Marta Mari - director and producer

Idea development

About two years ago I read this article about ash trees. It was about this disease (Chalara) that has been attacking ash trees across Europe. Once the tree is infected it needs to be cut down so in some countries about 80% of ash trees are gone. That was very alarming and worrying.
I have always liked being around trees. Somehow I have this huge respect for trees and it really makes me sad when people don’t have any regards for trees (…) When I was a child there was not that much paper being used. And we were fine. Now, so much paper is being wasted-from schools, offices, shops…It’s almost like people forget where it’s coming from! Anyway, the last paragraph of that article stated that in Norse mythology, death of Ash trees symbolises global chaos. I was intrigued by this and started to read more about ash trees in general and about its mythologies in various countries. In folklore, ash tree was considered a tree with healing powers-a tree of life. People used to create small clefts in them and passed newborn babies through the cleft 3 times to keep the babies well or to speed the healing of weak babies. There were other rituals and beliefs, which I found fascinating and inspired to create a theatre production for young audiences about ash trees.

In search of the movements- residency at Dance Base

At first I didn’t know what the story might be. But I knew I wanted this production to be full of movement, dance, really. I spoke to Agathe Girard who is a contemporary dancer and with whom I worked before. She liked the idea although wasn’t very convinced about it in the beginning.

I was very keen to work with dancers and explore the movement for trees to begin with. Agathe managed to secure a 2-week residency at Dance Base so we were set to go. Due to not having funding in place at that time I decided to open this residency to any dancers and actors interested in the subject matter.

Over the course of two weeks there have been around 15-20 people on a sort of rotating schedule, although there was a group of 5 that was our core team for the time.

I started off with bringing loads of books with incredible images of various trees. We looked through them and I asked people to choose couple: one they like the most and one that evokes strongest emotions. We then talked about them-what were their characteristics-what it meant for movement. I asked people to observe trees, how they moved, etc. We then tried various movements-very abstract, really.

From the beginning I knew music would lead this piece. I didn’t know what kind so we explore all sort of music from classical to Middle Eastern and Polish folk music.

In the second week I brought some text. Fragments of books I was reading about trees. We then tried more movements in response to those texts, which was a very interesting experience. I also collected some myths associated with ash trees and we used them as inspirations for physical improve scenes. Some of those, although much evolved, are present in the current production.

Those two weeks were very valuable for me as a director as I usually start off my work with the text, with the story. And here I didn’t have a story as such but rather an idea for one, the concept for emotional journey inspired by real event of ash die-back…

I learned that working with dancers was completely different to working with actors. Dancers tend to be more reserved, a bit more shy about expressing their ideas as opposed to actors, who I sometimes cannot shut up-in a very good way

I would like to thank all the dancers and actors who took part in our research and development residency at Dance Base, in particular Christina Duncan, Rachel Leonard, Yvonne McCombie, Ilecktra Gouni, Agathe Girard and Amelia.

Collaboration-the story

From the beginning I wanted this project to be truly collaborative-meaning people expressing their ideas, arguing about them, challenging each other, sharing stories so it was very important for me to create a good ensemble of people whose artistic sensitivity would appeal to me…
I also realized that I actually needed a proper script, a touching story that would appeal to both children and adults. I needed a writer. Although there are many greatly talented writers in Scotland and working with new writing enabled me to get to know quite a few, it wasn’t an easy task. I decided to go with my gut feeling and ask a writer whom I haven’t really known well, and although experienced, he has never written anything for kids or dance. But that didn’t really matter. For a completely different project I directed a staged reading of one of his short plays. A play that moved the audience and myself to tears…I wanted the same thing for my tree project…Fortunately, at that point I got some money and was able to commission this writer…That’s how the collaboration with Jack Dickson began. He is such a brilliant writer and a person, in general. He seemed to just jump into the world of ash trees…created these great characters taking real creatures like caterpillars as inspiration. And that is fantastic as through imaginary characters kids will be able to learn what kind of caterpillars live at ash trees feet! Apart from scientifically accurate facts, Jack was also able to weave folk rituals into his story incorporating our findings at dance residency! I remember waiting in great excitement for the first draft… Upon finishing my first read-through I knew I made a great choice asking Jack to be part of this project. I have thoroughly enjoyed this collaborative process with Jack…


Once the first draft was ready it was time to find performers. I think I have always seen Agathe as Fraxi-our ash tree. Agathe is a very warm, friendly, open and enthusiastic person. She likes people and is very observant. She also likes to spend lots of time outdoors-she was just a great choice for Fraxi…

