(top to bottom) Jay Dunn, Robert Barry Fleming, and Britt Duff

This latest post by actor Jay Dunn (of The Conference of the Birds here at the Folger) was written leading up to the first preview performance last week, October 23. We’re a little late in getting up online, but better late than never. In any case, it’s another great/insightful post from Jay highlighting two extraordinary designers, a “Bird Call” segment, and what it has been like as a cast member leading up to the first preview performance. Enjoy!

Hey folks! Jay Dunn, the Falcon, back again to give you a little sneak peak from backstage. We have just finished tech and are in an exciting time for the show. The show is complete. All elements have come together. Except one: the audience. First audience today! What a beautiful space. I am SO excited to perform on this stage again!

So it has been awhile since I’ve posted here and I think it bears some explanation – especially because it means good things for you, the potential audience member. In your standard rehearsal process, an actor can expect to be called anywhere from an hour to 8 hours on a normal, non-tech day. For instance, my last show at The Folger, The Game of Love and Chance, had me averaging about 3 hours a day for the first couple of weeks, and that was in a great supporting role. In some processes, one can even expect to be called less, some days not at all. Here is 1) Why The Conference of the Birds is different and 2) Why The Folger is awesome: for the last 3 ½ weeks, all 11 actors in Conference of the Birds have been rehearsing together 8 hours a day, 6 days a week and almost half that time onstage has been in the actual theatre. On top of the unusually large amount of time the entire cast has spent rehearsing together, the show itself is immensely physical and has required a great deal of movement improvisation to build the choreography we now have. What does this mean? Besides a slightly fatigued (but grateful) actor, it means a super-tight, wonderfully physical and unusually synergistic ensemble performance of spoken prose, raw, contemporary movement and heartfelt storytelling. A process like this is a rare bird (pun intended, of course); when any cast has the opportunity to work with everyone in the room all the time. I think it is a choice that, although somewhat grueling for the very willing and driven company of artists, will result in an exponentially better production. Initial reports back after our first dress rehearsal, both from onstage and audience, have been wonderfully gratifying. Our work has paid off. I invite you to come see. And as an added incentive, although there really isn’t a bad seat in the Folger’s house, there are, for this production, certain seats that will, shall we say, enhance the viewing experience. I invite you to get in touch with me for the inside scoop (no one else will tell you) ;)

costume design sketch

On to the Designer Spotlight section of the blog. Since it has been a couple of weeks, I will amend my promise to highlight a single designer with each post and focus instead on two designers, Jen Schriever (light design) and Olivera Gajic (costume design). Olivera Gajic, our costume designer, has the difficult task of designing costumes that 1) Are passed between different actors and 2) Are doubly evocative of original birds/human characters and 3) Convey the sense of multiple characters with minimal changes. Her renderings are beautiful, the clothing textures evoke shiny Persian garments but also earthy jersey-cloth draping. Think Eastern European meets The Matrix with a flourish of bird. So basically we’ll look GREAT while still being able to move easily. The little accents like the Toms shoes we all wear, the long moustaches (yes, they are now long enough that I can pluralize them) and pointy falcon-beard I’ve grown, and the amazing hair sported by, say, actors Jessica Dukes and Britt Duff, really fill the design out. Costumes can be an actor’s best friend or worst enemy depending on a number of factors – ease of movement, comfort, how long it takes to get on, and, of course, how the actor looks. Olivera has pretty much nailed all of these for me. I, the Falcon, have found a new best friend. The Simorgh shall greet me favorably in my new avian duds.

