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The Folger Spotlight

Jay Dunn's Rehearsal Diary: Perceptual Vigilance and The Conference of the Birds

Outside the Folger Theatre

Hey Everyone!  Jay Dunn here, blogging from backstage for The Conference of the Birds.  This post includes my first Designer spotlight, my first ‘Bird Call’ section (where I write about a bird featured in the show), a great , bizarrely coincidental story relevant to the show, and a rehearsal update.  Here we go!

This story is true. An actor is shuttling past MacPherson Square on an afternoon bus when he notices a man sitting near him. The man sports a NBA tank top, shades, and is drinking a tall boy of malt liquor.  A woman boards the bus.  The man begins chatting her up and mutual flirtation ensues. The flirting ends as the woman gets off at her stop.  The man follows her with his eyes and, unprovoked, turns to the actor, shakes his head and says, conspiratorially, “Birds.”

“I’m sorry, what?” the actor asks.

“Birds, man. Ooh-wee!  Love ‘em.”

The actor, taken a bit off guard, regains his composure, manages a knowing chuckle and turn away, as if to say “I hear you.  But now I’m going to finish my book, OK?”  He hopes that this will bring the brief and slightly discomfiting exchange to a close.  He is wrong.

“Yah, I got…,” the man thinks, “five of ‘em.”

“Really?  Five?”

“Yep.  But MAN can they, you know…”  He drops his voice, “…lay eggs.  You know?  They just keep making eggs.  I got a bunch now.  And do they make NOISE.  Every morning they’re waking me up.  When the sun comes out, all chirpity chirp.”

OK, wait a second…

“What exactly do you mean by ‘birds’?”

“Birds, man!  Birds!  Finches!  I love animals.  Bought ‘em from a pet shop.”

Ever start thinking about an idea, become deeply immersed in a project, or just become so interested in something that all of a sudden you see it everywhere?  This is a psychological behavior called “perceptual vigilance” and it’s already happening to us a week into rehearsals for the show.  I’ll be highlighting more instances of them as they occur.  This is one of three already.

Set Design inspiration, with photo by Cristine Iglesias

Kicking off the idea of spotlighting each designer, let’s begin with our set designer Megan Raham.  Such a cool design, drawing from artists like Cristine Iglesias, Zhang Huan and, of course, elements of nesting birds to create a simple, elegant and earthly textured set that at once sets the scene but, more importantly, frames an “empty space” for the actors to fill.  This play is an adaptation by Peter Brook, so yes, that “Empty Space”).  Check out her website at

Kicking off the idea of spotlighting each bird within the play, let’s start with the bird I’ll be playing, the falcon. A falcon is any species of raptor in the genus Falco.  This basically means that they eat other actors, er, birds.  Falcons have exceptional powers of vision; the visual acuity of one species has been measured at 2.6 times that of a normal human.  Peregrine Falcons have been recorded diving at speeds of 242 miles per hour (387 km/h), making them the fastest-moving creatures on Earth.  In February 2005, the Canadian ornithologist Louis Lefebvre announced a method of measuring avian intelligence in terms of a bird’s innovation in feeding habits. The falcons were one of two species that scored highest on this scale.  So clearly I was typecast.

Director Aaron Posner speaks with his cast in rehearsal

Joy.  This is a process unlike any I’ve been a part of – creatively, physically, emotionally.  I’ll break it down.  We have a director – Aaron Posner.  We have a choreographer, Erika Chong Shuch.  And we have 11 actors (check out who’s who here), many of whom are also directors, choreographers, movement, dance, voice and acrobatics teachers.  Sometimes the director directs.  Sometimes the choreographer choreographs.  Sometimes the actors offer their own ideas.  Sometimes the director says to the actors, “You’ve got 10 minutes.  Create a piece that evokes The Valley of Annihilation.” Sometimes the choreographer says to the actors, “Groups of 4, create a 7 part movement sequence that lines up with Tom Teasely’s 7/4 African/Indian percussion time signature.  You have 5 minutes.” I’m not kidding.  And we do it.  You’ll never hear “I can’t do that” in our rehearsal room.

The Conference of the Birds is not an easy story to tell and many, if not all of us, including (dare I say) our director and choreographer, regardless of our deep and diverse experience in theater, are operating (joyfully) somewhere outside of our comfort zone.  But that’s where the best theater is made.  And fittingly, living in that realm outside of one’s comfort zone, is exactly the premise of the story The Conference of the Birds is trying to tell.  You’ll see.