by Elana Luo
Anna Ouyang Moench’s Birds of North America is a widely-produced two-hander that checks in with a father and daughter pair named John and Caitlyn through the years when they go birding together. Centered around an activity that rewards patience, this play is quietly insightful and mirrorlike. I spoke with the playwright about it a couple days after a recent production opened at The Odyssey Theatre in West LA. Some snippets of our conversation follow.
Elana Luo: I wanted to start by asking you what inspired this play. Why did you decide to write it?
Anna Ouyang Moench: For a long time, I had been interested in writing about climate change. And I wasn’t quite sure how to do that in a way that felt right for the theater, or at least the kind of theater that I make. I think that I did not want it to feel like an issue play or an educational play. I wanted it to be rooted in emotional honesty and about human experience. There is such an emotional component to the experience of climate change on a human level, and I wanted to write a play that spoke to that.
Elana: What made you write about the relationship between a father and daughter in particular?
Anna: I think the way that the father-daughter relationship unfurls in the play is a parallel to the experience of climate change, because ultimately, the emotional experience of climate change is rather cerebral. There are emotions in it that can translate to human relationships like grief or anger or nostalgia or love. There are so many things that we feel about the world that we inhabit. At least on stage, I don’t really know how to write those feelings in terms of a scene between an environment and a person, but I do know how to write those emotions into a scene between two people.
Elana: Sometimes it feels like climate change is a generational issue, with the younger generation being more concerned than the older. So that was something really interesting to me—was it always John, the father, who was the character concerned with climate change?
Anna: Yes. There are certainly aspects of John’s character that are inspired by my own father, or both my parents. There was a time when my parents were—and honestly still are—like, ‘Hey, you really need to get an electric car,’ and I’m in an expensive city, I’m trying to just save enough money for my kids to go to college and have the chance at retirement someday. I would love it if I could get solar panels and an electric car, but I just can’t do that right now. I still have to contend with the reality here.
So I think that’s sort of where the generational divide in the play emerged from, when you’re just starting out and trying to figure out a way to support yourself and have a life you enjoy. You don’t get to make those choices from an idealistic place all the time. And John is somebody who was always motivated by those ideals. But not everyone is that, and I have a great deal of empathy for both of the characters in the play. I think that a big part of playwriting is being able to kind of have that multifaceted view of an issue and see where different people are coming from.
Elana: What were you trying to show through the longitudinal way the play is structured? We see these two characters through a lot of time, with each scene being a different year. Was that related to the theme of climate change?
Anna: I was trying to show the specific moments that these two people are alone together; I feel like, in families, there are actually very few of those moments, especially once you have moved out of your parents’ house. And so we are getting to see those times where, once every season, John and Caitlyn go out and do some birding. Then the goal is that you’re seeing their relationship evolving over the course of ten years. And birding is an activity where you spend quite a lot of time waiting. So you get to talking, you know, and I think that these are the times where they actually have the space and time to talk.
Elana: We really get to see their different perspectives.
Anna: Yeah, I mean, I see these characters as actually being very similar. And I’ve noticed this many times in the world. Often people have the most conflict with the parent that they’re more like, or a child that they’re more like. I think that you sometimes have higher standards for the child that reminds you of yourself or you’re less forgiving of them because you hold them to the same standard you hold yourself, which is often not very forgiving. I also think that’s true sometimes with people who are really opinionated or strong willed or kind of spiky, if their kid is also spiky like that. Or if they’re both really sensitive. Often those things go hand in hand.
Elana: As a director, I tend to look for action for the eye to be on when I direct. Was there a certain way you imagined John and Caitlyn’s conversations playing out, or was it just the two of them talking on the stage?
Anna: This is the type of play that is about the very small actions. I think that when there is a lot of in-and-out-of-doors or people running all over the place, that’s just a different type of play. I actually see this play as having a good deal of action. It’s just you have to zoom way in to see it. Small things become large when there’s not large things, right? And so I think this is a play that goes down to, when do they lift up the binoculars to shield themselves from the other person seeing what they’re feeling? When do they look out at the birds, but it’s really not about the birds? It’s about this relationship and its micro textures. The action is moments of looking for connection or disconnection, of hiding or attacking.
Elana: What made you write this story for live theater? I know you also write for other formats. Was there anything about this story that felt particularly theatrical?
Anna: At its core, the theater is about watching a conversation dialogue between characters and watching how these characters change and how these relationships change. So, to me, this always has felt like a play. Especially when there’s not, ‘and then this crazy thing happens to upset the whole world,’ you really have to root it in honesty. You have to know these characters, understand the relationship, and teach the audience who they are in an elegant way.
Plays are a place where we go to listen to the musicality of the dialogue, the rhythms, the ways that people use tactics in conversation. That’s something I go to theater for.
“Birds of North America “runs through November 19th at The Odyssey Theatre on Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, and select weekdays. For tickets and information, visit odysseytheatre.com