The Wood Beneath The World is a largescale, magical forest installation hidden in the depths of Leeds Town Hall Crypt, which has been growing silently for decades.
Its roots and trees have now burst through the floors and walls, and the wood has taken over…
Rebekah Whitney (of Lord Whitney ) and Alexander Palmer (the Director of The Wood Beneath The World) were kind enough to sit down with me for a chat about a million years ago (before Christmas) about their hugely successful installation at Leeds Town Hall.
Originally, we were going to record the interview as a podcast. However, we had such good conversational fun that we sort of forgot that this was supposed to be an interview and began to talk over one another, interrupt, idea hop (where one person starts a sentence and it’s carried on by the others) and all those traits which sort of proves that a conversation is going Really Well...but makes for annoying listening!
On top of that, the project was still in full flight and the pair were obviously working all the hours in the day together. Thy’d created a sort of joint speak, where they knew each other so well that they were almost of one mind. It was pretty incredible!
Honestly, there is something beyond embarrassing about posting an interview 3 months after it was held, it’s almost shameful. However, this was such an enjoyable conversation and genuinely insightful that I think it’s worth the humiliation of admitting how slow I was to get it up.
Here, finally, is a transcription of our chat! Thanks so much to both of them for allowing me a peek into their world!
On the Order of Events – or how The Woods Beneath came to be
Rebekah: Leeds Town Hall got in touch at the beginning of the year, saying that they had this space and had heard good things about Lord Whitney and would we like to do something for Christmas.
They liked the idea of a winters forest and we went away and realised that we didn’t want to do this is a normal way – we wanted to do something quite different. And we wanted to do something that adults could get something from as well, not just for children and families.
It was a while before they were in touch and in the meantime we went down to London and watched some immersive theatre by a company called Punch Drunk, who are just THE BEST at what they do, EVER. We were massively inspired by that; the detail in their set and basically the idea that the further you explore the richer your experience is and we just thought that we had to try and bring something like that to Leeds.
We wanted to do something like that with actors for a really long time as well so it all felt like it started coming together at the same time. It felt like this was the time that we could do create something really special and really different.
This is wonderful but it isn’t really a traditional Winters Wonderland…
R: No not at all. The Town Hall have been amazing. They’ve really championed our ideas and really tried to push us and they trust us. They believed in our vision. And it totally developed over time, especially once we got a writer involved and once Alexander, our Director became involved.
We wanted to create this world that was not necessarily Christmassy, but that was reminiscent of that festive period and of Winter. We had done an Arts Council funding project at the start of the year, all around folklore in Yorkshire which was called Lore of the North and through doing that we discovered so many amazing tales that were based in Yorkshire. They were so incredible and the narrative and backdrop to them were fascinating and we thought that if there was a way that we could tap into that, that we could develop from that, that we could combine it all; we would get so much depth in this project.
That’s something that fascinated me about this time of the year; the further back you go, it was Christmas then Pagan when it was the winter solstice, there is something almost tribal, something primal…
Alexander: There’s something ritualistic.
R: It’s our heritage. And that’s where all of this comes from. It’s been interesting to highlight all of that.
When putting it all together; the placement of the stars, the ogham alphabet, aspects of west European folklore – were these things that you knew about before or did you learn of these from your research?
R: A bit of both actually. Some aspects were brought to our attention earlier in the year during Lore of the North. We met an incredible scholar Stephen Sayers who used to work for the university and he was just amazing. He brought this whole new angle to folklore that we hadn’t really considered for that project. It was all about the importance of folklore and why it still so important to us today and how it can enrich our lives and provide us with an escape and escapism and just basically how as a society we need it still.
So we were really keen to get him involved in this project as well. He pointed us in the direction of certain philosophers – Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey from an ordinary world into an extraordinary world. We used that as a model, as a kind of starting point for our narrative and script for the piece.
So most of the bits that we used, that we learned about – it kind of snowballed really. Folklore, speaking to Stephen, reading up and different people that we’ve invited into the project have all brought different knowledge making it really a rich project.
The narrative and storyline felt very organic to the set that you created. But if you hadn’t told the story of Will of the Wisp, of Jack – there were many other stories that could have been told. I walked straight out thinking that this has to run all year round.
(At this point, it’s worth noting that Alexander – who has been deeply invested in the project on a full-time basis and clearly has been forgoing sleep to get all the details spot on – paled a touch!)
