The hidden life of trees, revealed.
Written by Jenny Lyn Bader and directed by Erin B Mee, in This Is Not A Theatre Company’s Tree Confessions, audience members get to hear from a character they’d never have imagined ever hearing the voice of: a tree.
The mechanics of the show are simple – audience members are required to find a tree of their choosing, sit with it (or close to it), and play the audio track at the link provided. Whether or not you’re a certified arborist or have next to 0 knowledge about trees is irrelevant to your enjoyment of this unique, site-specific audio experience, and in fact, neither is the type of tree you choose. Instead, all it asks of you is to listen closely, and hear out this tree’s ‘story’.
The audio track is a simple one, featuring the voice of Kathleen Chalfant as an unnamed tree, with no backing music or additional sounds. Inspired by the writings of scientist Suzanne Simard, best known for her theories on plant communication, Tree Confessions imagines a group of trees discovering that a scientist named ‘Cindy’ has been setting up devices to find evidence of trees communicating. Realising that they now have the opportunity to share information with humans, the community decides precisely what knowledge to share with us, focusing primarily on facts that would better the world as a whole.
Over the course of the track, audience members will then be treated to a sharing session from the tree to you, where it expounds on the wonders of what trees can achieve as a community, whether it’s telling trees to produce additional tannins to ward off certain insects, or how some trees send nourishment to freshly cut stumps in the hope it regenerates and survives. While all of this sounds very nature documentary-like, the tree also peppers its sharing with choice stories that reveal more about their ‘culture’ as a species, such as young saplings learning the right way to grow from elder trees, transforming into guardians and gives of life, or subtly mentioning the destructive nature of humankind, where a boy sets fire to a tree just to prove a point.
What is most important however is the emphasis on the trees existential philosophy, never thinking of themselves as individuals but as belonging to a greater community. This naturally then becomes the main lesson to take away from Tree Confessions – that much like trees, we too need to stop seeing others as competition, and learn to co-exist with other species, recognising that it is not man versus nature, but to change perspective and see man being a part of nature. Trees themselves are supposedly so interconnected that if a tree is struck down by lightning, the shock may travel along lateral roots to transfer to another tree much further away. As humans then, we must see that everything we do also affects the world around us, and to prioritise the greater good over the self.
Tree Confessions does have its issues – its audio recording quality could have been improved a notch to really allow Chalfant’s voice to immerse and surround us, while the ending, telling us to look out for ‘Cindy’ if we see her, concludes the audio on an abrupt, slightly note. But much of this piece’s strength comes from Chalfant, where one cannot help but feel as if we’re listening to a family member, or at least, a worldly relative or friend who has seen enough in life to offer words of wisdom. There is a comfort to her voice, and even a little bit of sass and personality where she teases some funny stories of her fellow trees, that makes her an enjoyable storyteller/lecturer for the duration of the experience, and one we do not mind sitting with and giving our time to.
Towards its end, perhaps its most affecting segment, the tree asks us to take a moment and to listen to its very pulse, as if telling us to become cognizant of the life force running through its trunks, into its leaves and all the way down into the depths of its roots. It is this participatory element that makes us realise we are less alone than we think in this world.
‘To centre yourself, you can’t think of yourself as the centre’ it says, and it is true – by shifting our world view ever so slightly, we realise that there is more to life in the world around us. Tree Confessions thus not only opens our eyes and ears to the mysterious world of trees, but also acts as a means of awakening that sense of community in us, in the hopes that we may take baby steps from here to become a participant in society, and learn to care for other living beings around us, human or not, on this planet we all share.
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