How Does Caryl Churchill Affect The Acting

And Production Process Through Her Script Writing? Essay, Research Paper

Caryl Churchill has furthered feminist performance theory, in the last twenty years,

and broadened traditional views of gender roles through her script writing. For

example, her plays Cloud Nine and Top Girls defy traditional convention, with Cloud

Nine’s cross-gender casting and Top Girl’s pro-Thatcherite ethos as its foundation.

Churchill has affected the acting and production process in the way she has written

her scripts, such as the mentioned pieces, and the way in which theatre is performed.

“Her work is heavily influenced by the practices of experimental

and physical theatre: not one to make it easy for an audience, she

prefers to tell a tale in a challenging, sometimes meandering way.”

The language in Far Away appears very normal within the context of the piece,

though the subject of the book is something that most audiences would either not

understand or be disgusted by.

“… and in fact I killed two cats and a child under five so it

wasn’t that different from a mission.” – Joan

Churchill’s script, for Far Away, can be seen to turn our present day society into a

collection of barbarous individuals, sparing no exception to the animal kingdom and

Mother Nature. One could see this as Churchill’s own portrayal of the War of the

Worlds. Joan shows concern regarding where the loyalties of the nearby river lies.

This could be seen as quite an absurd gesture, however falls into place within the

Daniel Moscovitch Caryl Churchill 2

context of the piece and the society in which the characters are living in. Everything

on planet Earth is at war with one another. Churchill’s post modern script can be seen

to affect the acting and production process by the way in which it transforms the

actors into characters, that are unrelated to present day society, who far more in touch

with their primordial instinct of ‘survival of the fittest’ in this unimaginable war.

“I’ve shot cattle and children in Ethiopia. I’ve gassed mixed troops

of Spanish, computer programmers and dogs. I’ve torn starlings apart with

my bare hands… I could go on all day doing that, it was better than sex.”

- Todd.

The characters within Churchill’s script appear almost quite normal at the

beginning, in regards to the very start of the play where the initial conversation

between Joan and Harper, Joan’s aunt, takes place. Harper can be seen to be very

protective of Joan, and how much of the truth she is being exposed to, with the

continuous number of explanations she gives to Joan about what she ‘saw’ her uncle

doing. If one were to look at what these characters are saying, one might be able to

look deep into the eerie truth behind their actions. It’s important to note the way in

which Todd describes his destructive behaviour as being ‘better than sex’. One could

come to the conclusion that in the world of Far Away, the violence that has ensued as

a result of the war, has become a replacement to an intimate and powerful exchange

of emotions. This can be used as an example to show how Churchill’s script has

turned things around for the human race, animal kingdom and Mother Nature in such

a way, as to affect the way in which regular theatre might be approached through the

Daniel Moscovitch Caryl Churchill 3

acting and production process.

“Caryl Churchill’s chilling vision of the future brilliantly

directed by Stephen Daldry.” (Review of Far Away)

Blue Kettle is the story of a disturbed and insecure individual called Derek who

preys on old women making claim to being the son they never knew. The language

that Caryl Churchill adopts in this piece is very simple and clear from the start, and is

conventionally banal. Eventually the language being adopted is broken down,

deconstructed to an exchange of words that include ‘blue’ and ‘kettle’. This can be

seen like a child’s game of exchanging real words for code words, to prevent

outsiders/adults from understanding what is being said. However, in the rhythm of the

sentence the changed words fall into place and it is clear what is meant. Towards the

end of the play, the two words crowd out almost all the rest, but the meaning is still

fairly clear. But, in the closing scene, ‘blue’ has been reduced to ‘bl’ or ‘b’ and

‘kettle’ to ‘ket ket ket’ or ‘k k k’. And as one can see from this how Caryl Churchill

affects the acting process through her script writing.

“Churchill has never been a playwright cowed by dramatic conventions…

in Blue Kettle, language itself is eventually tossed aside, as the dialogue

of the emotionally resonant little play is gradually reduced to the two words

of the title – and ultimately just the letters that compose them – with scant

loss in the power or meaning.”

In regards to the characters of Blue Kettle, there are varied selections of different

Daniel Moscovitch Caryl Churchill 4

personalities who appear in the play. The mothers in Blue Kettle, Mrs Plant, Mrs

Oliver, Mrs Vane, and Mrs Clarence all come from different backgrounds and have

all got distinctive personalities. And finally, Derek, the play’s anti-hero, is an

unmarried nobody of forty years, preying on the old women who have had to give up

a son at birth, either because they were unmarried, or already married to someone not

the father. Derek has a girlfriend called Enid whom he lives with, but he seems less

interested in her than in the succession of mothers he finds for himself.

“Ket ket still… I’m still ket I am … if bl liked me.” – Derek

Derek appears a lot weaker than he might appear, as he desperately goes between one

mother to another searching for something he has not already found. This may be in

relation to the fact that Derek’s own mother is in a geriatric ward with failing health

and offers little comfort to Derek. Here we can see another way in which Churchill’s

script writing has affected the acting and production process by the way in which she

is able to create layers within the plot, whereby having a continuous underlying

meaning to Derek’s search for an alternative mother as an emotional substitute as

apposed to a means to financial gain.

“The device symbolizes the deeper truth the play itself illustrates, as Derek’s

quest is seen to be less a result of opportunism than desperate need – his own

mother is in failing health, and he seems to be searching for substitutes. The

final scene, in which one of the women learns that he is not in fact her son, and

Derek implores her to love him anyway, is both devastating and uplifting.”

