The landscape of the Arnold Arboretum offers beauty and inspiration for all manner of creative pursuits, from watercolor and photography to music and poetry. This winter the power and artistry of theater takes center stage at the Arboretum through a week-long residency by PearlDamour, a creative team recently commissioned by the American Reparatory Theater (A.R.T.) and the Harvard Center for the Environment to create a performance exploring the ocean and climate change.
As a public garden where researchers study the effects of a changing climate on plants and ecosystems, the Arboretum presents a compelling environment for PearlDamour to begin work on a project merging science and the humanities. PearlDamour is an interdisciplinary performance company led by the Obie-Award winning collaborative team of Katie Pearl and Lisa D’Amour. Collaborating with composers, visual artists, and choreographers, Katie and Lisa present their craft both inside and outside traditional theater spaces. Their oeuvre ranges from intimate pieces designed for small audiences—like Bird Eye Blue Print, created for a set of vacant offices in Manhattan’s World Financial Center—to large-scale performance mixing theater and installation. Notable among these is How to Build a Forest, an 8-hour performance in which a simulated forest is assembled and disassembled on an empty stage, and Lost in the Meadow, created specifically for the Meadow Garden at Longwood Botanical Gardens.
Katie and Lisa plan to use the Arboretum as a space for incubation and inspiration for this new work, drawing on its nature as a home to many interconnected ecosystems. This week they will meet with climate scientists, experiment on some raw material with students, and conduct some research in the Arnold Arboretum Library. Some of the practical details of the project—like whether it will be created for a conventional theater, an outdoor environment, or even a gallery setting—may begin to take shape. A particular challenge lies in characterizing the “voice” of their subject. “We’re interested in how difficult it is for humans to perceive the world’s oceans,” remarks Lisa. “What would it be like for the oceans to speak and to stand up for themselves?”
Based on their history, the results are likely to be innovative and thought-provoking. In fifteen years of creating together, PearlDamour has devised a body of work focused on the relationship of performer and audience, experimenting with new approaches to narrative through such elements as text, image, physicality, and architecture. “We want our audiences to feel like they are inside of an experience, rather than watching something happening over there,” Lisa explains. “When we make a show we create room for the audience to feel like they have slipped into the private headspace of a performer they are watching—an intimate, associative, surprising place.”