Today I am reproducing an article that appeared this week in the UK Guardian. In it, Mark Lawson speaks to people who have worked with playwright Caryl Churchill over the course of her prolific career. At the beginning of September I wrote about Churchill in a post called On Cloud Nine which is essentially about her incredible theatrical legacy. One of the things that makes Churchill even more fascinating is that she never speaks publically about her work, hence this article talking to those who have worked with her over the years.
Caryl Churchill, by the people who know her best
Her plays arrive fully formed – and she refuses to talk about what they mean. Mark Lawson talks to actors, directors and her publisher about what really makes Churchill tick
Since the death of JD Salinger, one of my biggest regrets as an interviewer is that Caryl Churchill declines to speak publicly about her work. It’s a resolution she has stuck to through the quarter century in which she has established herself as one of theatre’s most innovative and provocative dramatists. Tantalisingly, there have now been two new plays within a month that journalists can’t ask her about: today, the Royal Court in London premieres Ding Dong the Wicked, a half-hour drama that will run alongside Love and Information, the enthusiastically reviewed full-length play that opened there three weeks ago.
In the light of Churchill’s silence, I talked to a number of people who have worked with her instead. Flexibility, it rapidly emerges, is a key quality for her collaborators. The plays about which the writer won’t speak tend to emerge out of silence themselves. Nick Hern, who has published Churchill’s plays for 40 years, first at Methuen and now at his own company, NHB, says: “The plays just turn up, without warning. I think she’s one of those shamanistic writers, in the way Harold Pinter was. A play isn’t planned or premeditated; it’s scratching an itch. They come to me – originally in the post, now by email – and I sit down to read them, having absolutely no idea what the length or subject matter or form will be.”
John Tydeman, the former head of BBC radio drama, has directed half a dozen Churchill radio plays, starting with Lovesick in 1966; he also staged her play Objections to Sex and Violence, at the Royal Court in 1975. Even as a young writer, he remembers, Churchill was unusual in not seeking payment or contracts in advance. “We never commissioned her. Even with a work that had taken a great deal of historical research, such as one called Schreber’s Nervous Illness, the play would just turn up in the post.”
This is still the case, says Dominic Cooke, artistic director of the Royal Court. “The plays aren’t usually formally commissioned. So, in that sense, they just turn up on my desk. I have no idea what I’m getting.” The late addition to this autumn’s repertoire of Ding Dong the Wicked marks the second time the author has turned up at rehearsal with a second new play. The actor Allan Corduner was rehearsing Ice-Cream at the Royal Court in 1989 when, he says, “Caryl came in and said: ‘I’ve just written another new play. Are you up for it?” Called Hot Fudge, an allusion to the other play, Corduner recalls that this unexpected extra was “rehearsed and staged in record time”.
As well as challenging theatre schedules, Churchill’s plays have a long record of testing production possibilities. “The exciting thing about Caryl,” says Cooke, “is that she always tends to break new ground. The degree of innovation is extraordinary. Every play almost reinvents the form of theatre.” And not just theatre: among her radio plays with Tydeman was Identical Twins (1968), in which the title characters were men who, the writer specified, should be played by one actor, Kenneth Haigh, whose speeches would overlap. Decades before digital editing made such effects effortless, Tydeman needed to work with broadcasting’s best technicians. “Kenneth had to record the second speech while we played the first one back, and it turned out that it was almost impossible to do that (keeping pace with your own voice) for more than 30 or 40 seconds at a time. So we had to put the play together in very small takes.”
Churchill’s interest in vocal counterpoint has continued, and tested Hern at Methuen. “We were sitting one day and Caryl said: ‘I want to have overlapping dialogue.’ And I said: ‘Oh, my God, how are we going to do that?’ And we worked it out, using a forward slash, and even put a little example of how it would work at the front of the script. And now it’s an absolutely standard way of laying out a play.”
Even before that, the writer had asked for a specific and unusual layout of her scripts (character names set to the left, with a uniform gap before the dialogue began). Hern’s experience of her polite but precise insistence is echoed in stories from the rehearsal room. Cooke, who directs Ding Dong the Wicked, says: “She is a very strong presence in rehearsals. And there is a combination of being very open to suggestion – she enjoys the process of collaboration – but also of being very specific about what she wants in some cases.”
