In today’s Verbatim, we’ve got a transcript of my interview with Alisa Palmer, director of Cloud 9, currently playing in Toronto at the Panasonic Theatre. Cloud 9 is British playwright Caryl Churchill’s 1979 play that masks a scathing critique of English colonialist notions of sex, gender, and race beneath a fast-talking and often absurd family comedy.
I talked with Alisa Palmer, director of this latest remount, about what’s changed in the 30 years since Cloud 9 debuted—and what still has the power to shock.
Graham F. Scott: Cloud 9 is 30 years old now. When it debuted it was very much of its time. So what appealed to you about it today?
Alisa Palmer: Well, as we were just chatting, I’m a student of the philosophy of history, but what the past holds for us is sometimes it’s easier to see what the truth of a story is when there’s an arm’s length on it. And I think when it debuted, a lot of the reputation of the play was how theatrically experimental it was, or how politically and sexually sensational it was. And so the shock value was part of its reputation. And now that 30 years have passed, the shock value has abated because we’re more explicit culturally about what goes on in people’s bedrooms. So that effect has kind of been diffused with time and I think it allows the heart of the story to come through more easily.
And that’s really what was interesting to me, is that essentially I find it’s kind of a family drama told in a very unusual way. And the core of the family story is how raising children and different values that travel through generations affect people when they become adults. And so, in the first act we see this kind of archetypal, satirical version of a family—a 1950’s family—and she sets in it colonial Africa as kind of a poetic license. And then the children in that act grow up and we see them in the second act in their proper time and place—in 1980’s London—and their choices for how they conduct their relationships and their personal lives seem to be informed intensely by how their raised as children, and the gender expectations and the emotional expectations, and repressions –all those things. And that to me is an essential story.
I think Northrop Frye, he talks about how there’s only really one story, and that’s, who am I? How do I become who I am? And it’s a story of identity. And you can go across all the great plays, you know “to be or not to be” and King Lear, how do I fulfill who I am in whatever age of life I’m living? And this goes back to Cloud 9 as well. How do I fulfill who I am? How do I become a full person without stepping on someone else’s toes while making authentic choices? So that’s what drew me to it. I thought, 30 years of time, now we can actually hear the story which is more about relationships and finding out who you are, fulfilling who you are. And the other wild stuff about the style or the content will take a back step. It’s the fun part of the play, but it’s not the heart of the matter.
Graham F. Scott: And yet, apparently it still does have the ability to shock because you said in the director’s notes in the program that you got e-mails objecting to this play even being staged. What were the objections you heard?
Alisa Palmer: There are people who are concerned about Anne of Green Gables. (Laughs)
Graham F. Scott: How so?
Alisa Palmer: This is so fascinating because we all know that actors are actors and they play different roles, but there’s also some part of us, or some part of the population, that really suspends disbelief. So when an actor takes on a role you identify with that role. So Megan Follows was in the play, and she’s done so many different films and TV shows and stage pieces, but she’s most famous for being Anne of Green Gables when she was a teenager, or a young child. So she has a fan base that was dedicated to her, and some of them can’t make the distinction between Megan Follows and Anne of Green Gables. There’s a lot of dismay about Megan Follows selling the reputation of Anne of Green Gables by playing a lesbian. (Laughs)
Graham F. Scott: That’s bizarre.
Alisa Palmer: It is bizarre, and I think that would be the main point, the most articulate outcry. The experience that I have often is, I look at a play and I think, well this speaks to me I feel right at home with this, and then I think, am I a freak because other people think it’s so wild? And I go back to my childhood to my parents’ faces and reactions to things I would do that I think are perfectly normal, whether it’s dating a woman and then dating a man and then dating a woman, and their jaws would drop and I would think, am I a freak? And I remember my mother saying, why do you behave this way? Why do you live this way? And I said, well because you’ve raised me to believe that people are equal. You’ve done such a good job at raising me. And she was stumped! (Laughs) She was stumped and she said, you should go into law. But theatre’s kind of like law. You make an argument and other people can make their decisions about it.
Graham F. Scott: This is the second Caryl Churchill play that you’ve directed inside a year with Top Girls for Soulpepper [correction: this production was actually 2007], so there’s also the Caryl Churchill festival that’s going on right now in Manitoba and then the Shaw Festival’s going to be remounting Serious Money this summer. It seems like there’s a Churchill moment happening right now. So why two plays for you, and then why do you think that Caryl Churchill is so on the radar right now?
Alisa Palmer: I actually have done four plays of hers, technically, although one was with the University of Toronto theatre program and I did a dream play. That was something that premiered an adaptation of the Strindberg play that Caryl did. And I did a workshop production of The Skriker, I think it was almost about nine years ago with the World Stage Festival, a Night with Theatre. And we did this in-house workshop production and Caryl Churchill came over and I worked with her on it. That play was brought to me by an actor, Claire Coulter, and it has an amazing part for a woman actor in it. And I had heard of Caryl Churchill a great deal, but I wasn’t familiar with her work because I didn’t study theatre in university. So if you don’t study theatre, you often don’t get to read a lot of the pioneering writers, because they’re usually part of the curriculum and they don’t get produced professionally. So The Skriker was brought to me and I started to read the play. I found her voice formidable and amazing, and she was still writing and she was, at the time, in her mid-60’s, and I thought, this is incredible.
