2000

Soil-less Gardens
"HEAVEN AND EARTH"
A Soil-less Performance

I met MAP in December 1995 and soon after plunged headlong into every Perelandra process I could get my hands on. I had already been using other kinesiology-based healing systems, so it was a simple step to move to essence processes and even microbial balancing. I wanted to garden, but it doesn't fit my lifestyle. I am a theatre artist — I freelance and run a small touring company, and we (or more often, I) develop and write our material, build the costumes, wigs, puppets, sets, arrange the music, teach workshops, perform and run the business. I am trained in European-style physical/visual theatre, and I create work for large international festivals as well as small elementary schools. Last year a festival director asked me what project would I really love to create, and I responded without thinking: "I would like to put singers on rooftops and have them sing out a new call to the faithful." We were sitting at an outdoor café in Europe, and I pointed to roofs, balconies and windows surrounding us, describing the path of the music and its effect on the people below. Ideally, I would use twelve professional musicians, a local choir, and have access to several buildings. The director bought the idea right there, and I wrote out descriptions and a budget. Three months later, the project I was offered (take it or leave it) involved no budget for professional musicians: I was offered instead the use of students at a local music college as participants and a member of the festival administration to organize the site access. (I was assured that access to the sites — offices, shops — would be no problem.) I would have to find any other performers myself and convince them to work for free (in a city where I knew nearly no one — Manchester, England).

While the project was no longer my vision, I still wanted to do it, but I didn't know how to adapt to the new project parameters — I had music I wanted to use, but no idea how to arrange it. (Who could I get to participate? How well could they sing or play? How high or low were their voices, or how powerful? Were they scared of heights?) At this point, I had the thought, "I'll do this as a soil-less garden!" (I hope you're all laughing.) The challenges were obvious — finding performers, enthusing the students (who were mostly electric guitar players — and my piece was "unplugged!"), scheduling rehearsals to allow maximum community participation, achieving a performance level worthy of the festival (we would be performing alongside well-funded professional companies from all over Europe). The benefits of the project? I was on my own, I had autonomy, a producer who supported me, and I would be unsupervised until the performance — I could work with nature in private and bring out the results as "given" (in my theatre company, colleagues were used to having a say in things!). And I had the soil-less gardening video. So I said yes.

I had not yet checked in with nature on anything, so I was balancing and stabilizing everything in sight — or rather site. I was dealing with multiple environments: my office, various rehearsal spaces, potential performance sites, none of which "belonged" to me. I worried about the ethics of messing with these spaces. I asked nature to balance them for the time and framework appropriate to the project, and plunged on. The students were rebelling! I ended up with seven or eight (a few singers, one accordionist, a guitarist and a drummer). I tracked down loads of individuals but couldn't get a pre-formed choir for love or money (I was willing to pay them out of my fee at this point). The project was titled "Heaven and Earth," and I defined it as a free public concert on a pedestrianized street in the city center, with music, visual elements and audience participation. We would perform the same show on two consecutive nights. The direction was to demonstrate peaceful balance throughout the whole process (development, rehearsal and performance);the purpose was to entertain, uplift and to remind us (performers and audience) of our oneness through this group experience.

To get the "garden charts," I defined the show as a concert in order to provide a framework for me to understand how to ask for information. (A concert is basically a list of songs or "pieces" to be performed, with or without transitions, breaks or encores. I felt I needed to work in a very clear, simple form because I was working with nature for the first time and because the project had so many unknowns built in: performers, locations, etc.) For "garden size," I determined overall time length of the piece; a "row" was an individual song or number, and a "space between the row" showed the need for transitional material. Then I wrote down all the music I had wanted to use and checked it with nature. Some of it went into the chart, some didn't. I checked that the proposed site area was okay, drew a map of all the buildings in that area, and got the locations each piece should be performed from. I wrote down the list of the buildings nature specified and gave them to the administrator to get permission for their use.

I used MAP/Calibration frequently, especially to deal with resistance, "writer's block" and inability to focus. I consulted the troubleshooting chart for problems ranging from individual song arranging to my relationship with the school administration. I balanced "insects" without knowing what on earth they might be or refer to — and added and subtracted songs and arrangement styles as guided by nature. Whether through my lack of clarity or the free will factor of my colleagues, I found that the song list kept changing, as did my roster of performers, as did the number of buildings available to be a part of the project. Many of the locations nature targeted were unavailable, and that meant reworking the show order and in some cases, throwing out a song we'd already rehearsed! Nature advised inclusion of a "visual element," so I tested for banners, costumes, headgear, torches, fireworks, confetti, ad infinitum, with no success. The "visual element" turned out to be the inclusion of a sign-language choir (with a few "sound-interpreter" singers accompanying them).

