CanLit Rewind: If We Were Birds by Erin Shields

October 13, 2015

Winner of the 2011 Governor General's Award for Drama, If We Were Birds is a re-imaging of Ovid's masterpiece “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela.” In this Greek tragedy, a chain of horrific events are set off when Procne begs her husband King Tereus to bring her beloved sister Philomela for a visit after years of isolation in a foreign land. When Tereus is confronted with Philomela’s beauty, his desire triumphs over reason. If We Were Birds uses this story as the basis for a harrowing exploration of the violence and revenge of contemporary war and its aftermath. The play features a chorus of ravaged women, each a survivor of a twentieth-century conflict: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Nanking, and Berlin. Playwrights Canada Press tells us why this is a standout title, both for their press and CanLit in general.

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This year marks forty years of supporting and celebrating some of Canada's finest literary presses for our parent organization, the Literary Press Group of Canada. To help celebrate, for the entire month of October All Lit Up will be highlighting books from our publishers that either helped launch a new voice in CanLit or made an impact at the press it was published with. Go on a CanLit Rewind with us to rediscover some backlist gems!

 

Winner of the 2011 Governor General's Award for Drama, If We Were Birds is a re-imaging of Ovid's masterpiece “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela.” In this Greek tragedy, a chain of horrific events are set off when Procne begs her husband King Tereus to bring her beloved sister Philomela for a visit after years of isolation in a foreign land. When Tereus is confronted with Philomela’s beauty, his desire triumphs over reason. If We Were Birds uses this story as the basis for a harrowing exploration of the violence and revenge of contemporary war and its aftermath. The play features a chorus of ravaged women, each a survivor of a twentieth-century conflict: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Nanking, and Berlin. Playwrights Canada Press tells us why this is a standout title, both for their press and CanLit in general.

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If We Were Birds stands out to us for several reasons: the story has universal appeal and the script is raw and beautifully written. Also, because of its use of a chorus, the play features a large cast. While this is not an uncommon theatrical device historically, it’s certainly not used very often in modern Canadian drama. However, it's used in this play to strong effect: the chorus in If We Were Birds is comprised of women who are victims of twentieth-century wars.

As mentioned,  If We Were Birds is a Governor General Literary Award winner. This would make the title a highlight on any publishers list but considering that it is one of only five GG drama winners written by women since 2000, we feel it's even more special. Especially for a play that would definitely be considered strongly feminist. In addition to gaining praise at home, with its age-old themes (and a Greek myth),  If We Were Birds has relevance around the world. The text has been translated into Italian and Albanian (and published in those languages) and those rights sales were a rare treat for the Press!

Not only has the publication of If We Were Birds helped the Press get some international attention, but it also catapulted Erin Shields from a theatre artist who was fairly well known in Toronto to national and international prominence. The language is incredibly visceral, but tight and poetic at the same time. You don’t just read or watch If We Were Birds, you experience it. It’s been produced a number of times in Canada, and the text is very frequently studied at the university level, making this title an important one in modern Canadian drama writing.

Watch a trailer below for the Imago Theatre's production of If We Were Birds (Directed by Micheline Chevrier, October 2013)

 

 

 

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Missed one of our CanLit Rewind titles? Check out the full list here.


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