How to Build a Forest
PearlDamour and Shawn Hall
Page Auditorium
Duke University

Three viewings:
Oct. 19, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Oct. 20, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
Oct. 21, noon-8 p.m.

Power off your phone and close your laptop for a moment. Gaze out the nearest window at a tree. Imagine you’re seeing the tree’s imperceptible growth, cell by cell. Let a full minute pass like this. You’re slowing down, recalibrating the pulse of your attention to “tree time.” It’s not easy, is it? Even though you also grow invisibly slowly.

Three performances of How to Build a Forest this Friday through Sunday at Duke’s Page Auditorium provide a more meaningful way to align your clock with the slow ticking of geological and environmental time. Created by PearlDamourthe Obie Award-winning collaborative writing and performance team of Katie Pearl and Lisa D’Amourand visual artist Shawn Hall, the event consists of the raising of a spectacular ersatz forest onstage, as well as its disassembly.

Over the course of each eight-hour performance, the artists and a team of “builders” will draw from a collection of man-made materials including fabric, yarn, rubber gloves, vinyl records, galvanized wire, fishing weights and neckties to construct a dense, colorful realm of trunks, branches, fronds, blossoms, mosses and lichens. It’s a visual wonderland, although the field guide program lists the sources of all the materials. Most of the lines from the materials list connect to “oil.”

You don’t claim a ticket (admission is free) and sit there all day; instead, you’re encouraged just to drop in as frequently as your schedule allows. Come by early in the day to see the hanging armatures that are the forest’s understructure. Swing by again after lunch to see the giant, central tree reaching above the line of the stage’s curtain. And duck in before heading home to see it all come down, shockingly quickly, over the final hour of the event. All told, it’s the lifespan of an ecosystem, sped up to the length of a working day.

Hall and PearlDamour worked on How to Build a Forest in makeshift studio space in New Orleans, developed it during a residency at Appalachian State University in February 2011, and premiered the full-scale event at the Kitchen in New York City last year. It’s been lauded as an expression of an ecosystem’s dynamism and fragility, made on that ecosystem’s terms.

“It’s a comment on climate change, biodiversity and sustainability without saying ‘I am a comment on climate change, biodiversity and sustainability,’” Jules Odendahl-James says. She’s the resident dramaturg in Duke’s theater studies department and one of the event’s coordinators along with Christine Erlien of the Nicholas School of the Environment.

From a narrative standpoint, How to Build a Forest thrills Odendahl-James for how it connects its viewers to its social commentary.

“I think it’s unusual for a theater piece to demand that much of an audience,” she says. “We like everything very much shorter90-minute plays are the standard. The scale and intensity of what’s happening to our environment is so big, how can you sort of demand that time?”

Leading up to the event, the artists have been in residence at Duke for the better part of a week, preparing the stage and working with local students. During a summer workshop with art and science teachers, D’Amour, Pearl and Hall helped develop a variety of classroom lesson plans with the K–12 educators. Lessons on ratios and art history, as well as historical narrative and materials-focused design, build upon the performance. (The Duke Environmental Leadership Program underwrote the educational component of the residency.)

Erlien described the “tree time”-inspired math and science lesson that Mary Anderson, a teacher at Durham Nativity School, developed. “This teacher started thinking, ‘I can have my students think about the performance and think about how long it takes real trees to grow to their maturity, and we can talk about percentages and proportions’ and all those things she wanted them to work through. But then also talk about real ecological measurements that you could make.”

While organizing an overwhelming number of riggings hanging from an armature in Page, D’Amour and Hall took a few minutes to describe the audience experience. It’s far from passive. You won’t just sit in a theater seat in the dark and watch.

“When the audience comes into the space they sit in those seats and take in the build that is happening. After a little while they’re approached by a ‘ranger’ who basically orients them to the experience. They let them know how long we’ve been building and that they can come into the forest at almost any time,” Hall says.

Before settling in to watch, audience members must check in onstage at the desk of the “gatekeeper,” who explains the ground rules for the installation and how to behave in the forest. Then audience members may sit down in the middle of everything and meditate or watch.

But the interactions with other human performers will continue.

“Another group is just called the ‘speakers,’” D’Amour says. “Sometimes groups of performersabout six or seven peoplefilter into the audience and might sit around a group of audience members. And you don’t even notice, really, that they’re there. All of a sudden they start speaking this text that’s almost like parallel poems and they just kind of bubble up around the audience for two minutes. And then they sneak away.”

In the final stage of the event, the builders take their seven hours of labor back to a bare stage, an analog to the discrepancy between the decades and centuries of a forest’s growth and the minutes and hours required to destroy it.

“It’s up for a short period of time for people to enjoyabout a half hour,” Hall says. “And then we take it down very quickly and hopefully just a bit painfully because it takes a very short time to destroy it.”

“I would say that the materials are in charge in the build, and we humans are in charge in the disassembly,” D’Amour adds. “It’s still just us doing it, but our relationship to the materials has changed. These are two different forms of attention that we’re modeling.”

How to Build a Forest has much to teach and, perhaps more importantly, remains open to a viewer’s own ideas and lessons to be learned. That’s what happens when you slow yourself to the rate of the growth of that tree.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Tree time.”