an aerial view of the birds in flight

Jen Schriever. Lights. Holy illumination. At our first read-through, Jen summarized the difficulties of lighting a show like The Conference of the Birds: “It’s not ‘lights at a bar during sunset’. It’s ‘birds flying through the Valley of Annhilation.’ ” Let me first begin with an excerpt from Peter Brook’s Empty Space. “I call it the Holy Theatre for short, but it could be called The Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible:…that the stage is a place where the invisible can appear…We are all aware that most of life escapes our senses: a most powerful explanation of the various arts is that they talk of patterns which we can only begin to recognize when they manifest themselves as rhythms or shapes. We observe that the behaviour of people, of crowds, of history, obeys such recurrent patterns…This is what is meant and remembered by those who…use…words like nobility, beauty, poetry.” Jen’s lights do many things here. They shift and redefine landscapes for the audience. They give the actors a sense of having traveled from one landscape to another. They define the many, tricky and liminal (new word!) layers of the story we are telling. They convey a sense of telling a story from another world while managing to include the audience in the room. And on top of all of that, they create a universal world in which the story takes place. They are, in a sense, the 12th member of the ensemble. They are beautiful. They are transformative. I want to say more, but I can’t. Words don’t do her lightscapes justice. The experience of them will. In the next post I will spotlight Tom Teasley (music) and Erika Chong Shuch (choreographer).

Patty Gallagher as the Hoopoe, in rehearsal. Photo by Jay Dunn.

On to what I’m naming the ‘Bird Call‘ section of the post. The second bird of the series is the Hoopoe. And I actually should have begun with her in my first post because the Hoopoe is the leader of all birds in The Conference of the Birds (and, funnily enough, also the king of the birds in the Aristophanes’ comedy “The Birds”). Clever, courageous, charismatic and played beautifully by Patty Gallagher of Rogue Theater (again, clearly typecast), the Hoopoe is the engine that drives this story.
Various cultures think of the hoopoe very differently. “They were considered sacred in Ancient Egypt and were seen as a “symbol of virtue in Persia, but they were thought of as thieves across much of Europe and harbingers of war in Scandinavia. Also, in Estonian tradition the Hoopoes are strongly connected with death and the underworld, their song is seen as a forebode of death for many a people or cattle.” They appear in both the bible and the Quran. The Hoopoe is the national bird of Israel and the state-bird of Punjab province of India. The Hoopoe appears on the Logo of the University of Johannesburg, and is the official mascot of the University’s sports. The municipality of Armstedt, Germany has a hoopoe in its coat of arms.
The Hoopoe is classified in the Coraciiformes clade, a group that also includes kingfishers, bee-eaters, rollers, and woodhoopoes …

The Hoopoe

The Hoopoe is a medium sized bird, 25–32 cm (9.8–12.6 in) long, with a 44–48 cm (17.3–19 in) wingspan weighing 46–89 g (1.6–3.1 oz)…The hoopoe has broad and rounded wings capable of strong flight; these are larger in the northern migratory subspecies. It has a characteristic undulating flight, which is like that of a giant butterfly, caused by the wings half closing at the end of each beat or short sequence of beats. The call is typically a trisyllabic “oop-oop-oop”, which gives rise to its English and scientific names, although two and four syllables are also common… The Hoopoe is monogamous, although the pair bond apparently only lasts for a single season. They are also territorial, with the male calling frequently to advertise his ownership of the territory. Chases and fights between rival males (and sometimes females) are common and can be brutal. Birds will try to stab rivals with their bills, and individuals are occasionally blinded in fights. The Hoopoes have well-developed anti-predator defences in the nest. The uropygial gland of the incubating and brooding female is quickly modified to produce a foul-smelling liquid, and the glands of nestlings do so as well. These secretions are rubbed into the plumage. The secretion, which smells like rotting meat, is thought to help deter predators, as well as deter parasites and possibly act as an antibacterial agent. The secretions stop soon before the young leave the nest. In addition to this secretion nestlings are able to direct streams of faeces at nest intruders from the age of six days, and will also hiss at intruders in a snake like fashion. The young also strike with their bill or with one wing.” A pretty interesting bird, no? Thank you Wikipedia!

So here we go. Preview performances under way. Tickets are available at the Folger Box Office or you can find tickets here.

Thanks for reading! Again, all comments and questions are very welcome.  This is Jay Dunn, The Falcon, signing off. My next post will arrive later this week. Stay tuned!