The first weeks felt chaotic, and I worried about being "unprofessional" because of the changes in songs and sites. I had a hard time drumming up local interest in the project and was afraid I'd never get enough singers to put the show on. But little by little, the performers were put in place. Local professionals began to volunteer to join the project, and performer/friends from the U.S., Europe and Africa started calling to tell me they were coming to Manchester to see the festival — could they perform in the show? After fifty or sixty choirs turned me down, the newly formed Manchester Community Choir chose the project as their debut. Some locals who answered the "open call" were graduates of conservatories or university music programs, talented instrumentalists who had always wanted to sing. At final count, I had two choirs, twenty "small group" singer/instrumentalists and nine soloists. The soloists rehearsed by singing out of the top floor windows of the house I was living in.

We sang out of my windows because I still didn't have site permissions. Managers said "yes" only to have company directors say "no." For any given site, I needed permission from the building owner, the landlord, the tenant with the roof, window or balcony in question, and whoever controlled any hallways and stairwells needed for access. With three weeks to go, and only three sites okayed (nature said ten), my festival assistant gave up, so I had to take over. And I got nowhere. In fact, I was down to two sites within a few days. I started looking for ladders, scaffolding, riser arrangements, anything to get us up. I couldn't even hold onto my pre-show meeting place. The festival booked the Manchester Town Hall, a beautiful building hundreds of years old, full of paneled halls, echoey corridors and stone spiral staircases to be the gathering site for all performance groups for the festival. While many groups were performing Friday, we were the only group to perform Thursday night. The festival forgot to book the Town Hall for Thursday, and it was no longer available. One hundred and seventy people had to be alerted the day before the show to change check-in location. But an alternate meeting hall was found, so we were all set . . . as long as it didn't rain.

This was an outdoor festival in England. The producers assured me that they wouldn't cancel unless the rain was torrential. (It was assumed there would be some form of precipitation — they were realists!) Thursday evening, the drizzle stopped and hundreds of people came out to see a magical performance. I was awed at the rich sound, the vibrant sign language, and the gleeful participation of the audience. Heavenly choirs sang out, and soloists rose above us on ladders to lead us in song. By the end, everyone was singing and signing, and the performers and audience became one. No one wanted to leave, and eventually groups of people wandered off singing through the streets of old Manchester. The whole piece, while not resembling my original vision, was the heart of my hope for this experience, and I was humbled and ecstatic and grateful to nature, to everyone involved, and to Perelandra.

Friday night it poured. But instead of canceling the show (as is customary), the technical director of the festival asked the Town Hall staff if we could have our performance inside the hall, and the staff said "yes." So while all other acts got canceled, we restaged our songs in the corridors, stairwells and paneled halls. The show was re-set and rehearsed in under an hour, and went even better than the night before. We had ten sites (as nature had indicated, I realized later), and the audience was led by sight or sound from room to room, floor to floor. The crowd went wild, directors of other festivals and city officials came out of the audience afterward to thank us, and the "reluctant" students dubbed the evening "the best night of their lives."

I don't know all the ways this garden was harvested. I know that membership in the community choir expanded, that the school administration was thrilled, the board named the show the best at this year's festival, and that a national festival of choirs is being planned in Manchester next year, to utilize the Town Hall and the sites we sang at on the city streets. My festival directors have pledged to produce any project I want to do — indoor or outdoor, for as long as I want to do projects. (That is not just normal recognition for a job well done, that is extraordinary.) I've already started on the next round of proposals, but this time I'm checking with nature about project ideas before presenting them to producers!

"Heaven and Earth" was at times foggy and frustrating, but it was a fantastic experience. I was the one who had the hardest time with it — the performers, audience, sponsors and funders were overwhelmingly pleased, boosted, enlivened and transformed. Working with nature clarified my desire to create performances which balance, aid, heal or have a positive impact on humans and nature. And working on one show as a soil-less garden helped me to think up and organize a first-draft "performance workbook" to make getting information easier. I am grateful to nature, to Machaelle, the Perelandra staff and everyone who has contributed to Perelandra Voices for helping me find a way in to this process. I would be thrilled to hear from anyone working with nature in music, theatre, or performance (or anyone working with sound and cleaning!) to compare notes, share stories and give encouragement.

— M.C., New York