A black box with tiers to mimic stairs. In the center there is a small model of the set for Caryl Churchill's FEN. There are walls with ombre (brown to green) stains, tiered layers of dirt on the ground, a tractor, and two small figurines.
Photo by Joe Mazza; set model by Collette Pollard.

Caryl Churchill's Fen is ambitious. Entrenched in rich history, stunning language, and astonishing theatrical imagery, this is a production that is not just seen. It is felt. It invites audiences to engage with its ideas, rather than passively absorb them, and - as such - creates a uniquely satisfying theatrical experience.

Central to that experience are the design elements. The scenic and costume designs underscore where these characters are (both literally and figuratively), who they are, and why that matters. These design choices are, in part, what makes the story so visceral and impactful; they add another layer to Churchill's narrative and another way for audiences to connect with the story.

Here, scenic designer Collette Pollard and costume designer Izumi Inaba offer a behind-the-scenes look at their process and inspiration, and the design choices that bring this layer of storytelling to life. Let's take a look!

Scenic Design

A series of hanging, white dresses with black threads criss-crossing over them, creating a web.
Artwork by Chihara Shiota.

Collette: As a woman working on the production, it felt really important to look at other influential female artists, so that's where we started. One of the artists we looked at was Chihara Shiota. She uses fabric and a variety of common objects to create large-scale thread installations. These ghostly worlds explore and confront fundamental human concerns such as life, death and relationships.

An empty, commercial space with hanging lights and a patch of green plants in the middle of the room.
Artwork by Linda Tegg.

Next, we looked at Linda Tegg. She is infinitely curious about the way humans interact with nature and the world and has a beautiful installation called Adjacent Field. She took inspiration from former industrial sites, places plants had started to reclaim. All the plants in the installation were sourced from abandoned fields on the outskirts of Milan. So it’s quite diverse - a fern here, an edible plant there - and that was really interesting to us, in terms of draining the land to grow crops and manufacturing. Plus, her work has this great quality of being very organic in spaces that are rigid and sparse, so that was exciting to us as well.

The work of Kamel Mennour was inspiring to us - we loved how her work poses the question of what’s beyond, and we loved the fonts that she used. And then finally, Isabelle Menin. She creates these paintings that are incredibly beautiful, but they come from so much personal pain. And that dynamic of beauty and pain is what the play itself feels like. This production will have a really tight color palette, and some of those colors are pulled from Menin’s work. 

Continuing that thread of inspiration, we kept looking at factories and potato plants, and nothing was really working for us. We then looked at an image of a sluice, which is what was built to drain the fens of all their water, and it became really influential for us in terms of our design. The texture created when the water leaves from filling up and draining became the scenic texture for our world. History is a huge part of this piece - the cycles, the women, where we’re headed, the ghost in the beginning - so the water comes in, cycles out, and leaves behind this really beautiful coloring that almost feels like a painting. 

The land itself is another huge part of the play. This play poses so many interesting challenges, like, How are the actors going to find the potatoes in the fields? How are they finding the rocks? This is still a work in progress for us, but what I can say is that we plan to use a carpet base and real dirt to allow for the picking, the farming, and its presence is underfoot all of the domestic work as well.

There’s also a tractor! It is a working 1950s tractor, so you’ll have a tractor that comes on stage. We’re really excited about that. [laughs]

We’ve had a lot of conversations about the tension that exists in gender, and how in this play, men have the power - literally, the engine power - and how important it is to juxtapose that against the women who’re on the ground, picking potatoes and onions on their knees. 

In this piece, for us, everything has to be from Val’s point of view. When she sees something, the world of the play responds to her seeing something and discovering something, and we can convey that through the visual cues. So, the love story - when Frank and Val are dancing, we’re going to use a projection of the sky and stars, and the stars will move across the set, almost like a time lapse, representing how she feels in that moment. 

The ghost boy: you’ll see a figure of the little boy run across, he’s chasing away crows, is an important part of the history of the Fens haunting the others. We’re playing with the idea of the boy being included in the pre-show and then there are little moments where we see ghosts throughout the rest of the play, and then another little moment, and another. The dignity of the ghosts in the play is important. We need to make them as real as possible so that we care about them, and projections will help tell that story. 

