The story behind The Memory of Trees

Our neighbours from Théâtre National will open the new cultural season with the next part in the Ghost Road series on ghost towns. The Memory of Trees tells the story of the Russian city of Ozjorsk where in 1957 the third most serious nuclear disaster in the world occurred. The story behind The Memory of Trees, an interview with theatre makers Fabrice Murgia (FM) and Dominique Pauwels (DP).


The Memory of Trees is the third part in a series of productions that began with Ghost Road, followed by Children of nowhere. What fundamental thematic and design principles apply?

FM: So this is the third part in a series of productions – the definitive number has not yet been established – that we collectively refer to as the Ghost Road series. For each of the pieces the intention is that we travel to somewhere in the world and meet the people that live there, with the underlying question of why they live in that particular place and why they want to stay there. Because these are all very unique places.


First, we worked on ghost towns in the Unites States and met people that live near the old, disused Route 66, in complete harmony with their environment, as if they themselves were poignant reflections of the demise of the American Dream. Afterwards we delved into a topic that is more politically sensitive: we travelled to the town of Chacabuco, in the Atacama Desert in Chile. It is home to an old saltpeter mine where they established a concentration camp under Pinochet. We met former residents of the town there, who were subsequently imprisoned in the houses where they once lived themselves. In the background we ask the question about human resilience and returning to places that have a special meaning.


This time our topic is completely different: we are focusing on the existence of a closed city. To this very day there are secret places in Russia, which people refer to as 'closed cities' – in fact they also exist in the US. They are direct offshoots of the Cold War. Most of the cities are military-industrial complexes. They are closed off to the outside world for reasons involving military secrecy, often in relation to nuclear weapons. 


We travelled to the south of the Ural Mountains, to the area around Ozyorsk, a city with just under 100,000 inhabitants. This city is still closed due to its proximity to the Mayak site, which was one of the largest plutonium production centres during the Cold War. It is still an important factory in which civil and well as military nuclear waste is treated today. The inhabitants are allowed to leave the city, but they stay because of their patriotic conviction. We were not allowed to enter the city, but we did meet a number of residents and that was very exciting.


This project revolves around mysteries and secrets, as well as a secret within the secret. In this city, in 1957, one of the three worst nuclear disasters in the world took place – after Chernobyl and Fukushima. It is called the Kyshtym disaster, after the name of the only known city in the area, because the Soviets kept the incident secret. The people that live in this city have a better life than those in most other Russian cities. They possess more material resources and there are also more products, there is greater wealth and more entertainment... However, they die very young, as if they are living in a toxic paradise. 


It is a truly mysterious place – for us, of course, but also for the people that live around the city and are oblivious to what goes on there. They were totally unaware of the events of 1957, which nonetheless had a huge effect on their health as well as on their life in general, and will do so for several generations. You could say that these people live in the 'suburbs' of the closed city, right on its doorstep but firmly on the outside. They are farmers from the Southern Ural whose living conditions are already tough and challenging. Moreover, they have to contend with a lack of recognition and scarce compensation from the State for the irreversible damage they have suffered from the radioactive fallout after the disaster.



In terms of form, it is also a musical theatre production, just like the two previous pieces. Can we assume that the text and music are genuinely written together?

FM: Yes, the music and the text form a whole and were created together from the beginning. We address diverse themes at the same time, each in the relevant language. This kind of collaboration is complex because the time lapse differs. For example, musical theatre is not created in the same way as an opera. In an opera you have a libretto and the time is fixed, because there's the music. Here it's about a symbiotic creation, starting with the shared experience of the journey and the encounters. Afterwards we have to superimpose the two layers of our written work, one for the stage and one for the music. We have to agree on a working method, so that we can arrive at a common, symbiotic time lapse for the witnesses on video, the music and the actor's performance on stage.


DP: And the 'real' time of the theatre is totally different from the 'relative' time of the music.



Will the music also be performed live?

FM: We are still in the project’s start-up phase and anything could still change, but for now our idea is that Dominique will stay on stage, so that we nurture close as possible interaction between the music and the stage. We want to avoid falling into the trap of musical theatre in which you get a sequence of music, followed by theatre, then more music, more theatre and so on. What we want to create are modules that will fit seamlessly together.


On stage we have an actor, Josse De Pauw, who is capable of fully controlling the play. He will present the major ethical questions about nuclear energy on a personal and human level. (Displays an image of an interior filmed in Russia). Dominique and I experienced the same emotion when we entered the home of this man who lives on the banks of the Techa River, a river contaminated by radioactive waste. This man in his little house on the river has his own history that is, beyond his control, linked to the 'major' history, that of the Russian nuclear arms race and the Cold War. That's what we are keen to convey: the coexistence of the human tragedy of an individual and of the major dramas on a global scale. It's about the story of that little man with his desires and grievances as opposed to the serious ambitions and the arrogance of humanity.



