Beekeepers train actors for new Penobscot Theatre play
Bees are at the center of the plot in the Penobscot Theatre Co.’s upcoming production of “Queen,” yet they never make an actual appearance on stage.
Not that you would know that, based on how the actors behave on stage.
Written by Madhuri Shekar, “Queen” takes a look at the very real environmental crisis of honeybee colony collapse disorder, a disease of unknown origin that’s killing honeybees around the world. It’s causing significant economic losses because so many agricultural crops depend on honeybee pollination.
In the play, two best friends and Ph.D. candidates Sanam and Ariel — played by Karina Patel and Aimee Gerow, respectively — are on the eve of publishing research that shows the cause of colony collapse disorder and how to stop it. That is, until they discover a mathematical error in their data that throws their conclusions into disarray, not to mention their friendship.
For the play to work, there has to be believable chemistry between Sanam and Ariel, and they need to look like they know their way around active bee hives. To create the illusion the bees are buzzing around, the cast and crew reached out to local beekeepers for technical advice.
“A play is like a willing suspension of disbelief,” said Jen Shepard, executive director of Penobscot Theatre Co.. “We try to bring people into that world as much as possible [and] little things can take somebody out of that world.”
There are very specific ways to and not to act around bees. That’s where David Fiacco, president of the Penobscot Beekeepers Association comes in. He took part in rehearsals showing the cast how to work and behave around bees. He also brought in specific tools beekeepers use for props.
Most people may think that to inspect a hive for honey it’s a simple matter of tipping the lid off the top of a hive and grabbing the first honey-laden frame in reach. In fact, great care must be taken when moving any parts of the hive. This reduces the risk of getting stung or crushing any bees.
Experts know that bees don’t want to sting. It’s actually fatal to the bee since the action pulls the stinger — along with the bee’s internal organs — out of the insect’s body. While it’s a good idea to wear a protective bee suit just in case, beekeepers can often work around their bees safely without getting stung as long as they do so calmly.
Actors were instructed to move slowly and deliberately and taught how to properly wear the distinctive white one-piece beekeeper suit and face mask. They were shown the correct way to handle the hive tool, a metal bar used to separate frames inside the hives.
“I learned the logistics of how to use the hive tool, how to act around hives and how to move,” Gerow said. “That is the part of the play that most stresses me out — will there be [beekeepers] in the audience who will notice if I am not doing it right?”
Fiacco worked most closely with Gerow, whose character Ariel keeps bees.
“We talked about bee behavior and what one might see in or around the hive at any given time.” Fiacco said. “We also went through a hive inspection process, how to open the hive, what order to remove and inspect frames and how to increase your chance of spotting the queen.”
To add to the reality, the crew has created a set that mimics a bee colony, without the actual bees.
“We are doing theater magic to make it look like there are bees in the hives,” Shepherd said with a laugh. “Surprisingly, their agents are really hard to work with.”
Looking like she knows what she is doing on that set is important to Gerow.
“The props department has created this beautiful hive, so it looks like there are really bees on the frames,” Gerow said. “I want to make my character as accurate as I can in respect of those actual beekeepers out there.”
Fiacco said he really enjoyed his interaction with the cast and crew.
“It was a lively discussion with a lot of questions [and] as with all bee presentations I have the pleasure of participating in, this was a great deal of fun,” Fiacco said. “These performers and production folks were thirsty for more but time just got away from us.”
There will be ample time and opportunities for people to learn more about bees during the run of “Queen.”
Following each performance there will be a bee-related event, such as panel discussions and talks by experts in the art of beekeeping. After the April 7 show, local beekeepers will host a honey-tasting event.
Jennifer Lund, state apiarist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, helped connect the theater with local beekeepers and answered questions following Sunday’s matinee.
Colony collapse disorder is not a major issue in Maine, according to Lund, but bees in the state are still struggling.
“We do have high hive losses so we do worry about anything that harms bees,” Lund said. “Most of those losses — around 70 percent — is due to varroa mites and those are something all beekeepers need to stay on top of.”
Varroa mites are a honeybee-specific parasite that attack adult and larval bees. They also spread disease from hive to hive.
The response from local beekeepers has been overwhelming, according to Shepherd.
“When I reached out I was really not sure what kind of response I would get,” she said. “This has been the most passionate and ardent response and it is really heartening to see all these people in our community helping bees.”
Shepherd hopes the audience comes away with that same enthusiasm.
“I hope people start thinking about bees differently and just how important they are,” Shepherd said. “And I hope they get an appreciation for the scientific process.”
Joining Patel and Gerow in the cast are Rahul Joshi and Frank Bachman. “Queen” is directed by Kaiser Ahmed.
The play runs March 30 to April 16 and tickets are available from the Penobscot Theatre Co. box office at 131 Main St. or online at penobscottheatre.org.