Root: ‘What if humans were trees, and trees were humans?’

Two Dublin Theatre Festival shows are tackling environmental issues head-on

Theatre companies have up to now often shied away from tackling environmental issues, but this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival has not one, but two shows focusing on the biodiversity and climate crises that the world is now facing head-on.

“We are often asked why are we making work about the environment and we say, why not?” says Luke Casserly, who, with Shanna May Breen, has created Root, an immersive story about trees.

Casserly and Breen and the creative directors of Brokentalkers – the production company behind Rising, a visual installation and audio performance that explores climate change from the perspective of a young Dubliner living close to the water – argue that the lack of emotional engagement is one of the reasons why people haven’t fully taken on board the societal change required to solve these twin crises.

“Art can create action through perception. It can make you feel the story. It’s about sensation and a whole body [experience] rather than just the brain,” explains Breen. It reminds me of how the German biologist/philosopher Andreas Weber said that environmental action must be fuelled by passion and empathy.


Showing at the Samuel Beckett Theatre in Trinity College Dublin (TCD), Root will explore how Ireland came to have the lowest forest cover in Europe and what we can do to move on from that position.

We hope people will leave the performance with different viewpoints on trees, that they will be more emotionally connected to trees

“A lot of the information on trees in the environment is about the statistics and data, but we examine it in a gentle, soft, abstracted way. Root explores what it would be like if humans were to be trees and trees to be human,” explains Casserly.

In the build-up to the show, Breen and Casserly talked about trees to lots of different people. “When we were talking to people, there were forest fires in Turkey, Greece and California. What was happening to the planet could no longer be ignored. It wasn’t an imagined future, it was happening now,” says Breen, who has just finished a diploma in climate entrepreneurship at TCD.

Storm damage

They also camped in a Serbian forest and documented the impact of storm damage in a Tuscan town through their involvement in Be SpectACTive, a European project co-funded by the EU Creative Europe programme.

“We wanted to understand the sensations trees feel, the way they communicate underground through mycelium [the threadlike fungal network that wraps around tree roots] and how they can create life in places humans have destroyed,” says Casserly.

“We hope people will leave the performance with different viewpoints on trees, that they will be more emotionally connected to trees and have a heightened awareness of them and that they will plant more trees,” adds Breen.

For each production, Breen and Casserly also insist on creating an “environmental legacy”. So, for example, they posted seeds for native Irish wildflowers to audiences of their Miniature Meadows project created for the Dublin Fringe Festival during the first Covid-19 lockdown. This has resulted in small patches of wildflowers growing all over Ireland. “We are interested in stretching out new conversations around the environment through non-conventional theatre forms,” says Casserly.

We're bombarded by the science and guilt-tripped because humans have caused this crisis, but it leaves us with a sense of helplessness, hopelessness and fear

For Root, they have already planted 1,000 native Irish trees in the grounds of Birr Castle and hope to plant more trees on different sites as part of their carbon audit for the production. Breen is, however, not too impressed with the three electronic trees recently installed at great expense in Cork city to mop up emissions by mimicking nature. “I don’t feel very good about that at all. I hope we don’t go down this path,” she says.

How Ireland can and should have greater tree cover will be debated in the Science Gallery at TCD while Root is running at the Dublin Theatre Festival. The Talking Theatre Rooting Ireland Forum on October 1st will bring together experts in art, agriculture and sustainability to discuss the future of reforestation in Ireland.

Gary Keegan is the co-artistic director, with Feidlim Cannon, of Brokentalkers, the innovative theatre company which has created Rising for the 2021 Dublin Theatre Festival.


He suggests artistic work can bring something different to environmental issues than endless political and scientific discussion. “We’re bombarded by the science and guilt-tripped because humans have caused this crisis – and I don’t dispute that – but it leaves us with a sense of helplessness, hopelessness and fear. Because the arts can deal with metaphor and poetry, we can offer people an alternative way of viewing things and engage them on an emotional level. We can show people that it’s worth engaging with it because we don’t really have much choice if we want to turn things around.”

Brokentalkers, who are currently artists-in-residence at TCD, spoke to scientists there including Prof Yvonne Buckley, chair of Zoology, and professor of Geography Anna Davies. “We are also inspired by people on the frontline taking action on this issue. The piece is called Rising because it’s about people rising to the challenge as well as the rising sea levels.”

Keegan says Brokentalkers intentionally seek to amplify marginalised voices in their productions. “In our work, we like to find space for people who don’t get a chance to speak. The narrator of Rising – a young Dublin woman who lives on Pearse Street – is talking from the future about what has already happened with rising sea levels.”

The idea behind Rising is “to call on the audience to take a stand to save our planet home by bringing the climate crisis to our doorstep”. The visual elements – lights and laser show – have been created by Algorithm and are fuelled by sustainable power sources, which Keegan says is also important. “We are also on a steep learning curve with our own company to be more mindful of our impact,” he adds.

He says that he hopes audiences will walk away from Rising asking questions about what they could practically do to help either on an individual level, through collective action or lobbying. After the Dublin Theatre Festival performances, Brokentalkers will develop arts projects to respond to the climate crisis with groups of residents in the Grand Canal docklands as part of their Creative Ireland Climate Action award.

Root will be shown at the Samuel Beckett Theatre from Sep 30-Oct 2 at 7.30pm; preview on Sep 29 at 7.30pm

Rising, the visual installation and audio performance, will take place on the Liffey Quays from Oct 7-9 at 8pm.