When Hurricane Katrina swept through an old family home of playwright and performance artist Lisa D’Amour, the storm toppled a hundred pine trees that surrounded the house. As she lamented the loss, D’Amour took comfort in a dreamy vision offered by her frequent collaborator, Katie Pearl.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing,” said Pearl, “if we could build them back onstage again and make it all better?”
That idea inspired the pair, who work together under the moniker PearlDamour, to team up with visual artist Shawn Hall and sound designer Brendan Connelly to create “How to Build a Forest,” a unique performance installation that runs Oct. 23-29 at the Contemporary Arts Center.
“How to Build a Forest” follows a team of seven builders who build an enchanted forest made entirely from ropes, fabrics and found materials. Once complete, the forest stands for a brief time, then in a frenzy of activity, it’s quickly dismantled and the stage is cleared, leaving no trace of the forest behind.
The whole endeavor lasts just eight hours. Audiences can watch from beginning to end, or they can drop in at any time over the course of the performance and stay as long as they like, or they can come and go as they please.
“We always have a stalwart crew of people that like to come for the whole eight hours — we call it the eight-hour club — but then there a lot of people that plan to come for 20 minutes and wind up staying much longer because they get very intrigued,” said D’Amour.
Before entering the theater, audience members are greeted by a “ranger” who provides a field guide to the forest and gives an update on the builders’ progress. Once inside, audiences can explore the forest on their own or take part in a guided tour. Builders remain mostly silent throughout the process but will occasionally break from their work to engage in quiet conversations with guests.
“I do think that it can be mysterious and maybe frustrating to certain audience members in the way that any play could be, so we’ve incorporated a lot of ways for you to stay engaged in something that might seem really slow when you first come in,” said D’Amour.
“How to Build a Forest” first premiered in New York City in 2011, and the installation has appeared at several universities around the country since then. For the performances at the CAC, the production will include partnerships with organizations such as A Studio in the Woods, Hike for KaTREEna and the Woodlands Conservancy, in order to focus more specifically on issues related to the natural effects of Hurricane Katrina on the Louisiana landscape.
According to Hall, the artist who brought the vision of the magical forest to life, “How to Build a Forest” was intentionally designed to evoke the fragile nature of local wildlife.
“I use a lot of transparent fabrics to get that sense of ephemeral and temporality of what we live with,” said Hall. “We think it’s all concrete, not going anywhere, and it is going someplace. We can destroy it, and it can go away. Forests aren’t forever here if we don’t take care of them.”
Along with Pearl, D’Amour, and Hall, the team of builders for “How to Build a Forest” includes New Orleans painter Patch Somerville, Tulane University dance professor Barbara Hayley, and Phil Cramer and Bear Hebert from New Orleans theater ensemble NEW NOISE.