IF WE WERE BIRDS, by Erin Shields


by Erin Shields
Directed by Alan Dilworth
Presented by groundwater productions
Featuring Rose Cortez, Philippa Domville, David Fox, Edwige Jean-Pierre, Daniela Lama, Ieva Lucs, Shannon Perrault, Geoffrey Pounsett, Tara Rosling
A riveting re-telling of Ovid’s gruesome masterpiece “Tereus, Philomela and Procne”- the story that inspired Titus Andronicus. Occasionally humorous, and always harrowing and horrifying, Shields’ adaptation features a chorus of ravaged women, each a victim of 20th Century conflicts: Bosnia Herzegovina, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Nanking, and Berlin.


1. We notice that you are also a writer/performer. Where do your roots lie? In writing or acting?

Erin Shields

Erin Shields

I began as an actor but writing has always been a big part of my life. I started writing in a journal when I was eleven; mostly rhyming couplets about tears and fears, dreams and schemes, loves and doves.

2. Do you enjoy writing for other people and then just letting it go? Or do you prefer getting to physically bring your own words to life as an actor?

Handing over a script to a director, actors and designers is completely different than developing a show from inside the process as a writer/performer. Both processes are interesting and present different challenges. I am more familiar with creating/devising work for myself to perform because that’s really how I started writing; the audition thing wasn’t working out so I decided to make my own work. The process feels contained, somehow, and I get to know the written material very intimately, going back to the script when my actor self is unsatisfied. Of course, the challenge is to let the writer rest, eventually and let the actor take over. Preferably this happens before the dress rehearsal.

The challenge in writing a play for other people is to stop writing earlier in the process. I reworked If We Were Birds a number of times before Alan went into the rehearsal hall with the actors. But now … I have to let them take script … relinquish control … ahhhhh. By staying out of the way and allowing this incredible team to work with the script, they will make discoveries in it, hopefully, that I never would have anticipated. I expect that after this production, however, I’ll go back to the script and write the next draft having learned from watching the performances.

3. If We Were Birds is an adaptation of Ovid’s “Tereus, Philomela and Procne”. What interested you in reworking this story?



I am attracted to archetypal stories because they are the distilled versions of our contemporary stories. I knew I wanted to write about sexual violence, to try to better understand why this perpetual and gruesome act relentlessly occurs on a mass scale, particularly during times of war. A contemporary story didn’t seem to be a large enough container to hold this investigation. Ovid’s “Tereus, Philomela and Procne” presents a seemingly simple story about the dangers of following one’s passions, both in lust and revenge. The moral of the story is “don’t do it.” Inside of the framework of this story, I’ve been able to chew on the complexities of human passion and the dangers of forsaking the Dionysian reality of the body in favour of the Apollonian structure of the mind. Although the play is set in ancient Greece, I’ve allowed myself to play anachronisms to suspend the audience between “then” and “now”. The chorus, for example, tells stories of sexual violence drawn from five of the 20th Century’s worst wars wherein rape was used as a weapon.

4. Where did the title of this new play come from?

It’s a bit hard to talk about that without unraveling a long spool of themes and images better discovered while watching the play (come to the play! come to the play!), but in Ovid’s story Procne, Philomela and Tereus are transformed, by the gods, into birds.

5. Will SummerWorks be the premiere of If We Were Birds? And if so, how have you developed it?

Summerworks will be the premiere of the piece. The development of the piece has mostly been me and a pile of books about rape. My director, Alan Dilworth, asked questions after each draft which helped lead me to my next and when the show was mostly cast, we had a reading which was very helpful. The actors asked some fantastic questions, which led me to this performance draft.

Alan Dilworth

Alan Dilworth

6. You are a graduate of the Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in London, England. Do you notice any differences in new play creation in Canada as opposed to Europe?

When I was in London, I was in the proverbial “drama school bubble”. We saw shows but weren’t particularly connected to the scene. However, from talking to my friends who are working in London, it seems to me that we have a greater emphasis on play creation in Canada. Play creation is an essential aspect of the Canadian theatre scene; from the playwrights units to the self-start companies working with different styles of theatre to festivals like Summerworks and the country-wide fringe festivals, there is a lot of desire to create, perform and present new work. While there are certainly small companies devising their own work in London, and playwrights fostered in theatres such as the Royal Court, there doesn’t seem to be quite as large a community surrounding new play development in London. And, of course, I find English theatre to be mostly text based. Lots of talking. I don’t know as much about European theatre, but I would say that there is much more of a physical, image-based tradition on the continent.

Also, the “independent theatre creator” as a creature doesn’t seem to exist as much in London. One is an actor or a director or a playwright. There’s not as much swapping of hats, or melding hats, or wearing other peoples’ hats, or making of one’s own hats, as seems to be the fashion here.

The audience base in Britain, too, is something of a marvel. People see theatre. All the time. And if not all the time, then at least every once in a while. Everyone. Like what ?&*#%(*&_#&%_)!)&#

7. Do you feel that theatre holds any responsibility to its community?

I think we theatre makers have a responsibility to be honest, to avoid self-indulgence in our work, to lobby the government to give more support to the arts and to try to get people out to see the work.

8. What is it about playwriting as a discipline that compels you?

Unlike performing, there is a solitary aspect to playwriting. I can read a lot and brew a lot and run a lot and live a story through a number of different people at the same time. And then it’s incredible to give it to actors and hear them live it in a more full and real way than I could have possibly imagined.

9. Where did your love of theatre come from?

From my parents who took me to the ballet, Stratford and the big musicals in Toronto. From a few amazing drama teachers: Willard Boudreau, David Daylor, Christopher Braurer. From performing in every musical at Glen Bernard Camp. From participating in the Sears Drama Festival. From reading Judith Thompson, Daniel MacIvor, George F. Walker then Sarah Kane, Naomi Wallace and Maria Irene Fornes. From a few good years living in London, amongst people who had theatre in their blood. From the other artists in the Toronto theatre community whose work I admire.

10. What are your top 3 reads for an aspiring artist?

1) The Empty Space by Peter Brook
2) A Director Prepares by Anne Bogart
3) Anything and everything that has nothing to do with theatre. The Guardian newspaper, the little placards at museums, old love letters (if you were born before the 80’s, if not, old love e-mails), anything really old that has made it through years of criticism and burning libraries (Gilgamesh, Metamorphosis, Paradise Lost, and the Bible are a few of my favourites), song lyrics, poems, I don’t know … I’m just saying everything now but you know what boils your blood.


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