Highly respected playwright Caryl Churchill will get Salt Spring exposure on Feb. 5 when Theatre Alive presents a staged reading of her 2016 work Escaped Alone.
In a switch from the reading series’ first event in January — featuring the classic Victorian comedy of errors, The Importance of Being Earnest — this time producer Chris Humphreys is bringing audiences a modern masterpiece. The Guardian gave Escaped Alone five out of five stars after its London premiere four years ago, while the New York Times noted Churchill “is regarded by many as the most dazzling inventive living dramatists in the English language.”
“No one in theatre these days is better at exploding and reassembling traditional modes of language and storytelling,” the Times said when Escaped Alone moved onto Broadway.
For a play that is driven by a powerful cast of older women, Humphreys has located an equally intriguing creative force as the director to interpret this material. Bren Walker is an acoustical designer with a background in theatre who has lived on Salt Spring for three years, and promises to bring a unique perspective to the material.
Walker grew up in a working poor family in Cleveland, Ohio, with seven people surviving the $18,000 per year her parents earned as a bricklayer and a domestic. Though poor, education was valued. Walker’s mother was a big believer in public libraries, which helped foster an early love of reading.
“If you can’t afford a lot of toys, a book is just as good, or even better,” Walker observed.
The early interest was further developed when Walker’s sister, just 13 months older than her, went to school. Their mother gave Walker all the same school work to ease the pain of being left behind, which meant she was actually ahead when she went to school herself — and she stayed that way. She wound up getting a scholarship to Harvard, where she went intending to focus on chemical engineering.
It was during her time at Harvard that Walker discovered the theatre through a survey class on Shakespeare with a professor named Marjorie Garver. That semester happened to focus on Shakespeare’s histories, namely Richard II.
“I was just blown away by how she revealed what the language was really about, as opposed to just being about the plot,” said Walker.
She immediately took a turn away from science into studying theatre arts, despite the expectations placed on a smart young woman of colour.
“If you show you’re good at science then the more people want to see you go into that arena, because of the lack of balance and diversity, so I was very much pushed toward chemistry and mathematics,” Walker explained. “And I loved it, but once I got this exposure to theatre, all bets were off, and I realized the experience of being at that particular college, for me anyway, was not about what I was going to go do with my career. It was about understanding my humanity. And I found the path of understanding who I was as a person through theatre.”
Once her university years were over, though, theatre did not occur to Walker as a viable way to make a living, so she went into the music industry. During the 1990s she worked for AM Records, Island Records and Virgin as a talent scout and record producer. In the late ‘90s Walker transitioned into the tech industry, teaching herself code, working on apps and websites and launching e-commerce businesses.
“It was an interesting time period and it was a lot of fun, but Silicon Valley was not for me,” said Walker, who quickly picked up on the insidious underlying nature of social media and its relationship to manipulation.
Her latest transformation was to acoustic design, working with a firm in Chicago designing spaces such as concert halls, theatres and large worship centres so that sound works for the users. As she mostly works with arts clients, Walker’s current path marries all sides of her interests: physics and technology plus music and theatre.
Though Walker has not connected to her theatre roots for over 30 years, her varied career may prove the perfect combination of skills to jump back in with Escaped Alone.
“It’s like a reawakening in some ways. I just turned 54 in December, so to do it at this time in my life, I feel like I could do 20 years or more,” she said. “And to bring what I know now to the table is just so much more vast than what I knew as a 22-year-old.”
Churchill’s play is set in the present period with notes of a looming dystopic future. Its all-too contemporary concerns are expressed through the both funny and dark conversations of four senior women over a series of summer afternoons in the garden. Walker is already planning sound design that will cue audience members on the shifting dates through the neighbourhood’s ambient noise.
She’s also excited about the chance to work with the four local actors who will read the parts. Mary Lowery, Debbi Toole and Lynda Jensen make up the original group of friends, while Vera Algoet is Mrs. Jarrett, the nosy neighbour who soon joins them. This character is the vehicle for taking the audience away from the realist aspect, as she steps out of the action to make a series of bizarre prophesies about societal and environmental collapse to come.
Walker noted that Churchill’s writing mimics the way conversation naturally goes, with its many interruptions and shifts in direction. As a staged reading, the audience will be given even more opportunity to take note of those shifts in tack, and the nuances created by layers of thought.
Acknowledging she’s had what seems to be a charmed working life, Walker counts the opportunity to direct for Theatre Alive as one more gift.
“I’m blessed to be able to live here and to travel to do my work, and to be living somewhere that can handle this play; to have actors that can handle it and an audience that can handle it,” Walker said.
Escaped Alone shows at 7 p.m. at Mahon Hall on Feb. 5.
Tickets are at the door or through firstname.lastname@example.org.