(If These Trees Could) Shop Talk: Melisa Pereyra

Posted September 29, 2020

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Core Company Actor, Writer and Creator Melisa Pereyra was integral to making "If These Trees Could Talk" the beautiful meditation that it's become. In this recent interview, Melisa gives us a look behind-the-scenes of APT's newest adventure.

APT: Brenda said you and the other writers really took the reins on the “If These Trees Could Talk” script. Could you talk a little about how you approached the material, and how your experience with projects like LINES may have guided the process?
Melisa Pereyra: I am really discovering what I am good at in recent years. What I learned from LINES was the concept of making stories through THEME rather than those structured with a traditional beginning, middle, and end, and centered around a specific singular worldview. I like placing different stories and writer’s words that may not traditionally be in conversation with each other in the same space. For LINES, the play commissioned by Theatre LILA and written by Atra Asdou, Olivia Dawson, Malkia Stampley-Johnson, Aidaa Peerzada, and myself; we were interested in the intersectionality of our stories. When we put them in conversation with each other, we noticed the ways in which our life experience was similar, as well as the many ways in which our stories were completely different. The conversations centered around identity, and were never in isolation from what was happening in the world.

Using that same concept of making space for more than one voice to tell a single story, I got to partner with Isabella LaBlanc and James DeVita to create what our audience hears as “TRACK 1” in the experience. Once the three of us were together, my brain knew what to do; because I able to work on this collaborative building during LINES, as well as the poem that I read for the APT 40th Anniversary celebration, and the most recent APT Shakespeare Mashup we made a few months back. I knew it would be similar, but also totally different because the end product was to be an audio experience, not a play.

For “If These Trees Could Talk,” I took the concept of ‘voices in conversation with each other’ one step further. With more context and experience, I was able to better verbalize to the writing team how I felt we should approach this project: We would apply the concept of “the edge effect” in every possible way beginning first with us (three different people from different cultural, ethnic, racial, and generational backgrounds), then this concept would ripple into the poets and poems that spoke to us, and then again in the music and sounds that would eventually accompany the piece. When I write about it now, it seems so organized and planned, but it really just kept coming together as if the three of us had done this many times before.

If you are interested in learning more about ‘the edge effect’, it is a fascinating topic. I recommend this podcast to start.

In that transcript you will find the edge effect described as “the point in which two ecosystems meet, like the forest and the savannah. And apparently, in ecology, this edge effect is where the most new life-forms are created.”

Nature tells us, that the most potential exists there; at the edge where all things meet. Yo-Yo Ma Explores this concept through the music created by Silk Road Ensemble. I was interested in doing the same, but with words. He started the group by exploring this question, “what happens when strangers meet?” For this project, James DeVita and myself knew each other, and Isabella was new to APT as a collaborator. What happened when the three of us met is the creation of something bigger than us. Something that was only made possible because we were not alone.

APT: How did you determine which poets and pieces would make it into the final project?
MP: We knew that the project was about nature, and perhaps speaking about how nature makes us feel is a worthwhile endeavor; but we wanted to really de-center our perception of nature and center Nature itself. While hiking through Zion National Park one day, as I looked at the mountains around me I said, “These mountains make me feel so small—they are such a miracle.” But a friend reminded me that it is not the mountains, the miracle is that we are there to witness them. They don’t need us. They were here before us and they will outlive us all.

APT is so entrenched in the beauty of the land, but we have not taken the time to truly honor its ancientness. This was an opportunity to do just that and connect with poets who used their poetry to give back to the land while simultaneously acknowledging that we need her more than she needs us. Indigenous communities all over the world have tried to tell settlers this; so this concept is not new. We used the platform we had to echo an ancient message.

APT: Why do you think this project is important to share with people right now? Why is it important to you?
MP: It is a prayer and a meditation. A way to listen to poetry many are not familiar with being spoken by familiar voices. This project is important to me because out of all the things I have worked on, this is the one I am most proud of. I have never heard SO many beautiful poems from so many different poets converse in this way. The soundscape created by André Pluess complements the poetry in a way that it feels not just like a prayer and meditation, but also a call to action.

Lastly, it is important that audiences come because they are the next ripple in the edge effect. They will meet strangers (new poetry) and hopefully leave with ideas and inspiration they might not have encountered if they didn’t come to the woods. This is an experience in which every person gets to make up their own beginning, middle, and end. Come to where we are; in the middle of the woods but at the edge where all things meet. It is my hope that everyone can witness the power of this kind of coming together.

APT: What are some of your favorite things about the tour – which poems/poets speak to you, and what is your favorite part of the experience?
MP: I love every single piece for each one was chosen with purpose. I really I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but I will say that there is a poem called “An American Lyric” by Amanda Gorman, which you can find here, and I almost have it memorized.

Not only is it brilliant but the drums beneath, which we talked meticulously about (and André heard me go on and on about) are transformative to my ear. I learned that I am very picky when it comes to the sounds that accompany text; André’s work is so good and inspiring. I was so grateful he kept saying yes to my peculiar requests and made every sound note I had one thousand times better than the language I found to describe what I needed. James DeVita was also a great mentor to me in this process, holding space for me to lead, and making sure I was always prepared to answer any question that came my way. Isabella LaBlanc’s words in this piece are also some of my favorite poems; her writing is moving and inspiring. I feel so lucky to have met her and her work. For the little time we had to make this project come together, I can’t imagine working with a better team.

APT: What do you hope the audience will take from this?
MP: I will not be so arrogant as to assume I can even begin to answer this question! But I can tell you what I got out of it: every time I listen to the piece, I learn something new. I take away that there does not need to be a single voice at the center of a story for me to follow a theme. I learned that I have the power to make my own path. And I learned that no matter where I am going, the dirt beneath my feet knows more than I ever will. So I walk differently.

Whenever I get the chance to direct people, I will give a note and then say, “There is no right or wrong.” I give our supportive audiences the same note here. There is no right or wrong way to experience these words. It is okay if you don’t know the poem or missed a word because you were walking. Keep going. There are words for you in these trees that have been waiting to be heard for centuries, keep walking and you’ll hear them.