On a late-October Friday evening, a large man, round in the middle and bald on top, a man who by nature and by profession does not sit still or keep quiet, sat still and kept quiet in Reynolds Theater as just one member of an audience he once comprised.
It was opening night for the revival of Cloud Nine, Caryl Churchill's 1979 romp through the contrasting worlds of sexually repressive colonial Africa and sexually liberated 1980s London (New York in the Duke adaptation). After weeks of intense labor, "making the lines intersect" and drawing disparate elements into one seamless whole, it was a rather powerless moment for Jeff Storer. Twenty years a Duke professor and co-founder and artistic director of Durham's Manbites Dog Theater, Storer could only watch. "There is no sadder sight than a director whose show has already opened," he says. "You're kind of worthless."
Up until that night, Storer was not worthless. He had a steady job. As director, he led a collaborative effort that brought together very different people with very different functions: designers for the set, costumes, lights, and sound; musicians, stage managers, fight choreographers, and vocal coaches. More than fifty people worked in the backstage ensemble that was the backbone of the Cloud Nine production.
As director, Storer provided what was necessarily absent. The famed director Tyrone Guthrie once said that a director must be "an audience of one," that he must respond as would those who are seeing the play for the first time. Watching rehearsals, Guthrie would clap: very fast if annoyed, slower if pleased, and not once if disapproving.
" I laugh," says Storer. "I don't know if it makes me different, but I've learned how to look at something as though I am seeing it for the first time, even if I am seeing it for the hundredth time. I've been able to preserve that sense of response; I can laugh if it's funny and I can cry if it's sad." When something really tickles him, says Storer, he doesn't censor it. He just lets it out. "Actors tell me they really like it. It's reinforcement, you know--they know they're doing something right when they elicit that response."
Meghan Valerio is a junior with short brown hair and tired, red eyes. She doesn't sleep much, she says, because she has schoolwork and then rehearsal for three hours. She runs a few miles every day and, even though she hates fruit--more the texture than the taste--she eats it to stay healthy for the play. "Plus, scurvy can really creep up on you." Her mother tells her that she only really seems to be awake when she is on stage; Valerio agrees. "It's the adrenaline."
In Cloud Nine, she plays two people: a little boy in the first act and an older woman in the second. She says switching between the two is tough, and that sometimes her little boy picks up the mannerisms of her aging woman. "So sometimes Jeff reminds me, 'You're a little man! A little man!' And so I always think back to that and walk and sit and do everything like a little man all the time."
When asked if it was ever a problem for a young actress like herself to extend her comfort zone, to take risks and perform in ways that she never has, Valerio smiles. "Have you seen the masturbation soliloquy?"
In a certain way, Storer is no different than a coach. His team is his cast, and he pushes them to succeed, to go beyond themselves. "We're constantly exploring what our boundaries are, not just to push them, but to serve the story, to find out what the best way to tell the story is." If an athlete can be limited by speed and strength, an actor can be limited by imagination, by intellect, by movement, and by voice. "But," he says, "an actor can also be expanded by all of those things. If you're an actor who has done a lot of thinking about how you feel about life and about people and about relationships, then you're going to bring something really special to what's going on."
When Caryl Churchill wrote Cloud Nine, the postmodernist and staunchly feminist playwright intended for jaws to drop and eyes to ogle and sure enough--probably right after Act II's mÈnage ‡ trois--they did. Stranger things had already been going on in Greenwich Village, but when the play opened at the Theater de Lys (now Lucille Lortel Theater) in 1981, even The Times blushed: "The cast is new but the experience is still, well, bizarre...There is no play quite like Cloud Nine." Churchill's England was received as a loose little island of "uninhibited lunacy." Audiences chuckled at "the most unlikely subjects for humor." And it was just the kind of chatter Churchill hoped for. She wanted audiences to discuss.
We have this idea in America that we are born free. And we are. But as human beings, we are innately limited, constrained by our varying capacities for self-expression. Between who we are and who we would like to become, there is an unknown distance. Without the liberty of mind to pretend, to make-believe, to express ourselves as such, we may never know it. It is why we go to the theater, and it is why we leave at the end.
In the two decades since Cloud Nine was first performed, the shock value of a transgender orgy--although not the discomfort of sitting next to your parents while watching this--has all but vanished. But confusion remains. "I think everyone has some degree of uncertainty about these things," says Storer. "It's why I chose this play for Parents Weekend. If we can create a dialogue, we've put on a successful performance."
When the performance ended that Friday evening, the audience clapped. And when the clapping finally ended, the discussing began. It hasn't ended yet.