NIU School of Theatre and Dance captivates audience with “The Conference of the Birds”

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Zohair Khan

The larger group is near the end of the show, where they’re traveling to the Simorgh. (from left to right) Emma Vaughn, Jack Gordon, Kristen Serbia, Jacob Ihm, Cristian Oñate, Lulu Grey, Jonathan Perkins (on floor) and Abigail Lamoreaux (Zohair Khan | Northern Star)

By Madelaine Vikse, Editor-in-Chief

The NIU School of Theatre and Dance’s opening weekend of performances of “The Conference of the Birds” was this past weekend, with the last three performances taking place this coming Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

“The Conference of the Birds” is a play by Sholeh Wolpé adapted from a poem written by Farid ud-Din Attar. 

“It’s a beautiful piece… It’s based on a very very very old (poem) and much used in a lot of ways, like Shakespeare borrowed from it and different people borrowed from it throughout the centuries,” said Cecilie Keenan, the director for “The Conference of the Birds.”

The play follows a group of birds on their journey to find their “God,” Simorgh, and enlightenment. To get there, they must be able to pass through the seven valleys: quest, love, knowledge, detachment, unity, wonderment and poverty and annihilation, as one.

“There’s a lot of hate going around and this show is really showing we all have faults, but we’re all people, we’re all one in this world together… It’s telling a story and it’s showing a lesson to people,” said Matthew Judd, a junior BFA acting major, who plays Osprey.

Throughout the play, the audience follows the birds as they travel through the seven different valleys.

Luke Harmon, stage manager for “The Conference of the Birds,” has also been the stage manager for other NIU productions such as “Twelfth Night” and “Bike America” among others.

“We haven’t had something really like this in a long time due to the pandemic so being able to come back in and seeing a bunch of our actors turn (into) birds, it’ll be a nice wonderful enjoyment of an evening,” Harmon said.

 

Actor highlights

There are extremely funny moments throughout the play, even though the ending leaves viewers with much to think about regarding their own lives.

“The students have done just a beautiful job, it’s the kind of play that, you know, it really depends upon who is in it… they really have a lot of agency in the creation of the piece,” Keenan said.

Jonathan Perkins, a sophomore BFA acting major, plays the character Eagle in “The Conference of the Birds.” Perkins originally planned on studying computer science at NIU, but changed his mind and auditioned for NIU about a month before the first semester began.

“Theater has always been really a part of my life, it’s just that I didn’t really realize it until I decided to come here,” Perkins said.

Wesley Hutchinson, a junior BFA acting major, plays the character Attar. Attar is the narrator but also is part of the stories told by the birds to each other in the seven valleys. Hutchinson moved between these different roles flawlessly and it was never difficult to hear or understand the narrations.

Kristen Serbia, a sophomore BFA acting major, plays Hoopoe, the bird that leads and encourages the rest of the birds to continue on with the journey throughout each valley. Serbia was captivating in her role and, especially at the end, captured the audience with her emotional acting.

“(Being a part of this production) means a lot because as my first production at NIU and as only a second-year, to be playing this leading role as like the ‘queen bird’ leading these birds through their journey means a lot to me,” Serbia said.

All of the actors portrayed their characters perfectly. There were no moments where actors could not be heard or that any of the acting didn’t fit the role. Each member put their own twist onto their roles, making it that much more entertaining. 

“Because we’ve been online for so long I think just getting back to live theater is incredibly important and really exciting for a lot of us that have had to start our college careers online,” said Emma Vaughn, a sophomore BFA acting major who plays the character Mockingbird.

Audience reactions

“My older sister’s in (the play) and she’s been really excited because this is her first performance at the school and she’s also spoiled a couple moments in the show that I think would be fun to see,” said Miriam Lamoreaux, resident of Kenosha, Wisconsin, and older sister to Abigail Lamoreaux.

Abigail Lamoreaux is a sophomore BFA acting major and copy editor at the Northern Star. Lamoreaux plays Goldfinch and she had the audience laughing throughout the production.

“It’s definitely a fun show to watch… my best friend (Emma Vaughn) is also in it so I came to see her,” said Emma Mansfield, a sophomore BFA acting major. 

Ann Warren and Barry Grey traveled from Los Angeles, California, to see their daughter, Lulu Grey, perform in her last production at NIU. Lulu Grey is a senior BFA theatre studies major and plays the character Parrot. 

“I thought it was by far the most unusual play we’ve seen… but also really intriguing,” Warren said. “I loved all the colors, all the movement; it was cool.”

Grey said although he might be biased since his daughter is in the show, that it was very enjoyable and unique.

“I loved a lot of things about it, one of course is the physicality of the cast and how they used movement and sound to recreate, you know, the bird-like experience,” Grey said.

What to know before attending

Tickets can be purchased online on the NIU website. Tickets are $17 for the general public, $9 for non-NIU students, $15 for seniors 65 and older and free for NIU students; just make sure to reserve your ticket ahead of time and bring your OneCard. The play is held in the Black Box Theatre in the Stevens Building, according to the NIU events calendar

“It’s very reflective of a lot of stuff that’s happening in the world today as far as always wanting to look for somebody else to sort of solve our problems and what we really need is to look and see how we each can be sort of the change that can be in the world,” Keenan said.