Lesbian marriage, adultery, pregnancy, capitalism and booze collide like a bird into a window in Sonja Mills’ long-awaited new play, The Bird, premiering at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in January.
“It’s a farce. A big, fat, farcical play,” says Mills, on the phone from her home in Owen Sound. “It’s not the kind of play we’re really seeing a lot of right now. I wanted to write a big play with seven actors, set right now, in our time, in this part of the planet.”
In The Bird, Mia has convinced her wife, Kate, to invite her new secretary, Petty, to a cocktail party in order to determine if they’re having an affair. Petty brings along her dimwitted husband, her overbearing brother, Boo, and his wife. Big mistake: Boo and Kate have met before, during a messy situation at the bank Boo manages. The seemingly friendly banter and slapstick action eventually devolve into a scathing mess of accusations and revelations.
“I want people laughing from beginning to end, but I want it to be about things that are not funny,” Mills says. “I’ve taken themes such as how destroyed we all are by capitalism, and how destroyed our interpersonal relationships are by addiction and infidelity. I felt it was really important to talk about those things in a way that will make people laugh riotously. People will be laughing from beginning to end and the next day wondering what that thing is in the pit of their stomach.”
Mills emerged on the scene in 1994 with the first play in her popular Dyke City series. The Bird is her first new feature-length work since 2003’s critically acclaimed The Danish Play. The Bird is also Mills’ first play since Dyke City to appear at Buddies, which she says feels “like it’s my home.”
“It takes me five to seven years to write a play because that play has to be fantastic,” Mills says. “I don’t personally have any interest in producing mediocre theatre.”
According to its web site, Mills’ company, Union Eight Theatre, is dedicated to “excellent, politically and socially relevant new Canadian work which integrates text with movement.”
“I really do think it’s time for theatre to start showing its balls again, and be about something,” Mills says. “I think it’s important to be able to relate to what you’re seeing. [Theatre] is not a fantasy world. It’s meant to be a mirror.”
Even though this is only Union Eight’s second production, Mills says the company is aiming high. “We’re gonna do what big, fat theatres are afraid to do: put on a big, fat play,” she says.
Theatre companies rarely put on large-cast shows because they cost so much to run, Mills says.
“I’m coming from a place of having worked in the theatre for 15 years,” Mills explains. “There’s a trend of putting money into administration, and I don’t see a lot of real focus on the art. One of my pet peeves is big, fat theatre companies getting hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding, and putting on a season that’s just a couple of one-person shows.
“If we continue down this path, where 90 cents of every dollar goes into office furniture and hiring another administrator, we’re gonna continue to see mediocre shows,” Mills says.
Union Eight received support from the Ontario Arts Council but still had difficulty raising the money needed for the show. The company threw a fundraiser and applied for grants, but Mills shrugs off the trouble.
“I don’t know of any independent theatre company that doesn’t have problems raising money to do a show. We are scrambling and we’ll probably be paying for this production for years. It’s not about money for us. It’s about art,” she says. “We need to sell every seat to break even. That’s what we plan to do.”
Still, Mills believes that the best way for independent theatre companies to move forward is to engage audiences and fill seats.
“It’s our job as theatre artists to create great theatre. I’m not always sure when I look at some companies that their mandate is to speak to people. If there’s a way that we can as a theatre community regain that priority, that would really help,” she says.
“[This play] is the most ambitious thing I’ve ever done. It’s deeper than anything I’ve ever done. It might also be the funniest thing I’ve ever done, but I think those things do go together,” Mills says. “I don’t know where I’m gonna go from here.”