In getting started with “Top Girls”, I was really enamored with the directorial pretense that some if not all of the narrative elements of this play could exist, actually, in Marlene’s own subconscious, and that the audience can glimpse into that subconscious that permeates her dreams. The fact that Churchill opens this nonlinear play with a vivacious dinner party filled with magnificent women of history, fictional and real, where a dreaming, newly-promoted Marlene sits herself within this cohort opens the door for fantastic interpretation. How did Marlene get to this table? Why these women? What paths did she choose? What is left behind?
Dream elements in plays flesh out the inner psyche of the characters, inviting the audience into a deeper, more complex life of the players in the world. Likewise, “dream ballets” so often used in musicals and but also in plays, open narrative possibilities where song or scene alone cannot. The choreography, in all its poetic abstraction, takes the lead in telling the story- movement defines relationships, real or imagined, reveals subconscious emotions, gives backstory, or implies a preferred point of view. In these “movement fantasies”, the audience journeys with character away from the ‘real world’ of the play, entering an aesthetically beautiful, yet disturbing world of baser instincts. Perhaps leading to the point that a suggestion of the thing can be far more provocative than the thing itself.
Setting up Marlene’s world, both inner and outer lives, from the first moment of the play is essential. When Mark said “I want an opening movement piece that gets us into the dinner party and I want this music,” I had a lot of ideas, primarily thoughts about walkways, conveyor belts, intersecting paths, and underlying beats and rhythms that drive you, push you, hurl you in a forward momentum, no turning back. I researched pictures of women from history, and images of successful women in paintings floated in my head, both as icons and caricatures. After talking more with the production team and cast, it seemed that there our common vocabulary in creating the world relied on harmonizing reality with the subconscious, and highlighting the complexity of decision-making for a woman pursuing certain success. And featuring the autonomy felt in her community was key. The seduction and intimidation of a promising promotion for Marlene, what’s at stake? What does she stand to gain by going along this path? What is left of her past, her subconscious, that remains under the surface? These questions informed our creation of a rich dream world for Marlene inhabited by visceral elements that drives her protagonist’s journey.
Developing the opening sequence meant creating a thematic movement vocabulary that will be interlaced through the show, referring back to the fact that the play is Marlene’s dream; using movement to reflect iconic images of women through the ages; and accessing a device that established the isolation within a community, a feeling Marlene must encounter as she carves out her definition of success. With its techno score and paper doll undertones, we created an opening sequence based on clear, intersecting pathways and the delightful compositional structures of the playwright’s signature dialogue. The overlapping cacophony of sound inspired the layered feel of the choreography, where little bits can be caught and released by the audience, much like how we experience real city life in all it’s chaos. The women from Marlene’s real world, cloaked in top girls’ “uniforms,” pierce through the space on their conveyor belts and runways, striving for top jobs. Their gestures invoke a sense of structure and order as they strike familiar poses of power, masculine and feminine, and commercial and idyllic statues. The women are who Marlene assumes them to be, they become what the world needs them to be. Marlene is seduced and afraid of this world. She is manipulated and coerced into it at times, at other points she flows into it freely, following the paths of others she imagines. Each she overtakes, snatching something from them and moves on. It’s an environment that supports her and competes with her. She is the last standing.
Familiar faces from her past and present, faces she tries to forget sometimes, each appear and disappear and then morph into characters from history and art, top women who join her at a dinner party she hosts. She places herself as equal to them, but also stands to gain insight from them. Their successes come at a sacrifice. What puts them in her dream isn’t just their lasting images of women of power, but women whose power came at a price. These dreams offer Marlene an insight into herself and her own choices, questioning her own happiness in success, reflecting on the journey.
The opening sequence, the dinner party, and even the transition can give the audience entrance into Marlene’s world, motivations and elements that swirl around her, ordered and decided and waiting for her to take part of it. Seductive and terrifying dreams of meeting our role models, following in the footsteps of others, selecting a new path, and going out on one’s own. As Angie and Joyce bubble up in the dream, appearing in top girl uniform, in memory, and in life, Marlene glimpses paths not taken and lingering feelings of other possibilities. As the “top girls” walk it out, clear and sure of their path, one can wonder what it means to be a part of this community of seemingly isolated women, what might it mean to get swept up in the momentum of opportunity and achievement, and what happens when your dreams collide with reality?
With shows like Dead Man’s Cell Phone and War Horse, movement has time to act as the primary communicator in a theatrical setting and can tell a story without pantomime. The classic musical “dream ballet” is being reimagined for newer audiences who are capable and eager to interpret and decipher abstract, non-verbal elements that imply and suggest important, nuanced elements of the world of a play. As a choreographer and movement director, I value the evolution of the movement in traditional theatrical experiences, where smart, provocative composition, technical collaboration, fantastic acting, and abstract and virtuosic physicality interweave in order to allow the artist (performer and director) to communicate with the audience in a profound way. This Top Girls seeks to do just that.