Ornithologist Ben and his assistant and Ph. D. candidate Lily are walking through a forest looking for sandpipers, when they discover a moustached kingfisher — the first one seen in 100 years — and accidentally kill it.
At 7:30 p.m. last Thursday, senior Judy Moreno presented her senior project: A reading of her two-act play, “Endangered Species Act.” The play, put on by a six-person cast with stage directions read aloud by junior Caleb Clark, takes the true story of an ornithologist’s discovery of the rare moustached kingfisher bird, and the escalating internet drama that ensued, creating a piece that is not only humorous and endearing, but also a thought-provoking commentary on the realities of living in the digital age.
Moreno wrote the entire play during the Fall 2018 semester, for a playwriting class with theatre professor George Angell, after he found the story idea online and recommended it to her.
“I told her if she wasn’t interested in it, I was going to write it myself,” Angell said. “But she was interested in it, and it’s a good thing, because I think she came up with something better than I would’ve, and on her own.”
The play juxtaposes characters Lily (read by senior Rebecca Carlson) and Ben (senior Austin Benson), arguing like an old married couple as they carry out their expedition, with teens Piper (sophomore Ariannah Gaiser) and Nick (sophomore Johannes Olson), sitting on the opposite side of the stage, responding on social media to what they believe to be outrageous behavior on the part of the ornithologists.
When Lily accidentally kills the moustached kingfisher bird and shares a photo of it on Instagram, Piper and Nick spark an online protest, claiming the ornithologists have killed the last bird of its kind. What starts as a small, misguided effort by “bird nerd” Piper, goaded by her new friend Nick (“People get famous all the time for this sort of thing!”) quickly becomes a real threat when another bird-loving teen attempts a suicide bombing of the ornithology institute where Ben and Lily work.
“Every time I even thought about writing, I was incredibly intimidated,” Moreno said, but added that having deadlines for class was extremely helpful for her. “I needed that structure. I needed to show up to that class — which was basically a workshop with George and Shiloh Carozza — I needed to show up every time having produced some new work, or at least thought about it, brought new ideas, come up with new questions.”
The true story of ornithologist Christopher Filardi, who found a moustached kingfisher in 2015 and collected and prepared it for scientific research, was the inspiration for “Endangered Species Act.” While Filardi was still on his expedition, the story was somehow broadcast, and people began harassing him online for having killed the bird.
“By the time he got back, his family was receiving death threats and he was told by the police that he had to use back entrances to the museum he worked at, or else his safety might be threatened,” Moreno explained. “He wasn’t fired, but he resigned — he left the museum.”
She added that in the true story, the moral dilemma was more ambiguous, because Filardi did kill the bird intentionally. But, she added, he had his reasons.
Prior to writing the play, Moreno had taken Playwriting I with Angell, and wrote a one-act about ornithologists Ben and Lily, and some birds. As a former intended biology major, Moreno said that she has always had an interest in birds. Ben and Lily’s characters changed significantly when she adapted them to “Endangered Species Act,” according to Moreno, though they existed in her mind prior to writing the play.
“This is a play in development,” Director Tory Matsos told the audience of 30, before the reading began. Matsos explained that though it was being staged as a two-act play on Thursday and Friday, Moreno is already honing it, and the final edition will be a one-act once again.
Angell emphasized the importance of both Moreno and senior Shiloh Carozza, the other student in the class, being diligent in their writing, in order to complete the play in time to be staged this semester.
“Both of them were dedicated writers, and they came at it without ego,” Angell said. “They wrote all the time, and they always had something at every class for us to read and discuss and think about. We kind of approached it the way a TV writer’s room does, where we would bounce ideas off of one another. Everybody was willing to take all kinds of ideas and go with them. But the big thing is that they would write. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taught playwriting where people don’t write. And you have to write.”
Angell also emphasized the timeliness of the issues address in the play, which discusses both conservation and the issue of social media harassment, showing how even a seemingly noble cause is often taken too far.
“I also really like Judy’s sense of humor,” he added.
(Moreno keeps the dialogue lighthearted, even in the case of the 15-year-old attempted suicide bomber, who exclaims, “But the f***ing YouTube video guaranteed results!” when her homemade pyrotechnics conveniently malfunction.)
“We had the best time working on it,” Matsos said. “We sat down for the table read and it was just the most fun. It’s such a wonderful thing to sit down as a director and as an actor with a script where the playwright is so alive to you on the page, right? Where you’re going, ‘Oh, had a good time writing this, because we’re having a good time reading this bombing scene.’ So it’s just been a total privilege to work on it.”
Moreno described her lifelong desire to produce a completed creative writing work.
“I’ve always questioned whether I’d be able to do that,” Moreno said. “And whether it’s good or not, whether anything happens with it, I did what I set out to do: I wrote something. So I’m happy about that.”
Senior Colleen Prince said she’s always known Moreno was a great writer.
“I think it’s super interesting because she also wanted to be a bio major: It’s cool to see the synthesis,” Prince said. “My humble opinion is that it could totally go professional.”