a terrible smog, which led to the deaths of around 4000 people. That event will be evident in the rings within local London trees, alongside other more positive changes (eg the Clean Air Act, 1956) as well as wider environmental changes. In 2021, trees were planted across the country in remembrance of those who died during the pandemic. What record of 2021 would be evident within those tree rings?
We have been inspired by The Witness Tree (a tree that sends out tweets about changing conditions in its forest), and the unexpected outcome of Melbourne City Council’s allocating trees their own postcodes (tree-mails!), which led to people posting messages, letters and poems to individual trees. The Tree Rings project creatively speculates with our communities on the questions “What if a tree could ring you? What if you could ring a tree? What stories might they tell you? What secrets might you whisper to them?”
Recent research indicates that trees communicate with each other, transferring knowledge of their environment mostly through their roots. Research also suggests that trees have a kind of ‘heartbeat’ – a very slow pulse of rising sap. Is it possible at all for humans to communicate with trees, given they speak in different ‘languages’ reflecting entirely different time and sense worlds? Multiply the time it takes you to make contact with the tree by 10,000 and that’s about how long it might take to get a response – but would you understand it, even then?
In early March, Will, Matt and Jane took a few days away staying in a cabin in the woods to walk, talk, write and think about ideas for the project. We also had use of a lovely studio, looking out over woodland, to do some practical playing with stories, physicality, light and shadow.
“It’s impossible to be a tree” says Jane, directing the warm-up “… so be a tree, Will!”, she continues. How do you do the impossible? How do you represent another non-human living being in theatre? This is a question we faced in The Endling too. We don’t just want to imitate animals or trees, and neither do we want to just be anthropomorphic, but the reality is we can only understand other life forms from our own perspective as humans. One big difference is just how slow trees are compared to humans. Will and Matt become grumpy old men trees, neighbours, who love to moan. ‘Will Tree’ phones ‘Matt Tree’. Matt takes 10 minutes, as a tree, to slowly reach to answer the phone (we’re playing with the pun of a tree ringing); by the time he answers, the phone has stopped. We tell stories of trees, and the people we have seen in the woods and forests:
Here comes The Charcoal Burner. Living apart in the woods, shunned of old. Today he says, “I spend most of my earnings on soap. You should see my bath after I’ve been in it” History left in rings of dirt on the bath.
Here comes Saturday Dad with Boys on Bikes. Usually Saturday Dad races ahead and Boys on Bikes try to keep up. Today he hangs back, let’s them win the race through the woods. Something on his mind, slowing him down?
Here comes Girl With Pram. Defiant heels on the muddy path, pram wheels bumping over stones and ruts. Scarlet jacket blazing amongst the shadowy green-ness. She’s not afraid of the wolf.
Here comes Lone Horror Movie Fan. There was fog and mist, and cold damp abyss, and distance you couldn’t judge, there were memories of old movies of being plucked from above, of being sucked through the mud, of the dangers of being alone, of the shadows in the corners, of the moving shadows, in the woods.
We make a tree puppet in a shadow forest who is the Keeper of the Trees’ Secrets. Have you heard the story about telling your secrets to a tree? Well, maybe we’ll tell you…