Theatre Maker, UK
Bristol, where I’m based, is one of the hotspots of natural history documentary making, and is home of the BBC Natural History Unit. Nature docs are, of course, hugely popular, and have become one of the primary lenses for the public to gain insight and understanding of the natural world.
But I can remember thinking, a few years ago, just how rigid a format the nature documentary has: Classical music, added foley sounds, high quality camera action, Darwinian-themed Attenborough-esque narration, a poignant mix of the beauty of biodiversity and the sadness at its loss.
As successful as the form of the nature documentary is, I felt I was interested in questioning it and playing with its form within the context of live theatre. What if we turned the camera back on the human? What could a nature doc look like as a live performance?
Across Western History theatre has been a place where the human takes centre stage. Tragic theatre has often been conceptualised as human nature coming up against the forces of Nature’s nature. And yet in the Anthropocene I feel that theatre is now a really good medium to question the place of the human in relation to non-human Others. As a performer I’m really interested in de-centring the human, and exploring the delicate place where human and non-human intersect in this complicated world.
So Zugunruhe is basically about a bald thirty-something white guy with a beard trying to meet a marsh warbler. Trying, through the process of performing, to explore a way of interacting with and experiencing nature that is different from a natural history documentary.
I began making it at a time of my life when I felt unsettled, directionless, simultaneously desiring rootedness and flight. So I decided that I wanted to try to make something from home (in the landscape of southwest England where I live) and yet abroad and migrating. So I spent lots of time wandering around Ham Wall Nature reserve pretending to be a bird. I also spent some weeks in the Calais Jungle refugee camp as a volunteer with the Good Chance Theatre, running workshops and making theatre shows with refugees in the camp.
The Jungle was a sad place. I wondered why our intergovernmental and economic systems had such a problem with migration in the first place. It seemed to me that migration, as an evolved and natural phenomenon, was essential to millions of species and life on Earth. And yet human migration was becoming so destructively focused around economics - if you’ve got money, you’re in, if you’re poor, no-one wants you. I wanted to make a work that stepped away from this myopic point of view, and began to expand the ways we think about migration on planet Earth.
So Zugunruhe grew out of researching both into human and bird migration (as a Leverhulme Scholar at UCL), and looking to make an artwork that weaved perspectives on both animal and bird migration. I eventually settled on building everything around a Marsh Warbler. I had no idea about Marsh Warblers until an RSPB ranger from Ham Wall mentioned them to me. I was initially thinking of focusing on the Reed Warbler, but the vocal skills of Marsh Warblers proved too exciting an opportunity to pass up.
For me the show is a fun, oddball and poignant piece. Made as a kind of live, performative nature documentary, it’s a didactic or informative piece of art (which is maybe unusual for contemporary theatre). Some critics and audiences really liked this about it, others didn’t. It was a journey that I loved going on, and lots of skilled and talented people helped me make the show, especially sound composer Rowan Evans.
I hope you enjoy it.
Zugunruhe (zoo-gun-rue): an ornithology term for 'migratory restlessness' in birds. This show explores the incredible flight of a marsh warbler, the world's only bird whose song echoes its migration route. Body-compasses, magnetic fields, African sunsets, star-chasing, storm-riding, homing... Zugunruhe offers a wild, fresh look at migration. Rehearsing among birds in the wetlands of Somerset, performer Tom Bailey creates a feast of bird behaviour alongside a digital sound map of the marsh warbler's journey, made by composer Rowan Evans.
Supported by The Leverhulme Trust, UCL, Arts Council England and the Red Brick Building.
For more about the themes and process behind the show, please find a podcast on BBC Radio 4 via the link – https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p06nq62l