Gender, sexuality, race questions await ‘Cloud 9’ audiences

UNCC student production opens Oct. 19

The University of North Carolina-Charlotte’s Theatre Department will present the play “Cloud 9,” by Caryl Churchill Oct. 19-29. The comedy takes a deep look into long-held sexual and gender stereotypes and roles and leaves the audience questioning their veracity and relevance to life. The play also plays with notions of gender and gender identity. Two of the actors play characters opposite their own genders. qnotes had the opportunity to chat with Theatre professor and lecturer Kelly Ryan, who directs the student production, about the play and its themes.

Two students will play characters whose gender is opposite their own in the production "Cloud 9." Photo Credit: UNCC Theatre Dept.

Matt Comer: The play is going to be staged in a smaller, more intimate setting. Is there a particular reason for that?
Kelly Ryan: Putting in the smaller theater — the black box theater — does allow it to be more intimate and up-close with the audience. It’s not necessarily a realistic play play but putting the scenes and ideas presented there in the face of everyone makes it that much more compelling.

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Being in that smaller space and having the audience itself in closer, more intimate settings with one another, that will, perhaps make some people that much more uncomfortable, right?
I’m that it will, yes. All of our introduction to theatre class students will be required to come see this as well as being open to the public. I’m fully expecting to get some irate emails and such, but college is about making students think about what is they believe.

Gay issues aren’t necessarily the most controversial of sexual taboos or topics out there today, so what exactly is so controversial about this play?
It’s full of ideas of pedophilia and incest, so it’s not just about homosexuality or even dressing up as another gender and taking on the acting role of another sex. There’s a lot of stuff in there that is going to be upsetting. In “Cloud 9,” [pedophilia] is not portrayed as something that is necessarily bad — just another form of sexuality. So, that is going to be even weirder for the audience. I don’t know how they will react. We’ll be taking that that is very hard to talk about and making it funny. You’ll be laughing and then wondering to yourself, “Why am I laughing?”

Some have said the message of this play really speaks to challenging social mores and norms. What do you think the playwright’s message is?
When I first started reading it, I was trying to look at it with an open mind. In the first act, you have the Victorian Age and the empire telling people what was right and wrong and then you get to the second act and the late 1970s and suddenly the government is getting out of the bedroom and saying whatever you do is your own choice. I tried looking at it and tried seeing what are the benefits of these two societies. I think we’ve definitely come a long way in tolerance but it is really hard for all of us to figure it all out. Some characters in the production are more comfortable having that structure and then it is taken away. Some are not comfortable with the structure. I think it is true of our society. Some of us need that structure and that’s why you’ve had institutional religion pop up over the centuries. I hope students will start to decide for themselves about these issues. I would love for people to come out of the play being more tolerant.

How have your students faced the challenge of playing these roles?
Some of then have had a harder time than others, with identifying with their characters. Some of then, I’m not absolutely sure are even comfortable with themselves yet. It is interesting to watch them play these characters. Some of then are willing to go to deeper levels and some are keeping, I don’t want to say “superficial,” but at not as quite a deep of level. It’s been a growth process for them, for sure.

Is that one of the things you enjoy about teaching — seeing students who are still growing into their own having to tackle many of the issues they face as they act on stage and in front of an audience?
Yes, of course. I had one student going through something I can remember going through — being in a play and doing something you’ve never done before and having no concept of it and having to go through it. She had to do it in front of other people and find those things about yourself in front of other people.

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TalkBack

Join the UNCC Theatre Department for a special production of “Cloud 9” on Oct. 21, followed by an on-stage talkback discussion with director Kelly Ryan and qnotes editor Matt Comer.

Is the a reason or particular meaning behind the gender-switching by actors?
I think it has been really interesting for the actors who actually switch roles. They call themselves “Bedward,” because the two characters are named Betty and Edward. I’ve tried to get them to find the through-line of the characters — who are mother and son. I’ve tried to get them to see the relationship of a mother to a son having played both sides of that relationship but also to see the growth of both of those characters and how they are mirrored in some way. I think this play can be done with all sorts of versions of the switching. In the main production, Churchill produced it two different ways depending on the actors involved. It was less for her about what those switches meant and more about who are the actors playing these roles. It provides a different for me having “Bedward” switch and watching these two story arcs and see the characters develop.

It is human nature, perhaps, to almost immediately point out the controversial themes on gender and sexuality, but are there other important themes and controversies tackled by the play?
In the first act there is a black character played by a white actor. Seeing a white actor put on this sort of “stereotypical blackness — I’m not sure if that’s saying what I mean to be saying — just taking on that role and laying it on to the point that it is in some ways grotesque, I think will challenge people. I did have an African-American student sit in and watch the scenes at one point. She’s very progressive. She was laughing at that character. I felt, “Okay, so, this isn’t going to totally offend people through the roof.” I think the play speaks to how we have looked down on other countries, races and cultures. In the first act we’re talking about Victorian- and colonial-era Africa. You look at how we looked at these people. Anytime you go into someone else’s culture you can’t go into it thinking you have the better culture and that you are superior to them. The Victorians felt that way. They tried to spin it as though they were parents and just teaching the “better way” to “natives,” that wasn’t a form of slavery, but it was.

As a director and as someone who has read the play and come to their own conclusion, what for you personally is the most important message of the work?
There’s a line in the play that every time I hear it speaks to me. I think it is true for all the characters in the play. The line is, “If there isn’t a right way to do something, you have to invent one.” The idea of inventing ourselves as much as the way we do things — we have to find the right way to do things for us.

info: To purchase tickets or learn more, visit unccboxoffice.universitytickets.com.

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Posted by Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.