Dallas — British playwright Caryl Churchill, who turned 80 last year, is best-known for the extravagant, time-traveling, identity-bending plays of her early fame—Cloud 9 (1979) and Top Girls (1982) come to mind. Considered a muse by many young playwrights on both sides of the Atlantic, Churchill almost never gives interviews—a lifelong aversion—but remains involved in theater and politics, and is seen out and about in London, mostly at openings nights in the West End and beyond. In a New Yorker retrospective in 2015, one young playwright said Churchill “puts all her swagger and gesture into the work”—perhaps a reason not to spend energy talking about herself.
And the work just keeps coming.
Second Thought Theatre is offering a rare chance to catch up on what this prolific, free-ranging artist has been up to in recent years with a run of two 21st century (and short) Churchill plays, Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? and Here We Go, both directed by STT artistic director Alex Organ.
Drunk Enough to Say I Love You! (2006) is a white-hot tale of sex, politics, and power, told as a love affair between seductive “Sam” and the “Guy” who sticks with him, no matter how changed and manipulative his lover becomes. For Sam, it seems, is also a country—and Guy has choices to make. In Churchill’s original London production, the play clearly was meant as an acid take-down of the U.S./U.K. “special relationship”—but STT’s Alex Organ is giving it a twist he’s sure the author would approve.
Here We Go (2015) looks at dying, death, and the indignities of old age with a clear eye. Somehow Churchill fits three entirely separate “acts” into the 40 or so minutes of the play: “Here We Go” overhears conversations at a funeral; “After” puts us into the mind of someone at the moment of death; “Getting There” is a quiet observation of the days approaching death. Each has its own piercing, distinct kind of truth-telling. A review of the London production for the Guardian newspaper said that “while initially it seemed slight, I find it’s grown steadily in the mind since I saw it.”
Jenny Ledel, Blake Hackler, and Brandon Potter lead the dual-play cast, joined by STT first-timers Rhonda Boutté and Kieran Connolly. Previews begin June 5, opening on June 7 and running through June 29 at Bryant Hall on the Kalita Humphreys Theater campus.
TheaterJones: I’m excited about your double feature. I’m a great fan of Caryl Churchill’s, but haven’t had that many chances to see her work onstage. I know I’ve read many more of her scripts than I’ve seen.
Alex Organ: Me too!
Churchill turned 80 last year. Is that even possible?
Well, if you think back to how long she’s been shaping the landscape of theatre, that sounds about right, actually.
And she really began writing plays in the 1960s, years before most of us heard of her in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Do you remember what the ‘gateway’ play was for you—the first Churchill play you read or saw?
It’s funny, I can recall very clearly one of those big drama anthologies I had in late high school or early college. I remember seeing really vivid photos from Cloud 9 in the book and thinking ‘Wow, what is this?’ And when I ran across of a copy of the script a few years later, I ate it up. But the first play I truly fell in love with was Top Girls. It’s just such a remarkable piece of writing, pretty revolutionary at the time—that was what hooked me.
And her plays get shorter and shorter these days.
To be honest, I’d been looking for an opportunity to produce something of hers for a while—and I looked first at the usual suspects, Top Girls and Cloud 9 and Mad Forest. But those shows require a pretty hefty design element to succeed. In other words, you can’t do them on the cheap—and do them well—so they were a bit out of our budget. Then I began to read her work from the 21st century, and stumbled across the fact that she’s written all these short plays that are remarkable and diverse, all across the board. But a 35- or 40-minute play didn’t feel somehow like a full evening of theater, one that justified a full ticket price.
But then the thought was, what if we take two of them and pair them together? We have to communicate that they are not companion pieces, meant to be performed as one. Even though you’re seeing the same cast perform on the same set, they should be thought of as completely different entities.
What was it, then, about these two short plays that made you pull them out of the crowd, though they seem unrelated? I might argue with you about that later.
[Laughs.] Oh, I’m sure we can easily find some way that they hook together! Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? is a fascinating piece to see right now. It was written on the heels of the British-American marriage to fight the Middle East war, post 9/11. Clearly the two characters were meant to be some sort of representatives of Bush and Blair. But Churchill has a very interesting little footnote in the script for that play that says originally the character of Guy was named “Jack.” The other character’s name is Sam—so the intent was that they go together like Uncle Sam and Union Jack. But she actively made the decision, at some point, to change his name to Guy to make that character more of an Everyman.
