The University of Iowa
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us

University of Iowa News Release

May 4, 2006

Tornado Blowdowns Get Roles In Iowa New Play Festival

On Dec. 10, 1997, a 23-year-old woman named Julia Hill, nicknamed "Butterfly," climbed into a 180-foot-tall California coast redwood, vowing to stay there until the tree was saved from logging, and awareness was drawn to the threat faced by the ancient giants of the forest. She remained in the redwood canopy for more than two years, in a tree named Luna, until an agreement was signed with the timber company.

Iowa Playwrights Workshop graduate student Austin Bunn took the story of this counterculture hero as the inspiration for "Timberland," the final production of the 2006 Iowa New Play Festival. The performances, at 5:30 and 9 p.m. Saturday, May 6, in the David Thayer Theatre of the UI Theatre Building, will feature trees that were unfortunately in the path of the April 13 tornado.

Bunn's play is set on the one-year anniversary of a daring tree-sit, when a tragic accident irrevocably alters the political ecology of Humboldt County. "My play takes that situation as a launching-off point for a broader consideration of what happens when a climbing accident turns the activists against each other and changes the balance of power," Bunn says. "I'm trying to connect ecology to human relationships -- certain ideas about how plants have memory, where strength comes from in trees, how roots solve problems, how fire triggers growth."

Bunn admits that he has never been in Humboldt Country, although he visited California last summer to see the giant redwoods. "Truth is, even if I had been to Humboldt, I don't know that I'd have climbed 180 feet up anyway. The canopy is its own world."

In fact, he was able to obtain a first-hand account of that other world, when he discovered that a tree-sitting veteran was living in Iowa City. "We've been using the advice and insights of a local tree-sitter who spent two years in a tree-sit in Oregon, studying canopy biodiversity. He's been a consultant on the show and he now works as a tree-cutter for the city."

Then, three weeks before the opening of "Timberland," tree-cutters suddenly became extremely busy in Iowa City. Bunn was even reluctant to identify his consultant, who was one of the crewmembers facing the overwhelming task of cleaning up after the April 13 twister that cut a diagonal path through the city -- uprooting, snapping and mangling many of the town's majestic trees. (He begged off, saying, "He was up in a tree for two years! The guy deserves his own profile.")

For the production, Bunn explains, that disaster also became an ironic opportunity: "We're using wood from the downed trees around town for pieces of the set -- saving them from becoming wood chips."

Bunn, who has been a widely published magazine journalist and ghostwriter, is a member of both the Iowa Playwrights Workshop and fiction program of the Writers' Workshop. He is also the founder of the Patient Voice program, which provides resources for the chronically ill in Iowa City to write about their experiences.

He is a former columnist for the Village Voice, and he has also written for the New York Times Magazine, Wired, the Advocate, the Yoga Journal, New York, Brill's Content, Salon, Slate and Elle. Bunn's New York Times magazine piece "The Bittersweet Science," a portrait of diabetes, was reprinted in "Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004." He is the co-author, with film producer Christine Vachon, of the memoir "A Killer Life: How an Independent Film Producer Survives Deals and Disasters Far from Hollywood."

The Iowa New Play Festival, a tradition unique in American collegiate theater, is presenting a dozen new scripts from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop in productions and readings May 1-6 in the University of Iowa Theatre Building.

The UI Department of Theatre Arts concludes each spring semester by dedicating all its resources -- acting, directing, design, stage management and technical -- to an intense and event-packed festival that offers student playwrights the productions and feedback that are essential for their development and offers audiences an opportunity to participate in the creation of significant new American theater at the ground level.

A new play, written by a student in the Master of Fine Arts program in playwriting, has been premiered each evening of the 2006 festival.

Tickets for the evening productions -- $6 for the general public and $4 for UI students, senior citizens and youth -- will be on sale one hour before each of the performances. Tickets are also on sale noon to 1:30 p.m. through Friday at the Theatre Building box office.

The Department of Theatre Arts is a unit of the Division of Performing Arts in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

For UI arts information and calendar updates, visit To receive UI arts news by e-mail,

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Winston Barclay, 319-384-0073,