How to See a Forest

by Bryna Turner

in American Theatre magazine

Friday, June 24: My friend Jane and I are walking down Ninth Avenue in New York City on a quest for deli coffee. As we cross the street, the air is suddenly filled with little white wisps. I stop breathing instinctively, thinking of airborne diseases, wondering if bedbugs can be carried through the wind. Panicking slightly, I ask Jane what it is, offering my best guess: “Some kind of latex?”

She shoots me the look she’s been giving me for three years (read: who is this sweet idiot and why is she still following me?) before answering calmly, “They’re dandelion seeds, Bryna.” I am still incredulous, so she adds, “There’s a park near here.”

How uprooted has this girl from the Redwoods become?  I need a nature fix, quick.

*

Sunday, June 26: NYC Pride and the gayest day of the year. While the parade is winding down Fifth Avenue, my girlfriend Tess and I are sitting in silence in a space called The Kitchen, staring at a bare stage as we wait for an eight-hour installation performance piece to begin. She is still a little grumpy; I am a little nervous. A sign by the risers said a Park Ranger would be with us shortly, but there’s no sign of anyone. Finally, mercifully, the performers, an odd chorus in light blue jumpsuits, enter. They line up on stage right, take off their shoes, then move to the middle of the stage. For the first few minutes, the only sound is their bare feet padding across the floor as they mime picking up seeds.

Photo: Timothy Atticus

I am still nervous.

As the performers begin to free gathered ropes which hang from the ceiling, the promised Park Ranger sits next to Tess. The ranger starts whispering the forest’s rules to us: how we will enter, what we will see. An entire forest will be created and taken down over the course of the day using only man-made materials. We are welcome to leave and continue checking in on the forest’s progress throughout the day. She hands us two field guides to PearlDamour’s How to Build a Forest, and with a smile, is off again.

The performers, or builders, have brought out plastic bags with brightly colored cloths inside, and are using clothespins to attach them to ropes. One builder is wandering the stage, dropping small weighted bags at the base of the ropes.

Another builder walks off the stage and into the risers. She sits next to me. “We’re bagging the trees now,” she tells me. She connects this part of the piece to her long childhood drives to New Orleans, to the plastic-bagged sandwiches her mother made that were “really good the first day and terrible the second.” She tells me the cruel irony of the bagged trees—the fire-proofed fabrics inside are completely toxic. Then she looks at me intently, and I realize I am side by side with Lisa D’Amour, the Pulitzer Prize finalist and half of PearlDamour. “Okay, I better get back to work.” Before leaving, she pauses: “But intimacy is awesome—and you’re a part of it.”

Now the space is slowly filling up with a gentle forest-scape of sounds coming almost imperceptibly from speakers around the stage, and the rangers’ whispering has begun to sound like leaves rustling in the wind.

*

Photo: Timothy Atticus

Two hours have passed, and the stage has filled up with bright colors. Metal weeds are being dressed in neckties, exercise balls are chirping as they’re pumped to sit like boulders at the base of slender trees that are slowly climbing to the ceiling. Suddenly all of the builders pause. The lights change. Each builder gathers to watch a willowy orange trunk being raised. A builder with pink nail polish sits at the base, delicately helping it grow. With one hand she pulls the rope that raises the tree; with the other she loosens the fabric, keeping the threads from catching. For what feels like 10 minutes, the entire pieces zooms into one focus: watching a tree grow. I am captivated; I want to sit at the roots and look up as it grows. In fact, when the rest of the builders leave, I do. I sit beside the woman who raised the tree, and together she and I gaze up the length of it. Finally, she turns to me. She hands me a small slip of paper folded in half. It reads: “We need to do it ourselves.” She wanders off.

I might never leave this whimsical place. I am reminded of the Redwoods as I lay looking up at the tips of synthetic trees. Tess, on the other hand, looks like she might march onstage and finish this forest up herself. She is losing her patience with the time it takes to build a forest.

It’s time we take a coffee break.

*

Tess and I wanderChelsea. We get iced coffee and pizza. We see a little gay—not enough to make her completely forgive me for depriving her of Pride. She makes me promise we will not stay until the performance’s end at 10pm.

I promise.

*

We re-enter after an hour, flashing our little slips of paper that read: “I have already been here.” Since we’ve been gone, the forest has grown more colorful. Amongst the chorus of slender trunks, the forest’s center piece is being constructed: a giant purple multi-branched tree, with a base at least two builders wide. The waterfalls of washers have already been put up—one covers the builders’ rest area, where they can sit and eat carrots and peanut butter.

Photo: Timothy Atticus

Builders are gathering at the base of the great tree. They are connecting all sorts of things: clamps and ropes and weights and fabric. Suddenly they start to pull on the ropes, and the base of the tree rises around them, making them disappear into the trunk. The large-hooped branches have left the floor and now reach up towards the ceiling.

A tree is born.

*

Nighttime begins to fall over the forest. The builders don headlamps to finish their jobs. Finally, only New Orleans-based visual artist Shawn Hall is left wandering the forest, a single light moving in the darkness from place to place, adding tiny elaborations—a fuzz ball here, a wire there. The other builders sit on stage right, watching.

Shawn finishes and joins them. All the headlamps go on. Katie Pearl, the other half of PearlDamour, moves to center stage and speaks: “Rangers, the forest is complete. You may open it up for the animation phase.”

The builders move to the edges of the stage, pulling ropes to make metal branches shake amongst the skinny trunks. Lisa D’Amour sits behind one of the washer waterfalls and shakes it slightly. The lights begin to come up: first blue, then yellow, then pink, then orange, and finally yellow again.

It is sunrise in the forest.

Photo: Timothy Atticus

*

I am enchanted and perplexed. I want to know more. The Field Guide explains the piece’s connections to Hurricane Katrina and the BP spill, but I still feel something eluding me. Just as I am trying to figure out what it all means, as I begin to berate myself for not listening harder in Environmental Science, as I am about to grab Lisa by the shoulders and plead for answers, Tess finds me. She shows me the newest slip of paper that Shawn gave her. It reads: “We don’t know what we’re doing.”

A little while later, the woman with pink nail polish approaches me. She extends her closed hand, offering me something. I put out my palm. She gives me a sparkly blue fuzz ball.

As the builders spend the final few hours dissembling their fantastic forest, I palm the fuzz. I don’t want the forest to be destroyed. I hate watching it go.

Tess and I stay until 10pm without meaning to. We can’t leave, can’t look away.

*

The forest is almost gone now.  It’s just ropes and fabrics and plastics again. Two new people enter, sitting beside me. A ranger comes and whispers the information to them. They are eager to participate; they ask if they can enter the forest.

They don’t know that they’ve missed it.

They’ve missed the forest—they’re just looking at debris.

Photo: Timothy Atticus

PearlDamour’s How to Build a Forest was performed June 17-19 and 24-26, 2011 at NYC’s The Kitchen. It will be moving to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans in the spring of 2012.

Bryna Turner is American Theatre’s editorial intern. 

  • http://www.flobeds.com Dave

    Wow. I want to see a forest grow! (or did i already?) When was I? I feel like I was watching… you did a great job of making the forest so immediate.

  • http://www.youtube.com/lotsathoughts Brandon Reese

    Wow.
    I had the great pleasure of working on one of Lisa’s new projects when she was in Minnesota. She’s really a visionary, and it’s just fascinating to watch her build.
    I’m so excited to see Detroit, coming to NYC later this year, if I remember correctly.

  • Lou Pearl

    Katie,
    It really was a great article. I forwarded it to Arnie, who said the “forest” looked very pretty.
    Hope all is well.
    Love,
    Louis