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In Conversation: Director Vanessa Stalling

Associate Director of Marketing Camille Oswald interviewed Director Vanessa Stalling about her approach to Fen, and the resulting conversation was equal parts cerebral and creative, bouncing from socialism and bodily autonomy to magic and crayons. Read the excerpt below to learn about Stalling’s approach and the importance of dreaming – particularly in dark times.

This play has been in process for quite some time. It was originally programmed as part of Court’s 2020/21 season, but we all know how that turned out, and then there was a virtual reading of it as part of our Theatre & Thought series in 2020. Given that history, how are you feeling about staging this production now? You finally get to do it!

A woman wears a turtle-necked striped sweater with white framed glasses. She is smiling, laughing, and looking to the side.
Vanessa Stalling by Joe Mazza.

Right! This production was originally planned pre-pandemic, so I’ve been thinking about this play, and wondering, and dreaming, about this play for a long time. A lot longer than I have the opportunity to do with most plays. 

You’ve been able to kind of luxuriate in it for a little bit.

Yeah. It’s also allowed me to really witness the play’s…I don’t know if “adaptability” is the right word, maybe “transformational quality”? There was a relevance to it pre-pandemic that was drawing me, and now, there’s a whole other set of relevance. 

When we were first thinking about this play, it was definitely in the air that perhaps women’s agency and bodily autonomy could be even more limited, but here we are at the end of 2022, at a time where so many women do not legally have agency over their own bodies. The play now speaks to that tension in a very different way. So, if I think about the engine that’s propelling this play for me, it’s the tension that lies in possibility. Val, moment to moment, is seeking what is possible in absolutely impossible circumstances. It’s that drive of, “I deserve more. I should be able to dream, I should be able to follow my will, I should be able to follow my love.” That feels like an incredibly powerful thing. 

I have to find the pillar that I’ll hang onto through all the unknowns in a creative process, and the thing that the team and I have been using is the idea that, in a system that dehumanizes, the only way to resist that is to re-humanize. Part of what that re-humanizing is, I think, is our responsibility for one another; you know, the show is very much made up of choices where the women in particular, but really everyone – every single person – is forced to make choices out of economic necessity over love.

A close-up shot of a woman's face looking down.
Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel as Val by Joe Mazza.

With Frank and Val in particular, this has led us to have a really strong point of view about the ending. We see it as an act of love – by Frank, for Val. That, to us, is the most powerful act of re-humanization because it resists systems that dehumanize, so…capitalism. I had a great conversation with our intimacy and violence choreographers about the storytelling of an act of love, the storytelling in that moment. Val simply asks Frank for something. He listens to what she wants. He does what she wants. His actions say, “I see you and I hear you, and I will do what you are asking of me, even though it’s incredibly hard.”

That act of love is so powerful, that it actually opens up this whole other portal of what we’re calling “the feminine pressure cooker”, which we see at the end of the play. All this incredible possibility that women are shoving down because they can’t prioritize it – they’re just pushing it down and ignoring it, and avoiding it – and then it’s released. And when that pressure cooker is released, it’s beautiful and dark at the exact same time. You know, it’s just exploding out, which can be scary! If we were able to hang around for a couple decades after the play, maybe we’d be in a pretty cool place, but at the moment that the play completes, it’s just explosive! 

Taking that idea of the pressure cooker: throughout the play, we’re made aware of this whole other world that exists just beyond where we currently are. As the play goes on, that line gets increasingly blurred, as evidenced by the magical and surreal elements – the songs, the ghosts – employed by Churchill. Could you share what it is about these techniques that’s interesting to you? What is it about Fen and Churchill’s writing that pulls you to her work in the first place?

Oh, so many things! There’s a specificity to her work, but, at the exact same time, she leaves these huge gaps left for artists to bring her work to whatever is the next moment in time. That allows you to craft a performance that’s both super specific and also really in-depth. Like, she includes all of these moments of intense labor history, and then she also includes ghosts, girls singing, and moments of an incredible magic portal that feel very different to some of the naturalist moments that came prior to that. That challenge of grappling with such specificity, such depth, and such openness is super exciting. 

Three women kneel side by side and have their hands in the dirt; there is orange light in the background.
Elizabeth Laidlaw, Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, and Genevieve VenJohnson by Joe Mazza.

Thinking about her work as an artistic challenge is, of course, really attractive to me, but even just the ideas of the play are really interesting, too. They feel so relevant when thinking about feminine agency and how our current way of working is so dehumanized. What we create, our output, our labor is so distanced from any sense of ownership, and the isolation that causes seems important to revisit. 

Talking about her techniques, it was helpful for me – and I don’t actually even know if this was right, she might be like, “Oh my god, that’s not right at all” – but it was very helpful for me to think of expressionism because of the play’s episodic nature. It feels like it follows a structure of, We’re in a pretty bad situation and it just gets worse no matter what the hell you do.

Every scene is a moment of resisting the thing that’s making life impossible. It was helpful for me to think about it structurally in that way, which then led me to thinking about how that’s going to manifest in the dynamic physicality of the piece, in the tension between what feels organic and natural, and what feels like a hyper-color. These are working against each other in a way, or complimenting or contrasting each other, and creating an energy. Also the ghosts! They start to feel less magical, and more just a reality. We’re created by all of the generations that precede us, right? So their systems of working and what happened to them is in us, too. To me, it doesn’t necessarily feel magical, as much as it just feels like the world. This play shows how my actions right now are going to impact someone hundreds of years from now.

You’re going to be someone else’s ghost. 