Due to limited funding I could only afford two other performers. Out of many that responded to my call out, I invited seven for an audition workshop. They were all really, very good and I had an incredibly tough decision to make. One thing I learned before was that it was very important to cast actors for children show that can actually appeal to kids and who like kids. I know this might sound banal but it does make all the difference in the end…So, I actually invited my older daughter for the audition workshop and asked her to take part in couple of improv exercises. I watched her responding to performers and vice versa. I must state here that she ain’t no novice. She’s practically been born on stage and spent hours in rehearsals with me when she was younger. An actor friend of mine calls her “casting associate” In any case, out of that 7 people only two didn’t manage to make any connection with her. I really liked two women and two men. Normally, when it comes to casting I know pretty much right away. But this time it was an incredibly difficult choice. I slept on the idea and it didn’t make it any clearer. So I met with those four actors individually for coffee, to meet them a bit more…All four very talented, unique…Again, went with my gut feeling in the end...Melanie Jordan is like a chameleon-she can change so quickly from a large and silly caterpillar into a graceful butterfly. She’s very physical with the funniest facial expressions. Brendan Hellier is one of those actors that can pretty much play any character. He’s very intelligent and focused and generally fun to work with.

During our 2-week development in January 2014 we began by reading the script. We then re-read it. And again. And again. We spent a lot of time discussing the themes, the characters, the language, the form. We had lots of fun doing so. Due to the fact that I wanted dance to be big part of the storytelling Jack and I thought it might be good to have a narrator as a character telling the story. Later on I came up with the idea that perhaps we could have a child narrator-which might be more attractive to younger audiences. That meant however changing the language slightly to suit the child. Naturally, I brought in Amelia to read, to see if the idea might work. We finished the 2-week development hungry for more and excited about bringing the story to life and share it with the audience.

Jack Dickson - writer

I was really lucky growing up: I had this amazing grandpa who used to take me and my brother and sisters for long walks in the countryside. We'd tramp for miles and he'd spend ages telling us about animals, pointing out insects, flowers, plants and really bringing nature alive for us. He could identify every bird, every frog, every butterfly we encountered: he'd make-up funny stories about each of them and encourage us to do the same. I adored these walks. I adored my grandpa for introducing me to the great outdoors and everything in it. Only several decades later did I discover grandpa's real motivation for these long walks: my gran didn't let him smoke and, while he encouraged us kids to hunt around in long grass for hairy caterpillars and clegs (AKA sheep and deer ticks), grandpa would be enjoying a fly fag behind a wall.

But that doesn't matter now. The important thing is he was my route into an interest in the other creatures with whom we share this planet and so when Marta approaches me with her project about the Ash Die-back Virus, it felt like both an opportunity to brush up on my natural history knowledge and maybe, like grandpa, use funny stories to draw other people into the wonderful world around us.

Now I'll be honest: before I started working with Marta, I couldn't tell you an Ash tree from an ashtray (granpa will be turning in his grave, I know). But I did my research, like a conscientious writer (thank you, Wikipaedia!) and this whole weird world unfolded before me.

Leaving aside the vast array of intriguing myths which surround the ash, the botanical - or should that be arboreal? - science of these trees alone is enough to blow your mind. The flowers of the ash open before their leaves unfurl. Male and female flowers can be found on the same tree – IN fact, one year an ash tree can be 'male', and the next year it can be 'female'. We're talking gender-bending here, people – how cool is that?!

As I'm reading all this stuff, and walking around parks in Glasgow trying to find ash trees in autumn (difficult, without their distinctive leaves), characters begin to emerge. The oak tree, with its ancient lineage, always feels like a “king”( even to this anti-monarchist!); pine trees feel like armies, in the way they cover our hills in regimented rows. Of course, all trees are important, since they keep our atmosphere clean for us. But the ash? I dunno: maybe its her latin name – Fraxinus Excelsior – that gives her a regal air. Every tree also has a crown – that's actually the technical term for the bit with all the leaves – but the crown of the ash is special because of the way her leaves form. Ash leaves don't block out sun: they let light through to the forest floor below which allows other creatures and plants to flourish. So yeah – the ash tree could be Queen of the Forest. Now I just need a name for her: what about Fraxi?

There's something about naming characters that really brings them to life for me. After I gave Fraxi a name, her personality started to form. She needed a friend – for story purposes. What about a caterpillar? Great! Now, what about another friend – a human friend, since Marta was always keen that our story stress the importance of the relationship between us and the rest of the natural world. What about a young boy, who grows up around trees and who has Fraxi as his special friend? Of course, he has to be called Woody, because he grows to love and look after not only Fraxi but all the trees in the forest. Because they look after us. And what if Woody has a daughter – let's call her Ashley. And what if Woody passes on his love of the natural world to Ashley, the same way grandpa passed on his to me?

Before I knew it, we had a cast of characters to tell our story for us.

Nature's amazing. Nature never stays the same, it's always changing: the seasons change, animals grow up and change – we human beings do the same. For a dramatist, change is a very useful concept cos change is the essence of a story. And cos Marta's project's about this nasty Ash Die-back Virus which is attacking trees like our Fraxi, I knew somewhere along the road in this story, I'd have to tackle what could be regarded as the ultimate change: death.

