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Editorial

“Love and Information” Opens A.C.T.’s Strand

by Jean Schiffman

Caryl Churchill’s new play is an auspicious choice to inauguarate A.C.T.’s Strand Theater.

Caryl Churchill’s “Love and Information” is “the play to do at this moment in this theater,” declares American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff. Funny and engaging on multiple levels, and utterly of our time and place, it is indeed a meaningful, and auspicious, choice to inaugurate A.C.T.’s new and long-anticipated Strand Theater.

In seven sections, “Love and Information” explores how we humans connect in the digital age. Each section consists of a handful of mainly two-person, stand-alone “scenes,” or conversations, totaling 57, some as short as several seconds; topics range from sex to God, from homeland security to dementia, from poetry to parenthood to climate change, each one suggesting a life existing well beyond the confines of the stage.

A.C.T. bought the Strand, a nearly 100-year-old, two-story mid-Market building, in 2012 and renovated it; it now features a proscenium house with 283 seats (that can convert to a 175-seat cabaret setup), to be used for productions that require a more intimate space than A.C.T.'s grand Geary Theater, and a 140-seat space above the ground-floor café and lobby. The building sits at “the vortex of technology and reality,” points out Perloff—which is a place, or perhaps more accurately a state of mind, where Churchill’s carefully constructed, concise and fragmentary language matches the 140-character zeitgeist of nearby neighbor Twitter. Exchanges between characters have a rhythm and economy that are recognizable, freighted and artful: “I can’t sleep./Hot milk./I hate it now./Book?/I haven’t got one I like./Just lie there and breathe./My head’s too full of stuff. Are you asleep?/No, no, what, it’s fine. You can’t sleep?/I think I’ll get up and go on Facebook.”)

“The Strand is so intimate yet capacious,” says Perloff. “It has a really big stage that you can do a lot with, yet you’re absolutely in the same room as the audience. I think Churchill’s language is really going to sing in there.” The questions Churchill is asking with that language, adds Perloff, are rich and profound.

“Caryl Churchill is the only writer I know who perfectly marries form and content,” she continues. “[T]he play does what it talks about… it’s an accretion of things that overall add up to something much bigger. It circles back, asking these questions about what do we do with the data we’ve collected, the information we’ve gleaned—why does it matter? What’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom, and if we don’t know that, how are we ever going to learn how to think?

“And it’s not didactic—it’s so theatrical!”

When Perloff first read the script, she wondered, How is it possible to stage this? Churchill specifies that the sections be kept in order as written but that the scenes within are random, to be arranged by the director in any configuration, and she provides absolutely no character identifiers—she wrote pure dialogue. But then Perloff saw the New York production (the script slightly tweaked for American audiences) at the Minetta Lane Theater, along with her then-teenage son and his friend, and all three of them were captivated. “It’s funny and surprising and liberating in some way,” she says. “We have all the information in the world and we don’t know how to make sense of it!”

Born in London in 1938 (but raised in Montreal; she went back to England to attend Oxford University), the prolific Churchill is known for such structurally experimental and inventive works as the Obie Award-winning “Top Girls,” and “Cloud 9” (A.C.T. produced “A Number,” about cloning, in 2006) and for her commitment to feminist and politically progressive themes. “She’s a delight,” says Perloff. “She’s very…not severe, I don’t know what the right adjective is—she’s just tough, she knows who she is, she has very strong political views, on equality and inequality, on people getting a voice. She really is not interested in pandering or writing something that ‘feels good.’ She is really excited about theater as a wake-up call. You’d never know she was in her 70s; she’s like a 20-year-old when it comes to her sense of adventure.”

For Los Angeles-based director Casey Stangl, the play’s extraordinary responsibilities—deciding the order of scenes, how to transition between seemingly unrelated scenes and understanding who the characters are—is both thrilling and terrifying. “I’ve never encountered a play exactly like this before,” she says. “There’s so little on the page in terms of what it’s supposed to look like or be like.” Long ago she directed Churchill’s “Top Girls” at the Guthrie Theatre and since then has directed many other new and contemporary plays at regional theaters throughout the United States, including at South Coast Repertory in Southern California, and for A.C.T. she directed “Venus in Fur” last season. Churchill, she observes, is “so able to capture the pulse of the now, whenever that is …she transcends time.”

For Stangl, it’s important to view the play within the context of the Strand’s environment, where tourists, the homeless, tech workers, government employees and immigrants come together. The play’s design elements include use of the translucent, two-story LED screen in the café/lobby (open to the public during the day and visible, screen included, through glass doors, to passersby). But the stage itself will be fairly bare, “to show theater in its most unadorned way: two actors and a couple of chairs…that kind of aesthetic to create the piece visually, rather than elaborate, changing sets or costumes.” Still, since each actor appears in at least one scene per section, and eight to ten scenes apiece altogether, there will be some costume changes. The trick was casting actors who are transformational and yet subtle; A.C.T. hired six men and six women of varying ages, ethnicities and physicalities, including local favorites Anthony Fusco, Sharon Lockwood and Dan Hiatt.

“A lot of the scenes in the play are very searching conversations, filled with longing, filled with unanswerable questions about the way we live our lives now,” muses Perloff. “It captures everything about how we talk to one another these days when everything is virtual and we’re tweeting and Facebooking and friending each other. What happens in real time? How do we know if someone loves us? How do we develop a friendship, and what is the nature of meaning?…We’re losing the basis of emotional intelligence!”

Churchill told Perloff she was delighted that her voice would open a theater that had once been a porn palace (the Strand, originally the Jewel Theater, went through many incarnations as a movie house, going from silent films to talkies, deteriorat-
ing along with mid-Market, before being shut down by police in 2003) and ironically now reopens amidst a tech universe that encompasses a poor neighborhood.

“It’s so incredibly poignant, that we live in this world that’s increasingly confusing and difficult to navigate,” says Stangl. “Having access to all these ideas and issues has increased because of technology, and there’s this notion that it has dehumanized us, but I think the play is saying that it gives us the opportunity to recognize our humanity…It’s about that hard-wired need to connect.”

June 3 → August 9

Love and Information

American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater

1127 Market St.

415/749-2228

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