Phil Okwedy introduces Go Tell the Bees - National Theatre Wales

Phil Okwedy introduces Go Tell the Bees

Storyteller and myth-maker, Phil Okwedy’s introduction to TEAM and the journey of Go Tell the Bees:

NTW TEAM is the company’s unique approach to engagement.  It is a worldwide network of friends who collaborate with the company, curate events in their communities, give feedback about NTW’s work and support us to make decisions at all levels of the organisation.

In 2018 NTW TEAM embarked on its biggest project to date – one that continues to engage the communities of Pembrokeshire and Wrexham in a bespoke programme of empowerment, leadership, creative activism and intensive long-term engagement, leading to a full-scale NTW production in each location.

This project, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation is all about reversing the power balance between an arts organisation and the communities with which it works – embedding a bottom up rather than top-down approach that sees the community coming together to co-create every aspect of the work. 

We launched first with an ideas-sharing session in Tenby, featuring Louise Wallwein, Ali Goolyad & Molara Awen and followed this with a Performance Party in HaverHub – this was a forum theatre event directed by Catherine Paskell at which people shared their ideas about what this show or event could be, the outcome of which was that they wanted to see events in both Pembroke and Manorbier and that the theme of whatever we created should be about the connection between people in all of the varied communities throughout Pembrokeshire as well as a celebration of the beauty and fragility of our natural environment.  Over the next couple of years we held various ideas-gathering events, open mic nights, parties, workshops and schools sessions to help further generate ideas and build a network of people working across multiple art-forms, all of whom we would class as key co-creators of Go Tell the Bees.  Over many months we developed a concept for a festival in celebration of our connection to each other and to our environment, through which would run a story – a durational piece lasting two days and set across two sites, in Pembroke and Manorbier and featuring as many people from across Pembrokeshire as possible, with sister activities happening in towns and villages across the county – the ambition was huge but we were very excited about the possibilities – it felt like a true celebration of co-creation – we even invested in our very own TEAM beehive and swarm, kindly looked after for us by Rhys Hughes of Mel o’r Môr.  And then… Covid hit

At the start of the pandemic there was still hope that this would be a short-term crisis and that life, including that of the performing arts, would return after summer 2020, perhaps in altered forms. We did not,  therefore, immediately cancel the original ambition for the production. It soon became apparent that this was wildly optimistic and that we would need to think in a new way about the entire process. 

We began a programme of digital engagement, the aims of which were to continue to let people know that Go Tell the Bees was still very much alive, to continue to find ways for people to contribute creatively to its development, to provide an opportunity for people to come together in solidarity and celebration – a mass participation moment (despite being kept apart by lockdown), and to continue the Research & Development (R&D) process needed to drive the story forward, shape the narrative vision, create the voice and the look of the show, whatever it may become.

Mission one was the creation of sunflowers to a design created by Di Ford with an instructional video created by Gemma Green-Hope with music by Ben Mason. With everyone confined to their homes, we wanted to provide an opportunity for creation and hope, based on themes of the show. Keen to make the process open to all we invited people to request free art packs – this provided employment opportunities to two practitioners who distributed the packs.  We partnered with a local growers’ association who donated hundreds of seeds which were given out with the art packs, with people encouraged to plant and share images of their grown flowers. We also asked people to share images of their creations and to keep them safe for a special event. 

To meet the need to provide moments of mass participation and as broad a reach as possible we developed a digital procession to emulate the physical procession we had hoped would have been a part of the real show. This gave us a great opportunity to R&D the narrative, which we developed with actors Ioan Hefin & Carys Eleri.  It also provided opportunities for actors and community groups to be paid participants, including Bella Voce & Samba Doc. We provided opportunities for community members to participate by learning a dance routine, by Sean Griffiths of Unison Dance Group in Milford Haven and Carys Eleri & Branwen Munn composed a song, Go Tell the Bees/Dod Nol at Fy Nghoed, which was released to raise money for our charity partner, Size of Wales. All of this culminated in a live performance of the procession, where a Zoom audience were encouraged to wave their sunflowers at key points in the show.

Working with Counterpoints Arts & TEAM Panel we then created our Simple Acts programme, inspired by the work of Counterpoints Arts as well as the words of St David himself, “Gwnewch y Pethau Bychain” – these are seven Simple Acts that helps us better connect with our environment and with each other.  From this, Julia Thomas & I worked with six creative practitioners and five consultant teachers in the development of the Learning Hive, a bank of resources for Key Stage 2 and 3 which complement the new National Curriculum for Wales, featuring the Future Generations Act and provided resource not only for teachers but also those who were teaching from home during lockdown. 

As the months moved forward we realised that we were rapidly approaching the 25th Anniversary of the Sea Empress disaster – something that had featured heavily in our thinking around the show, it being a key moment in time when all of the different communities in Pembrokeshire came together in order to help grieve for and fix the aesthetic chaos that ravaged the coastline.  The next R&D decision was made to create the documentary you have just seen, directed by Gavin Porter and working with Wayne Boucher & Rowan Chitania of Pembroke’s Postcards & Podcasts.  Narrated by myself, with design by Di Ford, the documentary tells the story of 25 people’s memories of the events of the time.  Naomi conducted a series of interviews which then helped feed into the script. 

When the creative team first reconvened after lockdown, we still hoped we would be able to create a live performance, with experiences and installations throughout Pembroke & Manorbier for audiences to enjoy.  We wanted to explore the common thread that exists through all living things – the music of the plants, the music of the stars, the music of the stones, the communication between communities of trees & the fact that bees themselves are so reliant on musicality, performing waggle dances and a means of communication and buzzing to a middle C in order to release the best pollen from flowers.  We hoped to provide experiences such as a room filled with singing plants, a room filled with starlit projections all accompanied by scripted elements developed in conversation with the people we had long been working. As we explored a storyline related to this and linked to all of the activity we had generated during lockdown, we hoped the reality of a live show would not be too ambitious. However, it quickly became clear that whatever we were able to create would be for a very limited audience, with a very small cast and the original aim of developing something with, by and for a large community of people was not going to be possible in this way. 

The decision was therefore made, to create Go Tell the Bees as a film instead of a staged production. This allowed us to work safely within Covid regulations but also allowed us the chance to involve as many people and places as per our original ambition, as well as creating a piece of work to be shared at events (when possible) and with a wider audience online.  We chose to shoot the film in three layers, in order to capture as many people and places as possible and so it’s a film divided into three – firstly, scripted, directed, theatrical moments, and secondly, a layer of footage shot with community members who have been part of this journey throughout, including verbatim interviews conducted with surfers, fishermen & sea swimmers.  The final layer was of submitted footage from people throughout Pembrokeshire and further afield, who filmed themselves on their phones, performing our Simple Acts and taking part in a candlelit vigil inspired by the real events of the Sea Empress disaster, a story which features heavily in the documentary.  So now, we have a film created with over 400 people from across Pembrokeshire and further afield, with over 30 different locations featuring throughout that is truly with, by and for the people of this county.

Take a look at our app, where you can explore the themes of the film in more depth.

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