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The healing powers of theater

Artists discuss the creative process behind the new Wirtz Center production “How to Know the Wild Flowers: A Map”
wild flowers
The creative team behind “How to Know the Wild Flowers: A Map” wanted to bring nature to life by the use of puppets. Student actors rehearsed how they will control several puppets on stage as they journey through a field of wild flowers. Photo by Stephen J. Lewis

How do we celebrate a life? How do we heal? There are no definitive answers. It's a unique journey we all face as we forge our path in a time of loss.

That journey ­— intertwined with the past and present, times of healing and nature around us — is one that the creators of the Wirtz Center's original production, "How to Know the Wild Flowers: A Map," present to audiences this spring.

Jessica Thebus, director of the MFA directing program in the School of Communication, and Julie Marie Myatt, playwright and theater professor, along with members of the Northwestern community, collaborated on the production which was inspired by America's first field guide for wildflowers.

Set against the backdrop of the Illinois prairie, the play weaves together two timelines: one in 1890 following Frances Theodora Parsons' journey of healing through encounters with flowers, and the other in the present day, where three young people navigate grief and celebration.

Thebus and Myatt shared with Northwestern Now how through this new play audiences are invited to explore questions about their relationship with nature, find healing in the theater and understand the importance of laughter in the grieving process.

Tell us about the creative process behind this production.

Thebus: We had classes and workshops where everybody was welcome staff, faculty and students. As a collective, we created the show from images, song, dance and movement. Jeff Hancock and Kristen Waagner added their talents as choreographers. Harrison Lewis, a wonderful alum, writes a lot of music. There are a lot of other student collaborators.

Myatt: And the inspiration is a field guide that I've had for years. I teach a class here called "Nature Plays." I had this book titled “How to Know the Wild Flowers” sitting on the shelf. It was the first field guide for wildflowers in America. There are beautiful, poetic descriptions of wildflowers. I gave it to Jessica over a year ago and said, "I think there's a play in here."

The play focuses on the journey of a woman whose husband died in the Russian flu pandemic. What lessons does she learn?

Myatt: Frances Parsons credits her long walks and encounters with nature as the thing that really began to heal her and bring her out of her grief. We were just thinking of how to make a play about the pandemic and recovering from the pandemic.

Thebus: But also thinking about nature and grief and the process of knowing the natural world and all the gifts it gives us. We tell students to think about theater as a healing process, not just an entertainment venue. It’s a place where we gather, and of course, that was so difficult during the pandemic. There’s a healing nature in gathering, and this is something that theater can do.

Part of theater-making is bringing nature to life. Describe how you do that.

Myatt: We are bringing what it feels like to be outside to life in the theater. We have the Illinois prairie. We have the horizon. We have the sky. The costumes are a delightful blend of imagination and reality. They don't merely replicate flowers. Instead, they embody the spirit of each wildflower. Imagine dancers twirling in costumes that evoke the black-eyed Susan, the wild yellow lily and the wood anemone. Puppets bring the animals of the prairie to life and honor the creatures that share this land.

Thebus: There's something really on my mind these days, not just with this project, but also teaching and making theater: It's not our job to know the answers. It's not our job as artists to say, "Okay, everyone, here's the answer and how we heal from this experience." I think it's our job to find a way to say, "These are the essential questions for our communities in the wake of a very strange and tragic experience." How can we use art to ask those deep questions? That's what we hope to do with this piece.

Myatt: And we wanted the play to be silly and funny and joyful. Laughing is a big part of healing too. It's essential.

“How to Know the Wild Flowers: A Map” runs April 19-28 in the Ethel M. Barber Theater at the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts. See showtimes and get ticket information.