Eric Ting, Long Wharf Theatre’s associate artistic director, uses starlings and the idea of introduced species to talk about his upcoming production of Agnes Under the Big Top, in his director’s note, which follows.
Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak Nothing but ‘Mortimer,’ and give it him, To keep his anger still in motion. —William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 1, 1:3
Introduced Species are species living outside their native distributional range, which have arrived there by human activity, either deliberate or accidental.
It was 1890. In a bid to introduce into New York City public parks every species of bird referenced in the works of William Shakespeare, the chairman of the Acclimation Society of North America—Eugene Schieffelin—released 60 European starlings into Central Park. A year later, he released 40 more. By 1950, European starlings could be found as far away as the Pacific coast. Mentioned only once in all the Bard’s canon, today the North American starling population numbers over 200 million. One of the most successful examples of an introduced species has also become one of the most notorious. They travel in enormous flocks; endanger air transportation; ravage crops; displace native bird populations; and occupy entire city blocks; to say nothing of the damage caused by their corrosive droppings. And yet, if you’ve ever seen a flock of starlings, you’ve likely stared—somewhat awestruck—at the mercurial shifting of tens if not hundreds of thousands of tiny black bodies dotting the sky.
It is a sight to behold.
This is a country built upon the backs of introduced species, reaching as far back as the immigrants making passage upon the Mayflower. With each new wave, not always by choice and rarely with ease, there have been the pains of adaptation and assimilation. And with each new wave, the texture of the American community has shifted—like so many birds in the sky. If we reach back far enough into our individual histories, chances are we find someone who came from somewhere else, who—uprooted from the familiar—found themselves thrust into the unknown. And so, it is in us. In our blood. A memory of this disruptive moment, this span of dispossession when language and landscape were alien to us, when those most beloved to us were an ocean away, when even the small comforts in our lives felt unfamiliar and out of place. It is likely a memory of loneliness—the sort of isolation that characterizes any period of adjustment; and like the hundred starlings nesting in Central Park awaiting the dawn of the 20th Century, we would have gone about the desaturated routines of our lives, waiting too, for the loneliness to pass. Agnes Under the Big Top concerns itself in the most profound and understated way with this time of separateness and the moment (and reason) of its passage.
Imagine you are flying. One of a hundred thousand starlings but aware only of those fluttering beating bodies immediately surrounding you. It’s all you can do just to keep up, just to make sense of the constantly shifting direction to-and-fro. So you give in to it. You lose yourself in the movement of the black gray-black mass of wings and beaks and eyes and feathers. You forget who you are. And for a time, this is enough. But life has a way of reminding us who we were, why we first took flight, how we joined the flock. The great gift of Aditi’s play is that it reminds us of this.