Aridhi Anderson is a theatremaker, performer and reviewer based in Melbourne. Check out her work at aridhianderson.com.
Connect with nature in personal and meaningful ways
It's pretty normal to put your phone away for an hour when you're attending a live performance. Most of us wouldn't find it difficult or even think anything of it. But how would you feel about putting your phone away for an hour when you're not technically watching a show, when you're basically walking down a street in silence, taking in what is natural around you? This might sound like something that should be normal and easy, but for a lot of people, it isn't.
Wild Vacancies at the Melbourne Fringe Festival 2018. Image from the Melbourne Fringe website.
Wild Vacancies is a live art experience that is different from your average Fringe show (not that there is such a thing as an average Fringe show). It's an experience that is born out of a series of invitations designed to guide you into temporary disconnection from technology (which symbolizes things that mindlessly control you) and into a meaningful connection with your own self, in the context of nature, in mindfulness.
The experience begins in the foyer at Arts House, where you're greeted by friendly people dressed in unmissable red, with wreaths adorning their heads. They lead you to the Wild Vacancies booth where someone invites you to surrender your phone into a large metal box. They slip your phone into a paper bag with a number on it, and give you a cardboard token with the corresponding number on it. They also give you a gum leaf. You then wait for other audience members/participants to arrive... and you can't be on your phone while you wait, because you've already handed it over. At this point, this experience was already starting to feel unusual for me. I found myself playing with my gum leaf, taking in how it felt between my fingers, and smelling it. I began to smile.
Wild Vacancies is a gentle, low pressure walking tour around the streets of North Melbourne with two "mystery stops" along the way. The lovely guide, Sally Guildford, begins with a gentle warm up and explanation of what to expect. The rules are simple: it's a silent walk, so even though you're walking with a group, you're not allowed to interact with each other - only with nature. Your interactions with nature can involve any or all of your senses - there are invitations along the way to see, hear, smell, touch and taste. These invitations aren't imposed on you - you're welcome to engage to the extent you're comfortable. Most of these invitations aren't spoken - they're communicated using what Sally calls visual prompts, and at a later stage, using a physical card that each participant is given for a treasure hunt of sorts. Sally also occasionally assembles the group with a nonverbal call that resembles the call of a bird.
Janice Florence from Access Arts with Sally Guildford, working on a wheelchair accessible route for the show. Image provided by Sally Guildford.
There are a lot of variables in this show, so that neither any two shows nor any two people's experience of one show can be the same. Firstly, because factors like the weather, the time of day, the natural and man-made lighting, the particular flowers in bloom or the particular bird life or animal life present, varies from day to day. Secondly, because it is a silent walk, each person will observe different things around them, and tune into their own instincts about how they engage with nature. Everyone experiences this show differently.
For myself, I realized that I am far more inclined to observe with my eyes and my ears than with my hands. I saw others in the group hugging trees and lying in the grass, feeling the earth with their hands, and their experience was enjoyable to them. But for me, I preferred to listen to the birds chirping in the trees (they are seriously noisy at dusk!) and watch them fly between trees and chase each other from one branch to another. I quietly stalked a little rainbow lorikeet that hopped comically along the ground and then started to climb up a tree, hopping up, up, up and using its beak for strength and balance. It did this for so long that I wondered if its wings were broken, because why on earth didn't it just fly? But when it was about five metres up the tree it flew a little, to sit on a branch it couldn't quite climb to. So I thought okay, maybe it just enjoys climbing. Maybe it isn't trying to be efficient about how it gets up the tree. Maybe it's just engaging with nature and enjoying doing things this way for no reason. Maybe I should try doing that sometimes too.
I'm aware that I'm anthropomorphising a little. But that was just one of many moments that spoke to me on this silent walking tour through the streets of North Melbourne. The essence of my experience was that Wild Vacancies enabled me to see and connect with nature in a way that was uncomplicated but at the same time pleasant, beautiful and meaningful. The prompts that facilitated this experience are now prompts I can return to anytime I like, to recreate a similar experience at other times and places, and experience nature in unique and personal ways.
David Farrington and Sally Guildford at a previous performance of this show in a different location. Image provided by Sandy Morrison.
This show isn't rocket science. It's stuff anyone can do on their own. The point isn't that we need to be taught, but that perhaps all we need sometimes is a little invitation. And this show is all about invitations.