Escaped Alone at Red Stitch Actors' Theatre
A sun-drenched suburban backyard, four older women: Vi, Sally and Lena and the visiting Mrs Jarrett reflect on their lives over the course of many summers together. A mariticide, an ailurophobe, a shut-in and a sometime lollypop lady. The years run into each other and the recollections take on a strangely unsettling tone as the neighbourly Mrs J takes turns as both narrator, and bizarre, cryptic chronicler of doom. Churchill’s fantastical evocation of the mundane teetering on the edge of the apocalypse is at once a linguistic joy ride, a car crash and a theatrical marvel.
Rosie spoke with actor Caroline Lee about the need for the Australian premiere of this work, and why Caryl Churchill's plays continue to be popular with both young and old. Read the full interview below:
You’re an ensemble member of Red Stitch Theatre, so this isn’t your first project with the company. How have you found working with Red Stitch, and what lead you to get involved in their production of Escaped Alone?
I’ve been an ensemble member of Red Stitch since the beginning of 2017, and prior to that I did three shows with the company. Being an ensemble member has been very rewarding: in particular contributing to discussions and decisions about programming; developing new Australian works through our Ink program; being part of a collective, and contributing to the culture of that collective; and performing in some wonderful plays with excellent directors and amazing teams of actors and other creatives.
As soon as Ella presented the ensemble with the possibility of Red Stitch programming Escaped Alone I was incredibly excited and enthusiastic. I immediately put my hand up to be considered for this piece and was very fortunate to be cast.
Caryl Churchill’s works are applauded by many, and her stories continue to be told throughout the world. Why do you think her works are so popular, and what personally attracted you to this script?
I have performed in another Caryl Churchill play, Far Away, as well as having done scene work on a number of her other plays. Each time I’ve worked on her texts I admire and respect her even more. Churchill’s language is amazing: its economy, its poetry, and I also really love the way politics is central to her work, but not in a necessarily obvious or straightforward way. Her plays are often challenging for actors, because there is a lot which needs to be figured out, filled in, and they also require a lot of concentration to perform, but they are incredibly rich and rewarding. Also, Churchill makes audiences think, reflect and feel…what more could you want as a performer?
Escaped Alone explores the mundane while teetering on the edge of an apocalypse, combining neighbourly chit-chat with visions of apocalyptic horror. What do you think playwright Caryl Churchill intended this script to do, and how do you think jumping between the comfortable and the terrifying achieves this?
It seems to me that the play asks us to confront the destruction of the planet, and what we should, or can, do in the face of that horror. Like all good art, the play doesn’t allow for simple judgements or solutions. Perspectives and understandings shift as the play progresses, and this is achieved in part by the shifts between the comfortable and the terrifying, and also by us becoming more familiar with nuances and undercurrents within both the comfortable and the terrifying. All is not as it first might appear. The play fully explores the idea that human beings are no longer on stable ground, and it leaves us with questions about where can we go from here.
There are few playwrights that create roles for older female actors, but Caryl has been specific that each of the characters in Escaped Alone are ‘at least 70 years old’. How does the use of only older voices shift the dynamic of the play, and why is it so important to be creating these opportunities in the first place?
First of all, I think it’s really important that as many diverse voices and stories as possible get told and presented, both in terms of representation and in terms of respect and understanding. Older womens’ lives and voices and experience have traditionally been absent within our mainstream culture, so I think it’s wonderful that they are heard. Also, yes, there is something about time and history which Churchill is exploring in this play: the way in which our elders bear witness to the past, bear scars of the past, and responsibility for the present.
Caryl Churchill is known for creating text that varies stylistically throughout the piece, and many actors find that there’s an entirely different process to approaching the text. What have you found different (or similar) about working Churchill’s language?
As I mentioned above, the language gives the sense of the ‘ordinary’ and yet, in fact, it is very refined and poetic. It is like the language of the text is the part of the glacier that we can see, but underneath the language there is a much larger ice mass. The actor must create the large ice mass which lies underneath the surface language, and then be able to hold all of that knowledge and past and history and understanding, and then feed it through the lines…it requires a lot of work and a lot of concentration.
Without giving too much of the plot away, why do you think this play will resonate with a 2019 Australian audience? What do you personally hope to achieve with this work?
I think the play will resonate hugely with audiences in this era of unprecedented climate change. The play beautifully expresses the feelings of overwhelming horror, vulnerability and helplessness that many of us experience in relation to the destruction of the planet, and does so through the eyes and words and bodies of four ordinary, funny, flawed women. But the play also reveals and supports the possibility and worth of human connection. That’s what I hope to leave the audience with: courage, and perhaps a little bit of hope.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
Favourite production you have ever seen?
The Dragon’s Trilogy by Robert Lepage
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
Dream show to perform in?
Playing Clytaemnestra in Agamemnon by Aeschylus
Plays or musicals?
Plays, plays, plays
A hobby you have beyond the theatre?
Growing my own vegetables
What’s next for you after this show?
‘Night Mother at Chapel Off Chapel
Escaped Alone opens at the Red Stitch Actors' Theatre in Melbourne on June 2 for its Australian premiere. You can get more information and tickets here.