What on earth are the cast, crew, director, playwright, and (eventually) the audience doing in one of the more distant, least-manicured regions of Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square?
One clue: The unmowed, recently expanded Meadow Garden is rigged with an electronic network created for Lost in the Meadow, a site-specific play by Lisa D'Amour and produced by People's Light theater company that has been years in the making.
Creating theater far from its usual indoor environs in Malvern - and even a fair distance from the ultracivilized topiary gardens Longwood is known for - means the audience of 200 for the eight performances that run Wednesday through Sept. 19 will wear headphones in order to hear the dialogue, mostly prerecorded, as they watch the actors moving amid tall grass.
The idea started rather simply. "We were looking out at this meadow and dreaming about what we might see there. And then we saw some Longwood guests walking along the path, these tiny figures in this landscape," said Mimi Lien, the design end of the Lost in the Meadow team. "And that gave us our first inspiration: What would it be like if we could hear what they were saying? As if we're right there with them, even though they're 600 feet away?"
That was in 2011, when People's Light launched what is among the more unusual - and, at $300,000, costly - projects in its 40-season history. Looking for ways to make unconventional connections with its community, it brought in 12 theatrical teams for a three-day retreat at Longwood to see what inspired them. The resulting proposals had a curious dichotomy between embracing the horticultural mecca and rebelling against it. One team proposed erecting a tent and using aerialists.
The proposal ultimately selected, by the seasoned creative team PearlDamour - playwright Lisa D'Amour (Pulitzer finalist for Detroit, Barrymore winner for Outrage) and director Katie Pearl, plus Lien - was Lost in the Meadow, which creates a post-apocalyptic atmosphere in which random strangers (one has somehow become disconnected from a marching band and has a sousaphone in tow) find themselves drawn to the same meadow without knowing why, a bit like the classic 1977 Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
A specially built tower topped by an orange megaphone will provide the voice of the meadow, in its own purely musical rhetoric.
Setting up shop at Longwood naturally comes with hidden challenges. Though a veteran of much site work, director Pearl has had to constantly modify her staging according to the meadow's growth cycle. At one point, sunflowers made an unexpected appearance. There, the plants rule.
"You can't fight the meadow," said D'Amour.
"There's give and take . . . moments when you say . . . we're a garden first - that would cause detriment to the wildflowers," said Tom Warner, Longwood's performing-arts manager.
"Sometimes, we have to move this to here - and what is the domino effect," said Pearl. "It's like a marionette with a lot of strings."
"It's been a shape-shifting experience in all ways," said Zak Berkman, People's Light producing director.
Beneath a canopy
The creative team conducted afternoon rehearsals from beneath a canopy, Pearl having learned to direct via walkie-talkie. Cast members waited for cues while sheltering from the blazing sun under umbrellas with hidden coolers to facilitate hydration.
With a 6 p.m. curtain time, the wired-for-sound audience shouldn't have to deal with such hardships, particularly as the play is consciously timed to make use of the natural fading light of a late-summer day. The meadow is also up to current handicap codes, with easily navigable bridges and paths.
Binoculars will be discouraged: The staging is meant to be seen from a distance; closer proximity would reveal the intentionally exaggerated physicality of the acting and imperfect lip synching to the prerecorded dialogue.
The intimacy of the headphones and distance of the actors was a singular writing challenge for D'Amour. In addition to creating personalities, she said, "the writing has to direct your eye to different places in the meadow."
Much of that work will also be done by the incidental music score by her husband, composer Brendan Connelly, which has particular melodies associated with each character, prerecorded by a cutting-edge percussion/strings group named Yarn/Wire.
The meadow speaks
The major sound climax is when the tower in the meadow speaks. "I envisioned . . . the sound of the earth moving," said D'Amour, "and Brendan heard it like electronic feedback, like a voice coming out of the earth. I think where we landed has a little bit of both."
"It's tricky," said Connelly. "It's supposed to be ambiguous. Every character hears it in its own way."
As will the audience, with seven giant sub-woofer speakers guaranteed to have an impact in the outdoor acoustic. That moment still hadn't been tested as of last week.
Whatever happens, says Berkman, "there's no repeating the experience of what's going to occur this month. It's going to be an entirely ephemeral event."
Ephemeral?, wonders Longwood's Warner. Why can't it happen elsewhere? All you need is a meadow - and willingness to meet it halfway.
Lost in the Meadow
6 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday and Sept. 16-19 in the Meadow Garden at Longwood Gardens, 1001 Longwood Rd., Kennett Square.
Information: 610-388-1000 or www.longwoodgardens.org