British playwright Caryl Churchill is having a bit of a moment this month in Chicago. Court Theatre opens her rarely produced 1983 play, Fen, under the direction of Vanessa Stalling on February 10. And Curious Theatre Branch opens This Is Not a Churchill—four plays inspired by her work—this weekend at the Facility Theatre in Humboldt Park.
Churchill, who turned 84 this past September, is hardly an unknown quantity. Her first professionally produced play, Owners, went up in London 50 years ago. She’s the author of around 50 plays (not all of which have been produced). In the early days, a lot of her work was created through collaborations with Joint Stock Theatre Company (an experimental troupe dedicated to deep research among communities as part of the creative process) and the feminist company Monstrous Regiment, which also used an intensive workshop method in creating new scripts.
But she’s not produced regionally in the U.S. nearly as often as her contemporaries, such as the late Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. The latter, at 85, just had a Broadway premiere of his 2020 play Leopoldstadt (one of 21 Broadway productions he’s enjoyed, including revivals and multipart plays). By contrast, Churchill has had two brief Broadway runs with Serious Money in 1988 and Top Girls (perhaps her most-produced play since its 1983 premiere) in 2008. In Chicago, the most recent productions of her work include Red Theater’s revival of Vinegar Tom(from 1976) this past November; Remy Bumppo’s Top Girlsin 2020; and—of more recent vintage—2012’s Love and Information, produced at Trap Door in 2019.
Fen2/10-3/5: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 2 and 7:30 PM; audio description and touch tour Sat 3/4 2 PM (touch tour at 12:30 PM), open captions Sun 3/5 2 PM, ASL interpretation Sun 3/5 7:30 PM; Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, 773-753-4472, courttheatre.org, $28.50-$66 previews (2/10-2/17), $40.50-$82 regular run (2/18-3/5)This Is Not a Churchill2/3-2/25: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Facility Theatre, 1138 N. California, facilitytheatre.org, $15 or pay what you can
But for both Stalling and Curious Theatre Branch’s Beau O’Reilly, who is curating and producing This Is Not a Churchill as part of his BeauTown Cabaret series (formerly housed at Jimmy Beans Coffee), Churchill’s influence as a writer and theatrical visionary cannot be overstated.
The current project isn’t Curious’s first outing with Churchill. They produced her 1994 dystopian horror epic, The Skriker, in 2019 as part of Rhinofest. “It was one of my favorite productions that I’ve ever done, frankly,” says O’Reilly. “And it’s a very, very powerful play.” (The story follows a vengeful shapeshifting entity, known as a “skriker” in British folklore, who pursues two single working-class mothers in England, and is notable for the singsong, fragmented wordplay of the title character.)
While teaching a workshop at the University of Iowa after that production, O’Reilly came across a collection of Churchill’s works featuring plays he hadn’t read before, including 1999’s This Is a Chair, in which a series of fraught domestic scenes are presented with labels suggesting political conflicts, such as “The Labour Party’s Slide to the Right” and “Pornography and Censorship,” that at first seem to have nothing to do with the onstage action.
“I was intrigued by the form even more than the content,” O’Reilly notes. “There’s a title that’s a big announcement that was from the news of the day when she was writing it. And then there’s these little domestic scenes. At first, I didn’t understand how they connected. Now I have come to understand something about it, which is that the titles are about violence—public violence. And the little scenes are domestic violence, which are often presented in quite subtle ways, like just an unpleasantness in tone between people. That affected me a lot.”
Unable to acquire the rights to produce This Is a Chair, Curious decided to move forward with part of the original plan, which always included the idea of having four local writers create their own responses riffing off Churchill. Those pieces include The Umbrella Disguise, written by O’Reilly and directed by Chris Bower; (Not) What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, written by Jayita Bhattacharya and Ira Murfin and directed by Jeffrey Bivens; How To Fix Your Fatigue (Do This Everyday), written and directed by Bower; and This Is Not a Play by Caryl Churchill, Titled This Is a Chair, written and directed by Chris Zdenek.
O’Reilly notes that, while Bhattacharya and Murfin were both already Churchill fans, Bower and Zdenek were not as steeped in her work. But the support of the entire team for this project means a lot to O’Reilly right now: he’s in the middle of treatment for cancer, and has found that the energy required to direct all the pieces as well as produce the show would be overwhelming without his Curious family. “It was obvious to me that I couldn’t do all the rehearsals in the rehearsal process,” he says.
(Not) What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, part of Curious Theatre Branch’s This Is Not a Churchill at Facility Theatre Credit Jeffrey Bivens
For Stalling, Fen is her first time out directing Churchill. The project came together after she directed Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 at Court in 2019. Court artistic director Charles Newell asked her what her dream follow-up project would be. “And I just was like, ‘Well, uh, it’s a play that I don’t think anyone would wanna do, and no one would wanna produce,’” Stalling says with a laugh. “He was like, ‘What is it?’ And I just said ‘Fen by Caryl Churchill.’ Charlie just said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it! Go for it.’”
