U of O theatre students perform award-winning play If We Were Birds at Academic Hall

Sabrina Nemis | Fulcrum Staff

PROFESSOR ANDRÉ PERRIER worries that many students are missing the bigger picture.

The part-time professor and director of the University of Ottawa’s drama guild chose Erin Shields’ Governor General’s Award-winning play If We Were Birds to be performed by the university’s theatre students because it explores the politics of violence in wartime, especially violence against women.

“People are just not reading the papers; they’re not listening or interested in what’s going on,” says Perrier. “If I can open up a window for them to be more curious about what’s going on in the world, then maybe they can implicate themselves in what’s going on in the world.”

Perrier believes many students aren’t aware that violence persists as an act of war—that genocide didn’t end with the Holocaust, for example. Although set in ancient Greece, the stories of the women in If We Were Birds could be from any modern conflict.

The play, which ran from Oct. 30 to Nov. 3 at Academic Hall, reinterprets the Greek myth of Philomela and Procne, while the performance’s chorus steps forward to tell stories of violence.

In the myth, Procne and her husband Tereus have a happy marriage, though she misses her sister Philomela and sends Tereus to bring her sister to her. While escorting Philomela, Tereus lusts for her and brings her to a cabin in the forest, rapes her, and cuts out her tongue. When Procne learns this, she takes revenge by killing, cooking, and feeding her son to his father, Tereus.

Most characters in the play suffer from the violence of war and turn into birds, each trapped in suffering and limbo. Throughout the play, the all-female chorus breaks tradition by coming forward individually and sharing their stories of wartime violence. Each story escalates until Procne’s final act of vengeance.

Supporting the bird imagery was a set dominated by a large cage and ropes dangling in the background. Even when they become birds, each character is tethered to the world and its violence by these ropes.

“They’re never free,” says Meaghan Flaherty, a member of the chorus.

Unlike a traditional Greek drama, where the ending provides catharsis—a form of purification that allows the audience some relief—If We Were Birds leaves things unresolved. The play never gives easy answers.

“It doesn’t point us in a direction,” says Jan Swiderski, the actor who played Tereus.

While the play draws attention to violence happening in the world, it makes no suggestion as to how to resolve it. The final vengeful act of Procne doesn’t stop war or rape, and turning into birds doesn’t free the characters from their suffering.

Upon learning that her husband raped her sister, the character Procne says, “I thought family and war were different.” Her realization that the two are forever entwined is unsettling and potentially resonant with a western audience accustomed to seeing war as something that happens far away from their homes and families.

“You always think your country is the good guys,” says Samuel Dietrich, one of the actors in the play.

While the U of O drama guild’s performance of If We Were Birds didn’t suggest what to do about violence in society, it did leave its viewers with a sense of responsibility and awareness.