Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=186000
Story Retrieval Date: 5/24/2013 6:01:43 AM CST
Photo courtesy of the Puppet State Theatre.
Actor Rick Conte operates "Dog," one of the puppets in "The Man Who Planted Trees." Fellow performer, Richard Medrington converses with his witty canine counterpart.
Puppets for the environment: ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’
Photo courtesy of the Puppet State Theatre.
Rick Conte operates Elzéard Bouffier, a puppet rendition of the tree-planting shepherd central to the play.
The smell of lavender, the gentle mist of rain and the sounds of the forest immerse you in the interactive audience experience of “The Man Who Planted Trees.”
The play, produced by the Puppet State Theatre Company of Scotland and the Chicago Humanities Festival, debuted Saturday at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Based on the well-known fable by French author Jean Giono, the play depicts the travels of a man who encounters a shepherd named Elzéard Bouffier on his journey. Bouffier lives a solitary life and devotes much of his time to planting trees throughout the countryside. Soon, his efforts produce a vibrant forest of more than 100,000 trees.
“It is obviously first and foremost an environmental story, but it’s about more than that,” said performer, and Puppet State Theatre founder, Richard Medrington, a five-year veteran of the production. “It’s about one person making a difference.”
Medrington, who performs in the show with the puppets, said that the story is really about altruism, and inspiring people to enact change.
“I think it kind of challenges everyone to say, what is the thing that you can do? He said. “Maybe you’re not in a position to plant trees or do anything environmental, but there are other things that you can do.”
The ensemble features two actors and several puppets, including a dog that provides comic relief. Popular among the children in the audience, “Dog” is Medrington's witty canine counterpart. He helps narrate the tale but he also likes a little mischief.
At one point he appears wearing Bouffier’s hat and a pair of sunglasses. Another time he jokes about the failed Danish pas-trees (as in pastries) and toilet-trees (yes, toiletries), trees that didn’t seem to take to the soil.
The opening performance of “The Man Who Planted Trees” included a lecture afterward on sustainability. Worldwide deforestation and real-life environmental advocates mirror this story, said
Gillen D. Wood, director of the Sustainability Studies Initiative in the Humanities at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
In a later interview, Wood said that the story has a place in American folk memory, where Johnny Appleseed is quite familiar.
“It’s fictional, but the story and the concept has had such an influence, a kind of global influence, in the last 50 years that it’s quite easy to name real world counterparts to the Elzéard Bouffier character,” he said.
One such example includes Noble Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, a native of Kenya. Founder of the Green Belt Movement, Maathai helped women plant more than 40 million trees in her native Africa.
Wood said that this issue of deforestation is always prevalent, making Giono’s tale perpetually current.
“The problem that we face now is that the global timber economy has been relocated to the southern hemisphere to places like the Amazon and Indonesia,” he said. “So the story, and the moral of the story, is as relevant as ever given the problems of global deforestation.”
Giono served in WWI on the Western front, and Wood said that the “horrible treeless landscapes of the trenches” inspired the author to promote pacifism as well as environmentalism.
“His ecological vision is both social and environmental. It’s not just about preserving the forests,” he said. “The story is very much about the relationship between ecosystem health, and social prosperity and vitality.”
For Wood, the story illustrates how we depend on the environment, and the environment depends on us. This give-and-take relationship is at the core of Giono’s tale.
“The important message in the story is that the health and prosperity of human communities is directly connected to the ecosystem health and to things such as healthy forestry management.”
For Medrington, it was important to present this serious, complex issue in an accessible and participatory manner.
“Often we really underestimate the power of the imagination of the audience,” he said. “There are productions of all kinds, which go the high-tech route, and they want to create this illusion – a very flawless illusion. And, I think nine times out of 10 it really isn’t necessary.”
The minimal set, small cast and simple tale aid in encouraging the audience to become part of the journey – part of Giono’s mission.
“Some of the most amazing things you’ll see on stage is one person storytelling,” he said. “If that person can tap into the audience’s imagination, you don’t need big sets and costumes and everything.”
“One of the mission points of the MCA is to be an audience-activated, audience-engaged center,” said Erin Baldwin of the MCA. “We always look for new ways to present different more fully engaging experiences.”
“The Man Who Planted Trees” runs through May 15. Advance tickets cost $11 for adults and $5 for children under 12, and can be reserved at https://boxoffice.mcachicago.org.