So the show I directed opened in New York to a rapturous audience reaction – very gratifying! – and I’m getting ready to board the big metal bird and jet home to Los Angeles. Which can’t come a moment too soon, for while I love New York, and loved working on the show, this trip was marked by a cold which devolved into bronchitis, a scare which caused me to spend three hours in an eye doctor’s office the day before opening, and a chipped tooth on opening night.
Not to mention lots of cold weather. Oy.
Another show which recently opened – but in beautiful sunny LA – is Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, which was directed by Casey Stangl for the Antaeus Theatre Company. Recently, I asked Casey a few questions…
Dan Berkowitz: In thirty seconds, can you tell us what Cloud 9 is about?
Casey Stangl: Cloud 9 is about the dynamics of power, particularly as it relates to gender and racism, and how those two things intersect. It’s also about how the person who we are on the inside is often not the persona that the world sees and reacts to – which sometimes can come just from virtue of a person’s role, such as they might be a powerful white man and that makes people react to them in a certain way; but on the inside, they may feel like a six-year-old girl. Churchill brilliantly theatricalizes this idea with the way she sets up the casting. Everybody plays at least two different characters; sometimes the genders are mixed up; sometimes the ages are mixed up. She really gives voice to the idea that the person on the inside may not be what the world sees.
DB: The press release says Cloud 9 has “one of the most convoluted dramatic structures in contemporary theater” – tell us what that’s all about.
CS: It’s funny because I don’t know if I would say it’s convoluted, but I think what’s being referred to is, primarily, the casting. That men are playing women and women are playing men. Children are being played by adults. That there’s all this sort of topsy turviness, and that from one act to the other, the characters all change. The other part of the structure is that in Act I, the play takes place in 1879 in Colonial Victorian-era Africa, but in Act II, it’s 1979. So it’s 100 years later – but for the characters, only 25 years have gone by. And yet, part of the brilliance of her writing is that although that’s the reality for the characters, we just plop ourselves down there in 1979 London and there’s no need for apology or explanation. It’s just a theatrical conceit, and audiences, in my experience, just go with it. And they’re delighted by the anachronisms and the ways in which some of the past recalls itself into the present.
DB: I saw the original New York production at the Theatre de Lys more than 30 years ago, and remember its being hysterically funny – and quite outrageous. After all these years, can the play still startle, or have audiences become jaded?
CS: It’s certainly still funny, and I would also add heartbreaking. That’s part of its power. The boldness of the gender role reversals, of a white man playing a black servant, was very new at the time. Since then, Churchill has been copied and imitated endlessly in different variations, so the audacity of that kind of casting is no longer unique. But it still has an incredible boldness, power and freshness. She never in any way condescends. She trusts the audience and their intelligence. I feel like, in recent years, there’s been such a dumbing down, that people feel like they have to spoon feed and have every single moment explained and make sure that we’re following every single solitary beat. But Churchill’s not afraid to leave some mystery and let some moments just happen out of reality. She’s not afraid to have contradictions and unexplained elements. I think our lives are filled with those moments.
DB: You have two completely different casts who alternate in the roles. How do you rehearse such a production? Are all the actors at all the rehearsals, or do they work separately?
CS: The way the double casting process works is if your character is called to rehearsal, then both partners come. We switch out constantly. We all work together. We mix up the groups even while working on a single scene, so that we’re always all working together. We don’t separate into two different groups until the very end of the process, right before techs. That assures that we’re all doing the same show. If we separate too early, the two groups tend to go off on their own paths and we end up with two slightly different productions. All the blocking must be the same and all of the technical cues are the same, but there is a little bit of room for difference in terms of interpretation. In fact, one of the things that I like to do is to cast people that aren’t carbon copies of each other. So that each person is going to bring a little bit of their own thing to the process, and so we end up having kind of different shades of the same color, so to speak.
DB: What are some other shows you’ve directed? Any favorites? Any you wish you’d turned down…?
CS: I’ve directed a lot. I’ve done two other Caryl Churchhill plays. The first one was Top Girls, which was my very first play at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. And I just directed one of her newer plays called Love and Information, at A.C.T. in San Francisco. In addition to the play itself being exciting, that also was the very first play in their brand new theater space, so it was fun to be able to do this new play and open a new building at the same time. I ran a theater company in Minneapolis for many years and directed a lot of plays there. Some favorites there would have been a Nicky Silver play called Fat Men in Skirts; Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby; and Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz and How I learned to Drive. I’ve also done two different productions of Venus in Fur: one at South Coast Rep and one at A.C.T. Another South Coast favorite would be the Sarah Ruhl play In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play. I’m not really a big person for regret, so even if processes have sometimes been difficult, I always feel like there is a lesson to be learned. Everything is valuable in one way or another.
DB: What’s a fun thing about you that no one else knows? (And we guarantee not to tell…)
CS: I’m very much an introvert. I don’t think most people would think that about me, but I am.
Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Casey Stangl
Through April 24
Antaeus Theatre Company
5112 Lankershim Boulevard
North Hollywood CA, 91601
Tickets: 818-506-1983 or www.Antaeus.org