10 Ways to be More Tree in Improv

Cissbury Ring, Findon

When was the last time you sat with a tree? Maybe it was yesterday, maybe last week. Maybe it was last month or year. Time spent with trees is good for our health.

I went for a walk with my friend and her tiny son the other day and while we were walking through a copse, he quite suddenly ran up to one of the trees and hugged it. To my jaded adult eyes, I didn’t see much to single this tree out from the rest of them, but nevertheless, I joined him. I figured the tiny human probably knew the tree needed a hug. Or maybe I misunderstood, and it was instead the need of the tiny human being satisfied. The bark was comforting to hold onto. We were clinging to life-saving stability in a chaotic world.

I sometimes get a stress response I call ‘being a bucket of bees’. When I feel those fuzzy fellas buzzing throughout my body, I know it’s time to head to the woods. The magnitude of trees helps my challenges feel little, like a speck in a wide, wild world. The age of trees reminds me not to hold on too long to that which no longer serves me.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” the trees say to me and if I make the time to stop and listen, the slow stable satisfying energy of the woods drives the bees right out of me.

Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, is a term that was coined in Japan in the 1980s. It was created to champion the effects of time spent with trees on human health in response to the rising cases of tech burnout. It also had designs for protecting the country’s forests.

The human eye can perceive more shades of green than any other colour due to having adapted over the many, many years we lived in lush forests and jungles. There was an evolutionary benefit to being able to detect different greens when foraging and also in avoiding becoming prey. For me, time spent amongst trees feels like coming home, and our evolutionary story could well explain that sensation.

As part of our Beltane improv celebrations this year, I played a ‘mother tree’ in the forest, quite happy with their lot. Playing plant life is one of my favourite things to do in improv. I’ve certainly played a few out-of-control plants in my time, including triffids and Little Shop of Horrors style horticulture. Rampaging foliage can be very fun but recently I’ve found my portrayals of plant life want to be more peaceful. The wisdom I feel oozing from the green world is wide and broad and stable.

There’s a lot we can learn from trees. Generally, trees like to be around other trees. Trees like company. Some trees manage with solitude but most species of tree, don’t generally do so well single. Trees on their own are more likely to get sick. They are more susceptible to insect attacks because they haven’t got other trees around them to warn them of danger. They need a network.

One of my favourite group warm-up games is ‘I Am Tree’. Players get to make connections, support each other, build on each other’s ideas and stand tall together. It feels tree-like to me.

And the game starts with a tree.

One person enters the centre of the circle and proudly exclaims, “I am tree.” Another steps forward, “I am branch.” Another, “I am bark.” The ‘tree’ chooses which of the two associations will lead the next round. “I choose bark.”

Bark then repeats, “I am bark.” And we begin again: “I am squeak.”, “I am chirp.”

See what they did there? “I choose squeak.”

“I am squeak” …And so on.

This could be a great warm-up to kick off your tree-inspired improv practice.

There’s a lot more to trees than meets the eye. People have known trees are amazing for a long time but the ‘modern world’ decided at some point it had trees figured out and so started to cultivate them for economic gain. The ‘modern world’ started creating forests that were by design and tended to include only one type of tree, sometimes two. Trees don’t like that. But we didn’t stop to notice because the modern world can be like that.

The modern world people thought trees must want to grow fast because the modern world people want everything quickly. Surely trees must feel the same?

They do not.

Trees like to grow slowly. They like to be around lots of different trees. They like to feed each other, and they particularly look out for their kin. Trees know their own saplings. To use our human words: trees have families. They have friendships too. They support each other. They’re connected.

“In mature forests, trees and plants communicate and interact with each other through vast underground web of fungi which connect the trees and plants. Resources are shared through this network – carbon, water and nutrients – so helping the whole system of trees and plants to flourish.”

Sharon Blackie, If Woman Rose Rooted

I’ve been trying to get to know a tree. I had been, for a long while, walking or jogging around this hawthorn in a radius which felt good to me. Without knowing what I was doing, I made this tree my touch tree and since recognizing this I’ve been consciously returning to meet regularly with this tree.

Hawthorn in Summer

If you’re lost in the woods, it’s recommended you identify a touch tree. This is a tree that stands out from the rest, preferably taller. As you explore your surroundings and carry out your survival, you can keep coming back to touch this particular tree, so you don’t stray too far from your original location. Straying too far is how people can get lost for good. A touch tree can help you get found.

And so it is that this beautiful Hawthorn has become my touch tree. Whenever I feel lost in a metaphorical wood, I visit this beautiful living being who helps me remember how to feel grounded.

The more I’ve visited the tree, the more I’ve become painfully aware that I don’t have the right words for engagement. This tree is not an ‘it’.

Living. Breathing. Surviving, striving and thriving. Alive.

Not an ‘it’.

But what other words do I have?

I tried out ‘He’ but that didn’t feel right at all.

I gave Hawthorn a name. Hawthorn.

It seemed the best I could do. But I was so aware it was my name based on human identification. How do we engage with nature when all our words for ‘it’ set us apart, separate us and give us ownership we just should not have? Don’t have. But often assume.

Hawthorn in Autumn

Words woefully failed me. So much language surrounding nature is presumptuous and reductive. This tree is my equivalent. Another life. And I have no doubt, that Hawthorn is much wiser than I. Hawthorn knows how to be a tree. Better, I am quite sure, than I know how to be a human.

