Birds Having A Conference?

“The Conference of the Birds:” An explanation and review

Claire Arneson, Editor

Previously this semester, I sat down with some of the cast of the University of North Dakota Theater Department’s Spring play, “The Conference of the Birds.” They shared their experience in the UND theater department, and how they were feeling during the rehearsal process. This past week, they were finally able to perform the show on the Burtness stage. I saw the show’s opening night, when tensions are high, nerves are heightened, and all bets are on the table. I have seen my fair share of shows at the Burtness, and I was anxious to see how the show would unfold.   

“The Conference of the Birds,” by Peter Brook & Jean-Claude Carriere is based on the Poem by Farid ud-Din Attar. It was originally written in Persian and focused on the relationship between the self and God. This is all a little difficult to understand, but through watching the play, I hope I can explain it a little better. The production notes written by Lucian Stone, Chair of the Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies, say, “In it, ‘Attar [author of the poem] uses the convention of a frame story in which to tell other parables. The allegorical framing story tells of the spiritual journey taken by a flock of birds to find their king, the mythical Simurgh.”  

The show started out with a prologue recording to introduce the show done by President Andy Armacost. It set the tone for the show and gave the audience some inclination into what the play was going to be about. Slowly during Andy’s moment of fame, actors exited backstage and took their places on set. The actors were dressed in feathery coats and wore their assigned birds-head on the top of their heads. The Hoopoe (played by Stevee Wittlieb, previously seen as Carrie in “Carrie: The Musical”) spoke first. She told the birds of the Simurgh, their God that they have to go find, however, it’s not so easy. They have to fly across the desert, then travel through the seven valleys to get to him. The birds show hesitation in following the orders of the Hoopoe, so she shares stories of thieves, princes, servants, and  everyone that has a lesson to share. They end up crossing the exhausting, extensive desert, meeting interesting birds along the way like the aged, Walking Bird (played by Assistant Director Emily Wirkus). They reached the end of the desert and made their way through the seven valleys. But in the end, the seven valleys were an illusion. Finally, they reached the Simurgh but were turned away. They waited, and the Hoopoe apologized for leading them on this pointless journey, but they continued to wait. They were let in, where they finally met the Simurgh. Except the Simurgh is not a person or a God, it is themselves: they are the Simurgh! We are the Simurgh… I think.  

  Yes, this play was weird. Like extremely weird and difficult to understand when you watch it the first time through. But it was very enjoyable to watch. This was one of the best shows I have seen at the Burtness and is now, one of my favorites. It takes a lot to pull off acting while wearing a giant bird head, and I am happy to say that the acting in this play was a significant improvement. I have to give a special shoutout to the actress who played the Nightengale (Ella Henry) who sang a beautiful song that gave me chills. I had such a great time getting to know some of these actors and then having the opportunity to watch them perform on stage. While this is the last show of the semester, the department has announced its productions for the 2023-2024 season. They will be performing “Wait Until Dark,” “First Date,” “Student One Acts” – I believe this means plays written by students, and “Marcus is Walking.”   


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