The outdoor touring theatre adaptation of the book The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris turned to technology to set the scene and atmosphere in its latest production and bring people closer and more open to nature.
The Lost Words is a ‘book of spells’ that began as a response to the removal of everyday nature words, such as acorn, bluebell, kingfisher and wren, from a widely used children’s dictionary. The dictionary reflects the words regularly used by children and these words were no longer in their everyday vocabulary.
The book sought to bring back the magic of the nature that surrounds us. But this grew to become a much broader protest at the loss of the natural world around us, as well as a celebration of the creatures and plants with which we share our planet.
In the large hardback book each lost word is conjured back to importance through Robert’s powerful ‘spells’ and the beautiful illustrations by Jackie Morris. They are called spells rather than poems as they are designed to be spoken (or sung) out loud to summon back the words and creatures into our hearts. Robert explained: "We’ve got more than 50% of species in decline. We find it hard to love what we cannot give a name to. And what we do not love we will not save.” www.thelostwords.org
The Lost Words: Told In Gold, the outdoor theatre companion to the book, was first performed at the inaugural TIMBER Festival in The National Forest last year. This took visitors on a journey around the woodland with the spells to speak aloud installed on banners on the route.
In the latest adaptation, Creator and Director, Collette Murray, wanted to forge a greater connection with the audience and make them feel part of the production. They needed a base to set the scene and create atmosphere for the performance – so the idea of the Goldfinch’s nest was born.
Each performance would begin inside the 9.5 metre wide, 4.5 metre high ‘Goldfinch nest’ dome with the audience sat around the central hexagonal stage with seamless animated illustrations projected all around them. This needed bright, high resolution projectors perfectly blended and warped around the dome with the precise throw ratio needed to achieve full coverage.
The production appointed one of the UK’s most original and innovative performance theatre companies, imitating the dog, to oversee the video mapping, design and animation that would encircle the audience. Simon Wainwright, Artistic Director at imitating the dog, recommended four Optoma EH400+ projectors as these had 4,000-lumen brightness, Full HD resolution and the throw ratio needed while being fairly inobtrusive, compact and quiet.
The team installed, blended and warped the projectors around the dome using Isadora software. This was run via a Mac with an X4 splitter sending the corresponding image to each projector to create the fluid movement of animations all the way around the space. This included an owl flying through woodland, a murmuration of starlings and flurries of snow whistling around the dome. Speakers were installed both inside the dome and throughout the trail. Emotive sounds and music, as well voices from well-known actors and TV presenters speaking the spells added to the magical atmosphere.
Chris Payne, Producer of The Lost Words: Told In Gold, said: “We chose to make the mobile venue for the beginning of each show into a Goldfinch’s nest as these birds, full of beauty and character, are one of the lost words that feature on the front cover of the book.
“The projectors needed to be installed wide enough to knit across the whole of the interior dome structure and bright enough not to be washed out with the stage lighting. The four Optoma projectors were within our budget and top of the range to do exactly what we needed.
“Projectors are usually installed either on mounts or brackets hung on trussing. Installing these inside the dome onto what is effectively a tent framework was a real challenge. We had to make sure there was absolutely no movement in the projectors as the slightest slippage would send the blend out of focus. I am pleased to say that no adjustment was needed at any point throughout the week’s performances.”
The team had to carefully plan the stage lighting so that it lit the actors but didn’t bleed and wash out the projections around the walls and roof. For this reason it used predominantly horizontal lighting rather than up-lighting.
The five actors in the production play different birds, each with their own personalities and back stories. These include the Raven, Kingfisher, Heron, Barn Owl and Goldfinch. After the 25-30 minute performance inside the dome, the audience become goldfinches and are led outside into nature to seek, find and speak the lost words. Spells – the words to be discovered in the woodland - are perched on branches like starlings and wrapped around trees like ivy.
The first performance featuring the Goldfinch nest took place at Brockhole as part of the Lakes Alive Festival between 7-14 September 2019.
Chris said: “Entering the dome via the ‘hole’ in the Goldfinch’s nest builds excitement and anticipation that something magical and special is going to happen inside. Our projected animations set the scene with dark bluebell woods encircling the audience complemented by the brilliant acoustics in the dome to create the atmosphere. The projections allowed us to establish this mood and feeling in the audience instantly.
“It was a real joy to see children’s eyes light up as the movement, speech, music and animations all come together in this rich immersive experience.”
Collette Murray, Creator and Director of the theatre adaptation, said: “All the way through we have been faithful to Jackie’s illustrations and artwork. We wanted these beautiful illustrations to add depth to the performance.
“The projections enable a visual response really quickly. For example, the changing colours from a bright summer sky to a dark brooding wood immediately shifts the mood in the space and helps tell the story.
“Children increasingly use the digital to frame their world rather than use the frame of a book or nature. The use of projection at the start of the performance is akin to putting this familiar frame around the unfamiliar nature. From here we can transport them to the natural world, opening their eyes and ears externally as well as in the frame of the nest.
"As a result of using this new introduction, audience interaction has dramatically increased in this new show. Our audiences, some of whom it is their first theatre experience, are interacting more enthusiastically with words and nature. That is what the projectors are enabling!”
Chris added: “Although the production is all about nature, we purposely made the opening sequence technology heavy with projection and music so that when the audience moves outside to the woods and fields they experience this massive contrast. They have the awe of seeing the illustrations inside the dome matched by going outside into the natural world.
“We are so chuffed with the final result, and the audience’s reaction to it, and excited about the forthcoming dates.”
The Lost Words author, Robert Macfarlane, added: “At the heart and origin of The Lost Words is a wish to bring nearby nature – the creatures, trees and plants with which we share our landscapes, but that too often slip from our care or attention – back into the lives and stories of Britain’s children.
“Collette’s adaptation promises to do exactly this, in a new way - adapting The Lost Words into a spoken-word/oral culture performance, to tour festivals, and then to look to a longer legacy for the adaptation in terms of a show that can be taken into schools.”
Forthcoming dates and venues
The Lost Words: Told In Gold will be performed in October at The National Trust: Dunham Massey and will start a national tour of the production in 2020. Confirmed dates include:
21-25 October 2019: The National Trust: Dunham Massey
27-31 March 2020: The Sill National Landscape Discovery Centre, Northumberland
27 April-2 May 2020: Manchester Heaton Park
26-30 May 2020: Quarry Bank Mill
24-27 July 2020: North York Moors National Park
More dates will be added to this programme. For a full list of venues and dates visit: https://seekfindspeak.com
The Lost Words: Told In Gold
The Lost Words: Told In Gold is the only licensed theatre production of the book which is becoming a national phenomenon with children, families and schools. With its themes of sustainability and the loss of the UK's nature and wildlife, it attempts to reignite the younger generation with a love and care for the planet we inhabit. The production is created in partnership with The National Trust, Manchester City Council and the Arts Council England.
imitating the dog
Fusing live performance with digital technology, imitating the dog has been making ground-breaking work for theatres and other spaces for 20 years. In addition to its theatre and festivals work, it delivers a creative learning programme, in schools, colleges, universities and community settings, alongside productions, and an annual international skills exchange, aimed at developing and sharing digital technology skills for live performance.
Photography © Chris Payne