If We Were Birds Interview – Ethan Bjelland

Through the lens of Greek tragedy, If We Were Birds presents an unflinching commentary on contemporary war and its devastating aftermath, particularly for the women who become its victims.

20% Theatre Company is excited to present this beautiful, shocking and brutal new play by Erin Shields at Nimbus Theater September 13-27, 2014.  Before and during the run of this show, we will be giving you the chance to learn a little bit more about the artists involved in our production. In this interview, meet actor Ethan Bjelland.


Actor - Ethan Bjelland
Actor – Ethan Bjelland


Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? How/when/why did you get into theatre?

I got to play Johnny Appleseed in this 15 minute community theatre play in my little town of Decorah, Iowa, when I was, like, five or so. I loved wearing a pan on my head and playing improv games, and then I was hooked.

I performed in community theatre and school productions growing up, and I felt totally at home on the stage. When I was experiencing the worst, and most dramatic parts of high school life, I would sneak into the school auditorium and turn on the lights and just lay on the stage to get away from everyone. I’d start to make up monologues of things I wanted to say in real life, but could only find words for in a theater, with rehearsal.

I planned to become an elementary school music teacher, but instead, fell right back into theatre at Gustavus Adolphus College. I found a student troupe of people using theatre as a tool for social justice (“I Am We Are”). There is so much value in a theatrical process and performance as a way of learning and teaching about humanity.

Since College I’ve performed around the state, settling recently in Minneapolis, and have been completely thrilled at how welcoming and personal the artist community is here!

What excites you most about If We Were Birds?

I am fascinated by the myth itself, and the depth of the characters in this retelling. I was cast as Pandion in college, in another version of this story, The Love of the Nightingale, by Timberlake Wertenbaker, and I felt so attached to the story and the themes, and I devoured so much of my time in rehearsal trying to figure out what was going on with the characters in the myth that drives them to do what they do. This play recontextualizes the entire plot, and flips so many of the characters on their heads for me–they all feel so local and tangible. (And I’ve only had two rehearsals so far!) Myths, like fables, are so often less about the souls of the people than the situation and outcome of the plot they find themselves in. If We Were Birds speaks with soul.

What is your role in the play? What do you think will be the most challenging and/or rewarding part of performing this role?

I play Tereus, the son of Ares, the god of war. Ethan, however, the son of Scott and Sue Bjelland of small-town Iowa, is scared of guns and war, and isn’t really excited about excessive competition or displays of oo-rah masculinity. So that’s already a bit of a battle to connect with. I’m definitely working with some tough themes… It’s difficult to find motivation and honesty behind a character with whom you almost hate more than you sympathize after your first read.

Tell us a little bit about the character.  Is this role similar to roles you have played in the past or will this be a stretch for you?

Tereus may feel like a bit of stretch for me at the start, but we have commonalities that come up each time we rehearse a moment with the other actors. As I mentioned, this is such a relationship-based piece, because so much of who Tereus is in any given scene hangs on how he is viewed by the other characters. So far, I can say that Tereus is probably more introverted than I am, but he plots and rehearses what he’s going to do in battle, just like I rehearse for a show, or like I would rehearse what I wanted to be and say in high school. I find that his weakness lies in his emotions. Tereus always wants to be in control of his emotions in order to make clear, sound decisions, and when he loses control, he works quickly to fix what is broken, and pack them all back up. I can find so much in that.

What do you hope the audience will walk away from this production knowing, feeling, or thinking after seeing If We Were Birds?

This play will strike many chords, I’m sure. Gender, sexuality, violence and war are not always black and white. There’s so much more than just the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ to so many of these stories, even though they may seem clear from the outside. On the inside, however, the relationships, the brutality, and the conflicts are still very human and motivated.

What else do you do in the world, outside of theatre and/or working on this production?

I speak Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish, and I am a Norwegian teacher with Mindekirken Norwegian Language and Culture Program in Minneapolis. I also work at Moods of Norway, the cooky Norwegian fashion brand that has just opened its third American store in the Mall of America. (Huge name in Norway, I promise). I like coffee and black licorice and salted caramel, and I am a big fan of awkward situations, paperclips, night walks and night games.

What is your favorite thing about the Twin Cities?

Right now, I could eat my way through the Twin Cities. There are so many awesome foodies, restaurants, and urban farmers.

What is your favorite type of bird?

A friend of mine told me about this type of parrot called a Kakapo. Ever since, I’ve been fascinated, and I would get really excited if I got to see one sometime, in real life. It’s endangered, can only be found in New Zealand, and cannot fly because it’s so big. It looks and moves like a big green beaver mixed with an owl, and has the most adorable pudgy face and beady eyes. Instead, it uses its wings to parachute off of trees, and its huge feet to climb them. They live to be about 60 or 70 years old and they only mate when this specific New Zealand pine tree makes a lot of pine cones. They also do this really weird mating ritual called “lekking”… Sage Grouse do it, too. And there are some pretty funny videos of lekking out there, in case you’re interested…

The Magnificent Kakapo
The Magnificent Kakapo