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Urbanite director talks birds, barriers and the ticking clock of new play

"Birds of North America" looks at love, life and change at Urbanite Theatre. Summer Dawn Wallace shares why she made time to direct it.


Stephen Spencer and Dekyi Rongé star in "Birds of North America."
Stephen Spencer and Dekyi Rongé star in "Birds of North America."
Photo courtesy of Sorcha Augustine
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The cycles of life seem eternal on planet Earth. 

Birds fly south for the winter. Children grow up to be parents. The old pass their wisdom on to the young. A kiss is just a kiss. A sigh is just a sigh.

The fundamental things apply as time goes by. That’s the way it’s always been. But in the 21st century, it’s not a sure thing anymore. 

Climate change has disrupted life’s cycles. A winter may come when birds don’t fly. A generation may come who fear to bring children into this world.

Anna Ouyang Moench’s “Birds of North America” explores the impact of this ticking clock at the Urbanite Theatre. Her haunting play revolves around the yearly visits of a father and his daughter. We spoke to Director Summer Dawn Wallace about why the time they share matters.


Why were you so keen to direct this play?

There's a longing in this play. It’s both a longing to see birds and a longing to be seen — and that’s what I really love about it. Every fall, a daughter visits her father. John is passionate about bird watching. Caitlyn isn’t at first, but comes to share his passion. So they bird and chat; and try to connect. They use birding as a vehicle of communication. 

At times, they’re slightly estranged, and won’t openly deal with it. As time passes, the world’s changing, the climate’s getting warmer, and there are fewer birds to see. Moench’s play is also really about time — or maybe the lack of time. The father and daughter long to bridge the gap and make a connection, but have limited time to do that. It’s a really beautiful character study — and it’s also study of what divides us and brings us together.


I like the way Moench subverts expectations. I came to the script expecting the father to be a right-wing, blue-collar, Archie Bunker type. But John’s actually a scientist — and a flaming liberal, to boot. 

Yes. The playwright has an interesting take on the cross-generational divide. John grew up in a world of greater opportunities. That’s shifted in Caitlyn’s time. After graduating from college, she gets a job as a copyeditor for a conservative website. She doesn’t necessarily share their politics but she needs the money. Caitlyn’s passion is really literature and the novel she’s trying to write, but she set it aside to survive and make a living. Her father disapproves. And Caitlyn thinks he just doesn’t get it. 


Right — and John was never forced to shelve his passion for science. He’s devoted his life to finding a Zika vaccine for the last 30 years — and doesn’t have to earn a paycheck. As a Boomer with a successful partner, he’s had (and has) that luxury. Caitlyn doesn’t.

Right. And that’s one source of tension; though there’s also a lot of love between them. There’s a telling line in the stage direction: “John and Caitlyn take nearly everything the other says personally.”


So, Caitlyn and John kind of dance around what’s really bugging them?

Yeah. When their talk gets a little tense, the spectacle of a beautiful flock of birds will interrupt them. They’ll see the birds flying across the sky and that’ll totally pulls them out what they are (or aren’t) saying. After the birds depart, they’ll look at each other and get right back into it. 

It’s a beautiful on-again, off-again rhythm.


"Birds of North America" Director Summer Dawn Wallace is excited to explore the interfamilial dynamics of the play.
Photo courtesy of Sorcha Augustine
I love the dialogue. But this play is really a static situation with just two characters talking. It reminds of Charlie Brown chatting to Linus behind a wall. How do you make that interesting on the tiny Urbanite stage?

We really trust the Urbanite audience to use their imaginations. Our world on stage will be a mix of realistic and unrealistic elements. Lighting and sound will help evoke a greater world beyond it. But evoking that world is mainly on the actors’ shoulders. Honest acting is always the secret sauce. If they imagine something, the audience will.


Right. John and Caitlyn track a bird’s flight in their binoculars. You see it in your mind’s eye.

Exactly.


Why does the play keep jumping forward in time?

The time jumps show the passage of time and what has or hasn’t happened in this relationship since last we met the characters.


Like time-lapse photography.

Very much so. Speeding up time reveals so much. You see how climate change has impacted the birds; how it’s impacted John; how it’s really impacted Caitlyn. In the big picture, there’s only so much time left. 

But the clock is ticking in the small picture, too. John and Caitlyn have a tricky relationship. They’ve got so much love — and so many barriers. They don’t have forever to make progress or peace with each other.


That’s one thing I like about the script. Moench’s play deals with climate change. But it’s not just a vehicle for a didactic message. If you delete all the global warming references, the play would still work as an exploration of Caitlyn and John’s relationship. 

It really would. And I like that, too!


What would you like the Urbanite audiences to take away from this play?

That's a hard question. I’d like our audience to think about the ecological issues, of course. I also hope theatergoers will see themselves in the characters. And if there’s a conversation they’ve been putting off with someone they love, they should really have it as soon as possible.


 

author

Marty Fugate

Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.

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