When talking about a proposed project, especially a revival, it is a common question among theatre folk to ask “Why this show? Why now?” This question gets asked so often that it has begun to sound somewhat pretentious to me. But the sentiment behind the question is not a bad one. One should ask oneself before sinking countless hours, dollars, and creative mind-power into a production just what an audience of today will get out of a show. And believe me, in this case, I have.
The Arc began the process of discussing Top Girls over a year ago amongst ourselves and then amongst the Chicago Theater Community with our annual short works festival arciTEXT. Last year’s festival included 9 works and the artistic vision of over 40 artists exploring the topic of “The Glass Ceiling.” What came out of that exploration was something integral to The Arc’s mission: the common human elements that bind this theme. A play of the caliber of Top Girls gives us rich fodder for a production: the world of the play, the characters, the lines they say and the stories they tell. But the director, cast, and artistic team mine the thematic stories that join the characters and expand the narrative relevance to any place or time. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Caryl Churchil, she sets the stage for this kind of exploration in the style of her writing. Churchill often blends elements of the supernatural or absurd with realistic situations to further illustrate her characters’ journeys. In the case of Top Girls, one of her most popular works, Churchill follows the life and dreams of Marlene, an ambitious career woman, as she navigates the corporate ladder in a high-flying employment agency. Marlene not only resides in the corporate world, but also among her not-so-high-flying family tree, as well as in an ethereal dinner party containing carefully chosen women from myth, legend and history. A complex tale that seems part dark comedy and part tragedy, Top Girls perhaps is really just a window into our own version of the “rat race”.
Our incredibly talented production team has devoured this complex and intriguing story to find provocative dramatic elements that will be unveiled in performance. For me, the center of conflict in Top Girls sits just above the clear gender-related images and true struggles of a corporate life, and extends to the whole of humanity itself in the past 50 years or more. It centers on the not-so-clear concept of sacrifice.
At some point in the not-so-distant past, our collective life-goal seems to have changed from achieving A dream to achieving THE dream. Somehow we went from the concept of “a chicken in every pot” to figuring out which luxury car brand indicates the most status. A subtle shift from everyone having something to someone having it all became a part of the cultural consciousness; the economy rose to new heights and success due to hard work became the expected norm. My generation and the generations around me witnessed this success and were inundated with the idea that “anything is possible if you try hard enough.” The media flooded our senses with images of attractive, well dressed people with great sex lives, amazing jobs, razor-sharp wit, fantastic houses and happy families. In the case of women this image is perhaps even more intense: high heels, beautiful hair, expensive clothes, and a perfect mix of sexuality and power. The concept of sacrifice in this world is basically glamorized on the surface: the law school student with his or her attractive spouse living in a one-bedroom apartment and eating Asian take-out before the inevitable big job-offer. Any lasting sacrifice with any real repercussions is still, really, not a part of our true consciousness. The truth of the matter is that any real achievement, be it a fantastic career or a supportive and enriching family unit, really does take 100% of one’s attention. At some point one has to take precedence over the other. It could happen slowly- with the after-work happy hour to get extra elbow-rubbing with the boss… or the extra travel and assignments to get that promotion…or cutting the afternoon meeting short to make it to the cub scout meeting on time. At some point, the employee either says “no” and effectively puts their career altitude in question, or they say “yes” and put family, children and relationships on the back burner. We all only have 100% and 24 hours at any given time. Mathematically, we just can’t give any more than that.
So what is the answer? I’m not sure Churchill or I have a definitive one for you. What Top Girls explores is a myriad of individuals (in this case women) struggling with those very questions and the repercussions of their life decisions. They are battling with the concept of balance and acceptance of the ultimately flawed desire to “have it all.” The real fear lies in that if one does truly accept that “it all” isn’t possible, than a conscious choice must follow. A choice that no one, really, wants to make.
Mark Boergers, Artistic Director, The Arc Theatre
The Arc Theatre’s Top Girls runs January 16th through February 8th at The Den Theater is Wicker Park. Tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets.