The Conference of the Birds is a theatrical event that has traveled from an “empty space,” to villages in Africa. Now it comes to the stage of the Folger Theatre.
Director Aaron Posner dedicates his new production of The Conference of the Birds to the author of a seminal theatre theory text, “The Empty Space.” “I dedicate this production to Peter Brook,” said Posner. Brook who published “The Empty Space” in 1968 influenced generations of theatre artists. Posner is no exception.
“I loved it when I read it in high school; it was the first theatre theory work I read. I love his whole perspective, and universality. It was a tremendous influence on me.” Brook expressed his theories of theatre practice, dividing theatre into camps he called deadly, holy, rough, and immediate.
Armed with his dog-eared copy of Brook’s book nearby, Posner is honoring Brook by directing The Conference of the Birds, co-created by Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière.
“For this show, we feel there is no deadly theatre,” Posner offered, regarding the Folger production. “We have holy, rough, and immediate. There is room for it to change every night. It is filled with a deep and abiding spirituality and love.”
In the 1970s Peter Brook set off for a series of African villages with a group of ethnically diverse actors to seek the foundations of holy and immediate theatre. They observed, learned, improvised and explored the many stories and traditions they met along the way. One of the pieces Brook’s company created from this exploration, The Conference of the Birds (originally La Conférence des oiseaux) is adapted from an epic poem from 12th Century Persia.
The original 4,500 line poem was written by Farid Uddi Attar, an adherent to Sufism, the mystical, purity-seeking segment of Islam. The Conference of the Birds, his most recognizable work, concerns a gathering of birds. The feathered friends have no king and they strike out together on a quest to seek the divine. Many do not wish to make the journey, still others die in the attempt. The birds represent a myriad of human qualities, both their nobility and their foibles.
In the adaptation, actors become the wisdom-seeking birds as they make their quest, said Posner. “We have this core story of the birds going off looking for their god. It is presented in a series of parables – like a Sufi Godspell – but there is a lot of leeway as to what they mean.”
Posner, a Helen Hayes and Barrymore Award-winning playwright, director and teacher, sought the perfect collaborator to bring a strong musical backdrop to The Conference of the Birds for the Folger production. He needed to look no further than Tom Teasley.
Teasley is a Washington, D.C.-based composer, solo percussionist, teacher and sound designer. Posner was familiar with the musician’s work – he is frequently featured in Constellation Theatre productions – but the two had never worked together.
Last February, the director arrived at Teasley’s studio for the first time. “In the studio I was able to demonstrate what I could do,” said Teasley. “After about five minutes, Aaron stopped me and said it couldn’t have been a more perfect fit.”
Teasley has traveled throughout the world for the state department as a cultural envoy. His experience with many musical traditions – from American jazz to world music – brought an invaluable contribution to The Conference of the Birds, said Posner.
“Tom has such knowledge of many traditions and he has a kind of fanatical passion for percussion – it all fits this piece.”
The whole production is built on his percussion, played live onstage. Posner described Teasley’s music as the heartbeat of the production. Teasley explained, “There are several passages, underscoring text, that have a heartbeat feel. Some of the traditional rhythms are derived from the same rhythm of the ancient poetry.”
Having spent time in the Middle East, Teasley said he knew that this story and its Sufi origins would allow for a melding of different musical styles, all in the service of the story. “It’s an Americanization, a hybrid in the best possible way. The sound incorporates Persian music, the blues, and in homage to Washington, even a go-go feel.”
Both Posner and Teasley praised the work of the other members of the artistic team: scenic designer Meghan Raham, costume designer Olivera Gajic, lighting designer Jennifer Schriever, and choreographer Erika Chong Shuch.
For Posner, reliance on his collaborators allows him to fulfill his director’s vision, and make even more discoveries about the play and working together.
“This has never been truer than on this production. The Conference of the Birds is a collaborative effort of the highest level. This production could only exist at this time and place, with the contributions of the choreographer, Tom’s music, the designers, ideas from our cast, making this a very participatory production.”
In casting, Posner said he looked for actors who were multi-talented, and could express that they were on a journey. Plus he was looking for something extra. “But I am hard-pressed to name the other thing I was looking for but I knew it when I saw it.”
Closes November 25, 2012
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Tickets: $30 – $68
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The cast is composed of eleven performers – twelve if you count Teasley, who is visible throughout the performance from his perch on the Elizabethan Theatre’s onstage balcony. The birds are portrayed by Katie deBuys (Duck), Britt Huff (Sparrow), Jessica Frances Dukes (Peacock), Jay Dunn (Falcon), Robert Barry Fleming (Parrot), Patty Gallagher (Hoopoe), Tara Giordano (Partridge), Celeste Jones (Dove), Jens Rasmussen (Magpie), Annapurna Sriram (Nightingale), and Tiffany Rachelle Stewart (Heron).
Posner said The Conference of the Birds works on a lot of different levels.
“It’s family-friendly, so there is nothing objectionable for younger audiences. It’s esoteric, but also goofy – there is even an extended fart. But it is deeply spiritual at the same time. The experience will be enhanced, the more the audience brings their own real stuff to the table.”
Bringing this story to the stage at this time has other advantages, the director added.“I like all kinds of theatre, but this deals with big issues in entertaining ways. And this is not a bad time to look at the Persian world – Iran and Iraq’s culture – in a way that is love-filled, with a piece of literature that comes from that area.”
“We hope people will take a risk and come see it. It is a very worthwhile journey.”
The Conference of the Birds is in preview Oct 23 – 28, and runs Oct 29 – Nov 25, 2012.