by Henry David Thoreau
adapted by Nicholas Bone
Edinburgh’s Magnetic North theatre company is reviving its acclaimed production of Walden for this year’s Hidden Door festival.
Mon 30 May – Wed 1 June 2016, 18.30hrs & 20.30hrs
“My purpose in going to Walden was not to live cheaply or dearly, but to live deliberately.”
On 4th July 1845, Henry David Thoreau walked into the woods near his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts and decided to stay. He found a spot next to a lake called Walden Pond and built a hut. For the next two years he tried to live entirely by his own resources.
Walden, Thoreau’s account of his ‘experiment in simple living’, is one of the most extraordinary and unclassifiable books ever written, with huge contemporary resonance. It is a meditation on self-sufficiency, the individual’s relationship with the environment and the desire to ‘live deliberately’.
Hidden Door Festival, Old Lighting Depot, King’s Stables Road, Edinburgh
Monday 30 May – Wed 1 June
18.30hrs & 20.30hrs
What was the inspiration for this performance?
A mixture of things. I read Walden in 2006 - at the time I was fascinated by Tim Crouch's work and there was something in the book that made me think there was a way of presenting it on stage without all the usual rigmarole of historical-biographical one man shows.
When I was developing the idea with the visual artists Tristan Surtees and Charles Blanc (Sans facon), we also looked at Spalding Gray and performance art of the 1970s. It seemed to me that there was an element of performance art in Thoreau's documentation of his experiment. He didn't have to live in the woods for two years - he came from a wealthy family and had been to Yale - but made a choice to do so and to document his experience. He then turned that documentation into a work of art - a book.
How did you go about gathering the team for it?
I had met Tristan and Charles at Cove Park in 2001 and we had been looking for something to do together. I started developing the very early ideas for Walden at Magnetic North's very first Rough Mix artist development residency in late 2006, which they also took part in.
Afterwards, I asked them if they would like to collaborate on it. I had already worked with the actor Ewan Donald (who was in the original production) and suggested that he read the book - he did, and loved it. By coincidence, he was then the same age as Thoreau had been when he went to the woods (27).
How did you become interested in making performance in the first place - does it hold any particular qualities that other media don't have?
I planned to go to art school, but somehow - I'm not really sure how - I ended up doing a theatre studies degree instead. I had very little experience of theatre, but it grabbed my attention. I like its possibilities - you can do anything with it, you just have to work out how.
I like that it is only completed by the presence of an audience - a film is the same whether any one watches it or not, but performance can't help but be affected by the audience. Whether they're bored or engaged, whether they're lively or subdued. Visual art has some of the same qualities, but not all.
Was your process typical of the way that you make a performance?
Yes and no. I don't really have a fixed process, though there are elements that are often the same or similar. Once I start work on a project, I have to work out what the process is going to be for the particular nature of the idea. The object is to find the kernel of the idea and find an approach that will reflect that and bring it out - with Walden, the idea of finding the 21st century equivalent of writing a book about his experience was key.
Thoreau wrote a book because that was his medium - though interestingly his first idea was to make it an illustrated talk (he was a renowned public speaker) - but it was still conceived as a work of art, not as a manual for self-sufficiency. The starting point was to treat the text as a found object - one goal was not to change any of Thoreau's words, just edit them.
In the end I had to relent - partly because of the differing demands of written and spoken text, partly because of shaping a narrative - but it was an important principle. At one point - when I was in full-on 'nothing must be altered' mode - Tim Crouch read the text and gave some useful advice, which began 'I'm not the slightest bit impressed by the text not having been altered'. It was important for me to be quite purist about it to start with, but I also needed someone to tell me to lighten up about it later on.
The most substantial changes - apart from breaking up long sentences - was to do with tenses. Thoreau wrote some of the book in the continuous-present tense, some in the past; to give shape to the performance, we used the past tense at the beginning and end, and the continuous present throughout the central section when he talks about being at Walden.
The process was also one of reflecting the simplicity of Thoreau's existence by stripping away anything extraneous - it seemed wrong to make a show about living with the minimum of things by using lots of theatrical paraphernalia.
Once we had decided to do it in the round, it became simpler still - anything that is used in the round becomes significant because someone is close to it, there's no such thing as set-dressing, the necessity of everything is questioned. That's how we ended up with just a pile of sand, a stick and no sound or lighting.
Ironically, this simplicity doesn't come cheap - when there's so little, everything has to be just right: the set was one of the most expensive we've ever had built.
What do you hope that the audience will experience?
It's quite an intense experience - there is no way you can sit there and not feel part of the performance. There are only 40 people, and they're all looking at each other, enclosed by the high back of the bench that creates the performance space. You can't slip out unnoticed.
The performer demands your attention, but you can choose not to give it - you have to choose though, you can't be inactive in the way you can in the back row of the upper circle. It has something of the air of a religious gathering - maybe a Quaker meeting? - and it is certainly a communal event. I hope that the audience will feel that they have been somewhere together - surprising for a show about a man living on his own, perhaps.
What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
Early on, we considered making them an audience at a public lecture, then as spectators at a performance art event like Cornelia Parker's The Maybe. The absence of any visual or aural flourish means that it makes the audience work - they complete the picture themselves and this was very conscious on our part.
Do you see your work within any particular tradition?
This particular work is in the tradition of Richard Schechner or Spalding Gray, though it's not anything like their work. It draws on their experience, though. Tim Crouch's awareness of the audience's complicity in completing a performance is important to me.
Are there any other questions I ought to ask that might help me to understand the meaning of dramaturgy for you in your work?
For me, dramaturgy is working out the right questions to ask. The work in rehearsals is to explore the possible answers whilst uncovering more questions along the way. The art is in making choices from the possibilities in order to create something coherent.
First produced in 2009, Magnetic North’s adaptation was hugely popular with audiences and received a string of 4 and 5 star reviews.
Nicholas Bone, Magnetic North’s Artistic Director, and Walden’s director and adaptor said: “Magnetic North is delighted to have the opportunity to revive Walden for Hidden Door’s invited programme. As an Edinburgh-based company, we’re hugely supportive of the opportunities Hidden Door gives for artists and audiences to share work in otherwise disused spaces in the city. We’re looking forward to being part of the event for the first time this year.”
The production is performed in an intimate, in-the-round setting: 12 beautifully crafted benches made from American cedar join together to create an arena for the audience and actor, with just 40 audience members able to attend each performance.