The Song of the Reeds - Dramatising Conservation.

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: Literature, Drama and Creative Writing

Abstract

SUMMARY

This project seeks to use my skills as a playwright and researcher to transform the role of the arts in conservation within the UK, by dramatising their work in tackling species loss and the prospect of drastic environmental change to come. This will be achieved through sustained engagement with two nature reserves in Eastern England: Wicken Fen (National Trust) and Strumpshaw Fen (RSPB), both with comparable habitats but run by quite distinct organisations with different histories and ethoi.

The central question of the project will be an examination of whether drama can speak to conservation, of how these autonomous organisations can explore striking new forms of public engagement and thereby address the 'great divide' within conservation as outlined in Mark Cocker's polemic 'Our Place' (2018) which risks limiting their work just as it becomes vital. To achieve this I will offer intellectual leadership by undertaking an exemplary research process whereby I examine the workings of these distinct wetland, fen and reed-bed based reserves through an archival lens, a psycho-geographic lens and an ethnographic lens. The findings will emerge in three innovative dramatic presentations - the first generated by a writing group I will convene, the second a forum theatre event examining the prospects for the reserves and the third a major new site-specific performance play created in partnership with celebrated site-based theatre company Tangled Feet which will tour each reserve, which in itself will extend the company's work into new regions and territories and create a wholly new form and context for playwriting. This in turn will inform my writing of a major new work theatrical work and lead to a symposium reflecting on how theatre might serve conservation.

During the project I will stage theatrical interventions exploring and extending my own dramaturgy and the current language of playwriting to address the embattled state of nature, the hidden human work of conservation and the gravity of the task we currently face. These performances will include community-based projects, unique public engagement events and a final professional project in collaboration with theatre company Tangled Feet, all offering exemplars of how drama can be used within conservation. These performances will offer milestones at different points in the residencies and be public-facing and free for all; they will take place within the reserves, either within their built structures or outside according to season and theme. They will draw on the past of the reserves resurrecting crucial and often neglected, even forgotten figures in the history of ecology and conservation in the region: Arthur Tansley, Charles Rothschild, Marietta Pallis, amongst others. They will dramatize the untold story of the history of conservation by and for locals, volunteers, scientists and visitors, examining for instance the hostility that has emerged with the rolling out of the Wicken Vision as local landowners have resisted the expansion of the reserve. To this end my experience as a political playwright with a focus on conflict will be invaluable.

At the close of this project I will hold a symposium on 'Theatre and Conservation' in partnership with Cambridge Conservation Initiative, thus leading on forging a new academic, artistic and public network; this will bring together people working in conservation in a scientific or public-facing role with writers and artists to examine best practice in dramatising the predicaments of conservation.

Planned Impact

This project will achieve transformative impact in the following areas:

1. Conservation organisations:

I will be working on two reserves managed by the National Trust (NT) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB); impact will be achieved through my work extending and transforming their public-facing activities and cultural engagement, bequeathing innovative ways of working with artists and interacting with the public. This will take three main forms:
a. Performances within the reserve of 'Voices from the Reeds', a series of 'pop-up' historically informed monologues free at the point of use. These short plays rooted in the biographies of founders of the conservation movement within Britain will serve to animate the reserves' histories and articulate larger questions of the meaning of conservation. It will deepen the articulation of their mission by reanimating their founders, telling stories untold in dramatic form and offer a model of re-enactment and living history that will provoke contexts for the charities to debate their current purposes. The writing group convened by me will extend the notion of 'volunteer' in the reserve and bring creative writing pedagogy into a new territory. It will survive my residency and will form a platform for subsequent cultural work.
b. An innovative public event interrogating the future of the reserves and the challenges they face (changing climate, land-use and species loss or invasive species); this will take the form of a debate using forum theatre techniques to animate these questions, chaired by me and rooted in scenarios I have crafted with the reserves, modelling a new form of public interaction for both organisations with drama at the heart of their deliberations.
c. A professional and unprecedented site-specific play created in partnership with 'Tangled Feet' theatre company which will reveal the reserves as venues in an entertaining and highly visual manner synthesising the experiences and concerns emerging from the residency. It will put the reserves and their work into a larger public domain, animate their predicament in a mobilising fashion and model how theatre can be made in non-theatrical and non-urban settings.

The events above have no precedent in either reserve and little precedent beyond them; they will offer the public a variety of means to participate with the work of conservation, inaugurating a wider movement in the arts and culture, theatre animating the crisis in the biosphere.

2. The theatre and academic community:
The project offers a new methodology for theatre artists initiating work within conservation. There are few precedents for writers and theatre-makers directly engaging with conservation; my collaborating partner Tangled Feet theatre company, have never worked in this context despite their track record in site-specific work, which provides a clear example of impact within the scope of the project. This project will broker new relations between theatre companies and the often theatre-phobic world of conservation.
Likewise playwriting, my particular area of practice, offers no precedents for this kind of engagement or indeed writing. There are a handful of plays about conservation and none that I know of have arisen through a residency of this nature; this project will stake out a new dramaturgical territory.

I will conclude the project with a symposium at Cambridge Conservation Initiative where I will invite theatre-makers and writers and share the results and practices that have emerged; this event in itself will create a new network of academia, theatre and conservation and forge links between the University of East Anglia and the University of Cambridge.

Publications

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