Arts Interview Preview Singapore Theatre

M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023: An Interview with ‘Tree Confessions’ director Erin B Mee and writer Jenny Lyn Bader

The idea that trees can talk may not be as far-fetched an idea as it may seem – Canadian ecologist Suzanne Simard has spent most of her life dedicated to the study of trees, and discovered that they may in fact, possess their own form of communication and society. What if we could hear what they said?

That’s the basis for Tree Confessions, the world’s first play told entirely from the point of view of a tree. Presented by This Is Not A Theatre Company, Tree Confessions offers a unique individual, site-specific theatrical experience where audience members choose a tree of their choice to sit under, hit play, and ‘listen’ to that tree’s story.

This isn’t new for This Is Not A Theatre Company, who have been producing site-specific theatre all the way since 2015, taking place on ferries, subway trains, or even one’s own bathtub. For Tree Confessions, directed by Erin B Mee, written by Jenny Lyn Bader, and performed by award-winning Broadway, theatre and TV actress Kathleen Chalfant, while it may be familiar ground, the most fascinating aspect of it lies in the subject matter, and how deeply the creators dived into the research process.

“We first learnt of site-specific audio plays in 2014, back when they were actually called ‘pod plays’ because they were played on iPods. We started to delve into it when we did Ferry Play, and then Subway Plays,” says Erin. “And the beauty and difficulty of those plays is in creating works that would work any time of day, any month of the year, that always suits the direction that you’re travelling in, always works even when the atmosphere changes. Fast forward to the pandemic, and we were trying to figure out what kind of theatre we could make in these limited circumstances, which resulted in Play in Your Bathtub: An Audio Spa for Physical Distancing, where people listened to the play in their own bathtubs or showers, and did things like finger dances on the surface of the water.”

During the pandemic, Erin found herself stuck in Argentina, a country with one of the longest quarantine periods, and beyond teaching classes on Zoom, began walking more and more. She also received a book about tree intelligence, and became enamoured with the concept, paying closer attention to the trees around her, and promptly called up Jenny Lyn Bader with the idea for Tree Confessions.

“When Erin called me from Argentina with the idea for Tree Confessions, we got quite immersed in the idea of how trees would be sharing vital statistics, and how they were so important for communities, but we still had to find the dramatic spine of the play,” says Jenny. “So we thought about how the trees might react if they found out they were being researched, and how they might have gotten together to decide what information to give to the scientists, and what information to keep to themselves, and that forms the basis for the play.”

Suzanne Simard, who was one of the pioneers of tree intelligence, was criticised for her ‘misleading’ theories, but what Tree Confessions does is to turn that idea on its head, imagining that trees know much more than we think, and are in fact, deliberately withholding information from us.

“Erin and I read so much in the leadup to this play, and we read books like David George Haskell’s The Song of Trees, about climbing trees and studying them up close, or Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss, which shows a really strong sense of nature and its place in contemporary culture,” says Jenny. “We could go on – there’s Peter Wohlleben’s The Secret Life of Trees, and there’s Richard Powers’ The Overstory, and so many of them have been inspired by Simard’s work, or even featured her as a character. I think though, that Tree Confessions is the first one to really take things from the tree’s point of view, and that gives listeners a very different perspective of the ecosystem and how we relate to it. It’s not a lecture, it’s a story.”

“In a way, it’s really about getting people to hear from ‘someone’ they’ve never had the chance to hear from before. My own daughter, in second grade, was tasked to write about an animal, and of all things, she chose a cockroach. I asked her why, and she told me that because everyone hates cockroaches, if she could get people to understand their lives from their perspective, people might not hate them as much,” says Erin. “Later on, we did end up incorporating a cockroach monologue into a play set in a restaurant, and the concept of just seeing things from a different perspective really creates empathy for others. Human beings think of ourselves as dominant, and Tree Confessions seeks to question that ideal. We are perhaps the most dangerous species, especially with our flawed idea that we can and should control nature itself, inevitably leading to climate change.”

The experience itself lasts only about 30 minutes, and Erin and Jenny elaborate on the process of actually recording. and creating the work. “The initial draft was actually closer to an hour, and working with Kathleen Chalfant was incredible – she’s the kind of actress who can read 50 pages of uninterrupted prose without a single error, no syllable off, no stumbling and no mispronunciations,” says Jenny. “But we decided to cut it down because we were very conscious of wanting the play to be long enough to remain comfortable while sitting against a tree, otherwise it might overstay this whole communing with nature, and distract from the things that the tree is telling us in the play.”

