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

10 25 50
 
Title Murmurations - an outdoor theatre show created in collaboration with Tangled Feet theatre company 
Description This is the core outcome of the research project and took the form of a theatre production with Tangled Feet theatre company that was devised at my two partner nature reserves, Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire and Strumpshaw Fen in Norfolk; it was performed three times a day for audiences of 25 in the reserves over two weekends - 17th, 18th, 19th September at Wicken and 24th, 25th, 26th at Strumpshaw. The show, with original music by Polly Wright, took the audience on a guided tour into the reserves which then unfolded into a series of overlapping narratives about grief, loss and the necessary presence of nature for the characters. audiences were equipped with head-sets which gave them live feeds of actors in space and pre-recorded sound design. 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact In September 2021 Murmurations premiered at Wicken Fen - The National Trust's oldest nature reserve, and England's most famous fen. Across three days and nine performances, 250 audience members attended. All dates were sold out and there was an appetite for more. The following week the show moved to RSPB Strumpshaw, where all nine performances quickly sold out. 230 audience members attended. One clear outcome is a potential tour of the show next year at a range of further nature reserves with a revival currently planned for RSPB Saltholme in July this year, with the show now built in to the repertoire of Tangled Feet theatre company. Audience responses were universally positive at both venues with the vast majority rating the show 8 or more out 10; at Wicken a third of the audience of the audience were new visitors to the reserve, at Strumpshaw half the audience; all audience members resolved to return (and many were seen to join either the NT or the RSPB after the show). 30% of audiences at Wicken stated the show had changed their view of the natural world and half that it had changed their sense of the role of conservation in preserving nature; at Strumpshaw this figures were 50% and 75% respectively. The range of comments were passionate and euphoric; below are some examples via social media or through the surveys: "Amazing bit of live theatre about climate crisis at Wicken Fen tonight. Top marks to Steve Waters and @tangledfeet"- Terry Macalister (ex-Energy Editor, The Guardian) "Thank you @ tangledfeet and Steve Waters for the beautiful and profound performance of 'Murmurations' this evening. Surprising and moving, it explored grief and our connection to nature. @RSPB_Strumpshaw was the perfect backdrop." Kate Blincoe (Nature Correspondent, The Guardian) "Fantastic. A magical and moving experience" "A wonderful and very moving performance. I was aware of the dire state of the natural world and need for conservation - but this was inspiring and affirming. The experience will stay with me" "Very moving. Very timely. Sensitively done. Brought me to tears at the end. One of those shows that makes you reflect but also take 'actions' - to do more for the environment. Recognising what is in your power to change, however small. It was in itself a mindfulness experience" Feedback from National Trust "Steve and Tangled Feet were a pleasure to host at Wicken Fen. 'Murmurations' captured the challenges and differences of opinion that I navigate every day looking after a nature reserve, but told in a way that didn't judge. The performance celebrated the personal connections with both nature and Wicken Fen that make it such a special place. I was totally drawn into this unique piece of outdoor theatre." Sarah Smith, General Manager, Wicken Fen 
URL https://tangledfeet.com/productions/38-murmurations
 
Title Rothschild's Walk 
Description This poetic and research-based monologue was designed to share the research questions of the project in an intimate, portable and low-cost fashion, and was developed during May-June 2021 through a four-day research walk along 39 miles of the 'Rothschild's Way', a 39-mile path from Woodwalton Reserve to Wicken Fen through fens, orchards, along rivers and through farms. By talking to farmers and naturalists en route, I traced the ideas of pioneering ecologist Nathaniel Charles Rothschild whose visionary project to create nature reserves in 1912 is now in crisis. The show lasts an hour and had its debut at the Ely Arts Festival in June 2021 and has subsequently been performed at UEA and Wicken Fen, to small engaged audiences - approximately 150 people have seen the show and engaged in post-performance conversation. 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact This solo show arose directly out of research informing the 'Song of the Reeds' project and is designed to be performed at the invitation of theatres and conservation organisations to provoke questions about the form and function of the nature reserve and its link to a deeper history of ecology - as well as offering an account of the state of nature in one 39-mile stretch of former fens territory. It was first performed on 23.6.21 at Ely Arts Festival in St Mary's Church to a socially distanced audience of 40 people and generated a complex post-show discussion and critique It has then been performed at UEA on 31st October 2021 as part of a student run COP26 festival of theatre; and at Wicken Fen on 13.1.22 for staff, volunteers and local stakeholders, in both case yielding a complex and profound debate about conservation. 
URL https://www.thecambridgecritique.com/home/2021/6/25/rothschilds-walk-mapping-nature-by-steve-waters
 