When I thought about the change she made, I wondered…what if Guy [instead of being British] is also an American? The thing that fascinates me about this play in 2019 is that we’re all of us wrestling with American identity, with ideas of the American character. And at a moment in time right now when those are so much in flux, up in the air, who knows what path we’re going to take, it felt like a good time to re-investigate that. Rather than having Guy be a foreign entity, what if he’s an American citizen dealing with what it means to be in love with America? That’s what resonates with me.
And Churchill’s change works that way too—in that Guy might, as an American, be increasingly troubled about where “Sam” is going.
The American character is to all of us, to everyone who encounters it, beautiful and powerful and majestic, but it also can be terribly destructive and abusive. So the dichotomy of those two things is of great interest to me right now.
Is it tricky to keep the personal and the political in balance in that play? It’s a story about two lovers, and it’s a story about a nations and history.
To me, that’s the big problem to solve in staging the play. Clearly, we have a very ‘micro’ representation of a ‘macro’ idea—it’s a giant paintbrush stroke of an allegory, but whittled down to this very personal relationship. So how do we keep the balance, how to we tell both stories simultaneously without one being dominant?
But also just as a practical matter, as theatre, the play poses fascinating questions for actors. How do you play America? And how do you play ‘him’ as a real, living, breathing human with needs and desires? It’s an academic exercise in acting, and definitely at the forefront of our minds, this need to keep everything in balance.
Talk a bit about Churchill’s dialogue. In Drunk Enough I don’t think there’s a full sentence in the entire script—it’s all fragments, half thoughts, phrases overlapping. What is she doing, not just with the actors but also with the audience, do you think?
Our second play Here We Go is written in the same format. On the page, the two plays look much the same: the beginnings of lines aren’t capitalized, and there’s no punctuation at the end of the lines. But we’ve discovered this can mean many different things and present a lot of options and opportunities. It could be a thought that just trails off and isn’t completed. It could be another actor interrupting, or picking up a thought where someone leaves off. It’s been fun to experiment with the different possibilities.
I will say, though, it’s pretty challenging on the ear to listen to an entire play written in fragments like that. Like any play that has heightened language, it will take the audience a few minutes to lock into the rhythm of the pieces.
It almost feels that by giving our ears and brains a workout, Churchill is getting us to invest more of ourselves in the experience. Figuring out how those fragments connect is a challenge.
Yes, Caryl Churchill has never been about ‘easy’—or a light evening at the theater. She really wants people to think, and that’s right in Second Thought’s wheelhouse.
Here We Go has a much more personal, intimate tone. But I have a sense there’s a ‘macro’ side in these short ‘observed’ looks at death, because dying is inevitable, something we all will encounter.
That’s my personal connection to the play. Our two universal experiences are birth and death, so exploring death as this play does—we will all absolutely meet up with it at some point—I find there’s something communal and comforting about it, in a weird way.
Death and politics—both topics loom large in a lot of people’s thinking. So maybe your plays are connected, if only in the audience’s minds.
Both things are pretty unavoidable, yes.
Churchill is more of a name in the U.K. than here, even given her incredible influence on the last decades of theatre and playwriting. How is our theatre different because she’s been around, pushing the envelope, re-setting the possibilities? What are her legacies?
She took giant ideas, human ideas and presented them in ways we just hadn’t seen before in the 1960s and 1970s. I really think she blew the barn doors off things in terms of form. She was really interested in playing with that, changing forms and styles. Her plays don’t tend to be grounded in naturalism—and being real and gritty and natural in theatre, that was the age she came up in. Churchill’s boldness with style has had the most impact, on people like Sara Ruhl, who writes with a sense of magic realism, and many others.
And it should be noted that Churchill was maybe the first female writer in theater with her level of high recognition. Her significance changed the game.
Her determination is amazing. She was a young mother raising kids in the 1960s and 1970s, writing plays for radio because she could talk someone into producing them, but always moving forward, coming up with amazing ideas. She seems to have been unstoppable.
She’s one of those writers too, whose stuff doesn’t, hasn’t, translated to the screen in any way. She writes plays meant to be performed in theaters, in front of live people. I’m always appreciative when a big-time playwright never goes the Hollywood route, never takes their plays and tries to make them into something they’re not. She seems to know herself and her work very well.