Director Tamilla Woodard on Top Girls (Part One)

By Elspeth Sweatman

A year after bringing the rip-roaring adventure Men on Boats to the Strand, Director Tamilla Woodard is back at A.C.T. with Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls.

Director Tamilla Woodard describes her vision for Top Girls. Photo by Claire L. Wong.

Men on Boats, which you directed last fall at the Strand, upended stereotypes, and in a way, Top Girls is doing something similar. These are powerful female characters, but they are all still trapped inside the patriarchy. 
They are responding to the invisible presence of men. It’s like there are only women onstage but there’s a big man head hanging above them, looking down at them. [Laughs] Jaclyn [Backhaus] tackled stereotypes in Men on Boats by having no men and no mention of the fact that these female-identified bodies were playing men; men disappeared entirely. Here, no men appear onstage but man-ness is ever present. Masculinity is present. Patriarchy is present. These women are under the weight of that, even if they can’t see it themselves. They’re reacting to it, shackled to it, and, in some instances, affirming it. Each is not as free an agent as she imagines herself to be.

It sounds like there’s a natural progression from Men on Boats to Top Girls. How did Top Girls come about?
It was actually a proposal from [A.C.T. Artistic Director] Pam [MacKinnon]. She’s a smart lady, so I listen! Since Men on Boats closed, I’d been thinking of what play I wanted to propose to Pam. I was looking at many plays, trying to figure out what kind of play would succeed in a space like the Geary that’s not just a physical space but a space of dialogue with the audience. The Bay Area is very particular, and A.C.T.’s audiences are particular. What will resonate with them? I’m still asking this question with Top Girls. What are the most resonant things in this play for this audience today. 

Top Girls explores success and how each character defines success. What does success mean to you?
Gosh, I have trouble with that word. Success feels like a thing you check off the list and then you’re done. I prefer to live in a continuum where you’re learning more things, getting more tools, letting go of old things to try new things. Success to me is if, at the end of the day, I’ve managed to quell my own doubts, follow my curiosity, and take a chance on something I think might just kill me if it fails. Success is reckoning with my fear and accepting abundance; every step is a tug of war between those two things so to get to the end of the day and feel like, “I did that, I made that, I said this, I talked to this person, I was kind, I accepted kindness, I cried today, I laughed today. I didn’t hide, or I only hid for a little bit. [Laughs] I gave some love and I received love.” I made it through this day being terrified to move forward but I moved forward. That’s success. Fortune is a thing that I embrace. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity of this day, which I will never see again. This day. We’ll never see again. So I’m just grateful for it. 

This interview is excerpted from the Top Girls issue of Words on Plays. Want to read more? Order your copy here. Be on the lookout for part two of this interview, in which Woodard discusses her directorial process, and get your tickets to Top Girls now!

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