Title Song of the Reeds - a four part radio play for BBC Radio 4 
Description As part of the research project I pitched to Radio 4 and production company Holy Mountain the idea of creating a four-part drama tracking an invented nature reserve called Fleggwick in Norfolk and recorded on location at RSPB Strumpshaw Fen in Norfolk. Now all four episodes have been recorded and broadcast on the year's solstices and equinoxes:June 21st, September 22nd, December 21st and March 21st; they will remain available on BBC Sounds for a year. The dramas have been designed to blend a range of high-profile performers (Mark Rylance, Sophie Okonedo), with regional talent and non-professional performers and indeed conservationists such as Tom Fewins from the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust. Each episode has focused on a species at risk in the region drawing on experts at the reserve itself and beyond, bringing in organisations such as the Swallowtail Trust, the RSPB initiative 'Back from the Brink', the Environment Agency and others - likewise the sound resources in the drama are all created from field recordings in the reserves from Holy Mountain. These innovative qualities have been widely celebrated in the extensive coverage of the show in the media and also led to us being shortlisted for the BBC Audio Drama Awards 2022. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact This drama has had unprecedented coverage for a radio play; the first episode received rave reviews in The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times ('Drama to go wild for'), the New Statesmen and beyond; the second episode was described as 'peak radio' by the Telegraph and the third was selected for 'Pick of the Week' on Radio 4. Its star, Mark Rylance has been extensively interviewed about it and offered a real platform for the debate around drama and conservation. The RSPB have likewise promoted it and it has impacted on visitor numbers to RSPB Strumpshaw as well as highlighting the plight of the species spotlit in each episode: the swallowtail butterfly, the little whirlpool ramshorn snail, the European eel and the Bittern. Rylance wants to continue the collaboration, as do the WWT who are working with the producer on another project at Barnes wetland Centre in London as well as participating in the July symposium. 
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000x6pk
 
Title Voices from the Reeds 
Description The Concept The history of conservation in East Anglia is also the story of individuals who fused science and passion to leave a legacy of habitats and environments secured in nature reserves and distributed between the major conservation groups - the National Trust, the RSPB, the Cambridgeshire and Norfolk Wildlife Trusts. The fact that these separate organisation have separate histories sometimes obscure their common history that we now all benefit from, rooted in the actions of critical individuals which Voices from the Reeds will bring to life, thereby creating a field-guide to the history of ecology in the region. The Form In a time of social distancing this project creates an intimate portrait of 12 moments and individuals within the first century of conservation via 12 monologues performed by actors marking turning points. This endeavour would link up the four main conservation groups in the region and focus on their totemic sites - Wood Walton Fen, Wicken Fen, Strumpshaw Fen, Titchwell Marsh, Hickling Broad and Scolt Head Island. 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2020 
Impact A selection of the monologues first were overlaid on footage from the East Anglian Film Archive as part of their online open day 'Hidden Nature' in September 2020 which drew on archival and rare footage of the ecology of East Anglia; this enabled the first professional outing for fledgeling UEA based drama company UEA Alumnus Theatre company. Then in Autumn 2021 performance of the monologues was presented outside on UEA campus by student theatre company Minotaur as the highlight of their COP26 festival; this will be revived during the forthcoming symposium 'Song of the Reed: Rewilding Drama' which will be held at UEA on July 9th 2022. 
URL https://eafa.org.uk/highlight/heritage-open-day-2020-hidden-nature/
 