Right, exactly. My actions will immediately impact somebody generations from now, and now suddenly I have way more responsibility when I think about my choices through the lens of generational impact. That, to me, is what’s at the heart of Churchill’s socialism, this sense of responsibility that we have for one another. I have to find the active thing about a show and that, to me, feels very active. It’s just inherent; the world would be a better place if we took care of each other, and through the thin layer of the ghosts, and hope, and potential, we see that change is possible. There wouldn’t be a point in telling a story of our responsibility for each other if there wasn’t a real, strong belief that our world could be pretty different. 

Three women stand side by side. One is short with curly hair and she is wearing an orange sweater. One is tall with gray hair, and she is wearing a gray button-up shirt with a brown sweater. The third is short with black hair and she is wearing a brown shirt. There is sky behind them.
Genevieve VenJohnson, Elizabeth Laidlaw, and Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel by Joe Mazza.

I like what you said about her socialism being very active. How do you take these concepts that can be fairly lofty and academic – like socialism, capitalism, and bodily autonomy – and activate them in a text? What’s your process of identifying these big themes and then translating them into an onstage experience that’s visceral, and alive, and relatable?

It’s really about the environment that the characters are in and, essentially, the circumstances that they can respond to. That’s the only thing that you need to make drama interesting: somebody trying to do something. So, we have to find what it is that they’re struggling to do from moment to moment. That naturally propels the action; if we just talked about the ideas of the play, we wouldn’t be serving them. That struggle is what’s going to resonate with the audience. And then, as a director, returning to the idea that every moment in the play is either a choice for economic necessity or a choice for love, and that love can hold something huge from scene to scene, whether that’s a dream, or a desire or the line in the play where a child simply says, “I’d like new colors.” To me, that represents dreams and agency, but also the conflict of having to admit, “You know, we can’t get you new colors right now.”

A woman in a pale pink dress holds a large sheet of paper with a projection behind her.
Chaon Cross in Photograph 51 by Michael Brosilow

You have a background as a dancer, which is a whole other means of storytelling. In a play that’s so embodied, how does the movement in this play take on new meaning to you?

I’m curious about the work that the women are doing. When I did Photograph 51, it was super important that we were constantly seeing Rosalind work, like the literal activity of the labor she was doing. She was working all the time. And the men were…not. It’s important to show the contrast of her body in space against the mens’ bodies. 

There’s a similar activity here: the women’s bodies are at work all the time. They’re also in a lower position, they’re literally within the earth. So it then becomes – and we’ll see if it works – a contrast. You see women working the earth, on the ground, pulling out potatoes. That’s then contrasted with the next scene, where we see Frank on a tractor, on a machine. He literally gets to be at a higher level. There’s a transition moment with Shirley (one of the characters in the play) where I want to see her kitchen get formed around her while she’s packing onions, so that she literally turns around, changes from her onion apron to her domestic apron, and boom: she’s at work again. 

It’s the second shift. 

Yeah. We’re watching female bodies in this position of work that is constant and at a different level, literally, from the men in the same environment. That then has to build to the question of: how are we showing the power of those women’s bodies in space? Thinking about Nell, another character, walking on stilts: how can women move through space propelled by power? 

That makes me think of how communication between groups of women and femme people can be very different, very collaborative. You find new ways of moving through the world and moving through power dynamics; it’s out of necessity, for sure, but the result can be really beautiful. So, in the case of Nell, when she’s walking on stilts, she’s found a new way of moving through the fens, a more efficient way, a way that’s more aligned with the land and the human body. There’s no removal. She’s not in a car, she’s not in a tractor. 

That’s absolutely right. With the fens, we see a land that’s been forced to be something it isn’t. So seeing Frank on that tractor is super important, because we see machinery and the manipulation of land, versus how the fen-folk originally crossed the lands. By walking on stilts, they were engaging with the land in an organic way.

It’s making do with what you have, and finding new solutions, right? Which maps back onto our earlier discussion of bodily autonomy and possibility; just because there are setbacks, doesn’t mean you stop trying. It’s all connected! Everything relates to everything else!

Which just speaks to Churchill’s brilliance! Maybe it’s because her plays are able to hold such a depth of history and social circumstance that they’re able to speak to so many different generations. She shows you how the struggle that was happening, at that moment in time, is relevant to our current struggles. That’s hopefully what will be projected. 

Circling back to the line in the play where the young girl says, “I want different colors,” what colors do you want? What do you hope for?

A person wearing a beanie and glasses smiles with their hand over their face; a woman wearing a striped turtleneck sweater and white glasses sits in the middle, grinning, a bald man sits next to her.
Nadya Naumaan, Vanessa Stalling, and Charles Newell by Joe Mazza.

Oh. It’s interesting to think about dreaming during this time. The darker our world gets, the harder it is to find inspiration, but creative problem-solving and imagination are going to be how we make the world a better place. I will say that I want my box of crayons to be made of these like, beaming lights of inspiration and gratitude.

I mean, to be able to work at a theatre that’s excited about such artistic risks as this play, to be able to work with this incredibly talented cast, and the designers, and the creative team – I’m very thankful to be able to be at a place that is so, so supportive. Supportive of artistic risk-taking, and then also supportive of necessary storytelling. Thinking about how I need inspiration in order to keep on going, I feel very much surrounded by a team of folks who are inspiring me. They are my box of crayons, and I hope I’m a good crayon for my collaborators as well.


Fen runs from Feb 10, 2023 — Mar 05, 2023 and tickets are available now. Join us to experience the power of this tremendous story.

Posted on January 5, 2023 in Learning Guides, Productions

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