IU Theatre’s ‘Cloud 9’ is era-hopping, thought-provoking production

I recently got in touch with Adam St. John and Evelyn Gaynor, both third-year MFA actors who take on role reversals in the two acts of “Cloud 9,” the gender-bending comedy written by British playwright Caryl Churchill that opens this weekend at IU Theatre.

Art at IU: ‘Cloud 9’ seems to have a convoluted story line that challenges the notions of sex, gender, societal roles and so on. Talk about your own roles, and how they further the production’s message.

Adam St. John

Third-year MFA actor Adam St. John playing 4-year-old Cathy in Act II of “Cloud 9.”

Adam: My Act I character is Harry, a gay man who most certainly is not “out” about it. His character is interesting because he has to keep the facade of being a “man’s man” strong because this was a time when being gay was not only not tolerated, but not even talked about. Meanwhile, my Act II character is Cathy, a four-year-old girl who would prefer to play with guns than with dolls. She’s interesting because she’s still being molded as a human being and, because Act II takes place in the late ’70s, she has much more of a chance to explore her options than Harry does in his societal setting.

Evelyn: It’s interesting, because Churchill has set up the convention of having men played by women and vice versa for specific and different purposes, all of which challenge the conventional notion of gender and sex roles in our society. Betty’s 9-year-old son Edward, whom I play in Act I, is played by a woman, because he actually identifies as a woman. He is told endlessly to “be a man” throughout Act I, which the audience recognizes can literally never happen. I love that Edward’s character doesn’t figure out that he identifies as a woman until Act II, when he is played by a man. Meanwhile, Betty, whom I play in Act II, cannot connect to her own body, desires, independence, and spirit until she is played by an actual female and accepts herself as one. To me, both of these things tie into one of the biggest messages I’ve taken away from the play: That we cannot truly connect to others until we discover, accept and love ourselves.

Third-year MFA actor Adam St. John as Harry in Act I.

St. John as Harry in Act I.

Art at IU: Discuss any physical/mental/costume/other changes necessary to switch between your roles in the two acts.

Adam: I wouldn’t say going from Harry to Cathy is easy, but it isn’t as hard as I thought it might be. I think that has more to do with the fact that Harry’s storyline is so sad at the end of Act I and Cathy is so energized and light and fun that the transition is something I look forward to. Cathy’s wig and her clothes, especially the dress, really help me get into her character, while Harry’s big, black boots help define him. The rest is all the research, rehearsal and character transformation we’ve worked on.

Evelyn: The greatest difference in playing son and mother is in the energy of each character. I’ve tried not to shy away from using my full height as a woman playing a boy, but naturally Edward’s energy is innocent and pure, though more reserved and shy. In contrast, Betty is much more outwardly directed. She is an adventurous spirit, and now that she’s older and on the brink of starting her life anew, she is looking up and out at the world. Simple shifts like allowing my shoulders to drop help very much to distinguish between the two. But what’s lovely is that they are related, so there can be crossover in the physicality. Costumes help enormously as well. I feel much more rigid in my little sailor suit, which helps with the fact that Edward feels uncomfortable in his own skin. And with Betty, her glorious floor-length winter cape, the delicate fabrics of her tailored dresses and her high heels make a huge change in the energy of her character.

Third-year MFA actor Evelyn Gaynor as 9-year-old Edward in Act I of "Cloud 9."

Third-year MFA actor Evelyn Gaynor as 9-year-old Edward in Act I of “Cloud 9.”

Art at IU: What do you hope audiences take away with them after seeing the play?

Adam: What I personally hope the audience takes away from this show is that happiness is what you make it. In Act I, you’ve got all these characters hiding their true feelings because society says you shouldn’t think or feel that way. In Act II, the characters are more open to say what they feel and do what they want. It doesn’t mean you always get what you want or that you will always be happy, but that it’s up to you to search for that happiness. “Cloud 9” isn’t an unobtainable object — you just have to know what it is.

Gaynor as Betty in Act II.

Gaynor as Betty in Act II.

Evelyn: The thing I keep coming back to is this idea that we are all complex and unique human beings, and we cannot be defined by anything or anyone. We define ourselves. I think Churchill is asking audiences to look into the eyes of another human being, perhaps even one you know well, and re-examine them. And she’s asking us to do the same for ourselves. Are you really seeing you? Are you taking that special soul you are and accepting it and loving it? And once you do, are you giving that away to someone else? That seems to me to be something she is asking us all to do: To know ourselves, love our own truth, and then live according to that, as we continually give that truth away to others. It may be unexpected and it should be hard. Living on “Cloud 9” is exciting, thrilling and often terrifying, but it’s worth the risk.

“Cloud 9” runs Dec. 6-7, 10-14 at the Wells-Metz Theatre. Further details are available online.

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