ELY — Audiences will soon have the chance to walk through nature with two historic essayists of the natural world, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
In fact, a direct descendent of Emerson, his great-great-great-grandson, will be at the upcoming productions of “Nature” — a traveling, outdoor, “walking play,” that intermixes local performers with an award-winning ensemble of Twin Cities professional actors.
And, yes, everyone really will be walking short distances during the five performances Aug. 22 to 25 through the forests and fields at the Hidden Valley ski area, just east of downtown Ely.
The interactive play tells the story of the friendship between the two 19th century writers, who shared the belief that nature is the source of spiritual respite and renewal.
“It’s very unique,” said Mike Rouse, an award-winning choral director at the Ely school who is leading the play’s local volunteer community chorus. “Rather than sitting and watching scenes change on a stage, the audience walks from one scene to the next with the musicians and actors as they move from one part of the story into the next.”
And that makes it perfect for families with younger children, said Johnnie Hyde, CEO of Ely’s Raven Words Press and coordinator of the collaborative effort that has worked to bring “Nature” to Ely.
The lively music, outdoor setting and humorous dialogue, combined with the adventure of moving from one location to the next, will keep youngsters (and adults) entertained and engaged, she said.
There will be some uphill walking, and golf cart transportation between scenes will be provided for those who have limited mobility, she added.
The play is sponsored by the Ely Folk School, Northern Lakes Arts Association of Ely, Ely Arts & Heritage Center, and Raven Words Press, which publishes the summer and winter Ely Times and Boundary Waters and Quetico Calendar.
“Nature” has been performed to great acclaim in more than 20 parks and arboretums nationwide, Hyde said. “People experienced in the arts have said it’s the best theatrical experience they’ve ever had,” she said of the play, which has been called “Guthrie-quality theater in a natural setting.”
The show features 16 cast members from the Minneapolis-based TigerLion Arts group; many also perform at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
“Nature” will travel in September to The Old Manse in Concord, Mass., an 18th century estate famous for its historical and literary associations, including connections to Emerson and Thoreau. Emerson drafted his famous essay, “Nature,” from an upstairs room in the clapboard building.
The Ely performances will be the only ones of the music-filled play in the Arrowhead region, Hyde said.
“Nature” was written by descendent Tyson Forbes, who portrays his great-great-great-grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the play.
Emerson and Thoreau “were authors, friends, and radicals of their time, calling on their peers to think for themselves, live more deeply, and be agents of change,” he says in a statement about the play. “I believe their words and ideas are as relevant and necessary now as they were then, and I am thrilled to be able to share this story of their friendship and history.”
“Nature” explores the writers’ relationship, including their falling apart, and transports audiences to the rural landscape of the 1800s. Instruments of the day, including bagpipes, ancient flutes and drums, are woven into the script, Hyde said.
Mattie Lindsay, of Ely, a soon-to-be fourth grader, will perform the role of Emerson’s daughter, Elly.
The Ely-area chorus, which began practicing in mid-July, consists of 18 adult vocalists and five upper elementary to middle school area singers (Tuuli Koivisto, Neva Levens, Sova Meyers, Sylvia Shock, Peyton Erzar-Tyndall), said Rouse, who co-directed this summer’s Camp Broadway, part of an inaugural multi-school Iron Range program.
Some of the children in the “Nature” choir participated in Camp Broadway; others are Rouse’s students in Ely.
“The audience will be hearing wonderful music” of the time period; some familiar and some not-so-familiar songs, he said, including “Oh Shenandoah,” “Oh! Susanna,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” and “Simple Gifts.”
The play’s action will unfold around the audience as spectators follow the performers from set to set and circle back around during the eight scenes of the 90-minute (no intermission) performance, Hyde said.
The cast represents the past, the audience represents the present and the chorus, which walks along with the audience, “is the bridge between the old and the current,” explained Billie Rouse, Northern Lakes Arts Association board member and wife of the choral director.
“It’s a privilege (for the association) to be able to participate and bring this to Ely,” she added.
Performances are scheduled for 6 p.m. Aug. 22, 23 and 24, with 1 p.m. matinees Aug. 24 and 25.
Each will include pre-show entertainment, complete with bagpipe and choral music and refreshments for purchase. Ticket-holders are encouraged to arrive at least a half hour before showtime for the “pre-show extravaganza”; earlier to purchase tickets.
Following the Saturday afternoon performance, there will be an opportunity for the audience to talk with cast members, including playwright Forbes.
The sponsoring organizations are committed to keeping the experience affordable, and $850 of a $17,000 Culture and Tourism grant awarded to the Ely Folk School earlier this year by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board is helping to fund the performances, Hyde said.
The folk school is a do-it-yourself place for learning traditional crafts and skills associated with Ely’s cultural heritage and wilderness legacy.
“Nature” tickets, available online at elyfolkschool.org/nature; at Art and Soul Gallery in Ely, or at the gate, are $15 for adults and $10 for children and students, with a maximum of $50 per family.
TigerLion Arts is additionally supported by grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, made possible by Minnesota voters.
A 90-minute family workshop, “I Went for a Walk Today,” for ages 6 and older, will also be offered at 1 p.m. Aug. 23 at the Ely Arts & Heritage Center. Cost is a free-will donation.
Actors from the play will lead nature walks, and participants will engage in theatrical games and reflective journaling in the spirit of Thoreau’s journal writings at Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., Hyde said. Each attendee will receive a free “Nature” field journal.
The class is limited to 30 people and reservations, available at the folk school website, are required.
“Nature” audience members should dress for the weather, because “the play is held rain or shine,” Hyde added. Only dangerous weather conditions would cancel performances.
Lawn chairs and blankets are recommended for seating; there will be a limited number of chairs reserved for those who most need them. Attendees are encouraged to wear comfortable shoes and bring sun protection.
Hyde said past audiences have truly enjoyed rainy productions. However, ticket holders who don’t want to attend a rainy performance can substitute tickets for a subsequent show.
Mike Rouse, who founded and directs the Boundary Waters Choral Festival, which brings students from area schools together for one, big choral presentation each spring in Ely, said the “Nature” play is “a wonderful collaboration” — and a learning experience, especially for the young singers.
“It’s really incredible for them to have the chance to work elbow to elbow with professional musicians and actors,” he said.
The local chorus, which consists of the students to seniors, will hold three rehearsals with the Minneapolis group next week.
The kids have also been learning a lot about old American folk music and the lives of Emerson and Thoreau, he said.
And Rouse, who recently won an American Choral Directors Association of Minnesota ACE (Advocate for Choral Excellence) Award, said this will be “my first musical production performed in an outdoor setting.”
“Nature” is a show “people are really going to want to see,” he said. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune named the play, “The Best in Twin Cities Theater.”
Hyde said attendees are coming from as far as Duluth and Minneapolis.
Rouse said he knows of one person who plans to journey from even farther.
While at the ACDA summer event in Northfield, Minn., Rouse conversed with a choir director who, upon hearing about the “Nature” performances in Ely, said “he has seen it twice, in different locations. … He said it was the ‘best thing ever,’ and he’s coming up from southern Minnesota” to attend a performance.
Now that, Rouse said, is “a high recommendation.”