For three hundred dollars, you can purchase 142 cups of Starbucks coffee, a whole quarter’s worth of new textbooks or 42 percent of a Canada Goose jacket. Or you could do what Elise Ammandson did and put on a production of former Northwestern student Aaron Posner’s play Stupid Fucking Bird and completely redefine the standards for great student theater in the process.
What made the Jan. 29-31 run of Stupid Fucking Bird such a seemingly impossible endeavor is also what made it so unique and wonderful. Producer Elise Ammandson noted that the goal working within such a limited budget was to “create design in limits,” which made saying no a necessary evil. The aesthetic was spare, utilizing fabric and holiday lights draped around Shanley Pavilion’s gritty interior to create what space designer Preston Choi referred to as a “circus tent.”
Without a marketing budget, the team behind the show flipped the scripts on advertising as well. Where one normally expects promotional videos, the show’s publicists substituted a pseudo-Facebook persona characterized by the titular bird, a nod to the show’s inspiration, Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. The account interacts as if it were a real person online, posting photos, commenting and acheiving Ammandson’s goal of, “trying to friend as many people as we know that go to Northwestern.” Another perk of this gonzo guerilla marketing? Ammandson added, “we can cuss as much as we want on Facebook because the school’s not in charge of that.”
Stupid Fucking Bird's set stripped away all of the flash and polish one normally expects from a theater production, and, given the themes of the play, this was precisely the point. In fact, the dramatic monologue that Con (Wyatt Fair) delivers in the first act of the play is essentially one massive metafictional subtweet at the Northwestern theatre community. While minutes away in Cahn Auditorium, massive sets and sweeping vocal crescendos characterize the “largest student run play in the country,” Stupid Fucking Bird managed to both deride and deconstruct everything the students playing those ill-fated passengers stand for.
This might seem a bit hypocritical, given that the cast, crew and production board Wave primarily comprises theatre majors themselves – why choose such a sardonic play, and adapt it to directly disparage the members of the community they belong to? Is this play a cry to end the artifice of theatre altogether, or a call to change the way performer, producers and even outsiders to the insular theater crowd think of themselves and the work they do?
Ammandson has a positive outlook on the play’s message. “I hope that this show is an answer for why we do this theatre,” she said. “For other people who don’t do theatre it’s still relatable, because it’s about life, and I hope that they just like slow down, and ponder what they want, and like just that we’re all flawed, and we’re all human.”
It would be difficult to say that Stupid Fucking Bird is revolutionary in the world of theater at large – there are certainly other works of drama that pick apart what fiction is, breaking the fourth wall and playing with the dynamics of what it is to perform. However, given that Stupid Fucking Bird was written by a graduate of Northwestern’s theater department, so it might not be too out there to imagine the critique of artifice is especially directed at us Wildcats. Does the engrossing, thought-provoking, sensory experience that was Stupid Fucking Bird mean the theatre department is going turn over the box office tables, rebuke flash for substantial subject matter and embrace the “new forms” of theater heralded in the play? Unfortunately, probably not – a production of Rent is going up in the Louis Room this weekend.