Behind the Scenes with UND Theatre: The Conference of the Birds


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Claire Arneson, Editor

In the past year, I have gone to many productions that the University of North Dakota’s theater department has showcased to the public. My first show being “The Putnam County Spelling Bee,” my next “Unrehearsed Shakespeare,” and this last Fall I saw “Carrie: The Musical.” Coming from the Twin Cities, where theater is prominent and familiar, I was excited to see that our department consists of a similarly talented community. I have loved supporting our school’s theater department and was ecstatic when they asked me to come meet some of their cast members and go behind the scenes of their spring play, “The Conference of the Birds.”   

“The Conference of the Birds” is a Persian play written by Fair un-Din Attar in the 12th century. The play was written in 1077 CE, and the central theme revolves around Sufism which is Islamic mysticism. The play follows a group of birds such as The Owl, The Parrot, and the wisest of them all, The Hoopoe, who leads the birds on a journey to find their sovereign. They must go through the seven valleys which represent the Sufi’s Way to achieve enlightenment.   

I had the opportunity to meet with four actors in the show. I met with Stevee Wittlieb, a Senior who plays the Hoopoe/narrator in the show. She is a theater major and has been acting and singing since she was six years old. When I asked her if she thought people would relate to the characters in the show, she said that she thinks that “everyone can relate to the moral lesson.” Camden Gifford, a sophomore who plays the Parrot, thinks his character will resonate with introverts, and said of the production, “each character has a flaw we see in ourselves.”   

When I talked to Otto Lieder, a Senior who plays the Owl, I asked him if he could describe the show in one word, to which he replied, “truth, because the basic journey [of the show] is understanding what life is.”   

Overall, Tyler Herbert, a senior who plays multiple characters throughout the show, says that the show is about, “the journey to find yourself, we follow the core group of the birds, and they follow the quest to find who they truly are on the inside.”  

I also had the honor of talking to the director of the show, Egla Hassan. She came out to Grand Forks, North Dakota to direct with the assistance of Emily Wirkus, an old friend and past student of hers. When I asked her how she was liking UND, the first thing she said was “I HATE the weather.” When I asked her why people should see the show, she said that “it speaks to all of us, and at a time politically and socially within this country, we have to change it within ourselves.”  

After I conducted my interviews, I stuck around for a little while and was able to watch some of their rehearsal. Even though I was there for such a short amount of time, I could sense the community and passion within all these individuals. You can tell they put all their hearts and souls into these performances and that they truly love what they do. If you have been to a theater show before, you know what I am referring to. A lot of work goes into these shows, and in the end, it is all worth it to see the final project. If you have time at the end of April to get out and support the local theater department, I recommend seeing “The Conference of the Birds” at the Burtness Theater on campus. The play will be performed Tuesday, April 18th through Saturday, April 22nd at 7:30 pm.   


Claire Arneson is a Dakota Student Section Editor. She can be reached at [email protected].