R: Ah, it’s so funny that you should say that. Because, we actually had to curb everything by quite a bit. We felt that it was getting so massive and the will of the wisp seemed to fit so nicely. We decided to focus on that. The idea of this character that’s forever trapped in this limbo land with his lantern, his torch that will bring him to the edge of the forest. And he’s trying to guide people…or is he? Perhaps he’s not trying to guide them, perhaps he’s trying to entice them to that place. And we felt that by having all that research up on the wall – we really wanted to encourage people to look.
The more that they look, the more they are making their own decisions about how the story will progress. So it’s up to you to decide who are these characters, why are they here – there are so many answers too on that wall as to why they could be there.
There appeared to be about 5 core subjects that people seemed to pick up on. But of course you didn’t have to provide them, it could have just been a space. How hard was it to settle on those stories? How important was it to have a coherent thread?
A: To be honest, I was less interested in narratives per se, it was more about the experiences. And I think that it’s really exciting that from the same show, two friends can come out and think that this show is about two different things. I’m all for the audience filling in the gaps and having the opportunity to do just that.
R: It’s exciting to not spoon feed people so much with it, to allow them to come up with their own theories and explanations.
A: And to make it more difficult for audience members – obviously this is not a sat down piece of theatre in an auditorium. We’re not giving them a story, we’re seeking to awaken their senses – they are not relaxed – they are active and they are searching for these bits of text. They are not being given a narrative.
For some audiences that’s very frustrating and very out of the ordinary, for others that’s very rejuvenating.
However, this still has a component where it is about Christmas and it is targeted towards children also, who see in ways that are very different to adults but also perhaps require a somewhat more highlighted road map?
R: That one is more focused, though it’s along the same idea that we’re asking the adult audiences. We’re asking why these woods are starting to appear beneath the town hall. And that’s the same thing that we are asking the children. They are still met by Jack, but Jack is a different character. He’s a lot more excited to be showing the children the space. He’s not as mysterious or mischievous character in that sense. He’s more of a guardian of the woods. Someone who wants to be showing these families this space but again he equips them with questions and challenges to go further. Why do you think that woods would start growing here again? And it’s amazing the responses that children give back to it.
Maybe its nature trying to tell us to slow down. And they are responding with these really big issues and themes. Particularly environmental images, these are tiny children and they focus on so many different themes. It’s amazing the capacity that they have.
We do workshops with schools during the week before we open in the evening and it’s the same themes. We discuss the Holly King and the Oak King and the winter Solstice and the summer solstice and they fight. And perhaps that’s why the Holly King is trying to take over – that we’ve all forgotten the real meaning of Christmas. It’s incredible, it’s profound.
Presumably, you’ve heard all sorts of different explanations – what are a few of the more random ones?
R: A lot of people think that Gwen is a figment of Jack’s imagination. And in fact, so are the woods. That comes up quite a bit.
A: Yeah, that it’s not real. Which is interesting because of all the elements – you’re actually walking through the Woods. It’s been interesting.
R: A lot of people think that they are lovers. Or father and daughter. That she’s dead.
A: That comes up quite a bit. That’s she actually dead. In both sessions actually. Or that he is. Or that he is searching for her.
Interesting that the children are coming back with so many environmental themes. My age group are quite consumerist in outlook – we don’t care how our iPhones are made, just that they work. So it’s interesting that the younger crowd are more focused on the impact that we are having on the city and the country…
R: We really wanted the Father Christmas experience to be very inclusive and to – this is tricky to phrase right – we didn’t want it to be so much about the Christian festival or about the Santa Claus story and the consumerism. We wanted it to be about this gift giver that seen in a lot of different traditions. All across the world, there is this character that brings joy at this time of year and has a message that needs to be passed on. That’s one of the reasons that we toyed with called it Father Winter …having said that we needed to take it one step at a time…
A: He’s a story-teller as well. Stories used to be considered gifts.
R: He thanks the children for their gift – which is time and we thought that was a lovely way of doing that – one that isn’t orientated in consumerism. This is the first year that we’ve done something like this. We had to push boundaries and test the water.
We didn’t really know how it was going to go, so even just for ourselves we were setting boundaries and testing them. We still obviously want to bring across the magic of this time of year – we didn’t want to be about all these passive political ideas or anything.
That’s something about being set in Nature – it reminds us that whether it’s snow falling or leaves falling – every time of year can be a magical time of year if you take the time to appreciate it…
A: Actually, this green message that was seemingly being picked up on by Father Christmas – this also comes out in the evening show, especially when the stars are moving. The time period that it’s all set in as well.
