As theatre artists continue to adapt to the new reality of the COVID era, getting audiences outdoors has been an experiment within the form. Cairns by Gelsey Bell, accomplishes the feat by bringing audiences to experience a production solo, far away from any performers or fellow ticket holders.
Commissioned by HERE Arts Center, the piece is a soundscape that carves a path through a treasure trove of natural beauty and hidden histories. That space is a nationally recognized landmark: Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. Founded in 1837, Green-Wood is not an ordinary rest place for the deceased—there are architectural gems that belong in a museum and so much flora that it's an accredited arboretum.
“I wanted something that got people out of their homes and off their computer screens,” says Bell, who has appeared in Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway and Ghost Quartet. “I’ve always been attracted to musical and theatrical experiences that take place in unexpected places. I love making work that reacts to specific topographical, acoustic, and architectural features.”
Bell created Cairns as an independent journey. Attendees just need to purchase the eight-track album on Bandcamp. Upon arrival at the Sunset Park entrance (4th Avenue and 35th Street), you play the album on your streaming device and follow Bell’s voice as she issues directions. (Download the album ahead of time as service can be spotty in the middle of the cemetery.) The walk itself takes a little over an hour, (plus the 15-minute stroll back to the exit). But if you’re really in a leisurely mode, pause to enjoy the scenery and go at your own pace.
Green-Wood was an obvious choice for Bell, who lives close by and yearned for a green space to get fresh air during the stay-at-home order that lasted in NYC for almost three months. “There is a seemingly endless maze of paths and all of these stone barriers separating people,” says the artist.
Throughout the walk, Bell’s voice, field noises (the sounds of birds, airplanes, wind, etc.), and footsteps (made by composer Joseph White) filter through the headphones to provide sonic cues.
“Working with Joseph was just wonderful because he could really combine his skills as a sound designer and composer, and was very responsive to my asking for certain things on theatrical terms,” said Bell. For example, White’s footsteps created certain rhythms to match Bell’s breathing in the track “Climbing and Breathing.”
The piece begins in a tunnel where Bell creates an echo harmony. Standing under vaulted arches, audiences hear ethereal sounds that set up what turns out to be a walk through space and time, transported by the histories and natural beauty captured visually and aurally.
In a later “scene,” Bell creates the sounds of trees communicating (they actually emit humming noises at 220 hertz). These moments—the crackling, humming, and vocalization combining in “Trees and Names”—under canopied beech trees and past redwoods utilizes Bell’s talents to full effect. “Any timbral processing is just done in my mouth,” says Bell. “I draw on a number of extended vocal techniques, really use the whole pitch range, and employ harmonic movement that expands beyond our equal temperament scale.”
In addition to working with White on the soundtrack, Bell worked with Brent Arnold for binaural mixing—meaning sounds switch between earbuds while listening on headphones. “That has the ability to give the allusion of sound moving through space, for instance: spinning around one’s head.”
Cairns holds purpose beyond the soundscapes, though. Bell is making her way to lay down a cairn, a small stone, on a grave to pay her respects. It’s a mission that anchors the journey rather than it meandering aimlessly.
As audiences amble over cobblestone pathways, through well-trodden grass pathways, and under tree canopies, Bell tells several stories about those laid to rest at Green-Wood, most of them women. One is an Indigenous performer and another predicted global warming in the mid-19th century. To list all the people here would give away the surprise of stumbling upon these fascinating histories (and who are the recipient of Bell's reverence), but there are approximately a dozen historical figures sprinkled throughout Cairns.
Bell strongly considered 60 people and ultimately narrowed to 12 alongside historic consultant Linda M. Waggoner. “You’d be surprised how often I would stumble upon a gravestone I liked the look of to then find out that the person buried there had a Wikipedia page,” she said.
The combination of stopping at graves and listening to soundscapes at a specific place means this theatrical piece is enhanced by taking the walk at Green-Wood—but it’s not impossible to enjoy from home. Cairns is transportive—a boon for those who might not live nearby. Bell describes what the listener sees vividly, so closing one’s eyes and visualizing is another option.
And in this COVID-19 era, that’s crucial. “I guess this piece is also making a stand that no artistic industry ever really shuts down,” says Bell. “Artists will always find a way forward.”