Poetry in motion

‘Inhabit the Garden’ is a new collaboration inspired by T.S. Eliot.

Abby Bender in "Inhabit the Garden," an intimate, immersive work of movement, music, and theater inspired by T.S. Eliot's “Burnt Norton.” —Jordan Bullinger

You don’t sit a far distance from a proscenium stage watching “Inhabit the Garden,” but rather co-inhabit the performance space with writer-performer Abby Bender — and in an audience of only six people. in a personal residence.

Bender explains that the piece “is essentially about time, the inescapability of it and the challenge, for me specifically, of being in the present moment. It’s pretty existential, but that shouldn’t scare folks away. There’s comedy too! it’s extremely intimate and immersive, as I take the audience with me on a journey of movement, music, and theater through the small private house.”

The production was inspired by the first of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” a poem in five parts called “Burnt Norton.” Composer Brian Hughes, who has lived on the Island for 30 years, approached Bender about collaborating on a piece, since he has always been interested in the poem. After buying a copy, Bender found, “Eliot is a bit obscure, to say the least, and this work in particular has its fair share of religious references that I struggled to identify with. But despite the fact that I couldn’t make heads or tails of the poem at first, I dug deep and slowly found my way in.” Eventually, with Hughes’ score, the poem itself, the show’s setting, and her role as writer/performer, it all gelled into what she feels are equally important parts of a larger, cohesive production.

Bender and Hughes’ collaboration evolved organically. “The moment I started writing the text and Brian started writing the score, we kept realizing how much we were on the same page in terms of our response to the poem,” Bender says. “His music is extraordinary and powerful. It’s the heartbeat of the performance for me. But conversely, I’ve made the work personal, so it’s very much ‘me’ because that’s how I was able to connect with the poetry. I had to ask myself what its exquisite, unusual, wacky language, and storytelling meant to me.”

Burnt Norton is in fact a manor house in Gloucestershire, England, that Eliot visited in 1934. The title comes directly from the first section of the poem. “Brian and I explored the poem for a fitting title,” Bender explains. “‘Inhabit the Garden’ works on a myriad of levels because as artists we are ‘inhabiting’ Eliot’s material, but also because the work is being performed in a home, a domicile, a place literally inhabited. Obviously, the garden metaphor is rich. It’s where living things grow, where they’re nourished, where they die, a place where time’s effects are clear as a bell … The project has been a garden for exploring, embodying, and reframing our own art as we reflect on and honor another’s.”

Bender premiered “Inhabit the Garden” in 2018, and we have a chance to catch it this year. 

Because the audience is so small, you will need to reserve tickets online at inhabitredux.bpt.me. Tickets are free, but you can contribute by donation. The Oak Bluffs private residence address is revealed upon registration. Performances are at 6, 7, and 8 pm on Friday, Nov. 1, Sunday, Nov. 3, Wednesday, Nov. 6, Thursday, Nov. 7, and Saturday, Nov. 9.