More Extraordinary Ensemble Work This Season

Our survey of the most intriguing theater happening around town this fall took us  to Folger Theatre this past Thursday night to take in a 12th Century poem turned modern-classic theater piece.  The Conference of the Birds became a signature ensemble piece for Peter Brook and his new International Centre for Theatre Research. The play production originated from a new year research process that took Brook and writer Jane-Claude Carrière to Africa in 1979, where its cast—including a young Helen Mirren—they hoped to reinvent theater by presenting their unfolding interpretation of the poem to audiences who had never seen theater and had no preconceptions of what it should be.
Here’s a link to The Folger Theatre study guide for the show. We’ll let our students tell you what it was all about, and how they both make sense of the poem turned performance play, and how it resonates with what we’ve been seeing on area stages already this fall.

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17 responses to “More Extraordinary Ensemble Work This Season

  1. Speechless. The only word I could find to describe “The Conference of the Birds” last Thursday night. Sitting in the Shakespeare Theater was an event of its own. The old chairs covered in red velvet, antique wood pillars, and the murals were absolutely incredible. I don’t think there would have been a better venue to showcase “The Conference of the Birds.”

    Prior to this play, I was not familiar of the Farid Uddi Attar poem that the play was based on. Despite this, I was completely awestruck by the performance and the many life lessons that were found in the play. I found it so incredible that the play was able to captivate the words of poetry and enlighten the audience with the actual movement and story of the script.

    One part of the play that I found absolutely fascinating was how captivated I was by the acting of the birds. During the post discussion the actors mentioned how they wanted to resemble the behavior of the birds in the jittery and alert sense. Even though it is probably a very overlooked aspect of the play, I think that it is a very important. It allowed me, as an audience member, to really connect with the story of the birds and the “bird character” that they were trying to resemble.

    Another aspect of the play that I really enjoyed was the venture the audience was taken on during the entire production. While sitting in the audience I thought it was a little overwhelming to take in the entire message of play. Now as I sit back and think about the message it is an absolutely fascinating lesson. It as though we search all of our lives to find someone or something that will give us all the answers—and in the end, we have all of the answers ourselves.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the entire production, cast, and theater, and I would love to see it again.

  2. “The Conference of the Birds” was an intriguing play based on a poem and spirituality of the Sufi faith. I was instantly captivated by the ensemble performance full of music, movement and beautifully spoken text. The fact that the birds did not wear elaborate costumes but dressed humanly, mainly identified as birds by their motions, added to the mystical part of the play that had roots in Islam.

    It was clear from the start that there were messages imbedded in the performance, deeper meanings to the different scenes. In the beginning, although it seemed to be simply a tale of these birds trying to find the King they had always longed for, the story was really about the birds being challenged, needing to overcome themselves to reach the Simorgh. The best part of the play, in my opinion, was the end, when it was revealed that the birds were the Simorgh and the Simorgh was the birds. This tied everything together, showing that the birds’ journey through the valleys was really a metaphor for the birds overcoming their own egos, attempting to find their closeness to God that always existed, as Sufi faith teaches.

    This play seemed to be a departure from much of what we have seen in the past. Although it relied on music and was propelled by song, it was not a story about the artist. Also, it was not connected to war or tragedy but still had themes of overcoming something and striving for something more. I enjoyed the depth of this play; for me, “The Conference of the Birds” conveyed a message about faith, specifically Sufi spirituality, which could be applied to anyone, regardless of one’s religious beliefs.

    To end, I have to mention one of my favorite artistic elements of the play: the flying. I loved the scene in which the birds got in formation and flew through the desert and numerous valleys, motioning with their hands and swaying in a specific rhythm. This was a wonderful way to keep the mystical spirituality alive while maintaining the essence of the birds.

  3. Overall, The Conference of the Birds was a very interesting and moving production. It posed a lot of questions that the audience inadvertently began to question themselves. Questions like: Who is my leader or guide in life? What are my weaknesses and what is holding me back in life? It was a very philosophical piece that was very well acted and directed.

