'Susurrus' makes the natural world its stage at Matthaei Botanical Gardens
Generally, if you’re a contemporary playwright, you play an active role in the premiere production of a work, and then you send the script out into the larger world, where theater companies will (hopefully) pick it up and run with it, making it their own.
But unconventional theater pieces — like David Leddy’s “Susurrus,” presented to open the University Musical Society's season at Matthaei Botanical Gardens — often can and do make more extensive demands on a playwright.
“I always have to go (to locales where the show will be produced) and spend time working out the route very carefully,” said Leddy. “The show is very carefully plotted, and I work with a visual artist to develop a map for each location, taking visual elements from the park itself and integrating them into the map’s border and background.”
“Susurrus” — which means “whispering, murmuring, or rustling” and is pronounced sus-YOO-rus — is a bit like a self-guided tour through a park or garden, though instead of hearing about native foliage through headphones, patrons listen to characters discuss opera, memorial benches, botany, and bird dissection, as a larger story of love and loss unfolds. (The play has adult themes, so the show is recommended for age 16 and older.)
But what happens when you subtract the controlled environment of a stage, and all visible elements of acting, from a play and force the audience to have a personal, rather than communal, experience with it?
“I think has a meditative effect, a concentrating effect,” said Leddy. “You listen to what you’re told carefully, but at the same time, you’ve got natural visual elements that are engaging you. Someone once said to me, ‘When I listen to radio play, my mind inevitably wanders, and I get bored, because I’m just sitting on sofa. In this environment, you have to invest the visual elements of the narrative into world around you.” It can be a very intense experience.”
Leddy grew up in Surrey, but he now lives in the West End of Glasgow, where the Botanic Gardens have an almost mythic hold on the locals. That, paired with Leddy’s early love of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — though a fidgety boy, he reportedly watched a production with rapt attention at age 8 — helped give birth to “Susurrus.”
“It’s not a retelling of ‘Midsummer,’” said Leddy. “It takes minor theme, but a vital theme, and expands out into a new narrative, a new piece of work. What interests me most is Oberon’s overwhelming desire for the changeling Indian prince. Much of what happens in the play happens because Oberon’s trying to get the boy from Titania. What isn’t addressed is why he wants the boy, and what he plans to do with him.”
Considered one of the UK’s hottest up-and-coming playwrights, Leddy has a background in performance art, but he doesn’t consider himself a site-specific artist.
“In many ways, (‘Susurrus") is quite a simple piece,” Leddy said, in referring to the unchanging permanence of the recording.
Plus, Leddy finds that roaming natural spaces in foreign locales is generally a peaceful, pleasant experience, despite the fact that last fall, he had to go on a short-but-grueling, fast-paced tour of the U.S. — visiting a new state each day — to map out different productions of “Susurrus.”
“It was quite tiring, which is paradoxical to the piece,” said Leddy. “(‘Susurrus’) is quiet and thoughtful and beautiful and relaxing. So it was quite strange to be dashing about these gardens, and then rushing to catch a flight.”
Of course, when a playwright plucks his work from a theater, he surrenders a great deal of control. Noises, passersby, animals, weather conditions, and technical glitches could all interfere with the show. But Leddy is quick to argue that these uncertainties can also add to the overall experience in surprising ways.
“There was a beautiful blog post written by someone in New Haven,” said Leddy. “He described how a (wolf-like dog) came to him as he was sitting on a bench, and he wrote that it was as if this had been arranged by me to key in with what was happening in the piece. As a listener, you project your immediate experiences into the text. By themselves, something like that has no meaning at all until someone sees it and interprets it and gives it meaning.”