Finally, flowers! We were looking at these huge, operatic flowers and thinking, How do we do this? Why would we do this? Should we even do this? Playing with the idea of that release, that pressure cooker that Vanessa has talked about, what would happen if it exploded? What would beauty look like in that world? Sadly, in draining the Fens, a lot of the natural wildflowers were killed, and a lot of them are now extinct, which relates to the women, Val, and the freedom of desire. The question of what the land might have looked like if we had left it alone. We’re working on building pipes throughout the set that push flowers through so they can “grow” by the end of the production. We've talked about flowers growing as the women enter, we talked about the flowers growing as the women transform into their new selves, and maybe the flowers trail behind them as they exit - we don’t know what works best yet, but we what we do know, is that every piece of this set is about creating a meaningful moment that support the women telling this story.

Costume Design

Izumi: The costumes of Fen are inspired by women working in fields across various time periods. My research wasn’t limited to the Fenlands in the 1980s, however. I looked at different geographical areas and made sure to pay special attention to the women and what they were wearing. Photographs by Sally Mann also provided further internal and emotional inspiration that guided my design process. 

My process complements Collette’s; the costumes and the colors are designed to stand out in the environment that she’s creating for Fen. The women’s garments will be lived-in and worn, but they’re also from the 1980s, so they’ll be colorful and will stand out against the dark and harsh set. Each of the women will have practical farm gear - something that their characters would work in - that’ll be covered in dirt, but we’ll also get these pops of intense color that will contrast with the land. Putting these dramatically different looks together will set the natural, organic world in opposition to the industrialized world, the world of capitalism, in which these women are living and working. 

There are a lot of characters in this play - all of the actors play multiple roles - so there are lots of costume changes accordingly. The most dramatic change, however, will be at the play’s conclusion. In that big moment, when Val makes her decision, the other female ensemble members will evolve into something beyond their ordinary selves; they’ll become more powerful and more beautiful. I’m thinking Loie Fuller, I’m thinking Lady Gaga. I think it will be a great transformation and a great surprise for the audience. I can’t wait. 


Fen runs from Feb 10, 2023 — Mar 05, 2023 and tickets are available now. Join us and see these stunning designs on stage!

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We’re thrilled to offer them as a complement to our Student Matinee program, and we hope they enrich your experience of this production." 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Four women sit in fields and bag onions; the two women in the center are looking at one another, and the woman on the left is pointing at the woman on the right.
Morgan Lavenstein, Genevieve VenJohnson, Elizabeth Laidlaw, and Lizzie Bourne by Michael Brosilow.

Check out these resources for academics, enthusiasts, educators to support your learning and viewing of Fen. We’re thrilled to offer them as a complement to our Student Matinee program, and we hope they enrich your experience of this production.

Background

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Photos and Videos

https://www.youtube.com/embed/_Qr4SMSsMfI
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https://www.youtube.com/embed/LguMP26VvmM

https://www.youtube.com/embed/EdWGVhxCCOA
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Fen is a knotted web of connection, wherein each character is perpetually reacting to the world around them; they are constantly in relation to others. We, as the audience, are welcomed into their world, and are confronted with both the soaring rewards and crushing dangers of this closeness. 

However, to state the obvious: these are characters played by real people. These people are reacting to the world around them, as much as their characters are. So how do those people perform this play safely, let alone perform it safely multiple times a week? 

During the first rehearsal for Churchill’s Fen, Greg Geffrard and Sheryl Williams, Intimacy and Violence Directors, shared their insights, shedding light on the field of intimacy design and their process. 

Intimacy and Violence Design

Greg: Something really big happened when the pandemic hit: a lot of theatre artists left the profession. And a lot of them have not come back. And the thing that I found myself telling people is, You cannot ask people to find their joy in the same place that they lost it

A black-and-white photo of a man and a woman standing side-by-side, giving a presentation. The photo is captured in profile.
Sheryl Williams and Greg Geffrard by Joe Mazza.

Prior to the pandemic, people were making art because it brought them joy, but a lot of these artists were working in environments that weren’t focused on their health or their sustainability, both as artists and as people. When the pandemic hit and these artists were forcibly removed from these harmful environments, people really saw - for maybe the first time - how they were being asked to work in unhealthy ways. Their value as an artist expired the moment their contracts did. At this moment, when things are starting to open up again, we see that a lot of artists haven’t returned because that compromise of art over health, art over everything, is not one they believe is worth it anymore. 

That’s where intimacy work comes in. At its core, intimacy work is primarily focused on sustainability. 

Sheryl: With me being an intimacy professional and a fight choreographer, I'm also trying to shift fight choreography to incorporate more sustainable practices. So it's not just about physical safety; I tie in my intimacy training by creating emotional and mental safeties around these moments. It's understanding that actors are asked to perform by leveraging their identities, while taking their reactive systems into account. It’s understanding what needs to be done, and done repeatedly, who’s affected by this action, but also who's performing that action.

