The Garden Designer As Theatre Director

I suppose one of the great experiences of theatre is being present for a unique moment in time. It is a moment that only the audience shares.  It isn’t recorded for posterity to be handed down through the generations.  It isn’t overdubbed and cut and pasted.  It’s just there and then it’s gone.  A moment of creativity that is no less important for its transience but all the more powerful in its experience. The audience feels the emotional power of the actor, they are drawn into the present, and they know that it will never be expressed exactly that way ever again.

Such as it is with gardens. We, the garden designers, are the theatre directors. We have a stage. We have an audience.  Our actors are the plants and we push them and pull them; we coach them and coax them.  Our gardeners are stagehands; our scenes are the seasons.

Let me tell you a story of theatre…

The handsome male lead stands strong and tall.  He has rehearsed this role for years and knows it like the back of his hand.  In his youth they knew him as Eucalyptus maculata but as the years dragged on and audiences grew weary of his presence, he changed his name to Corymbia maculata in an attempt to breathe new life into his career. Around the stage, they know him simply as Old Macca — a stalwart of the scene, an icon of theatre.

Many have tried to burst up through Macca’s broad spreading canopy over the years but to no avail.  He is a powerful actor and all consuming.  He frustrates their efforts with a condescending drop of leaves and twigs, safe in the knowledge that he alone has control over the stage. Then, just when they think he’s had enough, Macca sheds his tired old skin in a dazzling metamorphosis and stands there transformed, like an emerging butterfly from its chrysalis.  He is young again; fresh skinned and sensuous, entrancing the audience anew.  But there is no mistaking the majesty and dominance of his presence.

It’s opening night and everyone’s nerves are on edge.  The director barks orders — “Stage left! LEFT!” A chorus line of Alliums trembles amidst the tension, the Rosemarys prostrate themselves in supplication. Furry Banksias grumble as they continue their slow passage across the stage.  They won’t be hurried.  They know their roles and all the shouting in the world won’t make them move faster.

Tonight’s performance will be a time-honoured tale of tragedy and grief through the passage of time.  Wild winds lash the king and set his limbs thrashing as he fights their power.  He bows and sways trying to protect those who are closest to him, straining against the forces of nature.  Then just as we think he has weathered the storm, a fresh tempest blows from the south, tearing off a limb and sending it crashing to the ground!

Tragedy below. Two of his children killed, so many of his subjects maimed. Through his grief, the king learns of himself, of his violence and his weakness.  He must live with his act of infanticide and the trust lost from his people.

The audience is along for the ride.  They see his despair, they have lived through his darkest hours and they know him to be flawed.  Perhaps they see this as a magnification of those same flaws in their own characters.

The stagehands drag torn limbs and maimed Correas from the stage under the cover of darkness. New actors take their place on stage ready for the second act.  Canna Lilies in salmon pink and red play their colours against the king’s mottled trunk; Silver-leaf Eucalyptus saplings await their chance to star.

The director waits nervously in the wings, feeding on the raw emotions that Old Macca has poured into the theatre.

Act two — a scene of hope and regeneration…

New buds form above torn wounds. Fresh flowers bloom and new subjects find their place beneath the king.  We know that in the future they will challenge for his throne but for now everything is peaceful once again.

There is an ovation from the audience. Tears slide surreptitiously from the director’s eyes.  It is a masterpiece, a triumph of theatre! The reviews are glowing — such raw emotion has not been seen in years. But the glory is fleeting and soon it is forgotten; the moment is gone.

Old Macca still rolls up to rehearsal every day.  The Rosemary still lays prostrate at his feet — desperate for his branches of wisdom but receiving little more than the twigs that he no longer cares for.  The Canna Lilies fatten and flower, growing more contented with their roles. And fresh Alliums come; so much prettier and fresher than our memories of those that came before.

They all await the next performance. This time the director has something a bit light — a comedy — something more befitting the levity of the season. A little farce, perhaps some romance.  Another moment in time.

Eucalyptus maculata at Musk Cottage. Image by Keith Broad
Eucalyptus maculata at Musk Cottage. Image by Kim Woods Rabbidge
Eucalyptus maculata. Image by Eckersly Garden Architecture


Musk Cottage will once again open to the public later this year for the Victorian Garden Design Festival on the 15th and 16th of November 2014.  Book your front row tickets to the garden theatre experience of a lifetime


Slider image by Keith Broad