“Philomela and the Chorus dwell in a timeless purgatory of nature.”
That is the first stage direction in Erin Shields’ If We Were Birds. No easy task for a director. What exactly is a “timeless purgatory of nature” and how the hell do you create it onstage?
According to the Catholics, Purgatory is an intermediate space after death where we must purge our sins before becoming fit to go to Heaven. In common parlance, it is a state of limbo, where we are held between one place and another.
Micheline Chevrier took Erin’s stage direction as a clue to understanding the action of the play. If the play takes place in a purgatory, the action is to purge, to search for release. By telling their stories, these women are trying to find freedom from the suffering that is keeping them stuck in the horror of their experience.
Diana Uribe, the designer for this production, first responded to the potent imagery and emotions that pulse through the script: the rage, fear and isolation created by war, the landscape and architecture of space devastated by violence. When you’re in a war, she told me, you are in a purgatory. You can’t leave, but staying is impossible. Internment camps are also a purgatory, a holding area or temporary limbo for the dispossessed.
But what makes our purgatory different from other purgatories? What is a purgatory of nature? Is it a place without human “reason”, without rules or societal norms? Does the ‘nature’ indicate an absence of religious doctrine, associating it with the animal kingdom, of which humans are just one element? And what is a purgatory for birds?
Micheline and Diana were inspired by the image of a birdcage, a place where a creature of flight is stuck, unable to fly. When looking inside the cage, the image exploded and they agreed that the cage itself was the timeless purgatory of nature.
So here we are, midway through tech week, which is another sort of purgatory. A time between rehearsal and performance, when the work we’ve done in the rehearsal hall meets the designer’s imagination.
And it’s beautiful, this cage that Diana has made. The lights, designed by Robert Thomson, paint the space with colour and shadow. The sound, designed by Peter Cerone, fills the theatre and lifts the choral work to meet the demands of the strange, visceral world that Erin has created. We work into the night, our brave actors inhabiting this harrowing material, as we collectively struggle to tell this story and find release.
– Natasha Greenblatt, Assistant Director, If We Were Birds