Caryl Churchill and the Creation of Cloud 9
By Fiona Kyle, Artistic Apprentice
During its hit Off-Broadway run in 1981, reviewers called Cloud 9, “The most confusing show in Manhattan.” In Caryl Churchill’s provocative romp, men play women and women play boys in Act One and then trade places in Act Two. The confusion is deliberate on the part of playwright. Churchill examines gender confusion by parodying the ideals of femininity and masculinity in Victorian Colonial Africa and then sensitively investigating the legacy of those ideals in Pre-Thatcherite London. Actors from the original New York production declared, “I bet there’s something in every role that you don’t want your mother to see you doing!” Cloud 9 is searingly funny, bitingly tender, and downright sexy.
Caryl Churchill has been hailed by some as the “greatest living playwright,” whose prolific oeuvre challenges audiences by investigating politics, sexuality, identity, and feminism through non-naturalistic theatrical styles. Churchill was born in London in 1938 and moved to Québec, Canada after World War II. She returned to England to attend Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford in 1957. While at university, she began writing radio plays for BBC Radio including The Ants, Lovesick, and Abortive. Churchill’s first professional stage production, Owners, was in 1972 at the renowned Royal Court Theatre in London. She was the Resident Dramatist at the Royal Court Theatre from 1974 to 1975.
Churchill has received many accolades throughout her long career as a dramatist. She received Obie Awards for Playwriting in 1981 and 1982 for Cloud 9 and Top Girls, respectively. She has twice won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, awarded to women playwrights, in 1984 for Fen and in 1987 for Serious Money. In 2001, she received the Obie for Sustained Achievement; in 2010 she was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. Her plays have been produced at some of the most prestigious theaters in the UK and America including the National Theatre and the Young Vic Theatre in London, and the Public Theatre and New York Theatre Workshop in New York City.
In the 1970’s, Churchill worked with various theatre groups including Monstrous Regiment and, perhaps most notably, Joint Stock Theatre Group, founded in 1974 by Max Stafford-Clark, David Hare, and David Aukin. The Joint Stock method of creating new plays was to bring in a playwright, actors, and a director to improvise on a subject. After improvising a scene from a given situation supplied by the director or playwright, the company would discuss how it made them feel to portray it, what worked, and what didn’t. Following the workshop, the playwright would have a period of time to write the script before rehearsal began. During rehearsal, the playwright would work until production as the actors continued to make discoveries about the play.
Cloud 9 was born out of Joint Stock in 1978-1979 in a workshop on sexual politics. The participants were a mix of singles, couples, and exes who had had same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. In the confidential and safe space created by Stafford-Clark and Churchill, each actor told the group their sexual history. The actors were asked to role-play situations in the workplace, at home with their families, or other instances where sexual politics were at play. At times the actors would be asked to play the opposite gender from themselves in order to explore gender performance—the concept that gender is not something that a person is but rather something a person does.
Occasionally, guests were invited into the workshop. Some actors’ parents and grandparents visited and were interviewed about their lives and relationships. The title of the play emerged during an interview with one of these guests, namely the caretaker of their rehearsal hall. The older woman told the story of how she escaped from an abusive marriage and later married a man with whom she enjoyed sex. She told the group, “Now we have sex sometimes as much as twice a week and I’m on Cloud 9.”
Cloud 9 premiered at Dartington College of the Arts near Devon before transferring to the Royal Court Theatre in 1979. It first graced the American stage at the Theatre de Lys, later renamed the Lucille Lortel Theatre, in 1981. The play keeps the spirit of that original workshop alive by asking the audience to consider gender as performance and how society has imposed the paradigm of normative masculinity or femininity upon people. As actors play opposite genders, and races, Churchill explores through satire, witty dialogue, and the occasional song what it means for the characters to perform for their spouses, partners, and relatives in order to gain acceptance. Cloud 9 began as a rumination about sexual politics and blossomed into a wickedly funny play that sharply identifies how race, gender, and sexuality affect every facet of a person’s life from parenting and work to private moments alone. Churchill’s landmark comedy continues to be as relevant today as it was in 1979.