Saturday, August 14, 2021

"Among Trees" a Great Step FOHWard

A remarkable community act took place next to Veblen House this past month. Herrontown Woods has always sat quietly on the outskirts of Princeton, beyond many people's awareness, but on July 15, 

more than 100 people found their way to Herrontown Woods on the same enchanted evening. Chances are, that means another 50 or so were orbiting somewhere in the vicinity, searching but not quite finding this elusive destination. The record breaking congregation came together in response to the vision and talent 

of two professional actors, Vivia Font and Ben Steinfeld, who had assembled the scripts and performers for an evening of poetry, prose, and locally sourced music, aptly entitled Among Trees. Much of the script came from submissions by local writers, the inspired readings of which were interspersed with a broad array of musical vignettes. 

Adding greatly to the success of the event was the collaboration of the Princeton Public Library, whose public programming librarian Janie Hermann did so much to promote the event. Some of her photos are included in this post. 

Among Trees would not have come to pass if not for a chance encounter at the Small World cafe on Nassau St, where the Friends of Herrontown Woods' president and vice-president, Steve Hiltner and Pallavi Nuka, happened to be meeting to discuss Veblen House. At the next table over, Ben and Vivia were meeting to brainstorm ideas for theater performances in Princeton. Steve, having taken one of Ben's Shakespeare workshops, said hello, and everything followed from that. Small World contributed refreshing drinks for the event as well. 

A number of the performers have connections to the university. John Burkhalter is subsciptions manager for PU concerts by day, player of 18th century instrumental music by night. 

Monica Mugan and Beth Meyers formed the duo Damsel after becoming neighbors in Princeton. Both have partners associated with the university, and it's interesting to read that Monica and her partner Dan Trueman have been heavily influenced by Norwegian folk music, including use of a hardanger fiddle--a national instrument of Norway that originated not far from the Valdres Valley, where Oswald Veblen's grandparents lived before immigrating to America. 

According to a Norwegian American website article:
The central Norwegian regions of Hallingdal, Valdres, and Telemark have long been known for their rich concentration of folk musicians. With proximity to the Hardanger plateau, this region has a special claim on one of the most “Norwegian” parts of Norway’s cultural inheritance, the Hardanger fiddle.

Fiona Tyndall sang a lovely Irish ballad, Blooming Heather, accompanied by Ben.
Percussionist Mika Godbole performed a fascinating "speaking percussion" work combining poetry and percussion, using differently toned flower pots, entitled "To the Earth" by Frederic Rzewski.

It takes great skill and training to read a text while connecting fully with the audience. Actors Ben, Vivia, and Katharine Powell Roman handled this beautifully. One particularly moving reading was of Robert Frost's poem "Birches", read by Katharine and her son. 

The stage for this performance, a lawn next to Veblen House, was years in the setting. The house has sat empty since 1998, and through decades of neglect the grounds had become overgrown with invasive shrubs and vines, all of which began getting cleared by Kurt and Sally Tazelaar and other FOHW volunteers starting in 2013, revealing a tranquil and beautiful setting. Andrew Thornton, seen setting up a garden torch behind the stage, has been in many ways the keeper and fashioner of the grounds, both at Veblen House and the Barden. 

From trees came the setting, many of the instruments played, the stage, and even this bench, which was fashioned by volunteer Victorino out of a fallen black locust tree on the Veblen grounds. 

Thanks to the performers, the writers, and all those who have been setting a stage for good things to happen at Herrontown Woods.