'Birds of North America' flocks into global warming, family heat

Birds of North America by Michael EnsmingerChris Kendall, left, and Lindsey Pierce are a strained father-daughter combo in Anna Moench’s ‘Birds of North America.’ Photo by Michael Ensminger.

Playwright explores feathers, family, flaws and feelings in Boulder — without a soap box in sight.

By Heather Beasley
Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company Dramaturg

Anna Moench is the author of Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s world-premiere play Birds of North America, now playing through Nov. 12 at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder.

Anna Moench Quote Moench, originally from Baltimore and now raising a family in San Diego, is an Asian-American whose play won BETC’s national 2016-17 Generations competition. As part of her prize, Moench visited Boulder last spring for a one-week residency to hone the script with the cast and crew.

Moench is a third-year MFA playwright at the University of California-San Diego and was recently named one of Hollywood’s top 100 new writers on the 2016 “Young and Hungry” list. She once rode a bicycle across the United States.

Here are seven questions with the rising playwright:

NUMBER 1What is your play about? While birding in their backyard over the course of a decade, a father and daughter struggle to understand the parts of one another that defy understanding. Their politics and personal views couldn’t be more different, but family bonds compel their annual migration.

NUMBER 2What drew you to writing about this family? I have long been interested in writing about the emotional experience of climate change. Throughout my lifetime, climate change has been visible all around me. It’s not unlike the experience of watching a loved one age and die. That was my way into the material, and why my “climate-change play” is a family drama. I am very interested in the question of how a child can never truly know his or her parent, and that’s something this play wrestles with. I look at my 1-year-old son and think about how he thinks my entire life begins and ends with him. And in one way, it does. When a person becomes a parent, they are themselves reborn the moment their child is born.

NUMBER 3What can you tell us about the development of this play? I wrote this play last year, during my pregnancy and in my early months as a mother, while I was in my first and second years as a graduate student. I workshopped the play with student actors, and then had a production of the play in the Wagner New Play Festival at UC-SD. Then, I was fortunate to go back to the table and work on the play in Boulder, fine-tuning and adjusting things. There really isn’t a better development process leading up to a world premiere than that. I wish that for every playwright on the planet.

NUMBER 4Birds of North America by Michael EnsmingerWhat was your intention in weaving climate change as a key social issue throughout the play? I have strong views about climate change, but I don’t have much interest in using my writing as a soap box. If I wanted to do that, I’d write op-eds. My work as a playwright is much more focused on how to complicate things, rather than explain them. So I wanted to look at how a person who thinks all the noble things can actually fail the people he loves the most by being a slave to those ideals, by not bending a little bit to accommodate others. We all know we’re living in politically charged times, if we aren’t living in a bubble under a rock. As I was writing Birds of North America, I was thinking less about the right and the left, and more about the pragmatists and the idealists, and the human flaws that people in both camps exhibit. But even though I have very strong opinions and feelings (how can I not, as a woman and a person of color?) I think our underlying humanity is the most important thing.

NUMBER 5What are you working on right now? The older I get, the angrier I get about the injustices people of color and women experience. I’m working on a play that explores victim-blaming for sexual assault, and the wide gulf that exists between the revenge fantasies of girls at the idea of sexual assault, and the grim acceptance of women after the experience of sexual assault. Every woman knows the moment I’m talking about: The moment you go from thinking you’re a person to knowing you’re a woman.

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NUMBER 6What did you learn from writing Birds of North America that you’re taking into your current work? Not to be afraid of engaging with “Issues” in my work. I really hate “Issue” plays. Birds of North America has helped me realize there’s a way to write about this stuff that feels true to me, and that doesn’t sacrifice the elements of craft and storytelling in service of a political point.

NUMBER 7What do you hope audiences leave this production thinking about? I hope people call their parents or their kids, if they can. (Not to talk about my play, just, you know, to chat.) And I hope people call their senators and representatives – because all of us can do that.

Birds of North America: Ticket information
• Through Nov. 12
• Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder
• 303-440-7826 or go to BETC.org

Cast and crew:
• John: Chris Kendall
• Caitlyn: Lindsey Pierce
• Director: Stephen Weitz
• Stage Manager: Jordon Brockman
• Set Designer: Tina Anderson
• Costume Designer: Katie Horney

Lighting Designer: Katie Gruenhagen
• Sound Designer: Jason Ducat
• Dramaturg: Heather Beasley

Related events:

Friday, Oct. 27
, after the 7:30 p.m. performance:  A conversation with Susan Bonfield, executive director of Environment for the Americas, and David Schimel, senior climate researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report. They will talk about conservation efforts, climate change, and how the themes of Birds of North America relate to important efforts beyond the stage.

Saturday, Oct. 28, 9 a.m.: A free birding nature walk led by Boulder Audubon teen naturalist Luke Pheneger at Sawhill and Walden Ponds. No reservations needed. Meet at the parking lot at Walden Ponds, on 75th Street just north of Valmont Road. Wear good walking shoes; if you need binoculars, Boulder Audubon will have pairs on hand to lend.

Sunday, Oct. 29, after the 2 p.m. performance: A conversation with Karl Brummert and Kate Hogan from the Audubon Society of Greater Denver, on local citizen science opportunities and conservation efforts throughout the region.

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