Performing Indigeneity: AMPD collaboration takes flight with Theatre @ York production of “The Birds”

Yvette Nolan
Yvette Nolan

The Birds by First Nations playwright Yvette Nolan is a powerful adaptation of one of western theatre’s earliest comedies: the classical Greek play by Aristophanes. Leading 21st century audiences inside colonization from an Indigenous point of view, York University theatre Professor Michael Greyeyes directs the combined creative talent from four departments of the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design in a compelling presentation of Nolan’s play.

Theatre @ York’s interdisciplinary production of The Birds, featuring new writing, choreography, music and interactive digital audio and visuals, previews Sunday, March 20, opens Monday, March 21 and runs to March 26 in the Sandra Faire and Ivan Fecan Theatre on York’s Keele campus.

Michael Greyeyes. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh
Michael Greyeyes. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh.

Greyeyes, a critically acclaimed creator, performer and director, envisions The Birds as a story of women and transformation, and an opportunity to communicate the realities underlying Indigenous and settler relationships.

“Subjectivity is a gift we can give each other,” said Greyeyes. “Subjectivity allows you to step into someone else’s shoes. And as the saying goes, if you’ve walked a mile in another’s shoes, it’s impossible to see them with old eyes. With our production of The Birds, we want to give our audience new eyes: the opportunity to see things from the perspective of the Aboriginal community.”

Nolan resituates the play to Turtle Island (North America), recasting the two humans who visit the land of the birds as colonizers-come-lately, intent on remaking this Indigenous paradise in their own image. Interweaving the Roman poet Ovid’s tale of the abused princess Philomela and her sister Procne as the backstory to the Nightingale in the play, Nolan places a tragic past at the heart of this comic fable.

Mike Dangeli
Mike Dangeli

The Birds is presented in two acts, linked with collectively devised original content. Independent dance artist Susan Lee, who teaches in the Department of Dance, choreographed an original concert work with the department’s resident company, the York Dance Ensemble, that anchors the first act and give shape to the historical backstory hinted at in Nolan’s text.

Serving as assistant directors, eight undergraduate and graduate students from the Department of Theatre augment further responses to the text with a series of interstitial performance and media works that connect Lee’s choreography with Greyeyes’ staging that is the focus of the production’s second act.

First Nations guest artist, master carver Mike Dangeli led a group of students and members of the Indigenous community through a series of workshops to create six original large-scale masks for The Birds.

Set, costume, lighting, sound and projection design are by undergrad theatre students. Digital media students have created interactive audio, visuals and code-based video projections, and music students contribute to the soundscape. Talented young performers from the theatre department’s 4th Year Acting Conservatory round out the cast.

Masks for The Birds, designed by First Nations master carver Mike Dangeli and constructed in collaboration with York students and members of the Indigenous community
Masks for The Birds, designed by First Nations master carver Mike Dangeli and constructed in collaboration with York students and members of the Indigenous community

“The structure for this collaborative production is modelled after Indigenous creation protocols and governance,” said Greyeyes. “In particular, we’re exploring the ‘one-eighths’ principle, which emphasizes consensus. The idea is that each person only knows one-eighth of the story, and needs seven others to get the full picture. Working together on The Birds as creators, designers, performers and producers, we’re weaving a story where everyone’s voice has similar weight. A woven story is stronger than a single strand.”

Visit The Birds website for full details about the production, cast and creative team. On social media, see #AMPDbirds.

The York Dance Ensemble performs Susan Lee’s choreography for The Birds. Photo by Don Sinclair
The York Dance Ensemble performs Susan Lee’s choreography for The Birds. Photo by Don Sinclair.

The Birds runs nightly from Monday, March 20 to Thursday, March 24 at 7:30pm, with matinees on Wednesday, March 23 at 1pm and Saturday, March 26 at 2pm. There is no performance on March 25 (Good Friday). Regular admission is $20, students and seniors $12, $7 for the March 20 preview, and $10 for groups of 10 or more.  Tickets may be purchased online or by calling the Box Office at 416-736-5888.

The Birds is the final main stage performance within Performing Indigeneity, the Department of Theatre’s 2015-16 thematic focus. York’s theatre program joins the national conversation being undertaken by the country’s most influential theatre organizations and leads the nation in addressing how postsecondary theatre training intersects with Canada’s Indigenous peoples and the diversity of their artistic practices.