When Tova Arbus walked off stage after completing her run as Sally Bowles, an English cabaret performer in Berlin in 1931 during the Weimar Republic in Shot in the Dark’s production of Cabaret, little did she know that her next onstage performance three years later would expand on that emotionally challenging performance, but in a darker context.
Whereas Cabaret explored themes of rampant societal ignorance and bigotry during one of the darkest periods of history during the Nazi party’s rise to power, If We Were Birds more specifically addresses the uncomfortable truths about women and the acts of violence against them during war.
“You can find examples of hate and violence or acts of war and trauma against others and that intolerance within society in every decade, in every year, going back right to biblical times with the Cain and Abel story,” says Arbus, who plays Procne in the upcoming production.
Weaving in the story of Philomela from Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Erin Shields’ award-winning play follows Tereus, the King of Thrace, who is given the hand of princess Procne as a reward from the King of Athens for his aid in a military campaign. In her new land, Procne sends for her sister Philomela. The visit ultimately leads to horrors done upon Philomela by her brother-in-law.
Arbus notes the play’s theme is as relevant today as the Philomela myth in Ovid’s time.
“What is the difference now? The tinderbox is social media. Now, there is an awareness of something happening within seconds,” says Arbus.
“We can go on social media and within minutes come up with 25 places around the world where this same story is playing out … Women and children often bear the brunt of the traumas of war, not through any choice of their own. They do not sign up to be soldiers. They are the spoils of war.”
The production has a chorus of five “survivors” who weave their own stories of survival into the fabric of the main story.
Michael Burtch, who produces the play, and is developing set design and music (with Frank Deresti) finds the addition of the chorus adds universality to the narrative.
“[Erin Shields] goes out of her way not to identify any one member of the chorus with any specific conflict. When you research in any depth, it is easy to identify those figures,” he says. “It is so amazing that these weren’t just abstracts, but are real people…Shields honoured the victims and survivors of conflict by imaginatively incorporating their words into a dramatic context.”
The plot is also anachronistic, not identifying a timeframe or country.
“It was a fascinating challenge to create that sense of timelessness. I was moved by the script and Roméo Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil came to mind. I woke up one day, and visualized the set basically created with sculptures,” says Burtch. “It’s a set, but also a sculptural installation.”
Despite the highly emotional subject matter, the play is not designed to shock, but rather create the opportunity for dialogue.
“A piece like this brings people out of their anonymity and into a real societal connection,” says Arbus. “The questions that you asked us are exactly the questions that we hope the audiences will ask. I don’t know if we have the answers necessarily. Why are we doing this? So that people will ask questions and think about what those answers could be and talk to each other about it.”
For Burtch, art is an important way to help make positive change in society.
“Out of the horror of Rwanda came Romeo Dallaire’s total breakdown, which brought about his campaign against child soldiers and the World Court finally looking at rape as a war crime,” he says. “It took Rwanda to enable that change. You look at the Report of [the National Inquiry into] Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, these conversations have to be had.”
Housing this production’s subject matter in the wrappings of a classic myth, allows the audience to dig a bit deeper into the meaning.
“We hold that collective responsibility without it becoming so personal that the trauma is impossible to discuss,” says Arbus.
The production is being presented in partnership with Algoma University as a way to recognize the university’s mission to foster an environment that cultivates cross cultural learning between Aboriginal communities and other communities.
“For public organizations and spaces, Algoma University has been leading the charge in terms of what equality and sharing spaces means. They show what it means to create safe space and how to address these deeper issues without it tearing us apart,” says Arbus. “There are other examples, but Algoma U is easily the most visible one with their diversity on campus, the Shingwauk Association and their developments.”
Burtch recognizes that the historical and physical space is a perfect complement to the production.
“It is a fabulous space, not only from a theatrical point of view, but because of the history of what transpired in the space. I think we are all mindful of that,” he says.
He notes that the physical space is being transformed for the production.
“We are bringing in bleachers to give it an amphitheater feel. We are working to bring the audience into the story,” says Burtch.
Arbus elaborates. “Once the set is up, it will bring that intimacy in which is really important. Everybody in there is part of the same story.”
The connection to venue is also apparent in the workshops being held in between performances.
“Shirley Horn, who is the Algoma U chancellor and a special consultant to us, is presenting a workshop on missing and murdered indigenous women in relation to the play,” says Burtch. “I am doing one as a set designer.”
That confluence of intimacy, subject matter and venue is also something important to members of the cast and crew.
“Many of the cast and crew have a long history with each other… There are some theatre vets that you have seen on stage at many shows,” says Arbus. “We also did an audition process and new faces came out too.”
Both Burtch and Arbus note that the strong bond developing between the cast and crew will help with the delivery of the subject matter.
“It is such an emotional challenge for everybody concerned to put on a production like this,” says Burtch. “There has to be that professional dynamic, but there also has to be that emotional trust and respect for each other, and for the play.”
For Arbus, this production offers everyone involved something unique that not all productions offer.
“Between [my last onstage role] and now, I did a lot of opportunity creation for other performers, but not much for myself as an actor. We really don’t get an opportunity to work on scripts like this very often. There is a lot of really important work that happens with fabulous directors [in the community] that you can sink your teeth into as an actor. But this was different. The multifaceted nature of this with the art pieces, it just pulled me in.”
If We Were Birds runs Feb. 21-22 at 8 pm, Feb. 23 at 2 pm, and Feb. 27 through 29 at 8 pm at the Shingwauk Auditorium at Algoma University.
Warning: There may be specific plot points that could trigger or provoke emotional trauma for some audience members. This play contains strong language and mature themes and is not suitable for children.
Tickets are available at the Station Mall Box office, at the door, or online here.