Caryl Churchill’s play Love and Information is a poignant exploration of how a pathological desire for information — ranging from family secrets and dream interpretation to lab experiments and the census — shapes human connection. The play consists of 57 micro-plays, some as brief as sentences, to be reassembled in any order, with more than 100 characters in total. The evocative plays are written like poems; one reads, in its entirety:
This is Jennifer.
Here’s the piano. You can play the piano.
I’ve never played the piano.
You sit here.
He sits. He plays well and JENNIFER sings. He gets up.
This is Jennifer.
Years before directing the Chicago production (which opened last week at Trap Door Theatre), Kim McKean was living in New York when she came across the play, tearing through the script in one sitting. We spoke with McKean about retrofitting Churchill’s play with new social contexts before she headed back to El Paso, where she teaches at the University of Texas.
How did you first come across Love and Information?
I was living in New York and I happened to read the New York Times review of the play [which ran off-Broadway in a New York Theater Workshop production at the Minetta Lane Theater in 2014]. I was blown away by Caryl Churchill’s ability to speak so surprisingly and poignantly about universal human truth in every scene. Then I started thinking, “How would anybody ever produce this play?” It was living in me for a long time. By the time Beata [Pilch, co-founder and artistic director of Trap Door Theatre] and I started talking and throwing around a couple scripts as possibilities, I had started to have seeds of ideas.
Thematically, for me, the play is about a need for genuine human connection in our information- and social media–driven culture, and how that desire ultimately affects our ability to love and connect. Trap Door is really committed to challenging, obscure texts; I wouldn’t say that this is an obscure text because it’s Caryl Churchill, but it’s definitely challenging: There is nothing that says who these characters are, what the settings are, what their relationships are like. There are [few] character delineations or even names — it’s just lines on a page. That’s something that really interested me: how to bring all of these stories to life theatrically, so that it’s not just two people sitting across a table and talking to each other the whole time.
How did you build the social contexts in each scene?
To me, specificity is crucial to the world of the play. For some scenes, I had clear ideas of the social context and the relationship. In rehearsal, we would ask deeper questions to make these characters really specific. But with several others, I would very openly say, “I have no idea what this scene is. We’re going to have to play and experiment with it.”
For a handful of scenes, we went through 10 to 15 different settings before landing on the right one. We talked about whether it was public or private; sometimes, we had the environment right but would change the relationship, and that would [completely alter the scene]. I saw it as a lab where we would explore each scene until everybody felt like, “Yes, this is it.”
One scene, “Piano,” has barely anything on the page. Ultimately, we did it as a big vaudevillian show with a hypnotist, [but] we went back and forth. One time, we had the guy playing the piano as a dementia patient in a nursing home, but when we staged it, it felt contrived. We also tried it with him in the company of a younger version of himself, but that wasn’t specific enough. Then we started really opening it up and working out all the other possible [circumstances] where someone can just be randomly presented with a piano. Someone suggested, “What if he were hypnotized?”
[Love and information] is almost like looking at a Facebook feed. Sometimes you zoom in and something pops out [because] it’s crazy and wild; another thing catches your eye because it’s really touching. I was always thinking, “How can I keep this story alive?”
As you mentioned, Love and Information is a unique play in terms of its structure and open-ended sequencing. There’s obviously a lot to work with as a director. What was your strategy tackling or making meaning from that?
After reading [the play] many, many times, I realized there are certain ties between the scenes in each section. So, the first thing I did was to figure out each section thematically; I made a map for myself. For example, I saw the first section as all these scenes about wanting information, and how we grapple with this need. Another section is about remembering information — wedding videos, memory palaces, [and so on.] Another section is about questioning information and how that affects relationships.
The order [of the scenes in each section] was like a jigsaw puzzle. We were still shifting the order all the way up to Tuesday [of opening week]. It really had to do with movement for me. It was almost like a musical score: “Okay, we’re crescendo-ing, we’re crescendo-ing, and now we need to let it decrescendo.”
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
I got my training as an actor, but I was always really interested in the macro story. I really needed to understand the entire story to understand my place in the world. [But directing] is something I never anticipated doing. If you’d have told me when I first moved to Chicago 15 years ago that I would be directing, I would have been surprised. Now, I can’t look back.
I fell into directing working in New York after grad school and started getting opportunities to direct on camera. I love looking at narrative — or, [in Love and Information], non-narrative structure — and asking, “What are we really going for here? And how can I move the piece towards that?” You have this opportunity to create the room you want to work in, and to make a room where people feel they can do their best work. I want to lead the team in a way where everyone feels safe and comfortable — or uncomfortable when they need to artistically, because that’s part of the process, too.
DETAILS: Through 10/19. $10–$25. Bucktown. Trap Door Theatre. trapdoortheatre.com