When The Birds Come
Debbie Hicks productions | 1-11, 13-25 August | 14:20, 1:00 hr | Underbelly Cowgate, Big Belly
World premiere of the new play by Tallulah Brown, the playwright whose work includes 2018’s acclaimed Songlines. Climate change is reshaping rural Alaska. And the early onset of spring, signalled by the arrival of the birds, threatens to tear a family apart…
In what ways do you feel that theatre can bring anything to this discussion, especially in the light of the recent imaginative activism that has been engaging the media, such as Extinction Rebellion?
Alexander Lass (Director): For me, issues of urgent socio-political importance are best featured in theatre productions via analogy, symbolism, and metaphor. Theatre isn’t a news bulletin or a piece of journalism or a documentary. It’s dramatic fiction in three dimensions. Through sharing honest, funny, compelling and identifiable stories of human relationships, we can better see and hear and understand the issues of the day. Although theatre can be a form of “imaginative activism,” When The Birds Come does not fit into this category, in my view. Rather, it uses its location (Newtok, Alaska), characters (a sister and brother) and narrative to illuminate a specific aspect of the worldwide climate emergency – both in the recent past and in an imagined near future – that may not be familiar to British or European audiences.
Debbie Hicks (Producer): Theatre also provides us with a space where we can attempt to conceive what the near-future holds for us, which I think can bring the seemingly remote consequences of climate change into sharp relief. In When The Birds Come Tallulah conjures a vision of 2025 – really not so far away – in a personal, human way, and part of the challenge to us as an audience is knowing that potential future really isn’t so implausible. It’s very near, and it’s very disquieting.
Are there methods that theatre can use to go beyond ‘raising awareness’ since it strikes me that much of the audience will at least be aware of the issue?
Alexander Lass (Director): Due to the remote location of Newtok and the particular plight of the Yup’ik community resident in the town, I think that When The Birds Come will actually offer something rather surprising and enlightening to our audiences. Tallulah Brown’s insight into sibling relationships is deft and her dialogue is beautifully poetic while remaining grounded, which provides an easily relatable lens through which to view and connect with the characters of Margaret and Stanley and their story.
Debbie Hicks (Producer): It can also help us empathise with those already facing an insurmountable threat to their way of life, here and now. It’s not science fiction, and it’s not feeling a bit weird about it snowing in mid-April before turning up the central heating – it’s engaging audiences with a human story within the context of a real-life crisis. The Yup’ik community are being compelled to move, and they’re going to have to do it very soon – how would we feel if the Forth broke its banks, our homes had flooded repeatedly, and we knew Princes Street would be under water in just a few years?
What elements of climate change do you explore, and what ideas are you keen for the audience to take away?
Alexander Lass (Director): The play explores the perils facing the Yup’ik community of Newtok, Alaska, whose homes are under threat from the surging floodwaters of the Ninglik River. The permafrost is melting and river is rising, soon the entire town will be engulfed. “Relocation” has been proposed by the US Government, but the funding and implementation of this “answer” has been repeatedly delayed and obstructed. In the interim, key infrastructure has been lost, including the community’s sewage system and running water supply. A new village, Mertarvik, is now being constructed with a view to the residents of Newtok moving by 2023, but progress has been slow.
Debbie Hicks (Producer): It’s not a polemic show, so I’m keen for audiences to appreciate and engage with the piece as they would any other – to savour the beautiful lyricism to Tallulah’s writing; to recognise and enjoy the jocular and often fraught sibling relationship between Stanley and Margaret, and to consider how and why we often challenge those we love the most. But I’d also love them to come away with a sense that the context in which the story is told is very real, and the pressures exerted onto our protagonists because of the world they find themselves in is – while imagined – very firmly within the realms of the possible.