The Birds – Kristen Morgan


The Birds, by Aristophanes, adapted by Walter Kerr, Eastern Connecticut State University

Director: Ellen Faith Brodie (faculty)
Scenic Design: Kristen Morgan (faculty)
Projection Design: Rachael Perry (student)
Lighting Design: F. Chase Rozelle III (faculty)
Costume Design: Keri Smart (student)
Sound Design: Gabriel Luxton (alumnus)

THIS PRODUCTION OF THE BIRDS, DIRECTED BY FACULTY MEMBER ELLEN FAITH BRODIE, PLAYED in Eastern’s Harry Hope Theatre during the spring semester of 2013 and was created for an audience of young people. The collaborative design, between faculty and students, resulted in the creation of a fantastical world ruled by birds, existing high above the clouds, accessible to humans only by climbing mountains.

THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE SCENERY, WHICH I DESIGNED, WAS FORMED BY A SERIES OF NEST-­‐ like platforms. Suspended above these “nests” was a large “cloud” made of individual strings of white feathers, creating a unique 3-­‐dimensional surface onto which atmospheric images of birds, sky, and storm clouds were projected. The dynamic projections were designed by Theatre student, Rachael Perry, and helped to tell the story of the play through imagery. This project was a unique personal artistic design challenge; my area of research focuses on scenery and intermedial design for live performance, and I am particularly interested in experimentation with the surfaces onto which images are projected. This particular experiment proved challenging in its planning and construction (I still have several sections of prototypes hanging in my office, and I seem to continue to find white feathers everywhere). The irregular surface also presented a challenge to the student projection designer, as images that she had chosen previously did not look as expected once we saw them on the cloud. However, the piece was ultimately a success, as the images of flying birds, moving clouds, and shifting sunlight provided an ethereal atmosphere for the bird city perched high on a mountaintop. Faculty member Chase Rozelle’s playful lighting design had a huge impact on the design of the set, as we worked together to figure out where to hide lights among the nest branches, and how to highlight the feather cloud when it was not lit by the projected images. The incredible costumes, designed and built by Theatre student Keri Smart, brought the characters to “larger-­‐than-­‐life.” Keri imaginatively dealt with garments for the citizens of Athens, gods and goddesses of Olympus, and the birds themselves, which were fantastical creations inspired by a mash-­‐up of real birds and Las Vegas showgirls.

THIS PARTICULAR PRODUCTION OF THE BIRDS IS A PERFECT FIT FOR THE PQ 2015 MAIN THEME OF SharedSpace: Music, Weather, Politics 2013–2016. The Birds is an ancient Greek political drama by Aristophanes, first performed in 414 BC. The text’s references to events surrounding the Peloponnesian War have echoes in today’s political climate: In each of his plays, Aristophanes is attacking the manifestations of political, social, and moral corruption that he believed were the direct result of the Athenians’ shift away from an agricultural to an artisan and mercantile economy, their adoption of a more imperialistic ‘foreign policy,’ and their willingness to accept the validity of new forms of thought and art. Aristophanes shared the attitudes of the rapidly disappearing landed aristocracy, whose religion, morality, ideals, and patterns of social organization were based upon an agricultural economy and a closed, heroic view of society . . . He lived and wrote in one of the most turbulent periods in the world’s history. It was a time of war, expansion, and rapid, radical change . . . (Corrigan, 70-­‐71)

In addition, the setting in the fantasy world of “Cloud Cuckoo Land” directly references clouds and weather patterns as well as the soaring of birds in flight throughout the play. The concepts of politics and weather explored in the design of The Birds is an ideal fit with the PQ 2015 main theme and will be a perfect addition to USITT’s exhibition at the Prague Quadrennial.


Exploratory – forecasting – seeks new worlds/weather maps of performance

 By exploring new creative use of technology where humanness of performance is the leading factor not the cold mechanics of technology

The innovative use of the feather cloud to catch the projected images is a creative exploration of the use of projections beyond the traditional notion of “screen.” By using a surprising surface for the visual storytelling of the moving images, they are fully integrated into the design of the play. That feathers are used in the “screen” and in the costumes further serves to blur the lines between “screen,” architecture, and performers. Transformative – front disturbances – immersive

Consider the audience presence in the overall world building of the aesthetic approach 

The aesthetic approach of The Birds was one of overt theatricality, Las Vegas-­‐style and, thus, the stagehands were also part of the production throughout the show as if part of a running gag in a burlesque. They had particular personalities (i.e. extremes of disgruntled employee to the Pollyanna can-­‐do newbie; even the Stage Manager was part of the production as the ever present God-­‐like voice from above). The Stage Manager solicited audience members to join the show as “birds;” they rolled the huge barbecue cart onstage with great flourish; interacted with characters in the show as if in a water gun fight; one stagehand even put on a Greek chiton for the finale and became a character in the play as if headed for a life in the clouds – to the audience’s delight as expressed by hysterical laughter and wild applause.

Psychologically or physically require audience participation at any scale 

The directorial and design concept included the audience in the world of The Birds not only by having the birds and other characters interact with the audience vocally and physically, but also via the use of props. For example, audience members when given feathers and wooden sticks became “bird builders” of Cloud Cuckoo Land; they banged the sticks at key moments in the play.

