The most important CRT show in years: An interview with Eddie Vitcavage on ‘If We Were Birds’

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When discussing the CRT’s latest production, “If We Were Birds,” dramaturg Eddie Vitcavage stated, “I think that this is the most important show that CRT has done in years. It starts a very radically important conversation on our own campus, especially regarding sexual assault. It also starts a conversation on love, innocence and revenge.”

If you haven’t yet seen the play, “If We Were Birds” is a retelling of a story from the 8 AD work “The Metamorphoses” by the poet Ovid. The narrative centers around a young Athenian princess, Philomela, who is raped, mutilated and imprisoned by her sister’s husband, the Thracian king Tereus. This is not an easy show to watch by any means, presenting brutally graphic depictions of rape and violence, yet its message is something to which all students should attend.

Along with Lizz Mangan, Vitcavage worked as the play’s “dramaturg.” As this term is most likely unfamiliar to a majority of readers, Vitcavage described what the position entails:

“A dramaturg essentially gets a lot of historical background and thematic research on the play itself, so we spend a lot of time really analyzing the play and understanding what’s happening at what moment and why. Then we choose what information is most important from the play to give to actors so they fully understand their characters and the world they are in.”

In his research, Vitcavage placed a great deal of emphasis on the evolution of women’s rights from the original myth’s ancient setting to the modern day. Specifically, he mentioned, “We looked at the Me Too movement [and] the Time’s Up movement. We also looked at the role of women in ancient Greece; how they were treated; what jobs they typically did.”

The reason for this focus on the similarities between antiquity and modernity came from the playwright herself, Erin Shields. According to Vitcavage, “The play begins in what Shields describes as the timeless purgatory. We really capitalized on that timeless nature of the play, not really setting it in any time because this play is as relevant today as it was when Ovid wrote it.”

One particular example of the use of modern elements in the play is in the characters of the Chorus of Birds. “The five birds are all based of off testimonial that the playwright read during her research. Those women are based on events from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nanjing, Rwanda and Berlin,” Vitcavage said.

Using these examples from modern conflicts shows the propensity of sexual violence accompanying large scale violent conflicts. The idea that “rape is warfare” holds a central point in this story, showing not only the largely forgotten side of women during wartime and how they are affected by its cruelty and devastation, but also the psychological trauma inflicted by sexual assault and its comparison to the trauma suffered by military combatants.

Vitcavage mentioned a fascinating new method in theatre which was employed on this production. In discussing the behind the scenes aspects of the cast and crew’s work, he said, “One of our professors, Marie Percy, has been training with IDI (Intimacy Directors International) which is basically a movement in theatre in which sex scenes are not just sex anymore. She basically comes in and choreographs these scenes that could be upsetting. Every time you saw a rape on stage or any physical contact, it was worked out with her to make sure the actors were comfortable.”

Such an approach appears to be a welcome step forward in sensitively portraying delicate topics through performance. This reflects an overall sense of progress that the play seems to strive toward. Not that great progress against sexual violence has yet been achieved, but that more open, serious discussions about it are gaining traction.

As Vitcavage put it, “This play gives a voice to the voiceless. In the beginning of the play, Philomela explains that she has her tongue sewn back in by the gods. Terreus, who is her rapist, ultimately cuts out her tongue, so we spent this entire process exploring whose stories are we telling. […] We are in a time where we cannot silence women anymore. It’s reclaiming what it means to have a voice in a patriarchal society.”

If you have not seen “If We Were Birds,” it will be running in the Studio Theatre in the Art Building until Sunday. Even with its frightening elements and uncomfortable themes, it is deeply relevant and provides an artful presentation of a topic that our generation must face and attempt to overcome to the best of our ability.


Evan Burns is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at evan.burns@uconn.edu.

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