Nicole Serratore and her succulent plant, Phyl, sit down to discuss Estado Vegetal by Chilean artist Manuela Infante. It’s a work that is meant to explore communication between humans and plants and consider theater from a post-anthropocentric point of view.
Nicole: What’s it like to finally see a show that tries to decenter a human perspective and express a plant one?
Phyl: It’s about leafing time. Time for plants is long. A lot longer than for puny humans. You can imagine how long we’ve had to wait for this kind of theatrical representation.
Nicole: Infante sets up a story about a motorcycle accident involving a tree but the show blossoms out from there. What about this show makes this a plant centric one?
Phyl: First off, stop thinking of things as having a center. That’s really a human framing. As is pointed out in the play, plants exist in a branching state. Moving outward, always reaching and expanding without the idea of a center or heart and without end. Infante uses thematic and stylistic repetition like how plants exist in physical repetition with leaves and branches. She repeats linguistic phrases. She uses light movement on stage that represents a plant’s dynamic with the sun.
Nicole: The arch of lights that each came on separately, as if to suggest the rise and setting of the sun during the day really helped give a sense of movement of time. Also the shadow-play it created around the plant on stage, made you think for just a second that plant was moving. Or at least movement that was visible to humans. But did you think the repetition was too much?
Phyl: Probably for a human like you.
Nicole: I appreciated the ways the same phrases echoed throughout in very different contexts. “Pimped it out,” “I can’t move,” or “Garden of Eden” kept coming back but they were expressed by different characters with changing intent. And there was a great deal of humor to it. While it had a sense of play, it was also delivering a thoughtful message which I don’t always find to be the case when someone takes up the challenge of theatrically talking about nature (I’m thinking of a lot of unsuccessful climate change theater). What did you think of performer, Marcela Salinas?
Phyl: She played a number of human and plant characters. Vocally I thought she captured the swirling wind of communal plant voices. Even if she moved too much to be a real plant.
Nicole: Movement is a conundrum in a piece of theater around plants. I suppose Infante had to concede to performing for a human audience which expects more motion than a plant audience might. Salinas has the grace of a dancer and real command over her physical expression. Even the way she kicked off her shoes at one point was so rich with characterization. Regardless of the voices, accents, or verbal tics, it was clear through her body language which characters she was portraying at what times—a grief-stricken mother, a woman who talks to trees, a neighborhood busybody, a frustrated local official. With the use of a looping pedal, these voices also existed outside her body. As with the specific use of light which at times Salinas looked drawn to (as a plant might be), Infante used sound to build a bigger world than just these human characters. Particularly for the plants. I’m not sure I had ever considered what plants might sound like as a group.
Phyl: I’m glad she showed plants can be funny. We’re hilarious. You don’t even know. The things we say behind your back. Literally you have your back to us all day long at the office. You don’t even talk to us.
Nicole: I’m seeing the error of my ways.
Phyl: Are you just humoring me? It would only take 3 months but plants could bury your world if you weren’t so hellbent on controlling us. Humans!
Nicole: That was something I too learned from the play. Do you want to talk about human-on-plant colonialism?
Phyl: [Untranslated plant dialect] [Waaaaaaa Waaaaaaa]
Nicole: Phyl seems to be talking to the other plants here so I’m going to address the colonialism in the piece.
Phyl: Proving my point. Leave you alone for ONE second and you control the narrative.
Phyl: Obviously you humans control more than plants. It’s one of your defining characteristics. Infante considered the politics of your animal ways and how that manifests in your world.
Nicole: Can’t plants dominate each other. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of plants choking another plant to death.
Phyl: We learned it from watching you.
Nicole: There was a political angle here—raising questions of animal hierarchy, centering power, invasion, a sense of completeness which she argues are not plant-like. It just felt a little idealized to me in considering the plant world. Is it all harmonious and peaceful within a plant world untouched by an animal world?
Phyl: I have never experienced it myself living on this window ledge in a tiny container you put me in. I am removed from my habitat and my community. I am not able to live free. You have made me dependent on you. I’m not sure you are in any position to judge the harmony of plant world when you are yourself a plant colonizer. You keep asking such human questions and applying your human “values” like some of the characters in the show. Did you learn nothing from the show?
Nicole: There was a line about plant autonomy, “May no one speak for anyone else” which really pushed at this idea that for plants there is a kind of total universe in a leaf or a branch or a root and that these are not representative parts (like in an animal with organs that have isolated functions). And it is tyranny to impose an animal physiology or framing to your existence. I’m startring to see by forcing us to “talk” about this in this format—a critical dialogue back and forth—I am again imposing an animal physiology on you and on the piece. I thought by giving you a voice I was offering you “space” but in reality, all I have done is dictated the terms of engagement, as usual, in a structural, human, and dare I say patriarchal form. And while critical probing can have a branching nature which could be non-linear, exploratory, and truly without end, I have framed this in such a way that is formally controlled. Like the tiny pot I have placed you in, I have only given you enough soil and water here to keep you within the limits I am comfortable with.
Phyl: You’ve also made me sound like an indignant asshole and since you are actually voicing both of us, that’s saying more about you than it says about me or the plant world.
Nicole: Fair. As much as I want to see patriarchal structures dismantled, I have so long internalized them. You’re making me wonder if I could live truly free of them.
Phyl: You’d have to adjust to looser, slower, less direct path. Follow the sun and see where it takes you.
Nicole: I’m allergic to the sun. But maybe I would just be one of those plants who thrives in shade, who co-exists with the plants who love and need the sun, and we’d share nutrients and find a symbiosis.
Phyl: Do you think you could let go of your animal instinct to control?
Nicole: It’s all I’ve ever known but I think I am capable of growth.