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  • Writer's picturehannah brailsford

Seeing the Wood for the Trees

Earlier this month I was lucky enough to be selected for a micro commission for The South By South East Festival from 1 Degree East. The micro commission allowed me to take the first steps towards growing and performing the seed of an idea for my second new project; ‘Quercus’.

The Roots

Although I have lived in Essex for twenty years, I feel my roots are very much in Kent and I have been reflecting on what links me to both counties. I have always had a special connection with the woods and trees, especially the Oak and many of my stories are influenced by this connection. A few years ago, I witnessed a seemingly random act of violence against an Oak tree in the woods near where I live and it reminded me of a story about just such an act and the consequences for the perpetrator. An idea began to form around using this story as the jumping off point for a wider narrative using other stories and folklore involving Oak trees. It also led me to ask the question, “if trees could talk, what tales would they tell “and how stories from the past can influence the present. Exploring the folk tales and myths surrounding the Oak, the themes rooted in the stories appear to be those of freedom, protection and self-awareness and how man’s relationship with nature are tied to all three.

The Branches

The mini commission has afforded me the opportunity to start getting the narrative out of my head and into my body and the performance space and to collaborate with other artists to grow the show.

Firstly, I wanted to find someone to help root the narrative with me. Thanks to Adverse Camber's initiative earlier this year to bring storytellers, directors and dramaturgs together I met virtually and spent some time discussing the project with fellow storyteller Tim Ralphs . Being inspired by his work, I wanted to draw on his experience of developing and shaping shows to assist me. Working with Tim as a dramaturg to help with the narrative arc has been really informative and made me question and dig further into the wider implications of the piece; what is its purpose, who is it for, where will it be seen, how will it be heard and why is it important to me? Sometimes we can leave these questions aside whilst we are immersed in the stories and so stepping back has really helped shape the framework for the performance. I'm looking forward to working together in a physical space to develop the performance.

After working on ‘Skinned’, and with one of the core narratives being a singing tree, I knew I wanted music to be a core part of the piece and I wanted to explore working with folk musician Kate Waterfield. Kate is a composer and singer playing viola, violin and concertina and her songs weave stories of tragedy and injustice, love and hope and combined with her knowledge and love of nature, (she works for the Essex Wildlife Trust, when not singing), I knew she would be the perfect collaborator.

In the short time we have begun to work together, it is clear we are ‘singing from the same song sheet’! Kate has already begun to weave a wonderful layer to the narrative, bringing the story alive and I can’t wait for the next stages of our work together.

From Little Acorns…

As Dr James Canton says in his book The Oak Papers; “today, we are seeing the powerful effects which being by oaks, being in nature, can have on our own well-being. Anyone who has ever climbed an oak, or hugged one, or merely touched the skin of one will know the connection between human and oak trees."

Perhaps this best describes why this project is important to me. I have been lucky enough as a child to grow up playing in woods and swinging in my garden beneath a twisted willow, I even lived in an area where all the roads were named after trees. So, it will come as no surprise that I love trees and also why I am fascinated by our relationship with them. I don’t take the blessings of having woodland so close to me as a child for granted or indeed having a garden to play in. I didn’t grow up in the countryside though, I grew up in a town, very much an urban landscape which has sadly expanded to swallow the beloved woods of my childhood. Not all is lost though, there are still woods to be found, trees to be climbed and some ancient Oaks to be communed with. I want to re-ignite through story this connection between the ancient Oaks, especially of Kent and Essex, for their respective communities. Hopefully, in turn, encouraging audiences to re-examine their relationships with trees and explore the precious remaining ancient woodlands and meet some of the venerable oaks that still live amongst us.

My ambitions for this piece are to grow it for as wide an audience as possible, to take it into the landscape that has inspired it through both live performance and through an intimate recorded experience and to bring the outside into indoor spaces that are accessible to all.

Having had the chance to plant the ‘performance acorn’ in The Gulbenkian at the South-by-South East Festival and consider the feedback given, I feel confident now to grow the show and explore its full potential.

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