Greg:  Exactly. Intimacy focuses on cultivating space that is sustainable for everyone involved. The ask, when telling a character’s story, is not necessarily comfort: we call people into the theatre to witness characters navigate the most challenging moments of their fictitious lives in a very real way. How exactly can we help performers create, and find joy, and find a way back into the story that is repeatable for them, especially if we’re asking them to do eight shows a week? That is the ask. 

To do this, we rely on five areas of focus: consent; boundaries, and the understanding that there's no story that can’t be told within somebody's boundaries; creating a de-loaded, or de-sexualized process; choreographing the work; then lastly, documenting it. That last piece can be literally writing down choreography, but it can also be tracking the things you’re processing and the things you’re holding onto when you leave rehearsal. These five best practices/areas of focus come from the pedagogy of Theatrical Intimacy Education, with whom I am an Associate Faculty member.

A black and white photo of a man and woman sitting next to one another listening intently; the woman is smiling.
Sheryl Williams and Greg Geffrard by Joe Mazza.

Even though the field of intimacy choreography is new, these practices that I just outlined are really old.  A lot of the practices and the tools that are used in intimacy work come from those whose identities have been marginalized; we’re talking about the LGBTQ+ plus community, we're talking about BIPOC folks/folks of the global majority, we're talking about sex workers, we're talking about anybody who needs to find a sustainable way of working. I’m thinking of Sydney Poitier, I’m thinking of Lena Horne. I'm thinking about individuals who are making art in spaces where they were, in the words of Shonda Rhimes, a “First. Only. Different.” 

If part of your intersecting identity - your race, your gender, religion, ability - if any part of your intersecting identity is being leveraged in the story that is being told, it is very likely that there will be intimate moments, simply because what we're asking for is not just inherent in the character. We're asking you to bring a part of yourself to tell this story. And since you take your personal self back out of the room once you’ve finished telling the story, we need to make sure that we - as an institution - are taking care of our people. The characters only live in the space. They only come alive when the actors bring them to life. 

We have to work in trauma-informed ways, because the stories and the traumas shown on stage are also the things we encounter once we leave the room, especially for folks with marginalized, intersecting identities outside of the dominate cultural identity of whiteness in America. Not everybody has the privilege of being able to distance themselves from certain stories, because those stories are their stories. And so this is work that is specifically focused on not taking care of, but taking care with the performers, which requires that they have advocacy tools to ask for their needs. Theatre can be abundant in resources: we must make sure that those who need those resources not only have access to these resources but are continually encouraged to understand that prioritizing the people in the process will always be valued over the final product we invite audiences to come witness.


Learn More:


Greg Geffrard has worked as an intimacy and violence designer throughout Chicago. Chicago credits include: Choir Boy (Steppenwolf, Intimacy & Fight Choreographer); Bald Sisters (Steppenwolf, Assistant Intimacy Choreographer); Passage (Remy Bumppo Theatre, Consultant); Bat BoyThe Amateurs, Detroit ‘67 (Columbia College Chicago); Gloria (Roosevelt University). Regional: The Color Purple (Signature); Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (Huntington Theatre); White Noise (Studio Theatre, Assistant Intimacy Choreographer). Teaching: Theatrical Intimacy Education, Associate Faculty; Columbia College Chicago, Visiting Professor. Other: Resident Intimacy Consultant at Steppenwolf Theatre. Next up: The Factotum (Lyric Opera of Chicago) and The Comedy of Errors (Chicago Shakespeare).

Sheryl Williams is originally from Phoenix, Arizona. She has a BA in Musical Theater and a minor in Stage Combat from Columbia College Chicago, and has used her skills to create consent-based, story-driven choreography and sustainability in her work. In addition to working with multiple educational institutions, such as her alma mater, North Central, and Roosevelt, a few credits include: Cabaret (Porchlight), Little Women (First Folio), Among the Dead (Jackalope), The Wizards (Concrete Content), and many more. Find more information at iamsherylwilliams.com.

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A woman irons a piece of grass in a field, as women dance behind her.
Genevieve VenJohnson, Morgan Lavenstein, Alex Goodrich, and Lizzie Bourne by Michael Brosilow.

Use this classroom activity to unpack examples of juxtaposition in life, media, and Fen to more deeply understand the power of contrast. 

Juxtaposition Activity



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A woman irons a piece of grass in a field, as women dance behind her.
Genevieve VenJohnson, Morgan Lavenstein, Alex Goodrich, and Lizzie Bourne by Michael Brosilow.

