The first play Brian ever officially pitched to me was Caryl Churchill’s “Mad Forest.” It was 1993. We were in college, and Brian had just passed the torch of our student theatre group’s “creative director” role to me, a position I’d covet for three years, early proof that I was the only one among us crazy enough to prefer the producer hat to all others. In retrospect, I think I may have been installed as a puppet leader, at least artistically. We all knew and trusted Brian’s taste in playwrights and scripts, so all I really had to do in my first year was green-light whatever pet project he brought to the table.
Now, let’s be clear – when Jon Bailey (Custom Made fight choreographer, actor) coined, “Custom Made Theatre – big plays, small spaces,” he had no idea just how far back that truth stretches. I met Brian at Clark University where, as a junior, he was directing Brecht’s “Galileo.” Now, I challenge you – go take a look at the size of Clark’s student body and its even smaller theatre department, and you tell me how anyone approved such an undertaking. Even if he did pull it off and, admittedly, impressively well, it was the kind of risk a cheap like me avoids.
“Mad Forest,” by comparison, was small, but I hesitated none-the-less. Even at nineteen, working with student council funding that I didn’t exactly have to raise, I was budget-obsessed. So, my first thought with “Mad Forest” was along the lines of, “A play about Romania? Apart from a fast-shrinking community of Slavophiles, who would come?”
Brian could have argued that it didn’t matter if 10 people showed up since, after all, the two-dollar tickets only went back into the same student council fund from which they’d come, to be divvied up again the following semester. But even then, Brian knew better. It would be only one semester later that I exercised my most sinister producer move, convincing the other student theatre group to co-produce which basically meant doubling my budget while forfeiting no control.
So Brian made an actual case. He dared me to read the script and not like it. He guaranteed there was at least one ensemble part for me. He said I was under-estimating the student body and professors alike he was sure would attend. And then he pulled out the big gun – “diverse casting.”
OK, let’s pause here to note that, back then, “diverse” could translate to, “sure, a woman can play a role clearly written for a man” or “French accent, eh? European diversity – that works” or, “Asian? Well, it’s not east coast Jewish – it’ll do.” I am pleased to report, two decades later, that our friend who runs the department has done a heck of a job creating the actual diversity we so longed for back in my day. But the world carried weight for me even under those conditions; my curiosity was piqued.
Armed with the knowledge that Brian would make some interesting casting choices, and that I’d be included in that cast, I set about discovering Caryl Churchill. It was, not surprisingly, love at first read. Who composes an entire scene of no dialogue that, in seconds, immerses us entirely in the extreme discomfort of being bugged in our own home? Who talks about Ceausescu so accessibly and passionately? Who writes a history of a people by painting a landscape of talking dogs, devils, and Archangels, with the musicality such fantastical worlds conjure?
My embrace of Churchill’s writing was immediate and enduring. When Brian brought “Top Girls” to the season plan, I felt we’d come full circle somehow. “Mad Forest,” all those years ago, also marked my first sense of an inner, dormant feminist. It was a moment of realizing how few female playwrights were on my radar, and how few seemed to be represented in the professional theatre I’d seen. I recognized that part of my instant love of Caryl Churchill was that she is a woman – that this was a female voice speaking about issues important to me, with a craft that absolutely dazzles.
When people have asked why “Top Girls” and why now, I am rather floored. Ms. Churchill is, in my mind at least, a pinnacle political voice in the theatre. We find ourselves, as women, at an odd moment in history. A generation of women positioned women of my own generation to be so fortunate as to be complacent. We take, or took, for granted what they fought so hard to earn for us, only to realize we dropped the ball. We needed to pick up the proverbial torch and continue to push because, when you get lax, is when things start to slip or stall. The genius of “Top Girls” is its timelessness – we are, whether we care to admit it or not, grappling with the same issues today as when Churchill originally wrote the play. The questions, the challenges don’t change so much as shift.
As a woman in the theatre, I accept that there is a responsibility to ensure we are represented at every creative level. I find myself in the rare, fortunate position of having an artistic director/theatre mentor who learned well from his feminist mother. “Top Girls,” he said this time last year, because it is a fiercely political voice and, specifically, a woman’s voice, in a story full of women, to be directed by a woman. If I lose sight of the conscious decision to promote female voices in the theatre, Brian is always there to remind me.
Finally, above all else, why “Top Girls” and why now? Because Caryl Churchill is a great writer and, at Custom Made, that is always going to be a top priority. Without the playwright, there is nothing for us to produce. And it is truly an honor to produce this show.
Leah Abrams, Executive Director
You have written a wonderfully compelling piece for all to be inspired to see if able and if not to at least read.
Thank you for this .
Bravo, Leah, for expressing so eloquently the realization that your generation of women has to fight to gain back all that my generation fought to gain and watched being lost again. Keep up the good work. You always make me proud.
For real. She will always be relevant. Oh, By the way? The only part I’ve ever wanted to play was the dog in Mad Forest.