And once again, the problem arose where the speaking voice of the tree could literally correspond and relate to just about any tree around the world, regardless of climate or abundance, whether a coconut tree on the beach or an oak tree in a park, especially considering it’s travelled to Edinburgh and Melbourne, Brighton and Nepal. “Initially, we imagined it might only be enjoyed within the Western world, but even with that thought, we had so many different places to consider, and how we had to avoid mentioning specific animal species and trees that might not exist in certain states,” says Jenny. “What we do is mention some very specific trees, like a spruce that celebrated its 9000-year birthday, but keep the narrator a neutral one. And the more we talked, the more the tree started to gain more of a concrete identity and developed more character and personality. We learn about how old she is, her relationships and her childhood, and basically, she’s this really kind of fun and eccentric character who’s been around.”

As for why the tree was presented as female, the answer is simple – Kathleen was just too good an actress to pass up working with. “I’ve known Kathleen for over 30 years now and we’ve worked together before – she even played a mug once and did that brilliantly, so she was perfect for bringing the voice of the tree to life,” says Erin. “When we decided on working with her, we also tweaked the script to match her better, and Kathleen is the kind of person who is able to bring out the humour in the script, while also feeling like she’s lived through all these memories the tree describes.”

“Our focus is really to create a multisensory experience through the script an audio. In a typical theatre we can control say the temperature of the air-conditioning, but in Tree Confessions and other plays like this, so much is left to the environment, from the weather to the tree chosen. The hope is that you throw yourself into the experience, that you hug the tree, put your head against the bark, smell the smells around you,” she continues. “And even when it comes to the individual, each person will have a different experience. My own father is in a wheelchair, and it would be different to wheel yourself over and observe the tree, or simply sit in your room and watch a tree from a distance. There are endless possibilities of accessibility and interpretation to such site-specific audio works.”

But how would a person who lives in a barren wasteland of a city find a tree if there are few to none around? “There have actually been studies done where people living in urban cities and concrete jungles are now trying to reconnect with nature, like doing ‘forest baths’ or walking through and into nature, for the sake of mental and physical health,” says Erin. “Even in a city like New York, there’s so many parks filled with trees, and trees planted at intervals in every block. I was talking to colleagues in Kathmandu, and they actually set up a space for Tree Confessions in the theatre courtyard. And then there was someone who simply did it with his basil plant at home. Even if you don’t have a tree actively available, this is an experience that encourages you to go out of the way and find something to suit the piece.”

“The tree in the play is a part of a community, and even if there’s no trees around for miles, you have to imagine those other trees perhaps communicating underground, sending messages to each other, and I was writing from a point of view where it could fit almost any reality,” adds Jenny. “But we also made sure the script is accurate, and sent it to a biologist at Harvard to make sure it was scientifically sound and wouldn’t take them out of the experience. I don’t want to fully rely on the site-specificity, and instead turn it into a sensory experience, describing sights and sounds that are evoked by the script and audio, and you might even want to close your eyes as you listen to it and let it wash over you.”

On how the experience of working on the play has changed their perspectives on trees, both artists have only positive things to say. “I really thought a lot more about trees in new ways; beyond being beautiful, I started to also see some of them as special or endangered,” says Jenny. “I really became a lot more aware of what was around me, like how I’ve just realised how there’s a tree outside my apartment on the fifth floor – it didn’t use to be this tall, but now it’s right outside my window. That also made me think about how we grow so many trees only to cut them down, and even though we’re replacing them, each tree is an ecosystem in itself, and we’re losing so much more than just a single tree. I’m recognising all this growth and life around me, and how we’re all so interconnected.”

“At the end of the experience, I hope listeners begin to realise human beings are not the most important species on the planet, and to start thinking of plants and trees as living beings,” concludes Erin. “By recognising trees as potential sentient beings, we might start to think about how we are not the dominant species and not necessarily at the top of the pyramid, and hopefully, gain some humility about our place on Earth.” 

Photo Credit: Erin B Mee

Tree Confessions is a self-scheduled, site-specific audio play available from 4th to 15th January 2023 as part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023. Tickets available here

The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023 runs from 4th to 15th January 2023 across various venues. Tickets and full lineup available here

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