Theatre in the Garden

We get many Placemaking Micro-grant applications for community gardens.   We do consider community gardens to be a placemaking project assuming that they will be multi-functional gardens so that the whole community can have a place to gather and enjoy and not just a handful of gardeners.

While I have seen several ideas to make community gardens more open and inviting to others such as the addition of seating, walking paths, ponds, Zen gardens, pergolas, gazebos and more, I just recently came across a really creative idea – theatre in the garden.

Sherrine Azab and Jake Hooker moved to Detroit in 2012.  Together they founded “A Host of People,” a theater company that “invites audiences to be more at home with experimental art.” After visiting a few city-based community gardens, many located on once-vacant properties, Hooker and Azab realized that the stories and motivations behind the gardens were as diverse as the neighborhoods where they were located.

“That’s when we got the idea to stage productions here, to tell these stories,” says Azab. “We found this immediate kinship between gardening and art-making, this idea of creating something from nothing with the goal of nurturing your mind as well as your body.”

Their resulting theater project, “The Harrowing,” draws comparisons between the act of gardening and the act of art-making; between nourishing the community with fresh food and nourishing imaginations with new ways of telling stories.   It is a site-responsive theatre piece created to be performed in community gardens throughout Detroit and was conceived in response to the vibrant community garden movement that has become so strong in this city.

Sherry Hebron of the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm says “The Harrowing” is just another event in an already-busy summer at the city’s largest community garden. “It’s a great way to articulate what happens in a space like ours and connect it to the community it serves.”  “We intentionally designed this space for community events,” she says, noting the canning classes, African dance instruction and youth outreach programs.

The production will be performed free over five summer weekends in eight community gardens throughout the city. Music, dance, storytelling and audio and visual elements combine to paint a picture of each of the gardens in the past, present and future.  Audience members (limited to about 40, depending on the space) will move to various sites throughout the garden that is hosting the performance. Under set-decorated tents, they’ll be greeted by performers playing characters — everything from a befuddled historian to inanimate garden components.

The evening will be capped by an interactive vision of what the future holds for Detroit gardens and common spaces. Audience members will be encouraged to chime in here and during the post-show garden party that will follow each performance.

Sam Moltmaker also helps with the productions.  As she sees it, “The Harrowing” is about understanding and affecting the world around you. “I think it will inspire people to either look for things in their area that they may not have been plugged into,” she says. “It might also get them to start something themselves, inspired by these gardeners who went into these vacant lots of land and created something beautiful.”

So as you are planning your community garden, be sure to make sure it provides a welcoming place for the whole community to enjoy and who knows it may plant the seed to an Oscar winner.

(Photos courtesy of Spilt Sugar Photography and a Host of People.)