The Secret Garden

Lee Zimmerman, February 22, 2010 (Updated March 1, 2010)

(En Français)

My Daughter Kier and I are in the Duluth Playhouse production of The Secret Garden. We just finished the opening weekend of the play. It will run another ten shows over two weekends. I wanted to write this note so that I can get information out about the magic that is happening on stage. Because of copyright issues and other stuff, we can't make and send out a video, so I will try to do it justice with a few words and some photos if I can find some.

The Story

"The Secret Garden" is based on a book written about 1910 by Hodgsen-Burnett. Almost every english speaking woman or girl that I know has read the story. It is about a little english girl, Mary, who has grown up in india. Her family dies and she is sent to live with her uncle in a gloomy Edwardian mansion on the moors. The whole house is in deep mourning since her aunt Lily died in childbirth tens years before. Mary discovers her Aunt's secret garden and through her own growth and healing helps everyone in the mansion to heal. During the course of the story the garden goes from winter, to spring, to full summer explosion which is a key metaphor for the healing in the story.

The Duluth Production 

The Secret Garden is a musical that won several Tony awards on Broadway in the early 90's. It is has an operatic sense. The music is luscious and has complex harmonies. It has some of the most beautiful solos, duets, and trios ever created. The characters and the message of the story are powerful bringing both sobbing and laughter from the audience. The Duluth production has a mixture of professional and highly skilled amature singers, and a live orchestra. It is a feast for the ears. It is directed by Julie Ahasay

In the usual production of this musical, the garden is made to appear along with scene changes.

My role in this production is unique. It is unique to this show and probably unique to live theater. I am the garden. I am a silk painter - an artist who paints on silk with special dyes. When I paint for an audience, I am on one side of a large white silk panel and the audience is on the other side. They cannot see me. When I paint, the dyes flow through the fiber and the audience can see the shapes appear on the silk, as if by magic.

The Garden

The stage is very austere at the beginning. The curtain never closes on the stage. When the audience enters they see five, five feet wide and twenty feet high columns of white silk spaced in an arc on the stage. The characters can enter between the pillars and the action takes place in the circle they form. On each of the pillars there is an eight foot by five foot section that are delineated.  The two sections at the side touch the ground. The other sections are elevated off the stage. The center section is the highest at about 4 feet off the stage. I will try to attach a photo. These sections are where I create the paintings.

The stage looks very stark and modern to begin with. This is very much in contrast to the highly ornamented style of the costumes and props. Locations are indicated through props being brought on stage and taken off. 

The Show
Spoiler Alert (skip this section is you plan to see the show)

When the overture starts, I paint a near lifesize portrait of Lily (Mary's Aunt) in costume. Lily is a ghost in the musical and shows up as the object of Mary's Uncles sadness and mourning. When the 2 minute overture completes, lily's ghost appears and sings a song about flowers. I start when the music starts, I am the only thing happening for those few moments. The audience then has a little time to register that I am painting. Then they have permission to forget about me. Click here for a short video of the overture during the first preview.

When she completes her song, the dreamers appear. They are the adults in India, who get sick and die from cholera. After the death of all of the adults the investigating officers discover Mary alive and send her to her only living relative, her uncle in the English Moors.

When they reach the moors, I have painted an Edwardian Mansion on a Hill in the central panel. This matches the action on stage.

As the story, develops I move from panel to panel creating the wall of the garden, layering in some dead looking plants, ivy on the wall, and a blue sky. It looks like a winter garden in its dormant state. I have choreographed my movements so that I am painting on the opposite side of the stage from the action. This has the effect of people watching the action, then looking up and noticing more is there. 

I take the panel that has the original portrait of Lily and turn it into a Greek statue in a garden fountain. I also paint a wall in the central panel so the audience has a sense of seeing the mansion, in the distance over the edge of the garden wall. Near the end of act 1, all the panels have a winter garden character with walls present.

At the very end of act 1, Mary has found the key to the Garden but cannot find the door. She has also discovered her sick cousin, who has been hidden in the mansion. All hell breaks out, and she runs outside into a storm. During this time while the audience is distracted, I paint a huge door, into one of the walls and she is led to it by the ghost of her Aunt. That ends act 1.

In act 2, I begin to create the flower heads in black and white on the panels. These include the shapes for violets, irises, gladiolas, day lilies, crocuses and some english climbing roses. Since these are all black and white, there is still a dormant nature to the images but with more possibility.

In scene 4, Mary thinks that the her aunt's garden is dead. The servant boy Dickon, explains that the garden isn't dead, its just waiting for Spring. As they sing their song "Wick", I hit every panel with big strokes of spring green. When I do this, I can sense the audience relaxing.

From this point on in the play, I fill the silk panels with flowers, exploding with color - always careful to be on the opposite side from the action. The sense from the audience, is that when they look away from the action, they see more of the garden has blossomed but they didn't see me paint the blooms. 

At the final duet, between the Uncle and the ghost Lily, all the panels are filled with flowers except the central panel. Also, none of the panels have red in them. When they complete their song, I begin to paint huge red english climbing roses on the central panel wall. This continues exploding with color to the end of the show. The garden looks like a glowing stained glass windows.


These are images from the photo call on Sunday February 28, 2010 by Lane Ellis. There are twenty-two cast members for the play. The photos only capture a shadow of the color and intensity of the real paintings.

Final Notes

During the course of one show, I paint about 180 square feet of garden. Over its run, I will painted 100 panels of silk. It is the most exquisite process that I have ever been involved with. The story, the music, the acting, the singing and the painting seem to meld into a single beautiful voice that really touches something very personal and universal.

Purchase a Piece of the Garden

Here is an article from last week

Father, daughter join forces for ‘The Secret Garden’

Silk painter Lee Zimmerman proceeded cautiously when he was deciding whether or not to help out with “The Secret Garden.”

By: Matthew R. Perrine, Budgeteer News

and here is the local review

Theater review: 'Secret Garden' at Playhouse is moving, magical

This is why I go to the theater. To experience something as magical as what I saw at the Playhouse on Thursday night.

By: Lawrance Bernabo, For the Duluth News Tribune