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Boy in the birds’ nest
Birdboy. Picture: Jackson Eaton

The curious, true tale of a seven-year-old Russian "birdboy" who could communicate only by "chirping" after his mother raised him in a virtual aviary has inspired one of the most anticipated local productions in this year's Fringe World.

The neglected child was found in early 2008 living in a tiny two-room flat surrounded by cages containing dozens of birds, bird feed and droppings. Russian social workers who rescued the child from his home in Volgograd said he was treated like another pet by his 31-year-old mother who never spoke to him.

The boy was not physically harmed but was suffering from "Mowgli syndrome", named after the Jungle Book character raised by wild animals, and could not engage in normal human communication.

Perth’s Wet Weather Ensemble has used the story as the basis for Birdboy, a play written and directed by Ian Sinclair.

Sinclair calls Birdboy a pecking order play that proves hope and imagination can never be caged.

“The idea of a boy who had been essentially raised by birds and could only communicate as a bird really struck all of us,” Sinclair says.

“His mother had essentially fed him but never spoke to him or treated him with any love, and she also was a Eurovision song contestant. As we looked more and more into it, there were some strange extra elements like that. So we took that and went to the extreme with it.”

In working on the play, Sinclair and the ensemble started with two words — communication and cages.
The plot deals with a boy who lives in a dishevelled one-bedroom flat with his neglectful mother, called One Hit Wanda, and 100 birds. Each night his mother sings for her caged fans. Her nameless son, described by Sinclair as “clawed and unadored, feathered and unfriended”, is free to discover what lies beyond whenever Wanda bursts into song.

The ensemble comprises Sinclair, Moya Thomas, Alicia Osyka, St John Cowcher, Moana Lutton and Rohan Harnett. They describe themselves as a mixed bag of writers, singers, puppeteers and visual and electronic artists. Past Wet Weather shows have included The Bearskinner, Red Cross and Adam and Eve.

Various objects come to life in the play.

“A kettle comes to life as a bird and feeds him and a vacuum cleaner can be a terrifying thing for him,” Sinclair says. “We find the beauty of finding the other-(worldliness in the everyday. You can have a regular household object and we can use that 1000 different ways to tell the story.”

Birdboy was developed over two years including a six-week residency early last year at the Watermill Centre in New York mentored by Robert Wilson, the legendary American director whose production of The Threepenny Opera is a highlight of the Perth International Arts Festival next month.

“We were quite awe-struck and not sure what to expect,” Sinclair says. “Birdboy would not have developed as far as it has if it wasn’t for his influence. A lot of our work had been fast-paced and quick but he really looked at the process and how to slow things down. It really is about taking your time and giving the work space.”

Described as a laboratory for performance, Watermill houses Wilson’s extensive collection of artworks, ancient artefacts and everyday objects for research, study and inspiration. More than 7000 objects spanning human history are integrated into the building and grounds as a reminder that the history of each civilisation is told by its artists.

“You were eating out of bowls that were 300 or 400 years old,” Sinclair says of items that emphasised the talismanic potential of any object.

“We lived in a world that was surrounded by art. It changed the way we interacted with objects in everyday life.”

The Watermill residency was assisted by the Australia Council, Stages WA and supporters through the website Pozible. While in New York, the ensemble conducted workshops and received feedback from a panel of local and international artists, arts workers and dramaturges.

Birdboy runs from February 11-16 at the PICA Performance Space and is part of Fringe World 2013. Tickets are available from www.fringeworld.com.au.