The ‘Native Gardens’ set: ‘You can smell the dirt’

Making of 'Native Gardens'

Photos from the making of the DCPA Theatre Company’s “Native Gardens.’ To see more, click on the image above to be taken to the full photo gallery Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter


‘These are yards you have seen in your real life. And it feels like you are sitting in the garden with everybody else.’

(Note: Perspectives is a series of free public panel discussions held just before the first preview  performance of each DCPA Theatre Company offering. Next up: The Who’s Tommy: 6 p.m. Friday, April 20, Jones Theatre)

Karen Zacarías‘ popular play Native Gardens, opening Friday in The Space Theatre, is a genial comedy about two neighboring couples “who have a lot in common … and who have nothing in common — at the same time,” Director of New Play Development Doug Langworthy says.

They live side-by-side in an established suburb of Washington, D.C. One couple is older and white, the other younger and Latinx. Though these new neighbors have the best intentions, their budding friendship is tested when they realize their shared property line isn’t where it’s supposed to be. And it runs right through Frank Butley’s prized native garden.

“What this play is trying to say is that whatever our differences are — sex, race or religion — we should still be able to live next door to each other in a loving way,” said veteran Broadway actor Jordan Baker.

Here are five things we learned about the DCPA Theatre Company’s upcoming production at Perspectives:

Sowing the seeds of history. Karen Zacarías now has the distinction of being the first female playwright in DCPA Theatre Company history to have had plays produced in all three of the company’s main theatres. Mariela in the Desert played in the Ricketson Theatre in 2010, Just Like Us played in the Stage Theatre in 2014 and now Native Gardens is set to open in The Space Theatre on Friday. “And all three plays are so very different,” she said. “Mariella was a drama, Just Like Us was a serio-documentary and Native Gardens is a full-throttle comedy.” The only other playwright to have had plays performed in all of those same spaces was Nagle Jackson (1992-2003). “The Denver Center has been a home for me for so many years now,” Zacarías  said, “I am so grateful that they have been willing to take a chance on new plays, and plays by Latina women.”

NATIVE GARDENS Perspectives. Karen Zacarías. Photo by John Moore. .

So what is a native garden, anyway? It is defined as the use of plants, including trees, shrubs, groundcover and grasses that are indigenous to the geographic area of the garden. Native plants are adapted to the local climate and soil conditions where they naturally occur. Native plant species provide nectar, pollen and seeds that serve as food for butterflies, insects, birds and other animals. Unlike natives, common horticultural plants do not provide energetic rewards for their visitors and often require pest controls to survive. Native plants do not require fertilizers and require fewer pesticides than lawns. Native plants help reduce air pollution and can significantly reduce water runoff.

Smell that dirt. Zacarías encourages audiences to look closely at the set created by DCPA Scenic Designer Lisa Orzolek, because, she says, it is another character in the play. “There is real dirt. And you can smell it,” Zacarías said. “These are yards that you have seen in your real life. The grass is uneven. There are patches. Any because this play is being staged in the round, it feels like you are sitting in the garden with everybody else.” Orzolek said the garden consists of both real plants “and fake plants that look super-real.” Every night after the show, the stagehands remove the real plants from the stage and place them under backstage grow lights.

Read more: Native Gardens draws its line in the soil

A tree grows in D.C. That set is dominated by a very large and meaningful oak tree that grows tall and encompasses the entire air space. “The oak tree is very important in any native garden,” Zacarías said. “They have the most biodiversity of any tree species.” The tree is a source of conflict between the couples because one of them loves the tree, while the other does not — and its branches are growing over into their yard. “On the page, it would seem that the tree is situated between the two houses, just on one side of the property line — but you can’t put a big tree in the middle of a stage in the round because of the sightline problems that would create,” Orzolek said. So she positioned the trunk in one of the Space Theatre’s five “voms” (or actor entranceways). “In order for the tree to reach all the way across the theatre, it just kept getting taller and longer and wider,” Orzolek said. “It goes up and then comes back down. It’s 24 feet tall and 30 feet wide.” How did they do it? “That’s the magic of theatre,” she said.

Video: We show you some of the magic that went into the making of the tree. 

Let’s grow together. Zacarías wrote Native Gardens before the 2016 election, and it will be one of the 10 most performed plays in America this season. “I feel the reason this play is being done in so many cities right now is because it gives your community, whether you are on the left or the right, a chance to laugh at yourself and remember that we are all part of a bigger microcosm,” she said. “This play doesn’t solve all the world’s problems, but it does allow us to analyze what we can do to be a better neighbor — which is a question I think a lot of us are wrestling with right now.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

NATIVE GARDENS Perspectives. Photo by John Moore.

From left: Actor John Ahlin, Director of New Play Development Doug Langworthy, playwright Karen Zacarías, Scenic Designer Lisa Orzolek, Costume Designer Raquel Barreto and actors Mariana Fernández and Jordan Baker. Photo by John Moore.

Native Gardens
: Ticket information

Dealing with neighbors can be thorny, especially for Pablo and Tania, a young Latino couple who have just moved into a well-established D.C. neighborhood. Though Frank and Virgina have the best intentions for making the new couple feel welcome next door, their newly budding friendship is tested when they realize their shared property line isn’t where it’s supposed to be. Frank is afraid of losing his prized garden, Pablo wants what is legally his, Tania has a pregnancy and a thesis she’d rather be worrying about, and Virginia just wants some peace. But until they address the real roots of their problems, it’s all-out war in this heartfelt play about the lines that divide us and those that connect us.

  • Presented by the DCPA Theatre Company
  • Performances Through May 6
  • SpaceTheatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

Previous NewsCenter coverage of Native Gardens:
Photos, cast list: Native Gardens draws line in the soil
Meet Jordan Baker: ‘It’s hard to listen when the message is a brick’

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