Like This Is a Chair and many of Churchill’s other plays, Fen unfolds in a series of short scenes that often focus on domestic tension and terror that reflects the larger forces of unbridled capitalism and misogyny. The title refers to the English marshlands in the eastern part of the island, which has been rich farmland for centuries. As corporate agriculture moves in, the farm workers in Churchill’s story find themselves facing growing economic terror that turns inward.
Stalling appreciates that, while Churchill’s politics are always clear, her storytelling offers nuance and layers. “Part of that is that she challenges the idea that it’s easy to understand. We start in scene one, blaming a certain source of power. And then we find later on, ‘No, no, it’s this actually, let’s look above that. It’s that person.’ It’s not so simple to say, ‘Oh, you know, those are the bad guys.’ There’s not one villain in this play. Everybody is really kind of a cog in something that if it was super easy to explain or just point at—well then, wouldn’t it be fixed?”
But Stalling also notes that, though the women may be treated as cogs by systems beyond their immediate control, Churchill gives all of them, even the most minor of characters, their own names and, thus, their own agency. Given the attacks on women’s rights and health unfolding across the nation, that makes Fen feel particularly timely. But it’s the language and theatricality of Churchill’s vision that Stalling, like O’Reilly, also feels compelled by.
“To me, the play is a compounding experience,” she says. “It’s not like you watch the play and you’re like, this event leads to this event, leads to this event, leads to this event. I hope the audience has the experience I feel like we’re having in the [rehearsal] room where it’s like the end of the play is this incredible joy and incredible grief at the exact same time.”
Dimming the house lights: Adrianne Cury (left) and David Rice in And Neither Have I Wings to Fly, the last production at Oak Brook’s First Folio Theatre. Courtesy First Folio
Farewell to First FolioIn December 2021, the board of First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook announced that they planned to close up shop at the end of the 2023-24 season. That changed to closing at the end of this season, with their final production being a staging of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in spring 2023.
Earlier this week, the company, founded in 1996 by the husband-and-wife team of David Rice and Alison C. Vesely, announced that they are now closing with the end of their current production of Ann Noble’s And Neither Have I Wings to Fly on February 26.
The reasons for closing at all were, as Rice made clear when I spoke to him about the first announcement, mostly to do with fundraising and personnel. He and Vesely (who died of ovarian cancer in 2016) could tag team as managing director and artistic director without taking market salaries for running an Equity theater. But after Vesely’s death, Rice realized that continuing the theater without a solid succession plan wasn’t feasible. As he told me in 2021, “The only way you could be sure you’re going to have the ongoing funding for something like this is if the funding had already been in place for years, which it hasn’t been, or if you could set up an endowment.”
It’s a bittersweet announcement. Though I’m glad that they’re ending largely on their own terms and without the kind of acrimony that has brought down other theaters recently, I’ve enjoyed many productions at First Folio over the years, both in their outdoor summer Shakespeare presentations on the lush grounds of the Mayslake Peabody Estate and in the atmospheric Peabody mansion and the adjoining hall. It was a helluva run.
Non-Equity Jeff nominationsChicago’s answer to the Tonys, the Joseph Jefferson Awards are presented in two different ceremonies annually: one for Equity theaters, and the other for non-Equity (which essentially means union vs. non-union houses. Or bigger regional and midsize theaters vs. smaller storefront operations, if you prefer.)
The non-Equity nominations came out earlier this week, and they cover productions from July 2021 to December 2022. The extension recognizes that some theaters didn’t start producing after the pandemic shutdown until later in 2021. The theater with the most nominations out of the more than 100 productions seen by the Jeff Awards committee members was Theo Ubique (or, as it’s now known, Theo), with a grand total of 19 nominations from five productions. They were followed by Kokandy Productions with 16 nominations (their production of Sweeney Todddrew the most for a single show, with nine); Blank Theatre Company with 14; and Invictus Theatre with 13.
The complete list of nominations is available at jeffawards.org. The ceremony will be held Monday, March 27, at Park West.
Curtain raiser for Chicago Theatre WeekFinally, if you find yourself downtown on Monday, February 6, around noon, head over to the Harold Washington Library Center for a panel discussion cosponsored by the Reader, Chicago Public Library, and the League of Chicago Theatres. “A New Year for Theatre: New Leaders, New Directions, and Exciting New Productions” serves as an appetizer for Chicago Theatre Week (February 16-26). I’ll be talking to Mica Cole, executive director of TimeLine Theatre; Marti Lyons, artistic director of Remy Bumppo Theatre; Marcela Muñoz, co-artistic director for Aguijón Theater; and freelance director Grace Dolezal-Ng. It’s free, but reservations and information are at leagueofchicagotheatres.org.