Dartington Trust recently hosted Strange Futures for their week-long residency to develop new work.  The Midlands-based theatre company uses physical theatre, clowning, absurdism and puppetry to explore contemporary issues. Here, one of the company’s directors, Jane George, reflects on their time in Devon.

Jane writes : “It’s a sunny week in late June and Strange Futures Theatre Company are in residency with the lovely Dartington Arts for a week. We’re working on our new show, The Tree Rings. It is such a delight to be here, to have the time and space to focus entirely on making the show, away from all those other daily distractions at home. It’s not always easy, living and working intensively as a company for the week, but when we get stuck or hit a block, we can just step outside into the gardens, woods or meadows around Dartington Hall, and find a different perspective. And the great advantage of working intensively in a residency is that the show moves quickly, because we’re living and breathing it every day.

We are remaking a show, The Tree Rings, that we made previously with a large community cast. That version of the show was performed at our home base in Malvern earlier this year, but we are completely re-working and re-focusing it as a touring piece for a cast of four, which is an interesting challenge! Strange Futures’ work almost always takes an environmental theme, so Dartington feels like just the right place to work on the show.

Trees hold stories, in more ways than one. They hold memories and myths. The rings within a tree’s trunk are also story archives of changes and events in our environment. What if they could tell you those stories? What if a tree could ring you? We are playing around with the double meaning here, using bits of string and paper cups to make telephone calls to the trees.

There was a line in our last show The Endling (performed at Dartington Arts in March 2023) that said that humans are 70% tree. 70% genes in common. The Tree Rings picks up on that idea, and starts by musing on the impossibility of being a tree on stage:

“But how do you be a tree? How do you put a tree on stage? It’s impossible. It’s ridiculous. It’s a joke. Do drama – Be a tree! There’s the time and speed difference, for a start. Trees can live hundreds … thousands of years. The oldest tree is thought to be about 6000 years old. Us? A blink of an eye by comparison. If trees had eyes. And that’s it, isn’t it? They don’t. Have eyes. Or ears. Or mouths. So how can we tell their story?

Trees live in a whole different world of senses. They experience the world in ways we cannot. And how could they tell us anyway. They can’t talk. That is, they can… they talk to each other – scientists have identified about 60 different ‘words’ that they exchange with each other through signal networks in their roots. We haven’t learnt to talk Tree yet. But the point is, we’re making a performance about trees and, well, it’s impossible to be a tree. So … our rehearsals start: “It’s impossible to be a tree. Be a tree …”

As theatre makers, we’re playing against the view that we shouldn’t be anthropomorphic about the lives, feelings and inner workings of non-humans, because if we don’t attribute qualities we (as humans) recognize and value to nonhumans (for lack of any other way of understanding them), then we’re potentially stuck with human exceptionalism and the perspective that nonhuman lives are seen as purely instrumental to human needs. And that’s the view that has led to the current widespread destruction of trees, woodlands, and rainforests.

Woven into the show is the research we’ve been doing about the development of the environmental protest movement over the last 50 years or so, and attempts to stop the wholesale destruction of trees and landscapes.

The show combines magic realism with a roughly chronological structure (1950s to present day), signalled through the use of music from those decades; the main character, Robin, can talk to trees and is guided by a quirky, cranky little spirit, Ippikin (a puppet created from fallen wood) who enjoys dancing raucously to Wild Thing by The Troggs, whilst helping Robin find direction in his life. Robin, and friend Alice, seek different ways of “saving the planet”, from lagging lofts with Friends of the Earth in the 1970s to sabotaging diggers in the 1990s’ Twyford Downs protests, to Tree Sitting protests in the present day. The story is told by shadow play and puppetry and tiny plastic trees and quirky humour and a man at a microphone and someone sitting at the top of a ladder. After all, it is impossible to be a tree.

Perhaps the show is mostly about caring, in whatever way is right for you. It’s about tree huggers and tree protestors and extraordinary trees, and it’s about ordinary people who remember the tree they climbed as a child and it’s about how if all the trees in the world held their breath, well… we wouldn’t stand a chance, would we? We need trees. And we need to understand that humans are part of a much more complicated web of living connections in the world than we really understand.

Everything about being at Dartington has been supportive – from Michael Sells (Senior Producer at Dartington Arts) who helped us arrange the residency and is so supportive to work with, to the large open studios we get to work in. The accommodation is cheap and cheerful (important when you’re operating on a budget) and includes amazing breakfasts as part of the deal, plus there’s a wonderful onsite pub and café. Important to get good fuel for the body as well as the imagination, and Dartington offers both!

Strange Futures core company (Will Moore, Matt Simmonds & Jane George) are joined by two associate performers (Eliza Thompson and Alex Lake) for this show. The Tree Rings will first be presented at Chelsea Theatre as part of the Kensington & Chelsea Arts Festival on August 29th (https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/the-chelsea-theatre/t-mormvon), and will then be brought back to Dartington Arts later in the year before heading off on a UK tour. 


About Strange Futures

“This is something seriously exciting…Strange Futures is definitely a company to keep an eye on” (4 star review, The Stage 2022)

Strange Futures is a neurodiverse-led company, making quirky, humourous, contemporary performance that usually revolves around an environmental question or concern.

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