An essay by Paschale Straiton
Walking in nature is a calming and often meditative activity – stepping in syncopation with your rhythmic heartbeat. Walking with other people is strangely connecting – walkers often begin to synchronise their steps and strangers discover something in common through the act of sharing the present, unique moment. As such, the action of group walking can encourage people to be relaxed, open, receptive. These are the conditions that are useful to theatre makers, as they prepare people to be charmed into taking part, being playful or letting loose.
At Red Herring, we’re interested to explore how we can play while walking: how we can encourage people to connect to nature, muck about and soak up the stories that pepper our natural landscapes. In 2018, we began to run a series of creative walks, inviting fellow walkers to join in a range of exercises – whistling to birds in the woods, sending paper boats down the river, arranging stones into patterns (a la Goldsworthy) or making percussive sounds in time to the rain. The aim was to begin to sense how different people and often strangers, might respond to such offers; how we could artfully encourage people to the edge of their comfort zone and let them decide whether to cross over to the other side, or not. Now to apply this learning into a more comprehensive or thematic context…
In the Autumn of 2018 we created Memory Lines in Torrington Common, inspired by the Aboriginal Australian people’s tradition of learning the land through singing, dancing and conducting ceremonies. At several points on the route we undertook a short and ritual (of the non-pompous kind) to open up our senses and take in the detail and the atmosphere around us. It’s amazing what you notice when you stop…and be. We listened to insects in a meadow, collected stones in the river and did the Hokey Cokey under a bridge. At the end, the group recorded the experience by drawing on a map.
This experiment was definitely successful. There was a pick-and-mix of activities to suit different preferences or ages. My sister, who tells me that she has a terrible memory, has remembered the walk with some clarity two years later. The atmosphere was gentle and reflective. To me, it was good groundwork towards a more ‘active’ or playful kind of involvement.
In 2019 we created Ebb and Flow in appreciation of the ever-changing and vulnerable nature of the Taw/Torridge Estuary and the creatures that live there. The landscape has changed dramatically over geological time, through the process of continental drift and the ravages of Ice Ages but the sand-dunes and mud flats can change dramatically overnight. Migrating wading birds have to undergo lengthy and dangerous journeys as they travel North in the Spring and return in the Autumn. We wondered how we could use such a complex web of ideas and inject some creativity and fun. Would people join in with a more fantastical type of play and how might this support the ideas of the walk?
For example, we asked walkers to choose a Migratory Bird ID card and to identify themselves as this bird – to consider their vital statistics and their migratory routes. Their ‘bird journey’ was mapped onto the walk – we stocked up on berries found along the path, considered their routes and direction of flight, applied vaseline to any chaffed wings. We imagined the birds taking off at the top of a hill, with the group throwing confetti into the air to the sound of a swanee whistle. Half way along the journey we imagined them at various points in their journey north. And at the end of the walk, we ‘saw’ them coming home to land and making the most of the Mud Flats Restaurant – replete with periwinkles, cockles and green leaf worms.
The question was whether, through this type of play, people would feel some kind of enhanced connection with a bird species who lives for part of the year in this place? If they carried a handful of sand to the space that had been occupied by a massive sand-dune only 30 years ago, would they feel a deeper sense of a changing world? If they considered their own personal and imagined journeys – long journeys that they have made, times when they have been lost, what they would take with them if they had to leave at a moment’s notice, would they feel a personal connection to the overall context of movement?
Like everything – there are horses for courses and as guides within this kind of experience, we have to be flexible to people’s needs. If people are relaxed, they are often happy to trust to the moment and join in with gusto. I’m reminded of 3 mature women who laughed throughout and at the end were ready happy to pretend to be birds coming in to land (there was safety as friends in mix here of course). Some people find it easier to participate through talking and questioning and may find physical involvement too challenging. Some may be persuaded and some may not. Some people are ready to engage one-to-one but want to blend the background within a group.
We’re aware that our activities are not entirely inclusive. The walks I’ve mentioned all took place on rough terrain, sometimes posed difficulties for people with mobility issues and were not suitable for people who use wheelchairs to get about. We were interested to develop Ebb and Flow through consulting a visually impaired friendship group in Braunton, although it became apparent that the majority of the group were elderly, frail and not up to joining us on the Burrows. However, we decided to create an Audio Journey for them, so that they could enjoy walking by the sea vicariously through listening to footsteps on the audio. The audio was enhanced by listening through headphones and with blindfolds and we gave people a series objects to touch and smell for a more immersive kind of experience. This is the type of flexing that we want to adopt with all our projects from now on.
Our ability to differentiate between people with different preferences and needs continues to develop as we take considered steps towards a more sophisticated menu of playing options, so that some can embrace the calm and reflective aspect of being in nature and others can enjoy the raucous, arm flailing, liberated kind of fun that’s normally reserved for children.