Description The project has generated a body of work directly engaged with conservation and informed by cutting edge work within the discipline, amplifying through the four dramatic outputs the dominant debates within conservation in the UK and beyond and placing those debates in an enlarged dramatic field; it has also thereby forged unique and novel conversations between practising conservationists and theatre-makers - which are on-going. 'Murmurations' has deepened the conversation around the nature of outdoor and site-specific drama, and made possible a whole new form of head-phone and promenade theatre designed for wetland environments.
Core to this is an entirely new way for writers to make work that arises from the practical work of conservation in very specific settings - informing all the outputs are new networks between those leading the field in conservation practice and those advancing dramaturgy in the media of audio drama and site-specific theatre. The four-part radio play for instance arose from cutting edge research into the fate of four species which are limited to the East of England and also close engagement with the running of two reserves observed through the period of the project.
The original research questions have given way to new and deeper concerns about how to reach audiences in conservationist settings, how to use drama to provoke and amplify the work of those in the sector and how to finds forms that arise from place and the natural world and inform and shape dramaturgy.
Covid and other logistical barriers meant some of the deeper work of engagement with reserve staff and volunteers proved difficult and vexed; but the reach of audio dramas such as the 4-part 'Song of the Reed' drama for Radio 4, which were unforeseen, have pushed the project outcomes onto a much larger platform. Likewise 'Voices from the Reeds', intended as a community production found a new context through my engagement with East Anglian Film Archive and student drama society Minotaur and the UEA Alumnus company; and my community engagement bore surprising fruit in parallel AHRC sister project 'Voices Across the Reeds' which enabled a sustained partnership with East Norfolk College in Great Yarmouth and a devised performance in Strumpshaw Fen by 10 Year 12 students, linked to COP26.
The work with RSPB and National Trust has generated a future life for the theatre show 'Murmurations' which is opening up a national network of collaborating partners and sites and will result in a tour of the show in 2023; 'Song of the Reed' moved beyond my two conservationist partners to forge a collaboration with the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust which enabled the drama to speak to the fate of wetlands nationally and globally; likewise 'Rothschild's Walk' is proving a route to collaborating with the Wildlife Trust and even projects such as the bid for designating the Fens as a UNESCO Biosphere.
Exploitation Route This project has its own forward momentum - as mentioned for instance 'Murmurations' under the aegis of Tangled Feet is being developed to be performed at reserves across the UK, for which it will be modified. This would enable more audiences in often places not served by theatre to experience its unique capacity, and making possible debates about rewilding, access to natural environments and public health that arise from its stories. At the same time I am holding a day symposium in July this year to bring together theatre-makers and conservationists to share the work from the project and forge partnerships that may provoke more collaborations in this sector. 'Song of the Reed' is about to have its fourth episode broadcast on March 21st, and then remains on BBC Sounds as a unique box-set tracking a fictional reserve through a year - I am talking with its star Mark Rylance about other possible projects and beginning conversations about how the show might convert into other media. 'Rothschild's Walk' is being performed at the request of organisations wanting to find a focal point for engaging with the public about conservation issues and land-use - most recently at Wicken Fen in January 2022.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Creative Economy,Education,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://www.uea.ac.uk/creative/exploring-climate-change-through-creativity
 