    For me, The Conference of the Birds was easily relatable to The Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo in very interesting ways. First, the main characters for The Conference of the Birds were all portraying animals, as was the main character of the tiger in The Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Second, the animals in both productions seemed to ask themselves profound questions about their being and attempting to find themselves through a journey. Third, the animals were all seeking a higher power to guide them. The bengal tiger was seeking a god to help him passover into the afterlife and along the way made some stark realizations about himself. Similarly, the birds were all seeking a leader to guide them away from their faults and self- challenges. It was very interesting to see these roles that are very humanlike thought processes, played by animals.

    On a somewhat unrelated note, I really enjoyed all of the lighting hanging from the ceiling of the theater. Kayla and I discussed how it reminded us of the use of lighting at The Invisible Man and One Night with Janis Joplin. I really enjoyed how at one point in the production they physically interacted with the lighting during the scene about the moths.

  4. I personally enjoyed “The Conference of the Birds” for several reasons. I loved the adventurous story plot, various characteristics of birds, Anecdotes, music settings, and the ending. The group of birds decides to go on the journey to seek for their king, Simorgh. However, some birds hesitate to join the journey or leave the group on the way. The most memorable scene was when parrot did not want to leave his cage because he didn’t want to leave his comfort zone and give up his “sugar”. I thought the actor, Robert Fleming, was remarkable acting as a parrot not able to step off from his box. The tension was intense and as an audience, I wanted to go on stage and push him off. This parrot represented human nature to long for comfort, security, and protection. The scene touched on the most because I know I have “parrot” quality in me and I may love my sugar too much.
    I thought the ending was too powerful and shocking to take in at the same time. The birds finally got the chance to meet the Simorgh after passing the seven valleys, but Simorgh was their own reflection. I was really confused, “Is the play is telling us we are our own king and god?” and “Is it because the birds endured throughout the seven valleys that certified them as gods?” were thoughts going through my head. I was expecting a big, golden, shiny, saint-like bird with godly music background to come out from the curtains.
    Overall, the play was clever and entertaining experience that made me leave the theater with excessive information and questions. But those thoughts will make this play, The Conference of the Birds, more memorable and made me want to watch it again to it understand better.

  5. In watching Folger Theater’s “The Conference of the Birds” I found it easy to pick up on all of the literary elements present in the production, especially knowing that it was adapted from a Sufi poem. It definitely brought me back to the days of high school literature and made me think about all of the different aspects derived from literature. The most prominent literary element was about the “journey”; when a character goes on a passage, it is not about the end itself, but what happens on the way. This play also made me think about other aspects, such as religious references and the symbolism of birds. It intrigued me in many different ways, and in researching it more after the play, it made me consider different features of the production in different ways after learning about the Sufi history and poetry.
    I really enjoyed all of the production elements involved in this play. The intricate choreography was beautiful, and even more so knowing that it was not just instructed to the actors, but it was done with their own input after exploring their roles. My favorite part, however, was the music. Tom Teasley’s original music captured all of the emotions and plot points of the play. I have never seen a play were the music was as showcased as it was with “The Conference of the Birds”. Seeing Teasley on all the various instruments added a feeling of authenticity. I thought that having this aspect part of the play made it even better.

    • I agree completely that the musician stole the show. I would have still enjoyed the play, regardless of the actors simply because I enjoyed the music. I couldn’t believe how many instruments he played, and at once too. I was happy to see that the set featured him quite prominently (at least from our seats up top). I wonder if the play would have been the same if the music hadn’t been live. I think it really did something for the energy of the play, and I particularly liked when the actors on stage played with him during certain scenes.

      • That is a really interesting idea; in all honesty I don’t think the play would be the same without Tom Teasley. I completely agree that he brought a unique energy and feeling to the production as a whole. I would definitely love to see some more plays with this type of musical atmosphere.

    • Jessica Fuentes

      Couldn’t agree more, the music was amazing. From the rain drops to the birds soaring in the sky. Simply amazing!

    • I also thought that the musician played a HUGE role in the show. From our seats in the second level, he was a visible, key actor throughout the show, but how did influence those on the ground floor. In my opinion, his incredible talent and vast selection of musical instruments could have been overlooked by the majority of the audience. If that is the case, it would be quite a shame because Mr. Teasley did not only conduct the entire production, he acted with every line and scene. He had a object for every emotion and he moved with that selected instrument to produce a character for himself. I remember at one point in the production I sat and watched Mr. Teasley play a rubber-band as if it was a five-string guitar. Finding the right instrument for every emotion of the song is not an easy thing and Mr. Teasley took it to a whole new level by creating his own instruments and playing them with so much profound affection and enthusiasm.

