- Churchill’s Vision
There are many lessons to be learned from Caryl Churchill’s body of written work for theatre as well as from the trajectory of her career. The Churchill who wrote Fen and Cloud 9 and other major plays while working as resident playwright with the Joint Stock Theatre Company is not the same Churchill that built the visionary Far Away and the open text variations for performance in Love and Information years later. That is to say, when we speak of a writer’s body of work, we are looking also at their different selves over time. The writer at thirty is not the same as the writer at sixty or eighty. While her socio-political concerns have largely remained constant throughout her career, the approach to painting the canvas of the play on the page and stage has shifted considerably. From The Skriker onwards, there is greater experimentation in her formal dramaturgical methods. The plays become wilder in the truest sense of the word, and more open in what they demand of potential collaborators. In the last ten years, specifically, the plays have gotten shorter, leaner, and more ambiguous in their meanings.
Churchill’s position is unique in modern and contemporary playwriting. Hers is a singular voice and approach. Like Beckett, she has no equal. She is a lightning-rod artist, igniting the passion and admiration of dramatists around the world where [End Page 41] her works have been staged, studied, and read. I first encountered Churchill’s work when I was an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina–Charlotte and was cast in a production of Cloud 9. At the time, I was wrestling with whether I wanted to be an actor or a playwright, though part of me already knew that playwriting was the stronger calling. As such, being inside her work allowed me the privilege to see how it was built and how she demands embodiment from her performers. The double-casting and the (at the time) progressive gender politics being explored in the play certainly sparked my imagination. Before working on Cloud 9, I had no idea, really, that a play could interrogate form in quite this way. Although it would take me many years later to pay back this lesson in works like Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart, it was still a lesson I have carried since my undergraduate student days.
Everytime I read Cloud 9, it sends me back to that time and first discoveries. The same is also true of Churchill’s play The Skriker, which I was fortunate enough to see in its New York premiere at the Public in 1996, under Mark Wing-Davey’s direction, starring Jayne Atkinson and a then-unknown Philip Seymour Hoffman. I say “fortunate” because I think if I had read the play first, I would have been daunted by its density and complexity and would have put it aside. But witnessing it on stage first, in an astute and daring production, made me feel unintimidated. Indeed, I remember going back to the writing desk the next day and being so galvanized that I set to work on what was to become the first draft of my play Prodigal Kiss.
Over the years, I turned to Churchill when I needed precisely that kind of jolt to my imagination, when I needed a fresh reminder that the canvas of the stage is wide and can accommodate vast and rigorous mysteries. Churchill’s increasingly prescient late-career plays address ecological catastrophe and the impact of climate change, and feel like plays from the future, speaking to us in the now. It is precisely this future-time quality about her work from The Skriker forwards that positions her work in the current contemporary field of writing for live performance in a fascinating context. UK theatremaker Tim Crouch cites her as an influence, as does U.S. and transatlantic director Rachel Chavkin, among many others. She continues to be a reference point in the field when speaking of playwriting and the moral imagination, and if her earlier plays perhaps feel very much of...