Creating Theatre in the Deep Woods: A reflection on the scenography of R. Murray Schafer’s Patria Cycle

This piece was written by Jerrard Smith, professor, University of Guelph. The piece was not written specifically for the SPARC blog, but rather is a post that we felt would be of interest to the SPARC community. Jerrard has kindly shared it with us to share with you. 

For more information about the Patria cycle you can read this entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia. 

                                    Body casting at Asterion

I am writing this in my tent in rural Ontario, Canada; I was watching the fireflies but the mosquitos finally drove me into this netted enclosure. I have spent the day with a small crew sculpting a form to be cast in concrete and covered with a moss slurry before being placed along a wooded path. Every summer since 2004 I have been coming to this rural field and forest environment to work on the creation of a theatrical labyrinth with a group of students, colleagues and friends. One of these friends is Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer who created the text and concept for this labyrinth and with whom I have had the pleasure of working for some thirty years. This paper is a reflection on those portions of his work that I have been privileged to help realize. Asterion (the labyrinth) is one of a series of music dramas1 Schafer has conceived, all of which speak profoundly to our tenuous relationship with the natural environment. A passion for the wilderness drives these works and demands that the audience put aside some preconceived notions about the nature of theatre and make an effort to engage with the various environments that are both the location and content of the work. Their efforts are often rewarded by a transformative experience.

Theatre begins in the dark

Theatre begins in the dark of night. Musicians and singers are carried by canoe to their positions around the shore of a small lake. Other canoes with actors and dancers set out for their entrance positions. The sounds of warmup are replaced by a deep quiet as the stage manager announces the imminent arrival of the audience along a path illuminated by candles and flashlights. Here in the predawn darkness, the intrepid spectators, having made a kind of pilgrimage to this remote location, are greeted by guides who with a series of simple gestures indicate silence and the direction they should take to find a seat at the edge of the lake where the water laps gently against the shore. As the birds begin to awaken and sing they are joined by the musicians and singers. A light appears from across the lake and as it approaches the audience, it reveals a mysterious figure who begins a tale of myth and ritual. As the story unfolds, the characters described appear out of the dawn mist in large canoes to the accompaniment of the musicians. At the conclusion, all the canoes disappear and the last echoes of song fade into memory, leaving the audience to contemplate the beauty of morning light on the lake which is of course what the work is about.

The forest as locus of enchantment

Earth Mother (Eleanor James) from The Enchanted Forest, Haliburton, 2005

There is a story told in the forest and by the forest; it remains only to bring an audience to hear it. The Enchanted Forest is a quest led by a group of children through the darkness of a forest environment where those willing to make the journey encounter a series of archetypal creatures and characters who provide the threads of narrative that the audience must unravel as they proceed. Active participation on the part of the spectator/participant is an essential element in the realization of these works. The texture of the leaves and twigs that form the forest path and the stars revealed by lack of ambient light from centers of civilization become characters in the drama. Smell and touch become engaged along with sight and hearing, rewarding the members of the audience with an experience which connects them in a very real way to the natural environment through which they travel. On several performance evenings (in the late summer of 2005) the finale, consisting of a costumed singer floating in the centre of a large circle of candles on a lake, was enhanced by a display of aurora borealis playing overhead as if in accompaniment.

Role of creation

The role of the scenographer in realizing this site responsive theatre is one of enhancing, not imposing. We begin with the landscape which often provides a natural point of view as long as we take advantage of it by careful placement of the spectator. Scenographic elements must consider the possibility of extremes of proxemics where the performer may be situated across a wide expanse of terrain or water or conversely be very close to the spectator or even crossing into the audience space.

Often, the works we create involve an ambulatory audience so that the focus is in a perpetual state of disintegration and recombination with the audience immersed in an environment that changes as the narrative unfolds. The experience is perhaps filmic in a way but the enveloping surroundings allow the spectator to readjust her own point of view and control the focus.

There are times of course when the team creating these works must make a concerted effort to maintain the narrative threads in the face of potential distractions. This is ameliorated by noting that the distractions are those of the natural surroundings and it is the appreciation of nature that we are trying to convey thematically through the work. By spending the time working with and within the environment, we can make decisions that will reinforce the spectator’s appreciation of the performance and facilitate the performer’s interactive relationship with the performance space.

These relationships that are established as the performers engage with the audience are tenuous ones that must be negotiated and renegotiated as the spaces of the performance go through their transformations. The notion of stage and audience area is always subject to reevaluation and surprising configurations are possible. The very nature of this questioning of the respective relationships of performer and spectator and the malleability of the performance space provides a theatrical experience that is very much removed from that which occurs within the confines of a theatre building.

