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What’s your relationship to nature?
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau wrestled mightily with that question while wandering the Massachusetts woods in the mid-1800s. Now, a walking play is asking modern audiences to do the same — or at least ponder their responsibility to the planet — as they ramble along with the two transcendentalists at The Old Manse in Concord.
The ambitious production, aptly titled "Nature," has been unfolding there this week. The run wraps up on Sunday, Oct. 1.
I had a chance to see the show on a sunny, hot afternoon, and I spoke with the play's creator, who also plays Emerson. Turns out, he’s actually a descendant of Emerson himself.
“My name is Tyson Forbes,” he says upon our introduction, “I am the great, great, great grandson of Ralph Waldo Emerson.”
With his bushy sideburns, Forbes’ resemblance to his forebear is almost eerie. He’s at The Old Manse in Concord, where his ancestor lived and wrote words Forbes recalled devouring in college.
“The essay ‘Nature’ was conceived on the second floor of this house,” Forbes says, gesturing toward the Manse. “Doing the show here, it's special in a way I can't really explain. You can really feel the conversation happening over the generations.”
“Nature” is also the name of the play Forbes is staging on his famous relation’s former turf.
“It's a new experience for most,” Forbes explains. “Once they get here, we just can take them off into this dream.”
About a dozen costumed actors and a chorus greet the audience, singing, “Hard times come again no more,” as folks unfold chairs and lay down blankets. A wooden stage rises from the foundation of a long-gone barn.
Jane Waterfall and her partner from Belmont survey the scene -- not sure what to expect.
“We’ve never been to a walking play — actually hadn’t known what it was before we read about it,” she said. “So we’re here to explore and check it out.”
Then a crimson-haired soprano addresses the crowd. "Welcome to 'Nature,' " she says. Another actor jumps in to inform us, “As you probably know by now this is a walking play.”
Forbes describes this ambulatory, logistically complex bio-dramedy as a journey, “through the property and through the lives and friendship of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and through an entire experience of this landscape."
The action unfolds in three locations on The Old Manse’s verdant, rambling property.
The actors and chorus start way back, when the two main characters were born:
“Ralph Waldo Emerson,” they chant enthusiastically. “Born May 25th, 1803. Boston, Massachusetts.” The wail of a wee, newborn Ralph punctuates the air.
“David Henry Thoreau. Born July 12th, 1817. Concord, Massachusetts,” they continue, with another baby-like “Waaaah!”
The performers weave through the biographies of the two local, literary giants. They had very different upbringings but shared a profound and deeply personal passion for nature.
Both went to Harvard, but at different times. We watch Thoreau chase Emerson down after a reading. The older, more refined orator is dismissive, but Thoreau’s earthier knowledge wins him over.
“Well, I like to study anything that implies a simpler mode of life and a greater nearness to the earth,” Thoreau tells Emerson in the play.
“Well, you’ll have to show me. Let’s take a walk then, shall we?” Emerson asks, to which Thoreau responds enthusiastically, “Yes, let’s!”
The audience joins them, grabbing their chairs. They follow a trail lined neatly with apples that runs along the edge of an orchard.
Before the performance, Thoreau actor Michael Wieser reflects on how the play is staged.
“What a walking play allows you to do is really make the space alive, in that you don't have to suspend so much disbelief, really," he said. "If you’re talking about the trees, the grass, the stones — you just look briefly to your left or right and you see those things. So it makes it that much more real.”
“Nature” has been staged in about 20 locations around the country, according to director Markell Kiefer. She’s married to Forbes, and together they’ve been developing this show since 2010. Their production company, TigerLion Arts, is based in Minneapolis, and this is “Nature’s” East Coast debut. Kiefer says it’s a poignant homecoming.
“It's magical. It really is,” she muses. “Even this morning I came here early and I took a big picture look at the whole environment — the house and everything that surrounds it — and I just got goosebumps. To be able to perform it on the property where the protagonists once lived and wrote and generated the ideas that we’re celebrating in the play is just ... it's something else.”
The Trustees of Reservations oversee The Old Manse — one of 116 natural and agricultural sites around the state — and brought the play here as a way to further its mission. Guy Hermann, a Trustees general manager and former editor of The American Transcendental Quarterly, says an outdoor, walking play seemed like an innovative way to activate the historic place and engage with new audiences.
“This is ground zero for 'Nature,' but it's also ground zero for how we as Americans think about nature,” Hermann says, “because [Emerson] really transformed the way Americans feel about the world around us. He said this is more important than religion."
As the next scene comes to its end, Thoreau and Emerson embrace the art and value of being out in the fresh air: “I went for a walk today ... and touched the sky,” Emerson says, before belting out to the audience, “To Walden, come along!”
We don’t actually go (at least not physically) to Walden Pond, which Emerson owned and where Thoreau lived for two years, two months and two days. That’s where the latter wrote "Walden."
Though that classic meditation and Emerson's "Nature" were published more than 150 years ago, playwright and actor Tyson Forbes says their radical messages about our essential relationship to the world remain relevant in our technology-driven times.
“Children are spending seven minutes outdoors and seven hours on screens — and you could probably say the same of adults,” Forbes says, “maybe even more so.”
The modern-day environmentalist believes Emerson's radical meditation still speaks to humanity’s connection to, and need for, nature. Forbes and his organization collaborate with environmental groups including the Sierra Club -- and now the Trustees -- and hope this play encourages audiences who are moved by it to make their voices heard, too.
With airplanes flying overhead, we see how Emerson and Thoreau’s relationship fractured along with the spread of railroads and progress across the land. A cart filled with percussion instruments represents the loud chaos — social and environmental — that came with the industrialization.
"There are voices in these woods that care not for the ambitions of man," Thoreau says.
"Well, I pity a world that does not have the privilege of your voice," Emerson responds. "The world needs you."
"No, it doesn't need me, it needs less of all of us," Thoreau says. "Simplify!"
It seems the disruption and cacophony of Thoreau and Emerson’s time wasn’t entirely different than ours. They heard steam engines chugging and puffing through these woods — we hear incessant cellphones and traffic.
On the day “Nature” took over The Old Manse in Concord private planes from nearby Hanscom Field invaded our sonic space, but we could still hear the transcendentalists’ words penetrating the air.
This segment aired on September 29, 2017.
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