What does the piece's title, The Memory of Trees, refer to?

DP: I always try and search for the visual and poetic dimension in a performance; this also constitutes the space in which the music is afforded room. In Russia we drove long distances by car and crossed vast forests. There are beautiful forests that are flourishing, despite what we know about the ever-present radiation and contamination. Very occasionally you come across a small, rusty sign that reminds you this is a hazardous, radioactive area, but the trees and forests are so lovely and grow as if everything is perfectly normal there.


FM: And yet it is probably one of the most contaminated places on earth.


DP: Yes, if you entered the forest and stayed there long enough, you would die – it's as simple as that. And yet those vast birch forests are absolutely stunning, completely white... Perhaps the trees are happy they are rid of people, we said to each other. Because nobody lives there, and there are hardly any animals. Well, all the animals died just after the disaster. And those trees lived through it all, they saw everything, they are ancient... They were there before the disaster and will survive long after we are gone... And when you see them you realise that it's not such a bad thing that there are no people there any more.



So, could we say the music is the voice that expresses the trees' point of view?

DP: Not really, the music is on a more general, poetic level.


FM: This aroused our interest in the theories – or rather the recognised scientific insights – on the way in which trees 'think', communicate with each other, and act in solidarity... Peter Wohllebens The Hidden Life of Trees, for example, enthralled us. About how trees use their creaking and intricate root system to talk to each other, warn each other.


And on the one hand the secrecy and hidden world of the closed city; we see it through the eyes of a scientist that studies the past and tries to find out why everyone dies so young. On the other hand, nature and the forests as witnesses of the history of man. You can't keep secrets from the trees: they were present and saw everything. If the man on stage were to begin deciphering the language of the trees, he might be able to understand what really happened. The information that originates from the trees – of which he receives fragments – will be shaped by our interviews with the village residents near Ozyorsk.


DP: For this new piece we opted to depart from the world of documentary theatre, which was prominent in the first two productions of the Ghost Road series.


Although the methodology is the same: we travelled to Russia and conducted interviews with people that were connected in some way to the disaster that occurred in 1957, or to the closed city. However, the interviews will be at the service of the story told on stage, in a dialogue with Josse de Pauw. Josse will play the role of the scientist mentioned above, who strives to decipher the language of the trees. To make this language theatrical, it will be expressed graphically with motifs that are drawn in the sand using frequencies.



So, it will be a dialogue of sorts?

FM: The two previous pieces clearly belong to the realm of documentary theatre. Viviane De Muynck narrated and conjured up a dreamlike atmosphere by mixing elements of her own life with her journey, and the audience saw a documentary video we screened at the same time.


In this production we plan to omit the video screen and also the fourth wall created by the presence of the actor/narrator. We aim to use a composition such as that of a scientist commenting on the outcome of his research. He records it all in the privacy of his laboratory and the spectator witnesses that, perhaps through headphones we will distribute to the audience. I would like the atmosphere in the room to be very intimate, with Josse talking to himself while making his discoveries. This means there will be a relatively cinematic approach that evokes the concept of the 'secret', as a result of the mumbling and the monologue, and in fact through the scenography as a whole.



Can you already tell us something about what we will actually see?

FM: Well, it's a bit too soon for that of course, but a number of conceptual directions have already developed. Since I directed Sylvia I feel that I have taken a step forward. In this production I have explored different narrative forms and I want to go in different directions, to find other ways of constructing and telling stories.


In this next piece I want to tackle the relationship between the stage and the room. To create an extremely intimate connection, almost touching the main character. And not only in terms of physical proximity, but also via the other senses. Hearing, for example: hearing Josse breathe as if we are inside his head. Or via the story's structure, because it reaches us in fragments that appear 'real', because 'real people' are speaking in the videos, yet the fragments remain cryptic and mysterious, and you wonder to what extent they are true until the very end. As far as we are concerned, it all boils down to convincing the audience to join the scientist in his search, to differentiate between what is true and what is not... 



Will the interviews be the only documentary sources?

FM: I think we are also going to use archive images: some of them are horrific, the kind that take root in the collective unconscious.



Does this mean we can expect a somewhat 'vintage' design?

FM: Russian vintage? Why not?




Interviewed by Cécile Michel
On May 8, 2019