Through the cool shadows beneath firs and oaks move three figures in white, catching the sun as they approach a clearing. Soon they speak, through and over each other, in a composed musical rush of words and phrases: It’s the smell, I guess. And Thoreau’s book. Then, I miss the old farms, we hear. Later, Plum Creek’s constantly a concern of mine. Finally, It’s like a cathedral. So begin the musings of Choirspeak: The Maine Woods, a theater work-in-progress based on dialogues with Mainers about the past, present, and future of Maine’s woodlands. Directed by Jennie Hahn with Open Water Theatre Arts, and performed by Virginia Collins, Hahn, Tess Van Horn, and Michael Wilson, Choirspeak runs this weekend in a series of workshop performances at Zero Station, with one Sunday performance under the trees in Baxter Woods Park.
|Choirspeak: The Maine Woods | A work in progress by Open Waters Theatre Arts | Directed by Jennie Hahn | Presented July 17-19 at 8 pm at Zero Station, 222 Anderson St, Portland; July 20 at 2 pm in Portland’s Baxter Woods Park (meet at the Forest Avenue entrance) | 207.799.5945|
Choirspeak was conceived as an arts-based way to start and share conversations about our various relationships with Maine’s forests, resources which are in a lot of flux these days. This past December, members of the Choirspeak project ventured into five Maine communities — Rumford/Peru, Portland, Belfast/Montville, Greenville, and Millinocket — and recorded 54 impromptu (or “guerilla,” as the artists say) interviews with residents. From the transcripts, meticulously typed out by Hahn, was culled Choirspeak, which interweaves the fears and passions of its subjects.
What they revealed, say Choirspeak’s artists, varied by community. In Portland, where folks on the street are perhaps more accustomed to being accosted, people seemed to have slightly less urge to talk and less direct connection to the land. In rural Greenville, on the other hand, hot conversations arose around the issues surrounding Seattle timber and real estate company Plum Creek (which seeks to rezone its Maine land holdings to accommodate more than 2000 new development units). Another name that drew frequent heat was that of Burt’s Bees’ conservation-minded founder Roxanne Quimby, who purchased more than 40,000 acres and promptly restricted traditional access that residents had long been granted by paper companies. In the suffering, formerly bustling mill towns of Rumford and Millinocket, conversations involved similar quandaries of finding a balance between use and conservation, and between economics and more transcendent currencies. The words of our neighbors on these knotty issues range in tone and acuity, but most are informed, articulate, and deeply aware of the difficulties of finding that balance.
The staging of their words is simple and evocatively composed. Divided into movements by region, the phrases and conversations are read by the three performers in white, who are at once oracle, documentary record, Greek chorus, and — yes — a very tender choir. Their delivery sometimes overlaps or repeats a single thread of monologue, in round style, and sometimes interweaves several similarly themed monologues. They also enact conversations among interviewees, most memorably in a fraught Greenville argument over Plum Creek’s practices. Interspersing the words are periods of silent movement, during which the performers slip in and out of tableaux — some symmetrical, some tenderly asymmetrical. They hold these configurations for long moments, and to watch them in their still poses with each other is eerily and comfortingly like looking at the trees surrounding them. It’s a lovely and wise way of getting at the idea that we all live based on relationships — biological, emotional, economic — and how those relationships are subject to so much — to need and whim, to gravity and the torque of the elements.