Reflect on themes from Fen through journaling prompts—suited for classrooms and continuous learners alike!

Thematic Journaling Activity



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A woman irons a piece of grass in a field, as women dance behind her.
Genevieve VenJohnson, Morgan Lavenstein, Alex Goodrich, and Lizzie Bourne by Michael Brosilow.

As you consider Fen, contemplate how repurposing land—for good or for ill—reverberates through its inhabitants, community, and the land itself. This activity intended for learners of all ages and could easily be adapted for a classroom setting.

What Are Fens?: Story-Land Discussion and Activity

What is a fen? This article by Fen’s dramaturg Derek Matson lays out a detailed understanding of this kind of landscape. In brief, it is a rich, wet, peat-filled land—imagine a swamp without trees growing out of it. In the United Kingdom, the fens were drained and sold, to be farmed by locals and profited from by speculators and eventually, corporations.

Caryl Churchill’s play was inspired by Mary Chamberlain’s book Fenwomen: A Portrait of Women in an English Village, which documented the lives and labor of women working on these British Fens in the 1970s. These fens are located about 70 miles north of London. 

Check out this video by the British Film Institute from 1945: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mq4QanQGyjc

Discussion Questions: 

Story-Land Activity: 


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A woman irons a piece of grass in a field, as women dance behind her.
Genevieve VenJohnson, Morgan Lavenstein, Alex Goodrich, and Lizzie Bourne by Michael Brosilow.

This vocabulary activity will help students develop an understanding of the word juxtapose, which will then help them develop a deeper understanding of Caryl Churchill's Fen.

Morphemic Analysis



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A man rides a large, red tractor on a black stage.
Alex Goodrich by Michael Brosilow.

These texts and resources explore the history behind Fen, its dramaturgy, and design. Take a look and learn more!

Historical Background

Dramaturgy

Design

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A woman in a brown suit drinks next to a man in a brown leather jacket. They both look serious.
Elizabeth Laidlaw and Alex Goodrich by Michael Brosilow.

Explore this vocabulary list compiled by dramaturg Derek Matson. These definitions may help provide some context for regional and colloquial language in the fens. 

Definitions


Sources:

OED, The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary. 18th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.

Chamberlain, Mary. Fenwomen: A Portrait of Women in an English Village. Woodbridge, England: Full Circle, 2011.

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Synopsis

A woman in a tie-dyed shirt and shorts stands next to a woman in a yellow sweater. A woman in a gray beanie, jeans, and a blue t-shirt squats next to them.
Lizzie Bourne, Genevieve VenJohnson, and Morgan Lavenstein by Michael Brosilow.

Please note: Fen includes themes of suicide, alcoholism, and racially and sexually offensive language. 

Characters

Character Map

This play has 22 characters and only 6 actors. The roles are double, triple, quadruple, and even quintuple-cast, meaning that each actor plays more than one role. Check out this character map that helps highlight relationships between the characters. Mrs. Hassett is the gangmaster of everyone in blue, and Mr. Tewson is Frank’s boss (in yellow).

Pictured is a graphic demonstrating key relationships between some of the characters in Fen. Mrs. Hassett, the gangmaster, is written above a group of workers. The group includes Val, Shirley, Nell, Angela, Becky, Alice, and Wilson. Angela is identified as Becky’s stepmother. Above Val are listed her mother, May, and her grandmother, Ivy. Below Val are listed her children, Deb and Shona. Next to Val, connected by a dotted line and a heart, is Frank. Above Frank is listed his boss, Mr. Tewson.
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Learning Guides

Learning Guide: FEN

Check out these resources for academics, enthusiasts, educators to support your learning and viewing of FEN. We’re thrilled to offer them as a complement to our Student Matinee program, and we hope they enrich your experience of this production.

Post-Show Juxtaposition Activity

Use this classroom activity to unpack examples of juxtaposition in life, media, and FEN to more deeply understand the power of contrast. 

Pre-Show Journaling Activity

Reflect on themes from FEN through journaling prompts—suited for classrooms and continuous learners alike! 

Discussion and Story-Land Activity

As you engage with FEN, consider how repurposing land—for good or for ill—reverberates through its inhabitants, community, and the land itself.

Britishisms

Explore this vocabulary list for FEN compiled by dramaturg Derek Matson. These definitions may help provide some context for regional and colloquial language in the fens.

Synopsis and Characters

Read a brief synopsis of FEN, meet the play’s characters, and learn about the casting that makes this production distinct.

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