Welcome to the first post in our blog series on the Brock University Dramatic Arts winter mainstage production of Top Girls! Written in 1982 by Caryl Churchill and directed for DART by faculty member Danielle Wilson, Top Girls is an exploration of and critical look at women and their relationships to power and success. 

In this blog series on Top Girls, contributor Michelle Mohammed – fourth year DART student and assistant director for the production – takes us behind the scenes into the rehearsal process, provides a history of the play and playwright, and explores Top Girls’ pressingly contemporary feminist themes. 

Jan. 15, 2018

“Playwrights don’t give answers, they ask questions” – Caryl Churhill

I can still remember the exact feeling when I received an email from Danielle Wilson asking if I would accept the role of assistant director for the 2018 Winter Production of Top Girls; I stood, staring at my phone, and I was literally stunned – I couldn’t move, and could barely think. The actor in me was so excited that I had experienced a new feeling, and was now able to fully understand what it means to feel stunned in such a context, (and hopefully bring that into actor work one day) and the student in me was exhilarated. Since my audition for the DART Invitational in 2014, Danielle Wilson has stood out to me. I remember working with her in a workshop that day thinking, “I hope if I get into the program I can somehow, in anyway, work with that woman!” Four years later, and I get to work with Danielle in a way I never even thought I would be able to. It has always been evident to me, based on the shows I have seen her direct, that the work that interests her is the same type of work that interests me: strong writing, challenging roles for actors, and infused with some sort of political statement.

Top Girls by Caryl Churchill is comprised of strong, challenging, and well-written roles for female actors, which are still rare to find, and brings to light several issues related to being a woman in the world. It explores questions surrounding success, what sacrifices a woman must make to “get to the top” in the workplace, and what it means for women to “have it all.” The play is set in 1980’s Britain: Margaret Thatcher has just been elected, and the political climate is changing. Top Girls tells the story of Marlene, a woman who has just been promoted to the highest position in the Top Girls Employment Agency. We discover throughout the play what sacrifices the women in the agency have made to get to the top. Written by one of the most influential female playwrights of her time, Top Girls explores issues of family, business, and what it means to be a “successful” woman.

The play is often recognized for its exceptional first act, in which Marlene hosts a dinner party for five extraordinary historical women: Isabella Bird, a Scottish traveller; Lady Nijo, a Japanese concubine; Dull Gret, from Flemish folklore; Pope Joan, from Medieval legend; and Patient Griselda, from English and Italian folklore. Danielle believes, however, that a lot of the emotional impact lies in the last act of the play, where we see Marlene visiting her sister Joyce and daughter Angie in their suburban home in Ipswich. From a fantasy dinner scene in act one to the realities of life in the workplace in act two, and a window into family-life in act three, the play presents three different versions of Marlene.

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Exploring Act 1 of the play. (from left to right) Emma McCormick, Catherine Tait, Kristina Ojaperv, Samantha Mastrella, Helena Ciuciura, Manchari Paranthahan, Meryl Ochoa. Photo by Michelle Mohammed.

The first order of business that is required of any show is a lot of research. Danielle and I spent a lot of time just talking about the play. She already knew that a major part of the research would have to focus on Margaret Thatcher and her influence on British politics, gender politics, and the political climate of the 80’s. In our conversation, we discovered a lot of the main themes we would often “circle” back to, and from this generated a rough list of main topics of research. With topics ranging from white feminism to the Bechdel test, we curated a list and divvied up the research for the cast and myself to share during our six day intensive before the winter break.

“The play is often recognized for its exceptional first act … Danielle believes, however, that a lot of the emotional impact lies in the last act of the play”

One of the obvious challenges of Churchill’s play is that she writes overlapping dialogue. Much like the way people speak in everyday life, characters speak on top of each other’s dialogue. By using a slash, Churchill demonstrates when each actor interrupts the dialogue. An example of her writing looks like this:

Sarah: I wanted you to know that I am so sorry. I really didn’t mean to / hurt you in the process.

Tarndeep: I know. I feel bad about the entire situation, and I wanted to apologize too.

The actor playing Tarndeep’s character starts her line when the actor playing Sarah gets to the slash in her dialogue. Churchill pioneered this writing technique that a few playwrights after her have incorporated in their writing. I asked Danielle if she had ever directed anything like this before, and if she had any plans for directing this type of dialogue. She said she never had, and that we would have to discover it in the rehearsal room. As directors, we have to determine what parts of the dialogue need to be heard over others and when to accept the chaos of the moment, allowing audiences to choose where their attention is naturally drawn towards. This is something the ensemble constantly plays with in the rehearsal room, determining whose lines are delivered to whom, and which moments are vital for an audience to hear.

