Arts Blog

Walk with Nature (and Emerson/Thoreau) in Cowling Arboretum

September 30, 2015
By Thomas Rozwadowski

Tyson Forbes knows he won’t be able to control the weather this weekend.

Lighting. Acoustics. If a gaggle of Carleton’s famously friendly geese disrupts the entire presentation with ill-timed honking.

All out of his hands.

Which should also help explain why he’s confident that Nature, an original production TigerLion Arts is performing three times in Cowling Arboretum on Saturday and Sunday, will be unlike anything audience members have ever seen.

“People like to know what to expect. But I don’t like to know what to expect,” says Forbes, who heads Minneapolis-based TigerLion Arts with his actor/director wife, Markell Kiefer.

“It’s even hard for me to know what to call Nature sometimes. Is it a play? Yes. But it jumps from multiple styles, and it’s all highly visual because we’re outside. Sounds can get soaked up outdoors, so we’re communicating this story that has to rely on words—but it also has to stand on its own physically. If you’re standing in the back row, you still have to be able to follow it. So it’s designed to hit on a lot of different levels.”

At its core, Nature is grounded in traditional theater: Telling a story about principal characters Ralph Waldo Emerson (Forbes) and Henry David Thoreau (John Catron). The plot follows their chronology as groundbreaking thinkers and writers, focusing primarily on the pair’s rise to prominence and the burgeoning cracks in their friendship. Actors dress in 1850s garb while accompanying performers intersperse lush choral arrangements (bagpipes, flute, violin, drums) and dance routines throughout.

The structure of the show is where things get really interesting.

Billed as an “outdoor walking play,” Nature’s scenes are spread throughout multiple locations of an outdoor space, allowing the audience to physically move with the action. You can sit on the ground or on chairs brought from home, stand the entire time or mill around with children. But you won’t be in the same spot for 90 minutes.

A community chorus guides the audience through the performance changes, and rest assured, if two actors are gesturing wildly in a field 50 yards away, others will be nearby to narrate the scene.

Everything is intentional, Forbes says, which he’s quick to point out since newcomers often expect something more improvisational or open form. Only Mother Nature—provider of free and gorgeous set design—has a say in how the performance can be altered. Yet rain or shine, the show must go on.

“Weather is always a beautiful part of it. The light is different each time. The wind is different. The temperature is different,” Forbes says. “Doing it at this same time of year last fall, I remember that it was freezing. It felt like it could snow at any time, and to be honest, that was exciting.”

While Forbes, a Concord, Mass. native and direct descendant of Emerson, had wanted to explore a production about his great-great-great grandfather since he left college in the early 2000s, Kiefer’s experience with walking plays brought fresh inspiration. The result is a marriage between the celebrated Transcendentalists’ environmental philosophies and the natural beauty they publicly embraced.

“It’s such a unique play. Magical, really,” says Arb director Nancy Braker ‘81, who saw a previous performance of Nature at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska. “Being outdoors, it gives you a completely different perspective on the topic, and makes you think about your relationship to nature. We’re lucky to have a piece of property at Carleton that is ideal to the artist’s situation.”

TigerLion has been working with Braker and fellow Arb experts since last October to figure out logistics for the weekend performances. Most of Nature will be contained to the edge of the Arb near the Recreation Center, Braker says, to accommodate crowds and utilize permissible space. Following the Saturday performance, a Q&A session will be held with actors.

It’s all part of Nature’s evolution. Having spent much of summer touring, Forbes marvels at the precise fine-tuning that takes place in every new space. By meeting with community members, students, and academics at various performance sites, the show appears to be fulfilling a greater emotional purpose.  

It helps that the star always remains the same. All you have to do is look around and breathe it in.

“I hope audience members ask themselves what their relationship is to the bigger character in this piece. I want them to reflect on nature,” Forbes says. “When you take Emerson and Thoreau’s ideas and put it in the context of what’s actually around us, it bursts the whole metaphor. We’re not just talking about ideas. We’re experiencing it.”


Nature: A Walking Play takes place in the Cowling Arboretum at 5 p.m. Saturday, and 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday. The performances are free, but reserved tickets are still needed. Get them here.

Audience members are asked to meet in the Recreation Center parking lot, 501 Three Oaks Drive. Keep in mind construction to the stone bridge across Spring Creek on MN Highway 19. That road is closed.

For more about the TigerLion Arts show, visit their website