- Disruptor and Provocateur
Caryl Churchill’s plays work as revelation.
Some of her work is muscular and chewy and perhaps a little dry. (I’m thinking: Light Shining in Buckinghamshire.) [End Page 35]
But her arguments—there is always one implied, but it takes reflection and analysis to “get” it—are challenges to the system, to things as they are.
Her use of episodic structure and the way she fractures and reframes time (I’m thinking: Cloud Nine and Top Girls) feed directly into choices I make as a playwright. How freeing it is, and what a canvas it allows, to have Act I take place in one century and Act II set in another, with the same characters, aged twenty-five years instead of one hundred, as in Cloud Nine, or to have women from various centuries, some who had tremendous power, all of whom experienced violence, gather at the same dinner table to celebrate a “successful” twentieth-century woman’s advancement.
Early on, Churchill had the good fortune to work with a specific group of actors, the Joint Stock Theatre Company. One wonders if she would have chanced on the comic, provocative cross-gender and race-blind casting possibilities of Cloud Nine without that limitation (or opportunity, depending on how one looks at it). Her fierce intelligence—her intellect is evident in every play—plays out in the formidable language of her work (I’m thinking: The Skriker) and in the sophisticated historical and contextual frame she often provides (Mad Forest, Serious Money, Light Shining . . . , Fen, even Vinegar Tom, which I directed at Classic Stage Company in the nineties).
When my students direct scenes from Far Away, we find ourselves talking about the contemporary political and environmental quagmire. In The Skriker and Far Away, students have done some of their most exciting work. In wrestling with the challenges of Churchill’s abstraction and disruptive, disturbing imagery, they went far beyond their previous limitations.
Her work has been freeing to me as a playwright, and has suggested possibilities. Thematically, I am drawn to her feminist critique of capitalism and to her commentary on women’s historical and contemporary roles, to her suspicion of power and its effects. Several of my plays and solo performances focus on dead queens or other women with access to power. How did they handle it? What traces did they leave? Can their portrayal be re-framed (perhaps) in a feminist light? Though my more recent work does not reference historical figures, it continues to examine how women in the world negotiate power or attempt to access it, how they negotiate relationships in a world still bound by expectations around gender, race and ethnicity, and language. [End Page 36]
LENORA CHAMPAGNE (playwright/performer/director) recently performed her solo, Traps: an intimate performance in a public space, followed by conversations with spectators, in parks and community centers in New York City. She is currently writing a play for the Undermain Theatre in Dallas and is Professor of Theatre and Performance at Purchase College, SUNY. www.lenorachampagne.com