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  • Can collective storytelling make us eco-conscious?


    Giulia Grillo reflects on how directing ‘Near to’ has helped her explore new forms of audience engagement with the environment in the era of climate change.

    These days everyone’s talking about global warming, turning vegan or how owning a car is uncool. Someone’s attacking big corporations for their carbon footprint. Someone is crying in despair. I think we all need a little space to gather and rest. I imagine the possibility of a nature club: a space to pause and have a chat. No need to develop your foraging skills or your bushcraft… Just show up, sip a hot drink and share stories about your favorite tree or body of water. Nature club could offer you a chance to celebrate your favourite species now gone extinct or publicly profess your love for your local moor.

    In the past two years, I’ve been making a lot of art about nature and eco-systems. My Instagram feed is full of news about environmental disasters…I have OCD and definitely have climate anxiety. Perhaps that explains my artistic agenda!

    But I’m not sure that’s it. I think the subject of my art has something to do with the fact that my grandad was a farmer and my dad grew up around donkeys and cows. Maybe it’s because dad passed onto me this idea that he lived in harmony with his little world as a young man.

    Granny used to make fresh bread twice a week and everything they ate could be tracked back to its origin. The eggs came from the chickens in the yard, the tomatoes from their allotment, and the peaches and oranges from the big trees guarding their house made of stone.

    They planted the seeds, watched them grow, picked up the fruits and ate them when ripe. And all these farming duties generated a ridiculous amount of stories. For dad, every bit of their garden hides an anecdote. I remember him telling me that climbing atop a cherry tree in May to pick the first fruits was a treat. That soft plums would occasionally be used as weapons to play war with his brother. I imagine the two of them walking home from the field in bloody cherry-coloured t-shirts. 

    As I reminisce, I remember that theatre director Anne Bogart talks a great deal about making art in response to stuff we care about as artists. But then I ask myself ‘what is care? How do we generate care?’

    When grandpa died, I remember talking to my dad about the state of the family palm trees. The gigantic sentinels of our family land got ill— a parasite was eating them from the inside. Grandpa planted them and over the course of his entire life they became huge. In his will, little was left to the family other than land and plants. Amongst stumpy lemon and apricot trees, you must understand the majestic palm trees stood out as precious gems. Apparently they were a genetic hybrid, a creative project of my grandad’s. He absolutely adored them, particularly because they created big spots of shade to rest during the hottest days of summer.

    The red palm weevil was making his way through the palm trunks, and my dad and I found ourselves experiencing proper loss.

    Bear with me here, we’re not strictly animists. We just cared about those palms for some reason. Probably because they contained the story of grandad’s life.

    A few days ago, my flatmate told me she was grieving over the rose bush she left behind in her old house. Apparently her mom gifted it to her. She then confessed she’d love a replacement rose bush in our garden. Can a rose bush carry the promise of home? I looked at Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard and found an answer. In the Russian play, cherry trees not only represent happiness and prosperity for the entire family.

    As I was rehearsing for my piece ‘Near to’, which is about grief, I opened up a conversation with my company. Amongst break ups and bereavement, we discussed the idea of ecological grief. Was that pushing it too far? Perhaps, but then I found an interesting article.

    On 28 September, 2023, news spread that the Sycamore Tree on Hadrian’s Wall had been "deliberately" chopped down overnight.In response to the event, people in County Durham started sharing memories about the sycamore tree.

    ‘A sentinel of time and elemental spirit of Northumberland has been murdered.’

    ‘We grew up in Northumberland and I am one of four siblings. When we get together at Christmas and half term we often go there.’

    ‘It is such a memorable and cool tree in an amazing location and is unique. I also had a photo in 1992 with friends in the tree and now the next generation can't do that. It's a loss.’

    Even pupils got together to write a wee poem about the tree. Six-year old Jack said "When we first heard the poem, it was really emotional to us. At the end of it, three of us started crying”.

    So what is it that makes us care about a tree?

    When it came to build our piece Near to, which is about people experiencing grief and finding respite through community storytelling, I asked one of the actors to imagine mourning an inanimate object. He picked a leek. I remember thinking ‘What a stupid thought. A leek.’

    He surprised me with a whole story about a break-up. The vegetable turned into a trace of the past relationship. The leeks resembled a micro-world of insecurities, difficult feelings and imagined futures for the mourned lover. Again, it was memories and stories that made me care about those leeks.

    A little story could turn leeks into memorabilia, the Sycamore Tree into a community symbol, grandpa’s palm trees into my inheritance, and El’s rose bush into a constitutive part of her home.

    Is there a way of infusing life into things? Can stories about trees, leeks, and rose bushes change the way we feel towards the world around us? Can storytelling make us care for things in the era of  over consumption, biological extinction, and pervasive pollution? My gut tells me storytelling could be a radical alternative to lessons about recycling or using public transport.

    Grief is how we love things after they die, and grief can be a vital fuel to hold onto the things we care about.

    Near to is part of SPRINT Festival 2024 

    Sat 16 March at 9 pm

    TIckets 8 £ (work in progress)

    “Such a crucial part of the UK theatre ecology… Developing artists and audiences”

    The Guardian