It feels like it’s set in a period up to Sputnik and from then on, we sort of stalled. Our technology moved on but we stopped looking upwards and outwards…
R: That’s actually one of the reasons that we ask people to turn off their phones. We want people to have intimate experiences in the space and feel fully immersed. Jack asks for the time and it’s funny that so few people have watches. These things are really important. People are losing touch of real life experiences and that’s really important to all of us that were working on this. We are really keen to give people that experience. So not taking pictures and putting them on instagram – not that we didn’t want the images to be shared but that we wanted people to actually be there and to
A: to actually be part of the world and to know that they weren’t in an ordinary place still or that they only see everything through a screen.
R: We haven’t had anyone come out and say that it was frustrating not to have been able to use their phone. If anything they have come out and felt that…not that the world is boring but to maybe view it without the screen…
Obviously, I’m a reader and when I came out – we talked about Narnia. That and Tolkien, middle earth and all those places that make us reflect on the natural world came to mind
R: Yes, all these places – Narnia, Lord of the Rings and Tolkien, Wonderland and Oz – these all had a massive influence on us all as children. All these worlds that you can escape to. And even Enid Blyton and the magic far-away tree and to create a space where adults felt like they could do that in the middle of the city. I’m really proud to think that we’ve achieved that.
A: A lot of people are coming out and saying that they’ve reclaimed their childhood excitement. That they’re seeing the world in that way again. That there is a thrill again.
R: And that’s exactly what Stephen Sayers was saying at the beginning of the year. That this thrill, this feeling of being a child again, that if you can find that feeling as an adult, it’s the most special thing ever. To not lose sight of us as so many adults do. Which is such a shame.
Do you think that this will not perhaps change the direction that you are moving in but that it will inform it?
R: Yes, I think so definitely. I think we can say that this is probably the most proud that we have been of any of our projects. The level of talent that we’ve seen in the team, the work that we’ve all put in from the writers to the set builders to the direction and the performance – everyone has been just put there. And we’ve all been on the same page, it’s been an absolute pleasure working with people. We’ve all had the same thing that’s driving us and we’ve all wanted to be part of and create this wondrous and magical thing. So yes, definitely.
Is there any prospect that this could become something longer? A bit more permanent?
R: Well, there isn’t anything properly. There has been some talk.
Presumably all the research that you’ve done has been for this time of year, but there is clearly a potentially season element…
R: We have actually found ourselves wondering what the Woods would look like during another season. What would they be like in Spring? What would they be like in Summer? What would they be like in Autumn?
Who would the guides be?
R: We like the idea that if the Woods did come round again they would look and feel and *be* totally different… and there would be different people to meet and different doors to open… You wouldn’t ever see the same thing twice.
A: There are a lot of different ideas. A lot of different ways that audiences could move. I’m interested in how audiences could be part of a big spectacle but still get an intimate and increasingly personal experience. Just having more of that. Having more of that sense.
We only have two actors in this show. And what they are doing between the pair of them … it’s amazing. To give every audience member the breath of experience. And to give that to each audience. It’s incredibly focused. They have so much to do and convey and it’s very demanding for them. They are doing such a fantastic job.
But if it were to evolve. If it were to change, there could be more performers. More experiences and more of a sense of community within the audience from when they arrive.
R: We’re so passionate about the North and we’re so passionate about bringing these experience to people up here so we kind of had to test the water a little bit with this. We felt that this time round it needed to be focused but sure, we have some very big ideas. If there’s a next time next year they can be realised.
The set design is incredible but with you saying that I’m already trying to imagine how it could look and sound and evolve.
On that note, let’s talk about the importance of the music and the sound which adds so much to setting the atmosphere of the production…
A: Oh the music is such a huge part of it.
R: It’s had such an impact.
A: And there’s a huge potential for it to become more interactive.
R: We did consider having live music and dance and more elements of performance. More of the senses being engaged. Smell was really important to us this time round. That’s something we’d like to build on for next year. We have this mist that we use in the wooden cabin… We want it to appeal to all the senses as you walk in. Doing it was something that we knew we could build on.
The music was done by Buffalo Spaces and they were incredible. Lins (Wilson) – our producer – this is one of her projects with John Folger and they are just incredible. They’ve created this incredible sound piece for us and they do installations and again – how we researched the folklore and the forest and the history – they did the exact same thing with the sounds and music.
They only wanted to use songs from a certain era and sounds that reflected the winter season and yet also festive. Then also songs about being lost and to do with the stars . Even when you do recognise the song – it was never a predictable choice. It’s totally just informed the full thing.
When we hear any of the songs now, it just transports us straight back. That’s how successful they’ve been at curating this – it’s just been so amazing.
