Playwright Anna Ouyang Moench doesn’t consider herself a serious birdwatcher, but she’s always been fascinated by that world. Birds, she recognizes, are often the wildest animals that urban and suburban Americans interact with, and avid birders have their own vocabulary for dealing with them. But when Moench began writing “Birds of North America,” which Mosaic Theater opens Oct. 27 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, she quickly realized that the subject allowed her to talk about other things, as well.
The show opens with John, a 50-ish scientist, saying, “Tufted titmouse.” He directs the attention of his 20-something daughter Caitlyn to three-quarters of the way up a nearby ash tree. She sees the bird and admires it. But when it flies away, they stand in their backyard in Towson, trapped in an awkward silence, unsure of what to say next.
“In a play like this, you have to earn the silences,” Moench says over Zoom from her office in Los Angeles. “If the dialogue is too slow, the silences can seem indulgent, but if the back-and-forth is going along at a good clip, the silences have more impact.”
Into those sudden pauses seep the tensions within the play. John’s research is not going well, and he’s not happy that his daughter seems to be drifting after college. Caitlyn is neither able to match her dad’s enthusiasm for wildlife nor to fathom his solitary lifestyle. Why won’t he take his wife to Italy as the latter has asked? John, a die-hard liberal, is unhappy that Caitlyn is working as a copy editor for a conservative website. As they meet up in that backyard for nine consecutive autumns over the course of the play, the warming planet becomes one more point of contention.
“For a long time, I’d wanted to write about the human experience of climate change,” Moench says. “I didn’t want to sound preachy or like I was trying to teach a lesson in an ‘Afterschool Special.’ I wanted to write a play that was a real play. I’d never seen that done. When I hit upon the structure of these two people meeting in the same place at the same time of year over a decade, it allowed me to not only show how the characters were changing but also how the climate was changing.”
The difficulty in writing a play, a movie or a song about the environment is that the topic is so huge, so amorphous, so slow-moving that it’s hard to drill down to the specifics that allow for drama. Moench wrote the play as a graduate student at the University of San Diego in 2016 and then won the 2017 Generations competition at the Butterfly Effect Theatre of Colorado (then known as the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company), which gave her a residency, reading, workshop and full production. The rewriting she did there helped her find the psychological core of the piece and yielded the version that has had productions around the country before landing at Mosaic.
“We like to think that the natural world is just in the background as we go about the rest of our lives,” Moench says. “It’s disorienting when the things that we assume are secure turn out to be not so secure. It can create a form of grief or mourning. I read a Zadie Smith essay about the emotional component of climate change and how it’s not talked about. That helped me see there’s more to this issue than just the science.”
Over the past two years, Moench has been writing primarily for television. She has worked on projects for HBO, Netflix and Apple TV Plus, but the shows are still in the pipeline, waiting to air. The most prominent is Apple’s “Severance,” a sci-fi thriller series with director Ben Stiller, showrunner Dan Erickson and a cast that includes Patricia Arquette, John Turturro and Christopher Walken.
“I was surprised that a lot of the skills I had as a playwright have translated so well to television,” she confesses. “An idea that works in a play, however, doesn’t necessarily translate to film or TV — and vice versa. So I want to keep writing both. I’m back to my old habits of squeezing my playwriting in between my other jobs.” Television, she adds, “pays a lot better than temping.”
Birds of North America
Mosaic Theater, Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. mosaictheater.org.
Dates: Through Nov. 21.
Prices: $20-$68; online tickets to pay-what-you-can performances begin at $5.