Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Cloud 9 (1986)

"Cloud 9" by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Deborah Nitzberg
Set Design by Fred Duer
(Ohio University School of Theater, 1986)
Recently, my wife noticed that I sometimes do not include my role as Artistic Director of Bad Epitaph Theater Company in my biography. Bad Epitaph operated (more or less) from 1999 until 2004. We had many great artistic triumphs, and a few failures. I feel my work as titular head of the company to be its Achilles' heel, and am therefore loathe to cite that responsibility as a credit.

Take for example our production of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 in the year 2000. A fine production, from an artistic standpoint; the direction, performers, all elements of design including original music and sound. Exactly the attention to detail we had been striving for in the eighteen months we had been working together as a team.

And audiences stayed away and we lost all the profits we had raked in from our acclaimed production Lysistrata. What happened?

To answer that question, I need to go back to my first semester at college.

For every theater artist there’s that show you saw that changed everything, that made you realize the full potential of what theater could be, and why it is an art form unique from all others. For me, that was Cloud 9.

First produced at the Royal Court in 1979, with a Broadway run in 1981 at the Theatre de Lys, (now the Lucille Lortel) Churchill’s work was part of the 1986-87 Season at the Ohio University School of Theatre. It was produced in repertory with Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.

Now get this: I was a freshman. I had decided to pursue a degree in acting. As a child my parents had taken me to plays and to musicals, which each seemed very different to me. I liked musicals and found a lot of plays to be boring. Not necessarily unenjoyable, just not exiting. And yet I wanted to perform in them.

Today I love watching plays, and do not find performing in them to be enjoyable. We change.

Of course, my knowledge of what a play is was quite limited. So many of the works I had seen at local theaters or performed in at high school were not new. You Can’t Take It With You. Blithe Spirit. The Importance of Being Earnest. The works of Shakespeare. To my mind, that was the majority of work an actor would do, the canon.

From left: Matthew Glave, Kevin McCarty, Alana Beth Lipp
Costume Design by William Anderson
All incoming freshman were required to take Introduction to Theatre Criticism, led at that time by the legendary Al Kaufman. A very important course, especially for a callow youth like myself, we learned the language of artistic evaluation. You like it (or you don’t) but can you articulate why?

We were told to read Cat On a Hot Tin Roof before attending the performance, but not to read Cloud 9. How does reading a play beforehand color your reception of the work? How does coming to the work without expectations?

Like a lot of my classmates, we were disheartened by this production of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. It wasn’t very good. Some performances were downright awful. Was that all right? Could we say that? Al assured us that we could.

I became concernedabout the next four years. Is that what this school has to offer?

Then I saw Cloud 9. And my head burst open.

In brief, this play is a satire on British colonialism and mores and how the past is never past. Churchill plays with form, setting the first act in 1880s in Africa, and the second act in 1979 in London … but to the characters, members of one British family and those in their community, it has only been twenty-five years.

This gap in time is not explained. It just is, and no one questions it.

It begins as some kind of British farce, the gender reversals (mother played by a man, the young son played by a woman) easily dismissed as a kind of funny panto. That is, until the highly-anticipated arrival of a famous explorer breaks the thin veneer of gentility. He attempts to seduce the mother, then the son, and finally gains his satisfaction with the African servant Joshua.

“Shall we go into the barn and fuck?” asks the explorer, and they bound off, hand-in-hand. It was hilarious, and shocking, and a release. And my idea of what theater could be changed forever.

I was stunned by the play’s frank use of language, and how it addresses issues of homosexuality, feminism, domestic abuse, drag, pedophilia, incest. But the play also created in me a deep sense of longing, desire, and disappointment. If the first act was arch comedy, the second act was more troubling, as the now-adult children, freed from Victorian restrictions, struggle to understand who they are.

What did it all mean? I did not have the words, the experience to express the feelings this production aroused in me. It was 1986. I was just eighteen years old.

From left: Kevin McCarty, Cynthia Collins
Alana Beth Lipp, Joseph Hulser
In the middle of the second act, the company breaks the fourth wall to sing to the audience, a song called "Cloud 9." In this production, the lyrics were in a capella harmony, like a street corner, doo-wop melody.
The wife lover’s children
And my lover’s wife
Cooking in my kitchen
Confusing my life
And it’s upside down when you reach Cloud Nine.
It was a sexy-sassy rendition, and I was jealous. I wanted to be them. The actors, I mean, I wanted to be performing in a show like that.

More troubling to me now are the many difficult turns my personal life was about to take and I wonder if I missed the lesson of the story, that liberation does not necessarily make us happy.

In the New York Times, Frank Rich called Cloud 9 “sentimental agitprop,” and while he didn’t mean that kindly, I wish I had had those words to include in my essay for Dr. Kaufman. As a playwright, I have become a champion of sentimental agitprop. It's what I do.

Moving ahead twelve years, I developed a desire to direct a production of Hamlet with all those artists I had met and grown close to during the previous several years. And maybe someday I will write about that production.

In brief, it was a success. We decided to produce a new play, Sin by Wendy MacLeod, and also the first Cleveland production of The Santaland Diaries, both successes. Finally, in spring 2000 we produced Lysistrata, which was a huge success.

I was happy to skip from production to production under the banner of Bad Epitaph, after Hamlet’s warning not to offend actors; “After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.” It was a moniker which invited abuse and I was all for it.

From left: Raeleen McMillion, Cynthia Collins
Kevin McCarty, Alana Beth Lipp
We were compelled to create a season. I say “we” because I am almost sure I would rather not have done so, better to just produce a play when there’s a play you want to produce. It had worked so far. But suddenly we were in competition -- or perceived that we were -- by another upstart company, Charenton Theater Company, a name even more pretentious than our own.

Charenton’s first few offerings were mid-to-mid-late twentieth century classics like Waiting for Godot and American Buffalo. Works that say, “I haven’t read a play since college.”

And what did I do? I chose to kick off Bad Epitaph’s first full season with the most memorable play I had seen in college, Cloud 9.

To be continued.

Photos courtesy of Alana Byington

Source: Sexual Confusion On ‘Cloud 9’ by Frank Rich, The New York Times, 5/20/1981


  1. This is fascinating. I saw a production of Cloud 9 at the U of Iowa in the 1980s. Liked it but it didnt hit me hard the way it did you. But I know what you mean about how certain things ... a door opens ... and until then we didn't know there was a door there ... and we take a step through it, this newly discovered door ... and find ourselves in a larger world.

    1. It truly is magical, especially if it is your first time experiencing such worlds. Thanks for sharing, I'm going to search for the production you mentioned!