Theatre as challenge

As a result of almost thirty years of working toward the realization of these site responsive and environmental works, we are finding new and interesting ways to challenge the audience and performers alike. At times this challenge is simply a shift in the time of day for the performance, whether dawn or midnight. There are works which demand extra effort such as RA, which lasts all night and The Spirit Garden, which engages the audience in actively creating a garden as part of the performance. And presenting work in non-traditional venues is always a challenge for everyone involved.

Creating the floating stage for The Palace of the Cinnabar Pheonix, Haliburton 2006

For those of us involved in preparing the settings, properties, masks, costumes and sometimes puppets, there is the challenge of organization. A team must be assembled of theatre craftspeople who are willing to camp on site for a month, who can build stages with chainsaws and rough lumber and then float them on a lake, who can run cables through the trees to light a variety of unusual performance areas, who can set up and equip tents for workshops, wardrobe and kitchen. Production personnel must plan each step very carefully as a trip to the nearest hardware store, for example, may require a two hour drive. The performers too must be able and willing to walk for long distances to rehearse in all but the most severe weather. The relationship of the performers and production personnel is a very special one under such extraordinary conditions and mutual respect is of the utmost importance as we work toward the common goal of creating art in remote environments. And ultimately, despite the challenges and obstacles, the work of creating art that speaks of our relationship with the natural world in that very environment is a satisfying experience for all concerned. It is that satisfaction that keeps us coming back.

A journey through the labyrinth

So I return to the labyrinth as I have for the past several years. I spend a few weeks every summer developing the labyrinth Asterion. The work involves a relationship with the surroundings that informs every aspect of the work, whether working in harmony with the place, or fighting the difficulties.

Our facilities are acceptable in spite of having to bring in water for both working and drinking, portable toilets, tents and tools. We have a large kitchen tent and a steel shed for workshop and

                                  Sculpture, Asterion 2009

storage and a generator for electricity. We are working toward solar power. Everything is dependent on weather but we are used to that. This summer (I am writing this in July 2009) has been cold, windy and rainy so far, while past years have been unbearably hot. There are times when the weather forces us to stop work as it sometimes forces us to cancel a performance – it is one of the challenges that must be taken into consideration when working out of doors.

On the other hand, camping and working together creates a community of focussed individuals and we have the opportunity to discuss the project activities in the evening around a campfire. We go to sleep to the sounds of frogs or the arguments of coyotes and raccoons instead of traffic.

The team every summer is prepared to take on the daunting task of working to create something vast and monumental – that will be a transformative experience for the audience. The personnel vary and have included students, artists, a few skilled assistants and many volunteers who represent a diversity of backgrounds, practice and experience.


Pathway through cedar forest, Asterion 2006

The process of developing Asterion toward public presentation is a research project, an exploration of the ways in which the configurations of theatrical spaces can create a narrative and just what it is that makes a space theatrical. Over these past six summers, we have cut pathways through dense cedar forest, constructed enclosures of straw, cement and steel, cedar and fabric and have placed large truck trailers and a prefabricated steel building on the site to provide protected dark spaces. We have played with the text in these spaces in order to understand the possibilities for theatrical interaction between one participant and one performer. And now we are beginning to create the installations that will provide most of the narrative content, for while the experience will involve live performers at times, most of the journey will be made by the participant alone and will rely on artifacts within the spaces to provide the narrative thread. For like any labyrinth, there is a route that must be travelled and making the journey is like threading a string through the whorls of a complex shell. The participant or spect-actor becomes an active and engaged player in this drama. They may not be conscious of their performative role but nonetheless it is their response to the environment that creates the story of the journey through the labyrinth.

So each voyage is unique, every story is shaped by the individual’s experience; this is true for every participant who undertakes the journey through the labyrinth and for those of us who are working to form the environment of the experience.

Theatre is unique

The Palace of the Cinnabar Phoenix, Haliburton 2006

Every piece of live performance is unique; every work of theatre is a tenuous engagement of trust between performer and audience. There are layers of complexity in all performance narratives and each journey creates a new story with innumerable ways to get lost along the way. Site based work such as the music dramas we present in natural settings provides opportunities to add to the complexity, to create stories imbued with the essence of the surroundings. And the process requires the practitioners to adapt, to improvise, to overcome physical barriers, to work with the weather and ultimately to open new avenues down which will be found the treasures of transformation.


Speak Your Mind