So I worked on that play, and at the same time I started to realize that the time was right to do her masterpieces, which are Cloud 9 and Top Girls. They had been done in Canada 30 years before with ensembles, really significant actors who went on to have these great careers and they were always landmark productions. And I thought the time was right to do this so I started – and this was eight years ago – I started talking to people about producing either of those plays, and the response I got was, again, I must be crazy. People were saying, they’re dated pieces, they’re feminist pieces, they’re topical, the issues have all been dealt with; which cracked me up, because it’s like, how do you finish human rights? How have you finished them? It didn’t make any sense to me and I thought, there’s a gender bias going on, there’s something at work that is preventing this woman’s writing from being recognized the way Pinter’s plays are, Sam Shephard’s plays are, other people who are writing in the ‘60s and ‘70s and who’s work is not being considered “dated”. Or a special lobby interest group of people who want to do it, like women or something.
So it took me a long time to find creative partnerships and Soulpepper was one of the first people that picked up Top Girls and I was convinced that it would sell from working at Nightwood [Theatre] and from being able to have financial success with shows that are feminist. I know there’s an audience out there for people who want material that’s really savvy and sophisticated. I think a lot of times people underestimate the theatre audience and it’s got itself in some kind of ivory tower and it’s formidably frumpy on a bad day. And there’s a whole bunch of circumstances why that happens, and a lot of it has to do not with theatre practitioners, but with the general perception of media and culture and where it’s going, and that’s a whole other conversation. But in any case, when Soulpepper agreed to produce this I thought, that’s great. I was excited about that because it would draw attention to Caryl Churchill as a writer of classics and it would sort of authorize her work because Soulpepper’s known for doing classics. And it was one of the most successful productions that I’ve done and there was an audience for it, which was no accident in my eyes, and I encouraged them to consider doing Cloud 9. And as it turned out, the Mirvish’s were first off the mark to really go for it.
But I think that the production of Top Girls, my experience is that it took the curse off of a play that had been considered dated and experimental, all those misconceptions of this play about women. I think it took the curse off of it, and other people started realizing that you can do a play that is artistically and politically challenging. People actually like it and they’re interested and they’re game?. And at Soulpepper, Top Girls was the first production of a play by a woman that they had ever produced. After eight years or nine years, to have had eight seasons of work without a single play done by a woman, I mean you actually have to make an effort to do that. But they’ve changed their course now, and they have more shows by women. I think they have more shows in the season now than they’ve had in the last decade, so I guess they’re catching on to the rockin’ trend of women being functioning artists. (Laughs)
So I think the success of Top Girls took the curse off of Churchill and actually excited people about it. And there are tons of people who were always interested in her work but there’s nothing more reassuring than seeing audiences getting excited about it, and let people go forward with what they knew in their hearts anyway a lot of time.
Graham F. Scott: Now, in terms of the success of women in theatre, in terms of writing and directing, do you see improvement? I mean, you are yourself, kind of an example of someone who’s doing well, but are you the exception to the rule?
Alisa Palmer: I’m happy to say, you know I’ve had recent successes, like East of Berlin has been this phenomenal experience of touring for three years and being remounted three times, and it written by this woman writer. And I’ve made an effort to get work by women out there, and that’s what I did when I was running Nightwood, it’s like, get it into the mainstream. So there’s a lot of really good things that I’ve experienced myself and the changes at Shaw Festival with Jackie Maxwell being in charge and her inclusivity has just been sublime. And she’s sort of normalizing women as artists in that sphere of the festivals and that level.
But, all that being said, I moved here about 18 years ago, and I think in the ‘80s, when I was in university, my impression was that there were a lot more artistic directors who were women, and there was an acknowledged excitement about work that talked about women’s experiences. And I had one person say it was a fad. (Laughs) I can’t really say that I’m willing to say that, but every 50 years or so there seems to be this acknowledgement that women’s work has suffered from gender bias and sexism and it hasn’t had the same authority in the mainstream and culture that men’s work has, and people sort of say, yeah, that’s right, that’s true, there is sort of this old patriarchy, and let’s address it and make some changes.
And then there’s this reaction the other way, like a company like Soulpepper emerged 10 years ago and they were lauded by a lot of the media for doing work that hasn’t been done on Toronto stages. But that fact was that they were doing international work of a classical canon, which means there were no plays by women, there were no plays by artists of colour, and there were no Canadian plays. And so I thought it was interesting that 10 years ago, for the media to say, wow, we really needed this. When, in fact, it had only been 30 years before that that people like Paul Thompson were arguing for Canadian content. And the Canada Council was developed in the ‘50s to make it possible to do Canadian content and not colonial work, so for the media to say 10 years ago, well, we really need this colonial work again, as if it hasn’t been done. That seemed to be a revisionism. And sometimes it keeps happening with the media’s perception of art—like wow, we really need to do some of these plays that have been so neglected, like Shakespeare. (Laughs) So all of that is to say, without trying to denigrate the efforts of anybody who’s doing art, like Soulpepper’s, or anybody at all, it’s all legitimate. The wider the spectrum of art that gets done; the better. But it seems like in spite of my good experience as a woman artist, it’s not as rocking and developed for women artists as it was 20 to almost 30 years ago in the ‘80s and so on, so it’s been a downside. But now I think the nose is coming up again. We’re moving ahead and moving forward and people are realizing that it should be more integrated.