Thursday, 19 May 2011

A favourable truth

Hand it to Al Gore for inspiring a generation of environmental films that shame humanity into re-thinking our impacts on the planet. While it's (sort of?) working, An Inconvenient Truth and its dreary counterparts can be a depressing viewing experience.

Which makes Puppet State Theatre Company's adaptation of The Man Who Planted Trees all the more appealing in this day of heightened environmental awareness. Add the fact that the story is told through puppetry and you have yourself a different kind of tale.

"It's a positive environmental story, it's not the type of story that makes you feel bad. It's not doom-laden," says Richard Medrington, founder of and performer in Puppet State.

Jean Giono first published his tale of a tree-planting shepherd who brings a deserted valley back to life in 1953, under its original title, The Man Who Planted Hope and Reaped Happiness. In 1987, it was adapted as an animated short and won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.

Medrington, a seasoned puppeteer, discovered the story in 2005 and adapted it to the stage with his colleague, Rick Conte. They used the shepherd's dog as the narrator, cutting out the anonymous man used in Giono's original, to round out the drama with humour and improvisation.

"We felt that it was a story that needed to be told and we were looking for a new show to do," Medrington says.

For the last five years, Medrington and Conte have taken the show to cities around the world, garnering rave reviews. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote in a review last November, "The language and cadence of the show is pitched at adults; there's no talking down to the audience."

In those five years, environmental awareness has increased in the Western world and as a result, Medrington says he has noticed shifts in audience appreciation for The Man Who Planted Trees, most notably from the adults.

"People are just very moved by it sometimes. People stand with tears at the end of it. (They) say so afterward, that they were crying," Medrington says.

He adds, "I think it's an extraordinary story that (Giono) wrote because it's so simple, but it had layers of meaning to it. I keep having revelations to it while I'm doing the show... and it's not always specifically environmental things that I get out of it, it's just general life lessons."

Medrington says that humour plays a big role in carrying the play, which might otherwise buckle under the weight of its own message. The dog is used to lighten the load.

"Any kind of performance where you press the same button over and over again, people get weary," Medrington says. "If it's hitting the same area of the human brain, you just get tired. You've got to have variety."

And variety it has. They use that to shape the story's dimensions while using sound effects and smells, such as with lavender floating into the audience. Medrington says he wants to give as much variety in the performance as possible, so nothing goes on for too long.

"We're still striving to get it right. We've probably done it nearly 1,500 times now and it's always different, the audience is always different, new things come and old things leave and come back again. We try to keep it fresh. That's the challenge for us as performers, having done it so often," he says.

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