Tydeman agrees, finding the writer “diffident and quiet, willing to listen to advice but with firmly held views on certain aspects of the text or production”. It’s an experience shared by Michelene Wandor, a dramatist who worked with Churchill on the multi-author cabaret Floorshow (1977); she says that, “while friendly, Caryl kept herself very much to herself”. Perhaps because of her public invisibility, Churchill is often described as shy, but Corduner, who also appeared in the economic comedy Serious Money (1987), has a different reading: “She is so confident about her work that she can discuss it without defensiveness. She’s completely non-dogmatic. During rehearsal, she is absolutely clear-headed about what does and doesn’t work, which is quite rare in writers. She is entirely without ego.”
Tydeman hints at a private stability that underlies this quiet certainty. “One of the things that always strikes me about her is that I think she’s the only person in my address book who is still living at the same house she was living in in the early 1960s.” He has never met Churchill’s husband, David Harter, a campaigning solicitor, but she would often refer, during their working years, to her three sons and “writing the plays at the kitchen table”.
Churchill prefers to discuss form or effects in rehearsal, rather than meaning. “She talks more in general terms,” says Corduner. “She trusts actors and doesn’t want to tread on your territory.” When he was having trouble finding a character in Serious Money, she gently replied that she couldn’t help. But when the actor’s solution involved mimicking Churchill’s own speech – “She has a slight soft-r sound” – she agreed at once. Tydeman says: “We never talked about feminism, for example. It was just there. Caryl’s view was always that the plays would speak for themselves. Which, as you know, is also the attitude that she takes to interviews.”
Ah, the interviews. As I can’t put the question to Churchill herself, I asked her collaborators if they knew why she refused to talk about her work. “I’ve never discussed her refusal to do publicity,” insists Cooke. “We just accept that that will be the situation with each play.” Possibly because, as a publisher, he feels this refusal most keenly, Hern has had the conversation. “Oh, yes. Back at Methuen, I would come out of editorial meetings, having been asked if I could get Caryl to do this or that to promote the books. And I discussed it with her and she said: ‘I really don’t like talking about my work. It makes me self-conscious when I come to write the next thing.’ She said that, if she became analytical about the plays, she was worried that whatever it is that produces them will go away. It was always about creative self-consciousness. It wasn’t: ‘I vant to be alone.'”
Another thing Churchill’s people agree on is that critics focus too much on her structural jumps. “I’m most impressed by dialogue, rather than the form,” says Wandor, “which has, I think, always had uncertainties about it. The elliptical, quasi-poetic quality of the dialogue is the most interesting element.” Cooke concurs: “I don’t think she’s been given enough credit for the quality of her dialogue – the way she captures a situation or a character in just a few lines.”
In the unlikely event that Churchill ever agreed to an interview, one question that might come up would be the fact that – from Tydeman to Cooke, Stephen Daldry and James Macdonald at the Court – she has worked almost exclusively with male directors. “Mmm. Isn’t that interesting?” says Tydeman. “I think at the start it was happenstance rather than choice, because the men were rather in the majority. But it is interesting that it continued.” Wandor says: “I’ve never discussed it with her. But I think it is true that to have had major theatrical success, male directors still seem pretty pivotal, and the management/directing by Max Stafford-Clark [her longterm collaborator at the Royal Court] was crucial to the successes of the earlier work.”
Corduner admits the question has occurred to him. “I have been very conscious of that during rehearsals. But I’ve never discussed it with her. I think, although she’s clearly a feminist and stands for many things feminism admires, she doesn’t judge people by gender. I’ve never detected a yearning to have her work directed by women. Again, it’s that confidence.”
Has her diffidence when it comes to interviews had an effect on her reputation? The final word goes to Tydeman, who says, “I’m talking about working with [Caryl], but I was always struck by how little work was needed. Her plays – like those of Tom Stoppard, with whom I also worked – always arrived fully made. I’d put her up there with Stoppard, although her reputation may be lower than it should be – because she has chosen to stay in the background.”