by Hannah Daniel

Journeying is something common to all of us, whether it was in a state of mind, for education, for love, for work, or for a lark.  I’ve wandered from Texas to Michigan to California to Florida to Indiana to Pennsylvania for my theatre profession.  Along the way I’ve encountered extraordinary, unusual, sometimes downright odd folks who have challenged the way I see the world.  As an assistant to the dramaturg, I spent all my energies looking at the new, exploring the unknown during the process, overlooking my own connection to the play.  Discovering and sharing that story has been the latest, though I’m certain not last, surprise on this journey.

But I run ahead of myself.  Before I was assigned to this process, the journey began when Kenneth Lin first drafted the script.  At People’s Light and Theatre, we were fortunate to have him throughout the production, from casting through opening weekend.  During that time, Fallow underwent a second off-site workshop, resulting in the trimming of at least one scene and tweaks elsewhere.  Such edits and revisions, I learned, are commonplace in the facilitation of a new play from inception to stage.  Each round of changes earned a different color of paper to be inserted into the rehearsal script.  The end product is something I can only describe as “the amazing Technicolor rehearsal script.”

My journey with Fallow began a little over a year ago, which seems fitting given that the play follows Aaron sojourn of little more than a year.  As assistant to lead dramaturg Elizabeth Pool at People’s Light and Theatre, it has been a sweet (literally) and surprising time.  For example, what other show could send me to sample honey and mead for research?

Elizabeth (Mary Elizabeth Scallen, foreground) reads one of the letters her son Aaron (George Olesky) wrote on his journey across America. Photo by Mark Gavin.

Aaron’s journey is all about change, superficial and substantial: his physical appearance, the shifting landscape around him, his view and appreciation of the world.  He travels the country with his bees, going fromMaine, down the East coast, across the South, winding up inCalifornia.  At each stop, he composes a letter to his mother, chronicling his adventures and discoveries.  Travel is a job hazard with its own rewards—exploration, discovery—and costs—isolation, confusion, loss.  The further he travels from home, the greater his known world expands.  As he goes, the connectedness of everything and the interdependence of society assails him.  He muses how bees were brought to theNew Worldon the Mayflower, the same as his ancestors.  “Maybe it’s in our blood,” he concludes, “Honey and travel.  Oceans and fields.”

Honey and beekeeping play a predominant role in the life of Aaron.  Choosing not to return to classes at Cornell, Aaron follows the rotation of crop cycles with his bees.  The machinations of hive life fascinate him; the interdependence of bees, crops, harvesters, and how it reaches the dinner table sometimes astound him.  The same wonder struck me as I delved into the apiary world.

Surrounded by Back to Basics: A Complete Guide to Traditional Skills, Storey’s Guide to Keeping Honey Bees, A World Without Bees, Beekeeping for Dummies, and the internet, I felt as though I had performed a magnificent swan dive into the deep end of bee knowledge. The more I uncovered, the greater my appreciation for the labor I never acknowledged went into something I assumed was as simple as the food I ate.  I tweeted fun facts I found, feeling utterly superior in my accumulated data.

Bees live for their hives and work themselves to death over it.  Summer bees, who work from sunup to sundown collecting pollen, live around sixty days, half as long as winter bees, who cozy up inside the hive.  They can communicate the location of pollen-laden flowers by dancing.  Considering they will journey up to three miles away from home, that’s a bit of movement.  The first year of keeping bees yields nothing; they need the time to build up their home in the hives.  Sometimes a hive will swarm, or leave their home for no apparent reason en masse.  Then again, it is one thing to read about bees and another thing altogether to experience them.

Which led to the sweetest part of my experience: attending the Philadelphia Honey Festival and connecting with Suzanne Matlock, local beekeeper and bee enthusiast.  The Festival, run by the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild, runs each year in September.  As the luck of the dramaturg would have it, the Philadelphia Enquirer ran an article on New Jersey’s official apiarist at the end of the summer, which included news of the festival.  A

Beekeeper Suzanne Matlock opens up her hive at the Philadelphia Honey Festival, September 2011. Photo by Hannah Daniel.

few festivals and beekeeping guilds had been on our radar, but this one fit in with our busy lives.  Originally, Elizabeth and I were to go together; a last minute conflict arose and so I journeyed alone.  The main goal was to attend a seminar entitled “So You Want to be a Beekeeper?”  We needed to know the basics, for ourselves, for the cast and crew, and for the audiences yet to come.

Suzanne Matlock led the seminar and afterward provided a demonstration outdoors with one of her hives.  She detailed the intricacies of ordering bees (yes, through the mail) and caring for them and demonstrated removing honey from the comb with the power of centrifugal force.  Outside, she slowly and carefully exposed the inner sanctum of one of her hives, explaining that her protective gear was worn not from fear of stinging but because bees like exploring dark holes, such as ears and noses.  While sampling a palate-pleasing array of honeys after she spoke, I approached her explaining my interest in the subject and inquiring whether I could contact her with questions throughout the rehearsal process.  She was quite enthusiastic and the idea of a play with beekeeping thrilled her and the other keepers attending.  In the first week of rehearsal, she and her husband brought an empty hive for a demonstration and a Q&A with the cast and production team.  By the nature of their work, beekeepers tend to have a patience, openness, and awareness of the natural world than I’ve seldom encountered.  They are effortlessly comfortable in knowing who they are and where they belong.  I love how storytelling, especially in theatre, can connect us to something new, bee it knowledge or experiences or other people.

As far as first experiences go, this sojourn proved quite educational and raised new questions for me as I begin the next project.  Beekeeping became a connection point, not only between dramaturgs and cast, but also with props and the local community.  That Aaron and I share a common bond of traveling for the love of a job didn’t even click until opening night as I watched the performance.  While there is always something new to discover in the process, there’s a merit to identifying how I personally connect to the story itself.  If I can’t find a connection to a story, how can I participate and share in that story at all?  I’ll remember that on my next journey.

©  Hannah Daniel (January 20, 2012)

FALLOW, by Kenneth Lin; Director Jackson Gay, set by Wilson Chin, costumes by Jessica Ford, lighting by Josh Schulman, sound design by Toby Algya, dramaturg Elizabeth Pool, production stage manager Kelly O’Rourke.  At the Steinbright Stage, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, PA 19355.  For tickets, call (610) 644-3500.  Now through February 5, 2012.

WITH: Mary Elizabeth Scallen (Elizabeth Hazzard Hayes), Robert Montano  (HappyLugo), George Olesky (Aaron Hayes), Laura Giknis (Chloe), Stephen Novelli (Jimmy), Joe O’Brien (Danny)

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