SHARE
Senior Judy Moreno and director Tory Matsos host audience talk-back after her pre­sen­tation of “Endan­gered Species Act.” Col­legian | Carmel Kookegy

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.”