'How to Build a Forest'

Article Published: Feb. 24, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
'How to Build a Forest'

"How to Build a Forest" happens March 2 and 3 from 5:30 to 9:30 at ASU's Valborg Theatre.

Photo by Lauren K. Ohnesorge


She pulls open the cardboard box and spreads its contents on the stage.

Styrofoam peanuts, pastel fabrics, plastic scraps, a glob of green.

"It's florist foam," she said, fresh out of the junk heap of a museum in New Orleans.

"Florist foam," she muses, piercing it with metal sticks and topping each one with a Styrofoam peanut. "What happens to this stuff? Nobody thinks about it."

Nobody, that is, except the three women on stage.

She is Shawn Hall, designer for a unique project set to hit the Valborg Theatre stage at Appalachian State University.

Add in director Katie Pearl and playwright Lisa D'Amour, and you have more than a team. You have an imagination, an imagination that will transform Valborg and, in a sense, the Boone community.

Next weekend, the space won't be a stage any more. It will be a forest. And that pile of "junk?" Elements of a bigger picture.

"This is gross, actually," Hall laughed, holding up what looks like the claw of a rubber chicken. "I found this on the street. But look..."

She places the rubber material against the foam and peanuts, and the students can see what she sees, a lichen, wisping up from the side of vegetation.

"See?" she said.

You will.

The "junk," both recycled, found and purchased, will create a manmade forest aimed at making its audience aware, both of where the items come from ("How is florist foam made, anyway?") and what happens next ("And where does it go when you throw it away?").

"As it gets built, these weird pieces that make me kind of nervous on their own ... they will come together as this piece that will really have a life," Hall said.

So, what exactly is Pearl Damour's (the collaborative performance works of Pearl and D'Amour) "How to Build a Forest?" Even its conceptualizer, Lisa D'Amour couldn't tell you. "We just don't know," she laughed.

The installation performance art is a work in progress, and Appalachian State University's four-hour event is one step on the way to the full show, an eight-hour presentation at the Kitchen in New York City in June.

"It's a really amazing opportunity for us to explore the piece with you," Pearl said. "We're at the middle of our journey to make this piece, and you're helping us discover and research ... by participating."

"We brought, I would say, about one fifth of what the final installation is going to be," D'Amour said. "It's like a slice of what the final piece is, however, all of the elements that will be in the final piece will be in this. It's like taking a DNA sample."

And students get to be directly part of the process. ASU student ideas are "instrumental" in the project, a collaboration D'Amour and Pearl have been working on since June. For the past week, they've been participating in the planning and design that leads up to the installation.

It's exactly what theater professor Anna Ward hoped for when she made the proposal for Pearl Damour to come to ASU.

"The themes are around sustainability and ecology and the human relationship to nature," she said. "Those are themes that are important to people who work and live and go to school here, so it's allowed for a lot of collaborative effort across campus."

Think outside the theater and dance department to the art department and even to the office of sustainability.

And students flock to the project for a variety of reasons. Some, like those in Ward's classes, are required to participate. For freshman Katie Hickling, however, it's not about a grade.

"I was interested in the whole environmental awareness aspect of it," she said.

And the enigma of it all just adds to the experience.

"It's just really different," sophomore Pamela Cuevas said. "I never heard of such a thing."

And the students aren't just helping build the forest. They're orchestrating "flash mob" experiences "where they will organize a moment that will happen on stage," Ward said.

Tasks students will be asked to do vary, from singing, dancing and building to directly interacting with the audience.

"It's very casual," D'Amour said. "You're telling a story."

And it's not about the forest, the "final" product. It's about the process, how the forest comes alive in front of the audience.

"We have about 20 of these kind of translucent fabric tresses that are going to be hung from grids," D'Amour said. "They look like a pile of material on the ground, and then a rope pulls it up, and it becomes the tree form. It starts off seeming like nothing, and then it has form."

As for what you'll see? She can't tell you. But she can tell you it will provoke a conversation.

"We want people to think about how they notice and experience the world, especially the natural world and how they play a part," she said.

But it's not something you just notice. It's something you can actively be a part of.
"We're hoping to lure people into participating, because that's really the conversation we are trying to have," she said. "How do we participate in this world that we are living in? But it's not scary participation. It's sneaky participation."

For D'Amour, who went to graduate school for playwriting in Austin, Texas, in the 1990s' "atmosphere of experimentation," "Forest" is a continuation of a passion for artistic exploration.

"I love words and writing plays, but there's another part of me that wants to get out and be and get my hands dirty," she said.

It's that urge that led her and Pearl (who she met in Austin 14 years ago) to embark on a string of projects, including a 24-hour outdoor performance piece.

The idea came from an event that destroyed the trees outside of D'Amour's family's property near New Orleans - Hurricane Katrina.

"It was like Armageddon, the way my cousin described it," she said. "My family has had a really emotional attachment to those trees .... Once it was cleared out ... this place was totally transformed ... I thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we could rebuild those trees?' It branched out into a lot of conversations."

"In some ways, we were sort of surprised by everyone's assumption in the beginning that this was an environmental piece," Pearl said. "It was so personal. And then we sort of woke up and saw the big picture."

While the picture is big, your time commitment doesn't have to be.

"But you can come in at any point in the four hours," D'Amour said. "We imagine people to be like, 'I don't know what this is, but I'll come in for 10 minutes.'"

And then they'll be hooked, she said.

Think about three and half hours of constructing the forest and 30 minutes to break it down. The final New York project will take eight hours.

The conversation? Endless.

Pearl Damour's "How to Build a Forest" happens March 2 and 3 from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. in the Valborg Theatre. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, visit http://www.pearldamour.com.

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