  6. When I heard we were seeing a play called “The Conference of the Birds,” I was surprised to see that it in fact was a play on birds attending a conference. My initial shock turned into intrigue as the play progressed. Based on Sufi poetry, the play artfully combined parable with dialogue to create a moving experience for everyone in attendance. Honestly though, I was sold before the play even started with the fantastic and stunning display of musical expertise by the live drummer. I would have been happy listening to him play for an hour and a half, but when the actors and actresses took the stage I was intrigued by the rhythmic combination of dialogue and drums. I was surprised to see that the costumes were dull colored, but it worked well with the mood of the play. The costumes themselves were functional, and helped the actors to transition from character to character with very little costume change, even at times changing from bird to man and back again without leaving the stage. The hair and makeup complemented the bird look without being overdone.
    The play itself was, although at times confusing, a deep play about doing something larger than you ever thought possible, to find something larger than yourself. The lead bird convinces all the other birds, seeming somewhat malicious, at the conference that they cannot live without finding the great bird king and then encourages them to travel far away. The lead bird is disconcerting at times, sometimes seeming like she is maliciously planning this travel. Her all-knowing nature and proselytizing speeches made me uncomfortable at times, and at others I was happy to see her encourage the other birds. I wish I knew more about Sufism, because I feel like that would have better allowed me to understand the ending of the play. The overriding theme that I saw in the ending, that we are the masters of our own fate, seemed to contradict the actions of the lead bird throughout the rest of the play.

    • Jessica Fuentes

      That is so interesting that you found the Hoopoe (the lead bird) uncomfortable at times. I’m not sure if I felt “uncomfortable” by it, but I too found myself having mixed feeling about this particular bird. I did a bit of research after the play and it turns out that the Hoopoe is seen as a symbol of virtue in Persia. Since the poem was written by a Persian author, it would make sense that the Hoopoe was not only the leader of the birds, but the wise and all-knowing one too.

  7. Jessica Fuentes

    Fascinating story, extraordinary performance, and thrilling life lessons.

    “The Conference of the Birds”—based on a 12th century Persian poem by Farid ud-Din Attar—is an exquisite play that invites the audience to join all the birds of the world in the search for their king. The birds have all come together to find a king that will bring peace and order back into the world. But just as soon as they agree to go in search of him, they realize the many challenges they must face both internally and physically as they cross the seven valleys that will eventually take them to their king, Simorgh.

    The journey of the birds was probably the most fascinating part of the play for me. As wimpy and selfish as some of the birds seem at the beginning of the play, each one of them finally realized that they were prisoners of an invisible cage, and that as safe and comfortable as this cage seemed, it was simply not enough. They, then, courageously left their home and continued onto a dangerous quest for an unknown king with only faith as their guide. Even during their most difficult challenges, among the valleys, their faith in finding their king was what kept them going.

    I think the reason why I find their journey even more fascinating than their discovery at the end has to due with the journeys we all, as humans, experience in searching for our own ultimate goal. As busy humans living in a busy and demanding life, we often get trap in our own invisible cages and because we feel safe and somewhat comfortable with what we have, we forget that we once had an ultimate goal. Only those who remember it, who see their cage, and who have the courage to step out of it are the ones that embark on this journey—everyone else just lives and dies in the security of their invisible cage. It takes lots of courage to follow a path without knowing whether you’ll find what you’ve been searching for or die trying.

    I think the cast did an amazing job at portraying the internal struggles each one of the birds had to overcome before being able to join the group and endure all the other physical struggles along the way. It is also important to note the unity between the birds and how this union is what ultimately leads them to finding their king. The wise Hoopoe say to them “Put your best foot forward, beat your wings, if everyone burns we will all burn too…”. It is this unity that gives them the strength and power to overcome all the seven valleys and eventually reach their discovery.

    It’s a beautiful play, definitely worth seeing more than once.

  8. Weird, yet intriguing— The Conference of the Birds was a play unlike anything I have seen in my DC Theater going experience. The play essentially took the audience on a philosophical journey in search of meaning and truth. It was amazing to see how the actors embodied their bird-like characters, as well as the intricate choreography that was present in various scenes. Additionally, the extremely talented musician, Tom Teasley, truly made the play come alive! His eclectic sound and use of various instruments gave the play a necessary touch!