The virus Chalara Fraxinea is infecting and killing ash trees and there's (right now, at least) only one way to stop this virus spreading: infected ash trees must be cut down. Chalara is the villain of our story – and villains are always great to write. They're big, they're strong, they're larger than life: give me a Wicked Queen over a Snow White any day of the week! But in this instance, chalara is microscopic (ooh, sciency bit!). She's a collection of spores (ooh, botanical bit!) so small you can't see her. Bur she's still deadly. And,of course, she's gonna get her spores into our Fraxi. This is tragic! It's also (says the writer in me) potentially a great story because someone's going to have to make a sacrifice (all REALLY great stories involve sacrifice): if Fraxi's infected, Fraxi must be cut down. Who's gonna do this terrible deed? Her best friend, of course – and he's going to do it for the noblest reason of all: to save the lives of other ash trees.

This is getting fun, for the writer in me. Writers love stories where bad stuff happens cos bad stuff's always more interesting than good stuff. I may end up writing the world's greatest (not to mention first) Arboreal Tragedy. I'm seeing Oscar nominations – Grammies! Red carpet award ceremonies! BUT...Marta's project is for young people: how does one present death to kids and not send them all away in tears? I've never written for weans before – how do I do this? How does anyone? We don't want to sugar-coat the truth but neither do we want to traumatise a generation.

Fact 1: nothing in nature ever really dies.

Fact 2: Death is a very real part of the cycle of life. At a molecular level (ooh, sciency bit!), death really is just change. And it's always rebirth. Leaves “die”, fall off trees and then moulder into mulch, which is both eaten by insects and provides a growing medium for baby trees and plants. So death is kinda good, yeah? Maybe it's hard to see this when it's your grandpa who dies: it was hard for me, and I still miss him. And okay, maybe it doesn't make me feel any better to think about him mouldering away and providing food for insects and worms. But what DOES remain of my grandpa, in a very real way, is the sense of wonder and awe for nature that he created in me.

Very early on in the development of this project, Marta and I discussed a way of incorporating this concept into our story. We came up with a baglama. You know what a baglama is? You want to find out what part it plays in Fraxi's story? I could tell you now ...but it'd be more fun for you to come along to the Botanical Gardens, between the 7th and the 23rd of August at 11 am and find out for yourselves. See you there!

Becca Inglis - marketing and outreach coordinator

Actors Pretending to be Trees

Towards the beginning of my time with Asylon Theatre, I sat in on a Fraxi Queen of the Forest rehearsal. I wanted to get to know the play a bit before starting to market it, to get a real feel for the story and how our talented actors were trying to portray it. During one run-through of the root dance, I was struck by the irony of my situation. Studying drama in school you often hear the joke that you spend your classes pretending to be trees, and here I was years later watching professional award-winning performers acting out the physicality of an ash tree. I loved every minute of it. You’d be surprised how many ways there are to become a tree! I saw the roots, the canopy, the leaves gasping for carbon dioxide… these are truly imaginative actors under fantastic direction bringing the story to life in creative ways. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the finished performance, complete with costume and live cello!

Berlin’s Magic Museum – Fraxi and Folk Cultures

Fraxi and Woody’s story really came to life for me when I travelled with my other half to Berlin. Looking for something a little different to do on our last day in the city, we visited the Magic Museum in the Hamburger Hof (I’d really recommend it – its definition of what counts as “magic” is pretty broad which definitely makes for interesting viewing).

About halfway through the exhibition I came across a leafless tree with a split in its middle. I was immediately reminded of Fraxi’s bond to Woody, who is passed through a hole in her trunk as a baby. I was fascinated to learn that this was a real ritual in Druid cultures, who believed that ash trees had palpable healing properties. One practice that was recorded in 1834 in Suffolk was people purposefully making a cleft in an ash tree and passing a newborn baby through it three times. The tree would then be bandaged, and if the hole successfully healed then the child live a healthy life. Link

Learning this really brought Woody and Fraxi’s friendship home to me – Fraxi’s powers have ensured that Woody is a strong and healthy boy, and Woody in turn uses his expertise to try and rescue the forest in its time of need. This makes me think of bigger practical issues like deforestation. Humans have felt a tangible connection to trees for several millennia, and now more than ever it is important to reflect on this tie. If trees have the power to give us a full life, for example taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turning it into oxygen, then surely it is our responsibility to reciprocate by protecting our planet’s forests?

Art and the Environment – How Creative Professionals Are Saving the World

One part of my job with Asylon Theatre has been to spread the word about Fraxi Queen of the Forest by talking to target audiences. As part of this I’ve been contacting climate activism bloggers, since our play has such a big sustainability focus. Part of the story’s charm is its emphasis on teaching children about the wildlife that lives alongside Fraxi, providing interactive elements where the audience is invited to shout out its knowledge about birds and butterflies. Our young audience is encouraged to see their connection to nature and find out ways to help preserve it.

