After 28 years, the Arden Theater in Philadelphia Old City is firmly established as a respectable, professional company in Philadelphia, known for adventurous programming, the quality of its productions, and arguably some of the best children’s theater in the city.
It even offers a popular theater summer camp for kids.
In its windows along Second Street, where summer campers file past, a gamut of posters for the upcoming season includes the demure “Stupid _____ Bird.”
The playbill, however, is printed with the play’s real name.
“Stupid F***ing Bird” is a loose adaptation of the “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov.
“I wrote this play thinking, ‘I don’t think anyone is going to see it. I’m not sure any theater will produce it,'” said playwright Aaron Posner. “I thought the Philadelphia Fringe Fest would produce it.”
The Philly Fringe might have been a good home for it: This year’s Fringe program features at least two plays with the same vulgarity in their titles.
Instead, the play opened at the Wooly Mammoth theater in Washington, D.C., and has gone on to achieve extraordinary popularity. Last season it was one of the 10 most produced plays in professional American theater.
“People are adjusting the title, putting bird poop over certain letters, or — as the Arden has done — using a line,” said Posner. “I have no problem with that, as long the title of the play is the real play.”
The play uses the shape of “The Seagull” plot to tell a story about a life in theater, the pratfalls of love and family, and Posner’s own feelings. The author of many modern adaptations of classic theater (most of which have premiered at the Arden), Posner said this one is most personal.
“It fees edgy, I guess. I didn’t do it to make it edgy,” he said. “I know a lot of people who use that word a lot. It’s very descriptive. I like it. I thought it belonged in there.”
Posner came up with the title first, as a joke while in conversation about his frustration with directing Chekhov plays. The quip stuck, and he decided to write a script to fit.
“Aaron first told me about the play five years ago,” said Terry Nolen, another co-founder of the Arden Theater who is currently its executive artistic producer. “I remember saying to him, ‘That’s a not a good idea. Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘That’s hard. That’s tricky.'”
Nolen wanted to produce the play, but waited until Posner could direct it himself. The play has been produced dozens of times since it premiered in 2013, but directed by the playwright.
Nolen has come around to the provocative title because it signals to the ticket-buyer that the story is irreverent and contemporary, as long as you’re OK with that kind of language.
“We talked to other theaters who have done it, and the Wooly Mammoth called it ‘That Stupid Bird Play,'” said Nolen. “We said, yeah, we want to call it ‘Stupid F***ing Bird,’ or ‘Stupid Effing Bird,’ so people are aware this is a radical new version. If profanity bothers you or puts you off, this is probably not the best play for you.”
Nolen is handling the title carefully, altering lobby posters and stage announcements so as not to offend. People who buy tickets, however, will not be able to escape it — the stage is set with the vulgar title painted in large letters across the backdrop.
The play is the most popular of the Arden’s upcoming season, according to advanced ticket sales so far. Also, said said Nolen, so far no patrons of either the regular or children’s programming have complained.
“Stupid F***ing Bird” opens in mid-September.