The Intensive + First Week of Rehearsals

Before the winter break, we had a six-day intensive where the actors got on their feet and explored the script. The first day, we started off by talking about any feelings we had towards the play. Specifically, Danielle wanted to know any messages we received from the play as young women. We discussed everything from the pressures of having a family and career, the idea of “having it all,” and definitions of “success.” Afterwards, we dove straight into a reading of Act 1, the act Danielle believed would be the most challenging to accomplish. After a reading of the first act, we were introduced to Kelly Wolf, our costume designer, and Nigel Scott, our set designer. They presented their sources of inspiration, including images, artists, and photos of the historical characters.

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Exploring a thought exercise on the second intensive day. Photo by Michelle Mohammed.

On the second day of the intensive the actors explored the play using a thought exercise. Each cast member took 4-5 thoughts that their character or characters speak in the play, and wrote them on different pieces of coloured paper. The cast posted their thoughts around the room and then interacted with each thought physically, speaking the thought and finding physical connections or movements in relation to each thought. There was no order, and no real rules around how they could express their thoughts. They were encouraged to let the text affect their body, and their body affect the text.

Next, we read Act 1 again, this time sat in a circle on chairs, and the actors were asked to stand every time they spoke. This encouraged them to find urgency in their responses, and determined whom they were speaking to in certain moments. We spent the rest of the intensive days talking about and exploring specific scenes. We discussed any thoughts we had, or things we noticed, and asked questions. Danielle also included some activities on certain days to help with character development, encourage vocal/textual exploration, and to understand the stakes of specific moments.

The first week back from the winter break, we were still in the early process of the show; it meant that we did not have as much time to spend discussing scenes in depth, and really needed to be efficient with our time. Danielle still incorporated exercises when she felt it necessary to help with specific areas of focus. For example, instead of a general physical exploration exercise that we explored in the intensive, Danielle used a punctuation exercise, where actors were asked to speak their punctuation with the text in Act 1. This allowed the actors to focus on their point of view and understand the specificity of each thought.

Another technique Danielle really likes to use (and has used since the intensive) is recording the actor’s lines and playing the recording on the sound system. While the recording plays, the actors explore the scene on their feet in relation to their speech. This is a way for them to explore blocking and hear their own delivery so they can pinpoint areas they need to improve.

My Experience so far as an Assistant Director

Danielle works in a way that allows me to find my own voice in the room. I want to respect my role as an assistant director and let Danielle lead, as I lead behind her. I try to be as involved in the role as director as I can be in the room, while respecting the fact that Danielle is the primary director. She is amazing at encouraging my voice in the room, and I never feel afraid to offer my opinion. I appreciate being able to learn by watching Danielle actively do something that looks effortless, and I have been picking up a lot of techniques, exercises, and vocabulary along the way. Danielle has this magical way of communicating with actors that allows them to understand how they need to improve. When I see the direction applied by the actors she works with, I can see the effect her vocabulary and communication skills have in their performance. As a student director, I sometimes know what I want a scene to look like, or what I want the character to sound like, but sometimes I struggle to communicate this vision to the actor in a way they can understand.

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Cast and director of Top Girls. Photo by Michelle Mohammed.

“Danielle works in a way that allows me to find my own voice in the room… she is amazing at encouraging my voice in the room, and I never feel afraid to offer my opinion”

Danielle is an active director, always on her feet and directly engaged with her actors. She basically never sits behind a table, and chooses instead to sit on a chair near her actors, or even stand around with them if we are just reading through scenes. I am learning that Danielle really works with actors on language. She spends time ensuring that actors really understand what they are saying, and when the actors find the clarity of a thought, it reads impeccably to an audience. I am also learning the importance of an actor bringing offers into the room. As an actor, this is something I have always known about and actively tried to practice; from my point of view, it is very evident that there is only so much a director can do. Bringing a great performance and a great play to life is truly dependent on the relationship and collaboration between both actor and director. A great actor brings energy and spirit, and constantly makes offers in the rehearsal room; a great director guides these choices, encourages greater ones, and fine-tunes the performance.

A Final Thought…

What surprised me most about the play is how funny it is. Top Girls is funny. It is not advertised as a comedy, and is often viewed as a drama, but, like life, Churchill also manages to weave humour into her play. The comedic elements happen when the actors make interesting choices and inhabit the honesty of the moment. Like all good comedy, it only works when you play the truth.

The Next Step…

Now that we have explored and been introduced to almost every scene in the play, the next step is to be off-book and focus as we continue to aim for specificity in the language, physicality, and blocking. I am really excited to enter phase two of the production, and I hope you are too! Next month, I hope to interview actors and Danielle and the designers about their experience in relation to the production.

We cannot wait to see you in March for Brock University’s Dramatic Art’s 2018 production of Top Girls.

Top Girls plays March 2-4 and 9-10 at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts.
Tickets are sold at

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