Creating a contemplative and immersive theatre experience in the Central American jungle to raise awareness of climate change

An artistic process

An indigenous community in Central America, living traditionally in one of the world’s richest biomes, is providing the inspiration for a truly experiential and contemplative theatre work project, aimed at highlighting the process of climate change and its worrying effects.

‘The Dreaming of Trees’ has been developed by lead researchers Dr Deborah Middleton, Senior Lecturer in Drama at University of Huddersfield, and Nicolás Núñez, Visiting Professor from UNAM, Mexico, through their work with the Guna community in remote Panama.  

The Guna have sustained an autonomous, traditional lifestyle in the comarca of Guna Yala in Panama, living between forest and sea, and are noted for their traditional forest management techniques. They are also at the forefront of climate change, experiencing rising sea-levels that threaten their islands and their culture. As such, the population have a sophisticated understanding of ecology and our inter-relationship with the planet. 

In the tiny, traditional village of Armila, the project research team worked with the Guna community, gaining access to their traditional wisdom regarding the local trees and the opportunity to experience immersion in a jungle environment.

Dr Middleton says the encounter with the Guna people and the place provided the basis for a “deeply experiential and contemplative” research project, combining several strands. Contemplative and psychophysical exercises as mechanisms for audience participation; performance text as guided contemplation; and training for contemplative and immersive theatre were all incorporated into the team’s work.

Theatre in the woods

The result was the creation of an ecological, immersive performance event, The Dreaming of Trees, combining the meditation-in-movement and ritual dynamics of Núñez with a contemplative performance text written by Dr Middleton.

Photo by Caroline Clay Photo by Caroline Clay

Taking place in woodland settings, the performance was shared as a work-in-progress in Armila, Panama in June 2017, and premiered in Mexico City in the forest park of Chapultepec the following month.

“The Dreaming of Trees creates a channel of sensitive communication between Guna Yala and audiences in Mexico and the UK, mediated through contemplative artistic process,” Dr Middleton explains.

“The team had an extraordinary opportunity to learn from an indigenous community, living traditionally in one of the world’s richest biomes, and to use the encounter with the people and the place as the basis for a deeply experiential and contemplative theatre work.”

The Dreaming of Trees builds on numerous prior collaborations between the various team members, but especially on Puentes Invisibles, a contemplative and participatory performance experience in the forest of Chapultepec, Mexico City in November 2016.

Also involved in the project were Helena Guardia, Taller de Investigación Teatral, Mexico, Dr Domingo Adame, Universidad Veracruzana, Mexico, and Caroline Clay, Postgraduate Research student, Drama, University of Huddersfield.