During my extensive googling for online advocates of environment activism, I came across some really interesting artistic projects. It turns out that there is a wide movement of artists looking at ways to incorporate sustainability into their work, and to depict the important role of the environment in our human lives. One such project is called Future Library. Artist Katie Paterson has organised for a forest of Norwegian spruce trees to be planted just outside Oslo. In 2114, when these trees have been given a century to grow, they will be used to make paper for one hundred books. These books will have been written between now and 2114, but will not be printed and published until this time. Paterson’s project will acknowledge the role of printed books in our lives, but will also emphasise the importance of sustainability over instant gratification. Whilst we take materials from our environment for our own use, we should do so responsibility in an effort to preserve our world.

Another environmental art project that I love is my own sister’s, who designed a pair of seat covers for her Art Foundation course. Each would show the different outcomes in our environment depending on the extinction or survival of bees. With them, there is a scene of a flourishing garden with colourful blooming flowers and, of course, complementary bees. Without bees, a more autumnal scene dominates where the garden is scarce and the burnt-orange plants completely lack petals. It’s such a great concept – the chairs are interactive, in fact they are seats. They support our weight, like the bees who pollinate plants that form the foundation of our food chain. My sister was trying to get people to think about the bee crisis and what they could do to help preserve the insect population (one way, if you’re interested, is to keep a compost heap at the bottom of your garden – they make attractive homes for bee colonies).

I’ve found it fascinating seeing how creative professionals have made their work more sustainable. We in Fraxi Queen of the Forest will be making similar efforts – for example we’ll be looking at pressing flowers into fabric to make natural dyes for costumes, and perhaps using recycled paper for our printed leaflets and posters.

Robin Hellier - performer

I am not a dancer by trade. I’ve always been an actor who dabbles in movement and choreography, with a dash of contact improvisation and stage combat. So it was with some trepidation that I approached this piece of dance / physical theatre - especially entering the room with the seasoned, indefatigable Melanie Jordan and Agathe Girard. It turns out they’re also very friendly though, which helps a lot!

Through our weeks of devising and development, we have arrived at a performance piece which blends the best of all of our skills and backgrounds, to tell a story of growth, loss, and change. Having two separate development periods, one at the start of the year and then another five months later, was a huge boon. This allowed us to spend time quickly hashing out a huge spread of ideas, images and sections of choreography, then revisit these with fresh eyes to blend them into a cohesive whole.

What we have ended up with is one hundred mile an hour storytelling, with a turnover of ideas and images as unchecked as a child’s imagination. We pass through the seasons of the forest, sometimes lingering in the daze of Summer or musty air of Autumn, other times whirling through all four in the blink of an eye, just as Edinburgh weather is wont to do.

At its heart though, this is a story which I have grown to care about deeply. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house that backed onto the woods, and have always seen trees as marking that border between civilisation and the other; the land of fairytales, dens and adventure. Fraxi’s story contains all of these elements, wrapped around the central philosophy of life, death and rebirth in the forest. That is something we can all relate to in terms of our place in the world, and celebrates the endurance and adaptability of nature.

I have loved working on bringing the story of Fraxi, Queen of the Forest to life with the talented Asylon Theatre team, and hope you enjoy watching it as much as we do putting it on. - Brendan

Melanie Jordan - performer

As a performer I am always drawn to roles that have some comedy and silliness in them, which is why I am so delighted to be working on Jack Dickson's Fraxi Queen of the Forest. Jack's writing tells the important tale of life cycles in nature and the sometimes hard to swallow facts of life. But it is done in such a heartwarming and witty way that he finds the joy in these life lessons. The character I play is particularly silly and particularly fun to play. H.B.Caterpiller is a lovable creature who enjoys nothing more than to play in the grass and watch the world go by with his best friend Fraxi. Until he gets hungry. Then the hungry caterpillar becomes an extremely grumpy caterpillar! Until he finds a nice juicy dog violet to munch on then he returns to his happy-go-lucky self.

I love how H.B.Caterpiller sees the world. He thinks he is pretty street smart but actually he is an innocent wee thing who takes everything at face value and doesn't understand more than he lets on. You could tell him that clouds are made of candy floss and he would believe you (although he'd never admit that!) He has the honest candour of clown which I really enjoy playing. Also on researching the way caterpillars move I've discovered they are actually pretty funny things, a bit like wobbly breakdancers. Clowns of the forest!

This July I am going to Ecole Philippe Gaulier in Paris to study Clowning and Le Jeu (play). I'm really looking forward to applying my clown training to the role of H.B.Caterpiller! It's going to be a fun August!

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