Revisiting Top Girls with A.C.T.'s Fellows

By Carey Perloff

In 1982, I was an intern in the casting office at the Public Theater in New York when Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls premiered in London. One of my first assignments during my internship was to set up general auditions for the American version of the play about to be held at the Public. So it was a surreal and wonderful experience, over 30 years later, to go to A.C.T.’s Costume Shop Theater to see our own A.C.T. fellows tackle the play for their annual self-produced project. 

The cast of Top Girls dressed as women in history. Photo by Shannon Stockwell. 

Clearly, the ferocity, wit, and despair of Churchill’s feminist tale still holds, and seems to speak directly to young theater artists. I have to admit that when I first encountered the play at age 22, I was fascinated by the imaginative first act, in which intrepid women of many eras (from Pope Joan to Lady Nijo) meet for a celebratory dinner in contemporary London, and less enamored of the second part of the play, a condemnation of Thatcherite Britain. 

All these years later, Top Girls seemed more complex than I had remembered it. Marlene, the paragon of commercial success in 1980’s London, seemed sadder and more lost, despite her professional success. The arguments between her and her working-class sister seemed more nuanced and harder to resolve. Is this because we are mired in our own inequality struggles in such a visceral way today? Is it because while women’s professional success is taken more seriously today than it was when I was in my twenties, personal satisfaction and collective respect seem to remain elusive?

A.C.T.’s fellows are a remarkable bunch—they come to us from every corner of the country, with a vast range of interests and levels of experience. Their project is a chance for them to take the reins and do it all themselves, from fundraising to marketing to directing to dramaturgy to stage management to performance. 

Despite the very sober subject matter of the play (the last word of the script is “frightening”), I came away from this Top Girls feeling inspired and more than a little proud. Our fellows had taken a hugely challenging play, an impossibly short rehearsal period, a series of setbacks from losing actors to weeks of sickness in the company, and created something authentic, intelligent, and beautiful. I knew it would thrill Caryl Churchill that, well into her seventies, she was still inspiring young artists to rigorously reimagine their world. That this group of twentysomethings met the challenge with such heart and craft, while simultaneously working full days at their respective jobs at A.C.T., gave me great hope. The future of the American theater is in good hands!

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