Description This project is still unfolding but its impact has been palpable on a number of fronts. It can be understood differently relative to the differing outputs of the projects: 'Murmurations' - this production served as a template for a new way of working for both the given theatre company Tangled Feet and also for the sector in terms of extending the range and reach of outdoor theatre grounded in writing. The two shows at Wicken Fen and Strumsphaw Fen played to sell-out audiences of 500 people overall. One quick form of impact was the evidence that audiences had not visited the reserve before (a third at Wicken, half at Strumpshaw) and pledged to return. Opinions varied as to whether the show shifted audience's stances on conservation but at least half in both venues suggested it had. This project is now being promoted by the theatre company across the UK for 2022 and 2023 with first performances occurring this July. To this end the show is a kind of franchise, designed to shift and change according to the needs of the venue and its history and ecology. It was reviewed widely, picked by the Guardian as a 'highlight' of Autumn culture and received a gratifying range of positive tweets as well as laudatory audience survey results. The forthcoming symposium in July will attempt to use the show and its production history to offer a new model for an interaction between conservation and drama. It has transformed my own practice and, in a period when theatre was in abeyance, offered a beacon of hopeful practice for the sector. In a local way it inspired the work of students in the parallel 'Voices across the Reeds' project and was highlit in the Great Big Green Week festival of work ahead of COP26 'Song of the Reed' - this four-part radio play was not even proposed in my application for the award and only arose because of the circumstances the project provided - I pitched the idea for the show to Radio 4 and collaborated with innovative radio producers Holy Mountain; the novelty of the concept - seasonal broadcasts, focus on the endangered species, on-site recording and all-site-specific sound - coupled with our amazing cast, led by Mark Rylance and Sophie Okonedo, provided an unprecedented platform for conservation drama: it received laudatory reviews in all the main newspapers, featured on Radio 4's 'Pick of the Week' has been nominated for a BBC Audio Drama award and had extensively trailing. Its audiences both at broadcast and through BBC Sounds are likely to be upwards of 2 million. Again it offers a model of biodiversity in drama and has had a huge impact on the visibility of the work of the RSPB and indeed the site of Strumpshaw Fen.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Creative Economy,Education,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic

 
Description 'Voices Across the Reeds' was a spin-off from my project with colleague John Gordon which enabled me to work with Yr 12 students at East Norfolk College to create their own promenade theatre work at Strumpshaw Fen inspired by 'Mumurations' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Working with colleagues I developed an original theatrical work with students at ENC through workshops at Strumpshaw Fen that were performed by the students for parents, teachers and family at Strumpshaw on December 5th.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmaptwvgUm8
 
Description Broadcast of 'Song of the Reed' radio play 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact See output for more details - the four-part radio play amplifies the messages and experiences of those involved in cutting edge conservation and has attracted an enormous amount of attention across media.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021,2022
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000x6pk
 
Description Number of articles that publicised the project in the Guardian and The Conversation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A series of articles that explored the nature of the show 'Murmurations' for international media outlets and the academic KT outlet 'The Conversation'.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2021/aug/24/how-to-fight-the-conservation-crisis-in-nature-and-the...
 
Description Performance of 'Murmurations' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact For full details, please see outputs - but the production and performance of the key output 'Murmurations' at Wicken Fen and Strumpshaw Fen in September 2021 over a fortnight was a key public event that reached a large and passionately engaged audience and brought new audiences to these reserves and to the issues of conservation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://tangledfeet.com/productions/38-murmurations
 
Description Performance of 'Rothschilds Walk' at Ely Festival June 23rd 2021, at COP26 Festival UEA October 30th 2021, Wicken Fen, January 13th 2022 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A performance of my solo play developed during the project and documenting a walk linking Wicken Fen and Woodwalton Fen and tracing the legacy of Charles Rothschilds and the current state of nature in the landscape. Each hour long performance was followed by half an hour conversation with the audience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021,2022
URL https://www.thecambridgecritique.com/home/2021/6/25/rothschilds-walk-mapping-nature-by-steve-waters
 
Description Performance of 'Voices from the Reeds' at UEA 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A student theatre company presented site-specific production outside on UEA campus of my suite of monologues that document the history of ecology in East Anglia as part of COP26 festival.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.concrete-online.co.uk/ueas-cop26-festival-voices-from-the-reeds-a-magical-mystery-water-...
 
Description Podcast 'Green Thinking' for BBC/AHRC 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A discussion about the biodiversity crisis and the role of nature reserves with philosopher Rupert Read for Radio 3 ahead of COP26
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p09ynhz0
 
Description Poster presentation on Project at House of Commons for UKRI 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Invited by UKRI to attend a sharing of research work as at a reception chaired by David Willets at the Houses of Parliament in October 2021.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/ukri-net-zero-parliamentary-reception-tickets-165907007325
 
Description Symposium on 'Song of the Reeds: Dramatising Conservation' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This is a forthcoming event, scheduled for July 2022 and taking place at UEA; it will share work from across the project, bring together participants and other aligned artists, bring in conservationists and ecological researchers and offer a practical and celebratory summing up of the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022