Leeds has a huge underground that’s not currently open to the public, it’s not being explored – I’m thinking now of the Library next door and the Art Gallery…
R: We know of some tunnels…honestly our ideas…at Lord Whitney, we’re not short of ideas, if anything we need reining in a little bit sometimes, so already we’re thinking and we’ve had some discussion about next year. About this project, about other projects. Leeds is an incredible city. It’s got amazing spaces…a lot of empty spaces, unused. Which could all be opened up for some incredible performances and immersive environments. Next year, we’d love to do something. Maybe bigger.
[Alexander pales again, then gets this weird look when it seems he’s actually visualising a bigger version and what that could be]
This was my first immersive experience. I didn’t know what to expect. Is this possibly the largest immersive theatre experience that’s happened in Leeds?
A: In Leeds, yes. There was You, at the Playhouse, but I believe this is larger.
R: This is probably the biggest. We were cautious about advertising this as ‘immersive’ because we didn’t want anyone to feel excluded. Or feel like ‘I don’t do theatre’. It took us a while to find our wording for the project.
Hopefully now that its run, next year we’ll be able to build upon this. People will be more familiar and know what to expect. We have had people come in and wonder what they’re supposed to do. And we’ve had people who have never seen anything like it, have never known that there was anything like this who have come out of it going ‘I need to go again NOW’. And we fully sold out which was just incredible. We never actually thought that this would happen.
There has been a lot of word of mouth…
A: That seems to be how something like this works best.
R: If you have a friend who says that you just have to go, then you’ll think about attending it more than if you see an advert. You trust them, you know you like the same things ‘I’m just going to do it!’
And – not to be vulgar – but this is affordable theatre…
R: Totally! We didn’t want to be exclusive in any way with this project. That was the whole reason we didn’t want it to feel too Chrismassy, we wanted for anyone to feel like they could come and enjoy it. That’s why it was more to do with the seasons and our shared folklore
A: You’re actually getting incredible value for money. If you’re thinking economically, it’s incredible what an audience gets at this experience compared to those in London. If you’re thinking pound to minute of the performance, you get so much out of this.
And – aside from attracting the young – this is a project that can appeal to people who might not normally consider going to the theatre
R: Totally! And that’s before you consider that there’s this gorgeous little pop up pub here also!
It might not be for everyone but hopefully there have been people who have come and had an experience they never ever imagined.
Certainly on twitter – people have sent really good feedback – even a few who have said that ‘this has changed my life!’ which is just like WOW – it’s amazing, it’s more than we could ever have imagined! To have had just *one* of those comments would have made the project for me.
If there a weirdness to that? Getting a message like that and thinking ‘I wrote this’ or ‘I created that, I put that in place’…
R: Honestly, we’re all just so sleep deprived! Maybe by February we’ll be able to sort of take it all on board!!
A: For me, it was amazing. I brought some people up who are avid fans of Punch Drunk and they go and see all of those shows and can go back and see it many many times and who are used to spending maybe £50 a pop on a ticket (R: They are at the top of their game of this world) and they came up to see this. They booked hotels, they booked trains. And then they gave this rave reviews. And for them to do that… For me, it’s more impressive that we are bringing in Joe Public and hearing really positive things, but to ALSO get top end people, who frequent these type of shows – for them to admire the depth and detail that we’ve achieved. That makes me really proud.
Online, there have been a few people scratching their heads, but the reviews seem to have been very positive
R: We’ve heard a lot of that! People saying that they had to go back and do it again because they weren’t sure what to make or it! We never thought that we’d get it right straight away. We just hoped that we’d create something that people could relate to and want more of! And a lot of people have really responded to it so well. It’s been…just terrific.
So what’s next for the pair of you?
A: Definitely sleep.
R: We’ve just done our dining experience which is our Feast of Fools, where we had 30 guests a night come and drink and dance and generally be a bit… A: Mischievous! R: Exactly! And that was brilliant. We used more actors, space and had a similar sort of experience to the evenings. It was great fun. So we’re sort of recovering from that now. We’re starting to get the team together to get everything packed up and move out. But we feel like we can’t quite leave!
A: I’ve been meeting with the actors once a week, to give them some new ideas, to discuss the quality of the performance, introduce new lines and things like that.
R: If people do come back again, they won’t be having the same experience. It’s been changing and evolving.
A: This is a totally different show to when it first opened. Totally. We wanted to see if someone came in the first week and then came back in the last week – we wanted to know that they would see a totally different show.
I TRIED! But you went and sold out. Very annoying
[Both hung their heads, then laughed at me. I don’t think they minded one little bit actually]
A: Sorry! It’s terrible really.
[He wasn’t sorry at all I tell you!]
