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Arts & Culture

A play for the birds

Jennifer Eve Thorn
Moxie Theatre
An undated scene from play "Birds of North America." Moxie Theatre has partnered with the San Diego Audubon Society to bring Anna Ouyang Moench's play to local stages. The play explores the impacts of climate change on birds — and a father (Mike Sears, at left) and daughter (Farah Dinga, at right) who struggle to understand each other.

After watching "Severance" on Apple TV+, Moxie Theatre's founding director Jennifer Eve Thorn voraciously read everything she could find by one of the show's writers, Anna Ouyang Moench.

Moench is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter and producer, and a UC San Diego MFA alum. Thorn had read and loved other plays by Moench before "Severance," but hadn't yet read her 2017 work, "Birds of North America."


Thorn quickly fell in love… with a play about birders.

"Anna (Ouyang Moench) would describe it as a play about climate change," Thorn said. "But it's also a father-daughter story."

As years pass by, Caitlyn (played by Farah Dinga) returns to visit her environmentalist father, John (Mike Sears) in Maryland. Sometimes she even returns to live there when she's between jobs. Despite their differences, the two have a shared interest in birding.

While the play spans decades of time, it takes place in a single suburban backyard, with two characters, a father and a daughter, and of course, the birds. While the audience never sees any birds, they hear them. And most importantly, they watch John and Caitlyn as they see the birds, witnessing both subtle and startling changes in bird populations and migrations as the effects of climate change touch the skies.

Thorn said that she and director Lisa Berger understood how much the characters' observations of the birds mattered to the play.


"There's this moment in the play where John says he's worried that the birds are going to miss the signals and that they're going to potentially not know it's time to migrate," Thorn said. "And that idea of missing signals comes in and out of the play both through how John and Caitlyn miss each other's signals in their attempts to reach out to each other, but also in this environmental way."

Jennifer Eve Thorn
Moxie Theatre
The cast of "Birds of North America" is shown in an undated photo.

Thorn said that the passage of time is part of the play's magic — decades are achieved with just one actor per role, and a set with virtually no exits.

"It's fascinating to watch because there are no exits on the stage. The sky wraps the full stage and covers all of Moxie's exits on our stage. So with one or two exceptions, the actors never leave, so those transformations happen in front of the audience," Thorn said.

Under Berger's direction, the production uses creative use of plants, trash cans, and other backyard objects to mark the time and scene changes while the actors remain on stage. "We watch that time unfold," Thorn said.

According to Thorn, the theater industry is gradually seeing more works that touch on environmental issues. It's a topic Thorn is drawn to as a producer: In November, the company also produced "The Children," by Lucy Kirkwood, with its strong themes of the environment and science.

"One of the challenges for theater in discussing climate change is that we are in such an unnatural feeling environment in the dark. So to explore the outdoors on stage is always a challenge," Thorn said. "I think sometimes playwrights shy away from that, or even producers out of the challenges of bringing the natural world or the natural-feeling world into that theater space. But I think it's the perfect art form for exploring that because we are in a shared space together."

By the end of this play, Thorn said, you've experienced the turmoil of John and Caitlyn's world — the birding world above them and their relationship between them — alongside the rest of the audience, so you've experienced a collective sort of empathy.

Moxie partnered with the San Diego Audubon Society to produce the play, and have also paired up with the San Diego Humane Society's Project Wildlife program, San Diego Canyonlands, Tree San Diego and Friends of Penasquitos Canyon. Each organization will participate in pre-show discussions about local conservation efforts and local wildlife.

The San Diego Audubon Society brought in experts to help the actors learn how to properly hold binoculars, as well as taught the production team about each bird mentioned in the script. The cast and crew also learned that the Audubon Society's long-running annual bird count is one of the biggest resources of volunteer-collected data worldwide. It provides measurable evidence of how human impacts like climate change or habitat loss have directly affected birds and their numbers.

"That is through the passion of bird lovers choosing to give their time and count birds and provide those numbers," Thorn said. "I also didn't know that San Diego has the highest number of bird species of any county in the U.S. It's an incredible birding place."

"Birds of North America" is currently in low-cost previews; it opens on Feb. 10 and runs through Mar. 5.