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  • Permanent Permission Slip(Thank You, Caryl Churchill)
  • Sibyl Kempson (bio)

Every time I have found myself in a place of fear that I am going too far with a play or performance text I am writing or something I am trying to stage, I have thought to myself, often subconsciously: “Yeah, but look what Caryl Churchill did,” and I press forward. In 1978, when I was five, Caryl Churchill wrote Cloud 9. In 1982, when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, she wrote Top Girls. I grew up in rural New Jersey (yes, there is such a place) and didn’t know from Caryl Churchill. So, though I didn’t read or see productions of either of those plays at the time, they formed me as a writer and maker. I find myself checking in on both plays in my thoughts whenever I find myself taking liberties, and they give me strength, affirmation. Those two plays are to me like permanent permission slips. [End Page 27]

I want to say that I wasn’t writing plays yet in 1982, in the Reagan-Thatcher era, when Top Girls premiered at the Royal Court Theatre, but it wouldn’t be true. In the fourth grade, I wrote and co-directed Ponce De Leon and the Fountain of Youth, which was presented to the wider student body in our auditorium-slash-cafeteria thanks to a “gifted” program at my public elementary school. In it, I had written parts for three large and masculine boys to play the “Fountain Faeries.” Their task was to protect the Fountain and decide whether Ponce was worthy of claiming its discovery. They sang a song proclaiming their identity and credentials in high falsetto, and in the production I was somehow permitted to costume them in dresses and gowns from my bag of “dress-up clothes” that lived in the back of my mother’s makeshift closet in our attic at home, decking them with jewels and beads and coaching them on their falsettos. If I travel again backward to that wild and complete age of nine, I still marvel at the fact that no one stopped that from happening. The boys were reluctant, but they did not refuse or openly balk. They gritted their teeth and did the job they were assigned, and no parent intervened, no one of the ladies from the principal’s office (who you could be fascinated to see watching, with devoted indulgence, As the World Turns or One Life to Live or Guiding Light on the television in the school library during their lunch break) came clicking or clopping into the room with any cease-and-desist. I don’t have any memory of how it was received, but I remember that it was allowed to take place. I think I am still waiting for someone to come in and stop the plays I make from happening.

The town where I went to high school was in Pennsylvania, and the county library was situated in a big, creaky old Victorian house on Main Street. My mother taught high school an hour away in the neighboring state, and I would haunt its dusty rooms and book-lined hallways after school each afternoon from roughly two fifty-five to four thirty most weekdays, waiting for her to pick me up. There might not have been a copy of Cloud 9 on a shelf in the “drama” section of that library, along with plays by Arthur Miller and George Bernard Shaw and Bertolt Brecht, but I seem to remember one. I am almost positive there was a copy of Blithe Spirit. There might have been one book of plays by Beckett or Camus. There were no plays by Fornes that I remember. None by Shange. It was a conservative town (the Fountain Faeries might not have made it there), now infested with Trump supporters. But if I travel backward through time to become once again that clueless but curious, displaced and disconnected teenager, I access a memory of opening a copy of Cloud 9 and reading an elaborate cross-gender-casting scheme. It had not occurred to me that “you could do that” out...


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pp. 27-29
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