    The Conference of the Birds was a complex play filled with various symbolic messages. It was not until we sat down for a post discussion with the cast that I personally grasped the true meaning of particular scenes.

    There were so many powerful scenes throughout The Conference of the Birds. One of the more powerful scenes in the play that genuinely resonated with me was the scene in which one of the birds was in a cage. The other birds asked it to step out of the cage and join the journey but the Parrot initially said, “I’ve a gold collar. My cage is all I need. I like my cage.” To me, this scene reflected a fear of the unknown that we face as humans. How many times do we opt-out of something, be it a different class, job, or any new experience simply because of fear of what it would bring? Why do we decide to stay in our comfortable cage? What’s really keeping us in that cage?

    Overall, The Conference of the Birds was an intriguing and thought provoking play, though it had some strange moments that needed deeper explanation. Certainly unforgettable lessons worth thinking about throughout life’s journey!

  9. Conference of the Birds was a production that seamlessly meshed beautiful music, clever costumes, brilliantly choreographed stage movement, lighthearted wit, and philosophical, thought-provoking  questions. The Folger theater is worthy of an entire blog post but  the direct contrast between the simplicity of the costumes and set and the ornately-carved wood and velvet chairs and gargoyle columns in the tiered theater served as  really interesting juxtaposition. 

    I appreciated the simplicity of the costumes very much. With certain characters, such as the duck and peacock, the costumes reinforced the movements and characterization of each to make their identities and species obvious. With others, like the sparrow, falcon, and dove, little mannerisms made the type f bird each actor was portraying more apparent. Often I had confusion  about this with a couple of the less apparent characters. 

    The interplay between lighthearted parables and deeper principles was a very interesting one. Although I experienced the play with no prior knowledge of the deep philosophical theories upon which the play was based, I was able to understand how the smaller parables related to the overarching plot. I do wish I had done more preparation to understand more of the post-show discussion. 

    Finally, the music was tremendous. Tom Teasley wowed the crowd with his musical genius, involving many unusual instruments. The music really was an integral part of the whole production. From the beginning Mr. Teasley’s placement above the stage and control over the auditory portion of the show reminded me of a puppetmaster. With the style of narration of the story and focus on meeting the Simorgh, the idea of a controlling body who watched over the birds didn’t seem so unusual. 

  10. The Conference of the Birds is definitely one of my favorite plays this fall. It used music, dance, poetry and an intriguing plot to tell a meaningful journey and an interesting philosophy. I absolutely adored the philosophy of this play, the costumes and movements.

    On this journey, a group of birds took off to search for “Simorgh”, who is the spiritual king of birds. Some of birds chose not to go on the journey and stay in their own cages: cages of pride, love, fear, ease and comfort. The rest of the birds who were determined to search for Simorgh set off for the challenging journey, which had seven valleys on the way. Only thirty birds remained after they passed through the final valley and found Simorgh, which was a mirror, and the birds themselves is the Simorgh.

    I loved the philosophy behind this journey. Birds’ journey to search for Simorgh can be compared with human beings’ journey to search for the meaning of life and to realize themselves. Some people choose not to think about these questions. They don’t want to go out of their comfort zones, and are afraid of potential unhappy consequences. People who are brave enough to question themselves and break their cages go on the journey, and encounter the seven challenges: quest, love, understanding, independence, annihilation, unity, and amazingness. In the end, people will become more mature as they pass these challenges. They will realize themselves and see themselves as who they are. This reminds me of a quote by Pearl Bailey, “you never find yourself until you face the truth.”

    I also loved that the play used short interesting stories to illustrate all the wisdom of life mentioned in the show, like “a tyrant is not a king”, “choose a love that never dies”, “fear makes one miserable”. These short stories made these concepts very easy and fun to understand. Overall, The Conference of the Birds is a charming and enjoyable show that is smart and though provoking.

  11. John McKissick

    It goes without saying that ‘The Conference of the Birds’ was a real treat to attend. Stylistically, the play clearly excelled; there was amazing choreography, lighting, and transitions. The play also met the challenge of adapting a collection of Sufi poems to stage, weaving together a variety of fables and sayings into one continuous cloth.