Daniel Moscovitch Caryl Churchill 5

In our own production of Blue Kettle a simple set was used. There was a blue sink

that had a blue kettle on it, the set was painted black and we used white seats. The

blue was symbolic as a means that everything blue within the piece reflected Derek’s

lies. This was also relevant to the way in which the way the stage was lit. A blue flood

was cast on the back walls of the set whenever Derek met with ‘his’ mothers as

continuity to this symbolism, and a small blue light was placed underneath the sink to

add to the already surreal atmosphere of the play. Through Churchill’s script, the

group was left free to explore the symbolism in our approach to the staging and the set

of Blue Kettle. And through it came our own interpretation, thus showing how

Churchill affected the production process.

Enid: What is it? Blue are you doing? Why are you kettle

whatever it is you’re kettle?

Derek: It’s probably got multi-benefits.

Among the issues within the play adoption was one of the main issues, though

ironically Derek was not looking for his biological mother, but a replacement mother

for his ‘real’ mother who had been placed in a geriatric ward. Thus leading onto the

mental state of Derek, who appears to be a very weak character, whose behaviour can

be seen to have been seen as a desperate cry for help. Isherwood, in his review of

Blue Kettle, had pointed out that Derek was an insecure individual that lacked

stability. One could compare this to Tom Ripley in Minghella’s ‘The Talented Mr

Ripley’, as an unstable individual who “… thought it would be better to be a fake

somebody than a real nobody.” The issues of this play are things that are universal in

Daniel Moscovitch Caryl Churchill 6

the respect that nobody is ever completely one hundred percent stable, and this is the

way Churchill’s script would affect the acting and production process by putting the

actor in touch with, what some would believe to be, feelings that are inherent in all

human beings.

Price: I see

and headboard would buy a pump for a well and a camel

cart and a –

In After Dinner Joke, Churchill has chosen to concentrate on the universal issue of

third-world awareness and the plight of the people of famine stricken Africa. The

approach in Churchill’s script for After Dinner Joke gave a clear cut story of what

was happening in these countries in Africa, and what was being done in the way of

solving these problems.

The approach that was taken in After Dinner Joke for the University’s production

can be seen to have been very Brechtian in its nature, in comparison to Blue Kettle’s

more naturalistic approach. The lead character, Selby, is quite literally running and

jumping in between the scenes. It may be suggested that there was a sense of time

moving ever quicker between scenes as well. For example, Selby finds herself

captured by the local militia in a scene directly after having had a conversation with

the Mayor where she was never in any obvious danger from an onlooker’s

perspective. It is important to note, however, the difference the piece has when staged,

in comparison to the original TV recording. One can see how Churchill’s script has

Daniel Moscovitch Caryl Churchill 7

affected the acting and production process of this particular production of After

Dinner Joke.

The characters within After Dinner Joke can be seen to be very typical in the

everyday life of the corporate world. For example, you have a head of a company,

namely Price, who is very fond of an employee, Selby. There is another top man in

the company who is not as pleasant as Price, Dent, who wishes to remove Price and

discredit Selby at every turn.

“Miss Selby seems incapable of recommending a project.”

- Dent

Churchill’s script for After Dinner Joke can be seen to have a very truthful over view

of what goes on at the top of the corporate ladder in most companies, and gives access

to the actor to experience the reality of the Dog-Eat-Dog system within the corporate


“Top Girls (1982) again sets history against the present. But here,

unlike Cloud 9, the comparison demonstrates that changes in the

position of women are superficial.”

As this paper moves on from After Dinner Joke, one can see how Top Girls

represents a point in which Churchill script writing takes a step beyond the audience

fascination that was received with Cloud Nine’s sex and gender reversal and

subsequent feminist commentary.

In examining Churchill’s language in Top Girls, the actor can be seen to learn not

Daniel Moscovitch Caryl Churchill 8

only when his/her line begins, but also what words of the previously spoken line spark

the response from the other actor. These moments have been referred to as

‘overlapping’. These points in the script identify to the actor instances of heightened

conflict, whereby the needs and the emotions might intensify. The language of Top

Girls, and the way it has been written by Churchill, can be seen to show meaning and

indicate direction to the actors, as well as the socialist and feminist commentary and

criticism. From this piece, one can see the way in which there is uniqueness to

Churchill’s dramatic language, with the now identifiable overlapping, pauses, and

rhythmic stops and starts.

“Marlene’s explicitly Thatcherite competitive ethos has no place for the

uneducated and the under privileged… The cost of reaching the top in

such a system is demonstrated by the revelation that this girl (Dull Gret)

is Marlene’s unacknowledged daughter… The pursuit of capitalist rewards

has meant rejecting maternal instinct human feelings and moral values.”

The characters within Top Girls can be seen to show the transitional period in

Thatcherite Britain where women were becoming career-minded and finding

themselves in career positions never before filled by women. Marlene is the exact

example of where women were headed in the corporate world. One could see the way

Churchill has also included this into After Dinner Joke, which is set in the latter part

of the seventies, whereby at the end of the play Selby is in a managerial position.

Though this was done in a more light-hearted spirit without the solemn tones that

hang about Top Girls. This can be seen to be the way in which Churchill’s attention to

Daniel Moscovitch Caryl Churchill 9

current affairs in plays such as Top Girls and After Dinner Joke have affected the

acting and production process.

Caryl Churchill can be seen to have affected the acting and production process of

today’s theatre in many different ways through her script writing. The ‘chilling

vision’ of the future in Far Away pushes the actors into a new world, a new approach

to their character studies. Top Girls, a reflection of Thatcherite Britain in the late

seventies and eighties, takes the actors back to a milestone for the women population

of Britain. After Dinner Joke, another reflection of the fight for Third World

awareness and the fight against poverty and famine in the late seventies that would

lead to such projects as Band Aid. This paper has seen how these particular scripts

have affected the acting process, by pushing actors to achieve new feats, and the

production process, by the way in which a play is staged and cast.


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