Tragedy Takes Flight

Imago Theatre Presents Award-Winning Ovid Adaptation, “If We Were Birds”

  • Erin Shield’s contemporary adaptation of a Roman tragedy is sure to strike a chord in Montreal audiences.

Tragedies may be best attributed to the long gone days of Sophocles, Eurpides and Livius Andronicus, but that hasn’t kept Toronto-based playwright Erin Shields from writing her own.

If We Were Birds, Shields’s contemporary theatre adaptation of Book 6 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is certainly no comedy. Through the inclusion of a story-propelling chorus, the production weaves together the perspectives of five women, each survivors of personal tragedies during different 20th-century conflicts.

Shields won the 2011 Governor General’s Literary Award in drama for the play.

“The stories that they’ve lived, the experiences that they’ve gone through, […] all of that lives inside of them,” actor Stephanie Buxton told The Link.

“But they’re not identifying as victims; they’re [telling their stories] in order to affect change.”

Clare Schapiro, who was the artistic director of Imago Theatre for 13 years and will be part of the chorus onstage for the play, said that change is exactly what the story is looking to inspire.

“You want people to walk away rethinking their own sense of ethics and morality,” she said.

“Tragedy stimulates your intellect and makes you question your own beliefs, but also there’s a sense of hope.”

However unsettling stories like this can be, there are ways of presenting them that can be accessible to an audience.

“It’s a heightened drama,” said Schapiro. “And even though it’s a really tragic story that still continues today, there’s humour, and I think that’s important, especially in a heavy piece.”

Guiding an audience through such conflicting emotions takes a deep understanding of the layers behind the story for the cast, especially with a play so new. A long rehearsal period made doing so possible.

“With a new work, you need the time to let it reflect,” said Schapiro.

“It’s a very physical piece […] and just to finesse all of that and really understand it in your body and intellectually you need more time than just slapping it together like a nine to five job.”

Schapiro says the play requires more than just mental endurance.

“It requires a lot more muscle than you’re used to,” she said. “Being able to isolate an elbow or a wrist or a shoulder is much more demanding than just working on your character.”

The physicality of If We Were Birds may be challenging for the actors, but working with choreographer and movement consultant Leslie Baker has made it an exciting experience—for the actors and audience alike.

“A lot of times [an audience member] goes to the theatre and sits down and says ‘Okay, they’re going to tell us a story,’” said Schapiro.

If We Were Birds is definitely telling a story, but [people] don’t expect [to see] something so visceral and surprising.”

Buxton agrees that the natural and raw elements of the play are key in generating a response.

“I think there’s something to be said for the corporeal thing that goes on [in theatre],” Buxton said.

“You’re breathing with the actors, you’re hearing the words happen live, in the moment, you’re seeing the spit fly through the air. Whether you’re consciously aware of it or not, it gets in you.”

If We Were Birds // Oct. 10 – Oct. 19 // Centaur Theatre (453 St. Francois-Xavier St.) // Night show 8:30 p.m., weekend matinee 2:30 p.m. // $18 students, $25 general

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