'Anyone who’s left out there is an animal'
Behind the scenes at CMU’s The Birds
Preparing for a play is no easy feat, and the students working on Central Michigan University’s production for The Birds can attest to this. The students have been rehearsing throughout the month of September and getting themselves ready for opening night.
The Birds is a thriller play written by Conor McPherson in which birds are revolting against mankind, attacking and killing anyone caught outside during high tide. Characters Diane and Nat manage to find each other during this time and take shelter in an abandoned house on a lake, but tensions rise as the birds get more aggressive and a man living across the lake starts to watch them.
Another woman, Julia, takes shelter with them, and further divides are created as the story progresses, especially when the man across the lake stops by to warn Diane about Julia’s true nature. It's a case of nature versus man that evolves into man versus man as the story progresses.
“I love this kind of stuff,” said Jody Price, the director for the play. “The playwright, Conor McPherson, he holds back a lot of information, which leads to a lot of unanswered questions. And we all have a lot of unanswered questions about ourselves.”
Price has been working at CMU for 20 years, and he has not directed since 2007. He was asked by his department chair if he’d like to direct something this year, and he said the situation is an opportunity that “fell into his lap.”
“I’m kind of excited for it,” he said. “I went from scared at the beginning to excited.”
The set is small, resembling the inside of a wooden cabin. Its size does not limit its attention to detail – the furniture within it has an old, worn down feel, accompanied by plaid blankets and antique items within the space.
Old liquor bottles make various appearances throughout the play, as do old first aid kits, and fake candles burn endlessly, helping to create the desperate, apocalyptic environment the birds outside have orchestrated.
The size has proved difficult, however. There are times characters have accidentally bumped into the walls and knocked down the boards on the windows, testing the stability of the set as a whole. This led to having to rechoreograph some scenes or having cast members maintain distance from the walls.
Additionally, due to its size and the time in between scenes, cast members must remain on stage when the lights go out and move their own props back to their designated locations before the next scene begins. Throughout the rehearsal process, props would be assigned to new locations for easier access and flow on stage, both during scenes and in scene changes.
Props would also have their own slip ups in the play – paper covers on cans slipped off, things leaning against the walls would fall and become tripping hazards for cast members, certain props would go missing before crucial scenes, and so on.
Despite the trials and errors, the cast and crew have great camaraderie. There is lighthearted banter as people arrive to the rehearsals, and their vocal warm-ups beforehand were humorous in nature. There’s a mutual respect between all of them, as explained by assistant director Grace Ray, a senior at CMU who’s majoring in Acting and Directing.
“Learning how to work with a full cast and crew on the directorial side, it's interesting to see how it works,” she said. “Being an authority figure was a weird change, but I like it. I like making the actors feel comfortable.”
Part of this comfort Ray cultivates through her choreography in scenes, such as fight scenes and other up-close-and-personal moments among cast members.
“Most of what you see I created,” she said. “What’s challenging is knowing how intense to go without actually hurting anyone.”
Another person who can attest to how welcoming the group is is actress Mackenna Kofahl, who plays as Julia in the production and is the only freshman in the cast.
“It was definitely scary at first,” she said. “It was interesting trying to break into the group, but it’s been fun and everyone’s been so nice.”
This is Kofahl’s first production at CMU, and her first horror production ever. While she’s been in around 30 productions since her childhood, she said most of those were comedic or overdramatic in nature.
“It’s a different type of acting than I’m used to,” she said. “It’s more realistic.”
Kofahl also talked about some additional challenges she’s faced with the production, including a smaller cast size and how the plot can feel complicated and all over the place to the untrained eye.
In addition to the stress on stage, there is stress backstage as well. Even people most comfortable backstage have had their own challenges to endure, Stage Manager Lane Arms said.
“It’s been mildly overwhelming,” Arms said, “but I feel very honored I’ve been trusted with this role. It’s been stressful, but worth it.”
Arms discussed the significance of some of the props in the play, such as the radio, and also discusses some of the technical aspects like sound. The sound designers for the play organized a mashup of bird noises for some of the “attack” scenes, and even the occasional owl or robin during calmer moments in the show.
The rehearsal time has been relatively short, occupying most of the month of September. Multiple crew members have agreed that the process has been stressful, but worth it.
“At the end of the line, the show’s gonna open anyway,” Price said. “But once they learned to work on their feet, to get creative with it, they became more confident.” He hopes the cast and crew can take this confidence with them into their future projects as well.
“It’s been a labor of love for me,” Price said. “It’s come a long way, and I think it’s gonna be good.” Other cast and crew members echo the same praise for the show and encourage others to come and watch the final product.
Showtimes are Oct. 5-7 & 12-14 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 8 & 15 at 2 p.m.
Tickets to the show can be purchased here.