Be noted for its capacity to intrinsically affect an audience and their emotional, critical and/or social thinking

Another design element that embraced the audience was the sound design, by Eastern alumnus Gabriel Luxton, which included a montage of bird calls; dance music for the bird ballet, do-­‐si-­‐do and tap dances; heavenly musical sounds of the Gods; thunder claps along with lightning effects; and numerous comical sound effects such as the loudly sizzling grill, bird shrieks, and game show sound effects. The sounds and music intrinsically affected the audience and their emotional states as witnessed by gasps and audible laughter (i.e. at the game show sound effects); their clapping along with the music and applause after dance numbers. The sound was perfectly timed to support the lighting and projection effects and vice-­‐versa. Importantly, the design of the set was a key element which allowed for constant surprise entrances and exits from three aisles between the seating sections; three aisles within the seating sections themselves; and via steps to the three different levels above the stage floor to the enormous bird “nests” surrounded by the spectacular feather cloud.

Urgent – The Storm Front

 Actively seek to inspire and/or enact social change

Aristophanes was trying to affect change in ancient Greece as he criticized taxation practices:

INSPECTOR: You will please declare your personal property. PITHETAERIA: Who sent you?

INSPECTOR: Government. Tax inspector. PITHETAERIA: Haven’t got any personal property. EUELPIDIA: We’ve just started to build.

INSPECTOR: Very well. I’ll have to leave an estimated bill, based upon what we happen to need at the moment.

PITHETAERIA: Very well. And I’m going to make an estimated payment, based upon how I happen to feel at the moment 

INSPECTOR: You’ll go to court—you’ll go to court! (LAWYER enters)

PITHETAERIA: Here! What do you have there?

LAWYER: The new laws for the community. “If a Cloud Cuckoo-­‐lander should commit libel against Athens or any Athenian—“

PITHETAERIA: We don’t need any lawyers up here!

LAWYER: Have to have lawyers. Don’t want to spend all our time in jail, do we?

PITHETAERIA: The Cloud Cuckoo-­‐landers shall adopt the same weights and measure as now prevail in-­‐-­‐“ LAWYER: The standard weights and measures, of course.

[EUELPIDIA]: No, we have new measures up here. INSPECTOR: You are now liable to penalty of ten thousand…

The design concept supported Aristophanes’ view of Inspectors and Lawyers as buffoons and others who came to Cloud Cuckoo Land from Athens to commercialize the kingdom. Characters were clothed in Greek chitons yet used props that mixed metaphors of the classical and contemporary (i.e. notepad and quill for the Inspector; a scroll of laws read by the Lawyer that when unraveled was 20 feet long and eventually the birds used it to wrap up all the intruding Athenians in order to “ fly” them back to Athens). The audience related to this scene, and was rooting for the birds rather than the Inspector and Lawyer as one can imagine in today’s society.

Focus on imagining the future of America

The Birds is filled with references to a topsy-­‐turvy future world (Cloud Cuckoo Land) in which those of the lower world/class become the rulers and the upper world/class are kept in check:


First I propose that the Air you enclose And the space twixt the Earth and the Sky, Encircling it all with a brick-­‐builded wall Like Babylon’s, solid and high.

As soon as the building is brought to an end A herald or envoy to Zeus we shall send

To require his immediate and prompt abdication; If he refuses, or shows hesitation Or evades the demand, we shall further proceed With legitimate warfare, avowed and decreed:

Hereafter no god, neither Zeus nor any of the others residing in heaven, may pass through our aerial domain for the purpose of impromptu visits down below. Permission must first be granted by the Birds, and a small fee paid.” [EPOPS]: Otherwise-­‐back to Olympus!

PITHETAERIA: Another Ambassador also will go To the Earth, and tell those below

That in the future:

Every man wishing to beg favors of the gods, and therefore offering sacrifice to the aforesaid gods, must first of all make an appropriate sacrifice to the Birds. For instance-­‐if an ox is to be sacrificed to Zeus, the Birds must first be appeased by the sacrifice of one male mosquito!”

1: And if they obey us, what do we promise in return?

PITHETAERIA: To defend their fields from insects and pests, as Zeus never did. Never more will they fear the beetle or roach. You will guide their sailing vessels, flying back to warn of an oncoming storm, and showing them favorable winds.

EUELPIDIA: I’m leaving. I’m going into the shipping business.

The directorial and design concepts of set, lighting, projections, costumes, sound, and props fully supported the premise of the topsy-­‐turvy society. For example, the set included progressively higher levels of bird “nests” which were accessed by the birds and the Athenians who became birds leaving behind the mercantile world of men. The lighting and projections created a magical world of the birds and sky in which all would aspire to live. The costumes transformed the people in chitons to colorful and zany birds with feathered wings and headdresses. They once were mere mortals and now in this topsy-­‐turvy world were extravagant and gorgeous and able to fly! The American dream was further realized in this topsy-­‐turvy world of The Birds via sound as the world of Cloud Cuckoo Land was filled with music and glorious birdsongs unlike the babble of Athens.

If we were to embrace the message of The Birds, the future of America might be one of living in closer harmony with nature and protecting it from the destructive forces of human greed.

Works Cited

Corrigan, Robert W., ed. Classical Comedy Greek And Roman. New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 1987. Print.

Kerr, Walter and Aristophanes. The Birds. New York: Dramatic Publishing, 1952. Print