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THEATER REVIEW

ART’s ‘The Arboretum Experience’ is the balm

The mix of meditation and movement, audio plays, pop-up performances, and park explorations offers a sense of healing for times like these

A path in the Arnold Arboretum invites exploration.
A path in the Arnold Arboretum invites exploration.Nikolai Alexander

Park-goers at the Arnold Arboretum sat cross-legged on the grass, hovered over the seats of bikes, and rested beneath the trees across from the arch of the Bradley Rosaceous Collection rose garden on a recent Saturday. The crowd and curious passersby stopped to hear the multicultural musical group Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys, whose dark lyrics outlining pain and dreams of death seem to belie their cheerful presence.

The concert was part of “The Arboretum Experience,” a months-long venture between the American Repertory Theater and the Arnold Arboretum that aims to activate the park with audio plays, meditation and movement, and pop-up performances. The work aspires to center wellness, healing, and resilience. What resonated most with me is that the availability of the plays and meditation maps allowed me to explore, wander, and discover the park in ways I hadn’t before.

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To engage with “The Arboretum Experience,” there are QR codes on signs throughout the park. People can scan the code with their smartphones for a list of offerings. There’s no particular order; everyone is free to start and end wherever they choose. There’s also a navigate button that opens a map of the park for wayfinding.

The narratives and other pieces were developed by a creative team led by playwright Kirsten Greenidge; Summer L. Williams, cofounder and associate artistic director of Company One Theatre; choreographer Jill Johnson; and musician Tim Hall. The ART asked these artists and others to think about how to create a piece that would incorporate the park’s beauty during this time of reemergence amid the pandemic.

An app guides visitors through "The Arboretum Experience."
An app guides visitors through "The Arboretum Experience."Nikolai Alexander

As Sickert — clad in a hot pink suit that matched the flowers in the arch — swung his partially dreadlocked mane while singing, troupe members played instruments, danced, or screamed along to the music.

The week before, singer Kaovanny with her lush vocals kicked off the live music portion of the “Experience.” Additional live acts are being announced weekly on the ART’s social media channels.

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The audio plays run approximately 35-45 minutes, and the mediation maps, which vary in length, encourage visitors to participate from wherever they are in the park. The narrators provide a sense of place, and each offers the opportunity to look for certain spots. Listeners are also urged to breathe or rest throughout.

I’ve visited the Arboretum many times over the years. I have parked at the same gate on the Arborway and have run or walked the same stretch of black asphalt before heading home. When listening to meditation maps, I eagerly found and walked among a “Family of Trees” in the Arboretum’s Conifer Collection. Not too far from the Bussey Street entrance, I followed Johnson’s advice in “Joy Dance Party 1” and ventured up a slight hill, checked to see if anyone was watching, and when I felt comfortable, I danced for nearly three full minutes to “Joy” by David Poe.

After my solo dance party, I sat on a bench and took long, deep breaths with Peter Chu in “Living, Breathing, Being.” I listened, rested, and watched people walk dogs, ride bikes, jog, and picnic with friends.

I stepped off the familiar black asphalt while tuning in to the audio play “Ramona the Fearless Goes for a Ride,” about a little girl in search of the park’s lilacs who meets several helpful friends along the way. The fairytale meant for young audiences pulsed with vibrancy. The noise of life at Ramona’s grandmother’s house — a man searching for his glove, boarders asking about food — provides a rich soundscape. The sounds of the world she journeys through and the excellent performances held my attention as I trekked through the park.

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Every time I veered off my usual route, there were rewards. I peeked behind groves of trees to find babbling brooks and tiny bridges. I marveled at the sun, ran through a field of purple flowers, and passed a giant willow tree while being chased by mosquitoes. In my ears, though, the life of Major, a yellowwood tree new to Boston, was unfolding in an audio play. Major’s colorful elders teach him a lot in the myth “In Bloom,” including how Massachusetts got its name, tidbits about the life of Peter Faneuil, and how to absorb the history of the environment using his roots — or the “rooternet.”

With more than a dozen meditations and four audio plays, “The Arboretum Experience” offers visitors another reason to return to the park again and again. The reflections provide a way to be still, or to tune in to our bodies. Perhaps the best part is that the pieces allow us to escape the busyness of life, indulge in storytelling, and encounter what Johnson says in one of the meditations is “nature theater.”

THE ARBORETUM EXPERIENCE

Produced by American Repertory Theater. At Arnold Arboretum through early fall. Pop-ups continue through Oct. 9 (rain date, Oct. 10). Free and unticketed. 617-547-8300, AmericanRepertoryTheater.org/ArboretumExperience. Free shuttle service available on some dates; details at amrep.org/ArbExShuttle.

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