So how can we lessen this divide? How can we learn from the green world? How can we be more tree? What might a tree tell us about how to improvise? Here are 10 ways to be more tree in your improv:

  1. Play plant life – I’ve been lucky enough to play a fair few triffids in improv. I think I watched that film wanting the triffids to win, to be honest. But plant life doesn’t have to be vengeful to be interesting. Try playing the spirit of an old oak tree, a pungent spruce or a resourceful elm.
  2. Slow down – practice growing slow and steady with some slow burn improv. One of my favourite exercises in this is to agree to no speaking for the first minute of a scene. Experiment with what happens during this minute. What emotions arise? Can you sense how your character feels about the other character/s? You may even decide to do a whole scene without words.
  3. Get connected by establishing your own network of giving and receiving gifts – The more connected you are with a fellow improviser, the more in tune you are. This means you will become more aware of subtleties that alert you to what’s going on between characters on stage. Body language, tone of voice, a flicker in the eyes; this is how we awe the audience with our unscripted performance by getting ahead of them.
  4. Make space – Some species of tree do an amazing thing called crown shyness. If you look up at a canopy, you may see that trees have grown in such a way whereby the tops of them leave space for their neighbouring trees. Think open umbrellas in a crowd where no two umbrellas are touching. Practice crown shyness in improv by making space for your scene partner to grow. If you find yourself without much space, use what you have purposefully. I did a scene recently where my scene partner was talking a mile a minute. There was hardly any space for my character, so I decided to deliberately pair back my speech to very little. It made my character really sinister, as my long silences heightened the tension.
  5. Get grounded – trees are of course great at digging deep. A strong and stable root system makes all the difference. Getting grounded in a scene might be as simple as planting your feet to avoid what I’ve heard Jules Munns refer to as the improviser’s shuffle. Another thing to get grounded is to give yourself some object work to do. It can really help locate you in the world you are inhabiting. If, like my brain, yours also worries about doing too many things at once, make the action simple. See if you can find something repetitive. You may even find it soothing. In rehearsal, we sometimes play a scene doing object work with our eyes closed. We don’t say what the object work is prior to the scene, it’s like our little secret, as only those watching can see what both people are doing. This is something we learned from Jonathan Pitts in his exceptionally brilliant workshop on strength in vulnerability.
  6. All together – do some group scenes where you all make an effort to nurture each other with endowments and gifts. What can you tell each other about your characters? What can you build when you are all giving? Try out scenarios like being in a press-gang or at the AGM for an unusual interest group.
  7. Feed your improv family – it can be really easy to get caught up in promoting your own shows and troupes. But don’t forget to support others in your community. You might feel someone else is just a sapling, but saplings can grow really quickly under the right conditions. Today’s sapling is tomorrow’s mighty oak. So support your local community. Trees send nutrients to saplings, veterans, and even to fallen trees and stumps. Let’s all help each other to grow taller.
  8. Embrace diversity – trees love to be around different types of trees. The healthiest forests are varied and rich with many species. Everyone has something to bring to the mix. Diversity shouldn’t be a tick-box exercise. It’s an opportunity. The more perspectives you have, the broader your storytelling can become. And you will likely appeal to a wider audience.
  9. Find a ‘touch tree’ – Identify something in a scene you can return to when you start to get lost. For me, this is often how my character feels about the character/s they are with. If I can get back to how they feel about someone else and why it matters, I can usually find a way through even the densest of scenes.
  10. Give yourself time – it can be so tempting to rush. But a lesser-known secret in performance is the audience will wait. I particularly find myself rushing in musical improv. The more I practice, the more I realise there is time. Pause. Breathe. In. Out. Follow your breath into your words. Make. Every. Word. Count. For a super exercise in this, try ‘Seven Words or Fewer’ as taught by Chris Mead. Limit each line per person to no more than seven words. It gives you the time to play with pauses and is a great discipline for making every contribution count.

I once attended an interactive session at The Old Market in Brighton. It was all themed around woodland and as part of the activities, you got to experience, through virtual reality, moving along the sustaining systems of a tree. Shooting up through the tree as rainwater was such an extraordinary experience. Its impact was immense. I still remember vividly how it felt.

We also got the opportunity to sense the world as a frog and a bird. As a frog, I managed to get stuck somehow but due to being unable to get my virtual frog legs to move, I spent the time looking around at how the frog sensed the world, and how it perceived vibrations. Frogs have always made me feel uneasy but this experience enabled me to understand how a frog must see me. It gave me that chance to see the world with new senses. Frogs have unsettled me much less since because I understand them better.

Perceiving through a fresh perspective has the profound power to create empathy and compassion, not just for the members of our own species but for other species too. Playing a range of life through improv can encourage us to understand how other life lives. It can prompt us to care more for the other living things around us.

This time of year is perfect for being more tree in your improv, for reviving interest in trees and for celebrating plant life. Earth Day, Beltane, and the move from spring to summer are all upon us again. Blossom is about, bluebells are blanketing woodlands and the many shades of green are out in full force here in England.

This post contains images of some of my favourite trees. Consider finding some favourite trees of your own and sitting with them. Listen and learn. Connect. I’m in a group where we share our encounters with trees and plant life. When one person shares, it reminds others to do so too. We have created a feed of pics documenting personal encounters with nature. We do this together, which brings me much joy.

I’d recommend finding and feeding your community. It’s encouraging to know you’re not alone in your loves.

We are also not alone in life. Life is everywhere. Try playing it all and see what blossoms.

The Lightning Tree at Patching

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