The Enduring Mystique of Caryl Churchill

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Enduring Mystique of Caryl Churchill
By Nirmala Nataraj

Caryl Churchill. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey.
Caryl Churchill is perhaps the most acclaimed female playwright in the English-speaking world, and simultaneously the most elusive. Critic Charles Spencer has called her the “least predictable of contemporary playwrights.” Her work has been described as elliptical, provocative, shocking, confounding—and, over the years, it has become significantly more pared down, devoid of stage directions or notes, which only seems to contribute to her enduring mystique.

Although Churchill has been writing plays for over five decades, she stopped giving interviews many years ago. She rarely comments on critics’ analyses of her work, but her past interviews and the words of her close collaborators, of whom there are many, continue to spark the imaginations of those who recognize the multiple ways in which she has pushed dramatic boundaries over the course of her career.

Feminist and socialist politics are important facets of Churchill’s plays, as her work challenges the oppressions and repressions of gender, class, sex, and race—but her bold stylization is an equally prominent feature of her writing. The fact that her work ranges from epic Brechtian dramas to surreal “anti-plays” to disconnected slice-of-life episodes is part of what makes it difficult to define Churchill’s style. Flashbacks, twisted chronologies, overlapping dialogue, contradiction, repetition of word and gesture, and different actors playing the same character in different scenes are just some of the devices Churchill has employed in her plays.

Given the scope of Churchill’s experimentation (with form as well as process), many critics have noted that answering the question “What is a Caryl Churchill play?” leaves most people scratching their heads in puzzlement. Playwright April de Angelis says, “She has turned the idea of what a play should be over and over, revisioning it beyond the accepted imaginative boundaries, to produce plays that are always revolutionary.”

As eager as they are to be heard, according to Churchill’s publisher of over 40 years, Nick Hern, her characters themselves are often less “talky” (preferring to justify their existence not with long speeches but with activity) and less obviously categorizable as villains or protagonists than those of other playwrights. Actor Maxine Peake, who played the title role in Churchill’s The Skriker (about a malevolent fairy who manipulates two teenage mothers) in 2014 at London’s Royal Exchange Theatre, describes Churchill’s characters as “coming more from a physical impulse rather than a cerebral one.”

Churchill and her collaborators are often surprised by the plays that emerge from her imagination. Hern says, “The plays just turn up, without warning. I think she’s one of those shamanistic writers, in the way Harold Pinter was. A play isn’t planned or premeditated; it’s scratching an itch. They come to me and I sit down to read them, having absolutely no idea what the length or subject matter or form will be.” Much like Pinter, Churchill is also mordantly witty, whether she is training her eye on large-scale social ills or the quirky dynamics of an intimate relationship. A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff says, “Churchill’s plays are supremely alive because the scenes are endlessly active. They’re about transactions, power, competition, desire.”

Love and Information premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 2012, under the direction of Churchill’s frequent collaborator James Macdonald. De Angelis notes that this enigmatic play is an exploration of two of the most powerful human themes: needing to know and needing to love. Love and Information is a collection of 57 short, episodic vignettes that use a series of interactions between mostly unnamed characters to explore knowledge, meaning, and how we make sense of information in our lives. Each vignette is self-contained and characters are not repeated from one scene to the next, meaning that the dozen actors in our production are responsible for playing multiple roles. Some of the scenes last only five seconds, and none are longer than five minutes. Because Churchill does not include stage directions or character descriptions in Love and Information, the artistic team is tasked with filling in the blanks and creating the world of the play according to the production’s specific needs and intentions.

Overall, Love and Information presents an assortment of stories and perspectives that leave much to the viewer’s imagination. Indeed, a viewer’s process of making sense of the play may be the ultimate point that Churchill is attempting to make. As she has said, “I don’t set out to find a bizarre way of writing. I certainly don’t think that you have to force it. But, on the whole . . . I enjoy finding the form that seems to best fit what I’m thinking about.”

“Decision”
(a scene from Caryl Churchill’s script for Love and Information exactly as it appears on the page)

I’ve written down all the reasons to leave the country and all the reasons to stay.

So how does that work out?

There’s things on both sides.

How do you feel about it?

No, I’m trying to make a rational decision based on the facts.

Do you want me to decide for you?

Based on what? The facts don't add up.

I’d rather you stayed here. Does that help?

For more about Love and Information, be sure to read our latest edition of Words on Plays! Click here to order online.

For tickets to Love and Information visit act-sf.org/information.
 
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