    When watching, I felt conflicted over the message of the play. At the end, it’s revealed that the Simorgh, the mystical king for whom the birds underwent a laborious quest to find, is the birds themselves. That’s a very spiritual statement and one I admire. It reminds me of all those Ralph Waldo Emerson readings I leafed through in high school, where the 19th century philosopher said, “Divinity lies within.” But if you look at the character dynamics of the rest of the play, you might have come to a very different conclusion.

    The play says there is no traveler or guide on the journey. Yet throughout almost the entirety of the play, the foolish birds all defer to the wise Hoopoe. From beginning to end, Hoopoe tells the birds what to do, what to think, and where to go. Like a wise mother hen or nanny, she urges her birds to follow her lead, smiling knowingly and simply saying, “Forward!” in one scene. Major development from the birds would have been interesting- a change in their character or views could signal that their obstacles faced in the valley affect them spiritually as well as physically. The entire story really is framed around Hoopoe and narrated by her. Her observations and wisdom certainly takes an authoritative tone throughout the play. But I suppose that since this is a fable and since so much of the play is told not so much in words but in movement and music, keeping things relatively simple would be keeping more in line with the genre.

    In the talkback, I learned some facts about Sufism that helped reconcile the two conflicting messages of individual enlightenment and taking authoritative teachings. Hoopoe is supposed to be a stand-in for the Sufi master, who must guide disciples to get to a certain point. Under this philosophy, people don’t start off being able to find the truth all on their own and must undergo certain experiences before they ascend to ‘a new level’. So when the Simorgh is revealed, the birds are ready for to accept that the guide was an illusion. Their journey of dependency and attachment has ended and their selves and experiences are enough to carry them into the future.

  12. To take on an ancient and esoteric Sufi epic and attempt to make it accessible to a contemporary American audience is truly a quest for the courageous.
    From the set to the players—all components of the show exhibited a skillful flexibility that felt like an appropriate tribute to the imaginings of someone reading or hearing a tale.
    The set was simple and lovely; it lacked enough detail to become any scene that the tale of the birds called for, as the mind can form any image within the imagination that is described to it during a story. This visual neutrality did not equate to visual boredom however, there was still enough texture for it to be visually interesting and functional for the story telling.
    The single musician and sound effect man floated in his sky-nest above the stage and spun the sounds that brought many elements of the story to life—playing an impressive array of instruments and noise machines.
    The actors were equally as flexible, taking on and transforming with minimal accouterments any role necessary to bring the play to life. The choreography was often exquisite. Much of the play was surprisingly effective, given the challenge of representing such a densely meaningful and esoteric allegory—one that escapes complete understanding even by the director. As noted by the director, this play was deeply responsive to what the viewer brings to it—the meanings and understanding taken away are in part shaped by the ensemble, but mostly by the mental faculties, assumptions and beliefs through which it is viewed.
    That being said I think there were moments accessible and meaningful for a wide range of viewers and those that were difficult to translate from poem to stage and less natural to take in.
    One particular scene that I found particularly moving, was the story of the moths and the flame. The story had meaning for me, and the simple yet elegant visual portrayal using the light sources and choreography gave me goose bumps.
    The one (personal) issue I must note with this performance is the seeming disconnect that I felt between the deeply spiritual content, and the extreme dedication of the Birds, and the superficiality of the connection between these things and the actors portraying them. It is perhaps not fair to make the judgment that the actors cannot be expected to take up a rigorous spiritual journey and dedication to the original intent of the poem and poet in order for the play to feel genuine, and yet I felt a deep dissonance particularly and perhaps encapsulated in the final moments of the performance. I am thinking of the end of the play in which the birds realize their oneness with god, and forever become lost in the ecstasy of full spiritual realization—and then within thirty seconds were transformed back into a line of actors, entirely out of character, and seemingly unaffected, smiling and receiving two rounds of applause. I believe this poem is supposed to have an impact upon the listener/reader, and to engage with it so intimately-as the actors did, it just felt wrong to me personally that they seemed so able, and so quickly, to disconnect from it. Of course without speaking with the players, and either way, this may mot be a fair judgment of an otherwise interesting and unique theater experience.