R: It has been weird trying to think of what this will be like when it’s all over. I don’t actually know how I’ll react once it’s all done. What will I do with myself!
Has this, or how has this – the philosophy and reconnecting with folklore – changed your perspective? I’m actively reducing my time online for example…
R: I was just going to say, that’s been one of the biggest things. This project has really made me reflect on the importance of switching off, or turning the phone around and having some time away from it all. I think it’s awakened – I mean we at Lord Whitney, it’s always been something that’s close to our heart – but that idea that feeling of being playful. This has reminded me of how important this is and how much I love that feeling. And if I can keep on trying to make other people see that for the rest of my life, I think I could die a happy woman! If I could show people that you don’t have to grow up, you can still play, you can still feel that joy…
For me, with the book clubs, there are quite a few now and I’m focused on getting back to the stories – books have always make me feel that way – and worrying less about the admin-y side of things
R: I know exactly what you mean. We (myself and Amy) work at lot in fashion and editorials. We can spend all days ordering things and writing emails. And it sort of sucks you dry and this project has made us both be out there. We are dressing sets and researching and doing the things that we love. This has made us so excited. This was a tough project and it’s grown so much and it’s been stressful at times but it’s been so worth it and exciting. If I could just carry on doing things like this, I’d be the happiest woman ever!
A: From a purely directorial point of view, it’s taught me a lot about exploring the possibilities of these one-to-one experiences and exactly how can you give someone a really, genuinely personal, not manufactured experience. So, I’ve done stuff in the past where it’s all a one-on-one, so you go from scene to scene with different actors but you know that this is kind of the formula of the performance. You know that in the next scene you will see a performer act and you know what’s going to happen. (R: I HATE that. I love it when you don’t know what to expect!).
Personally, I’m a lot more green aware and I feel like I wasn’t so aware of the impact that we have. I’ve become aware of Carl Sagan through our research. His philosophies which I’m become aware of due to this has had an impact. I’m quoting him to my friend which is just seriously uncool … but I love how – with a project like this – when it touches you in a deeper way.
R: I actually studied some philosophy as an A level and I love it. But I was torn between a creative career at uni – I would have loved to study philosophy at university but that wasn’t my path. I think all of us involved in this – we’ve all been touched by this. It”s been a pleasure to look at things like Campbell again. I never thought that it would have come full circle like this.
Well, it is actually quite a strange thing that here you choose at 16 really what you are going to do. To be a creative, or go down an academic route, or I guess a creative academic route. A project like this challenges you whether you regard yourself as academic, scientific or creative. It brings us all together in a strange sort of way and reminds us that we are none of us just that one thing
R: Yes. Definitely. I completely agree with you. When you do such a creative thing as a job, you get absorbed.
A: It’s possible to be creative and pointless…self indulgent. This just…wasn’t that!
R: The folklore project was like doing a dissertation again. It brought you back to what actually mattered. It was fascinating – the more I researched the more it opened doors. Of course, we then had to rein ourselves back in.
It’s almost upsetting that I had to experience this. If it was on a dvd, I could watch it every time I feel depleted…but that’s not really how something like this works…
A: It’s not quite the point of something like this. The point is maybe to go out and experience again to get back that feeling
R: That’s what is so special about these kind of things. That no photo or film will ever do it justice. It’s how you felt while you were there. That’s the important thing. That’s the importance of going to these things. And actually of real life. That you LIVE it, not live it through a screen or via an image or a recording…
We’ve already been wondering how the hell do we reflect this on our website. I mean, really. Really. What do you say? How?
A: How would you film it? There are infinite ways of capturing or seeing this. There are so many facets.
R: We’ve dreamed up this whole world and I’ve only seen about a fifth of it? I don’t even know what the actors do sometimes. I hear things and I’m like really? Where was that? I haven’t seen that!! I’m almost a little bit gutted that it sold out, I’d love for people to experience it again. We even considered making the group sizes bigger – maybe 30 people but in the end we decided to focus on that personal experience. That was our emphasis. That was our direction.
It’s having Jack look you in the eyes. Having Gwen take you to a room. Finding the nuts in the cabin.
We had this one guy the first week that just sat in the cabin, eating nuts. We were like – go for it! You experience this as you want to! Another was in the middle of the woods, just listening to the music.
I’m love to have left a bottle of wine for them.
Maybe the last night…?
R: Yeah, maybe
A: Maybe. Maybe. Maybe not. Let’s talk about that one!!
Check out the trailer for the Wood beneath the World on Youtube below!
Visit the official The Woods Beneath the World website HERE