The Daily Gamecock

'Top Girls' tackles challenges for women in workplace

Inspired by the 2016 presidential election, the USC Department of Theatre and Dance decide its next season should shine a light on women through an original concept called “Women Warriors.” With this theme in mind and free reign to select a show of her choice, one play stood out to director Lindsay Rae Taylor immediately. 

“Top Girls,” which premiers Oct. 26, was written by Caryl Churchill in the 1980s in response to the election of Margaret Thatcher, England’s first female prime minister. While Churchill is a feminist herself, Thatcher’s right wing political views left her conflicted, and she began to wonder if her milestone win was as great as it was proclaimed to be. 

“It was kind of this big moment where a female was elected, but is it necessarily a good thing? And what does it mean for women? What does it mean for the world?” Taylor said. 

Set in the early '80s, “Top Girls” follows Marlene, a woman who has just gotten promoted to a management position at work. Churchill’s Obie-winning play tackles the advantages and disadvantages of what it truly means for a woman to succeed in a male-dominated world through the portrayal of relationships between family, friends and work. 

Taylor is a second-year graduate student, and this is her second time directing a show solo. She began her career as a professional actor after getting her bachelor's degree in theatre at NYU. Although she was able to find consistent work in the first decade of her career, Taylor found herself growing out of her typecast as the ingenue and she began booking fewer jobs. Still, she was determined to use this as an opportunity to pursue her master’s degree and become a teacher. 

“I wanted to challenge myself to do a program that would force me to have more of an opinion, take more of a leadership role and have a better understanding of what my creative vision is,” Taylor said.

With “Top Girls,” Taylor is doing just that. Despite the bulk of her previous work being Shakespeare, working with contemporary plays is not out her comfort zone and she enjoys the challenge. She describes the play as “cinematic,” as it deals with a lot of movement and a heavy British text. 

“As a director, I appreciate simplicity and I kind of work in that way so far, but I think that the play itself is very dense,” Taylor said.

In addition to its challenging text, “Top Girls” is also known for its all-female cast. The play consists of seven principal actresses, with some playing multiple characters. Libby Hawkins, second-year graduate student and acting candidate, plays three parts. 

Hawkins has been acting for as long as she can remember and describes it as “such a rush to get onstage and tell stories.” In “Top Girls” she plays Isabella Bird, a world traveler; Rosemary Kidd, a housewife; and Joyce, the protagonist’s sister. 

“The most challenging part of this play was all of the dialects," she said. "I use three different dialects to help differentiate my characters: Scottish for Isabella, RP or Standard British for Rosemary and a looser English country dialect for Joyce."

Kimberly Braun, second-year graduate student and acting candidate, plays Marlene, the story’s career driven protagonist. Despite her 25 years of experience, Braun has experienced a much welcomed first during the production. 

“I've never been in an all-female production before. The energy in the room is electric," she said. "To have a female director, a female stage manager and an all female cast working together to create an incredible provocative work of art is historical and political, just by defying the status quo."

An unfortunate testament to this has been the ongoing investigation into allegations of sexual assault and harassment against prominent film producer Harvey Weinstein from several high-profile actresses. This particular case has caused a firestorm in Hollywood as even more actresses have begun to share similar experiences with similar men in power.

“I feel like everything going on in the world only adds to the mission of this piece… I think that the actors are affected by it and I think that it makes their work seem more important,” Taylor said.

With the goal that the message of "Top Girls" will spread beyond the walls of the theater, Taylor has collaborated with the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network, a nonprofit women’s advocacy group based in the Midlands. A post-show talkback with WREN will open for a dialogue on how women can succeed in the workforce and will be held after the Nov. 3 performance.

“We're not done yet. Women have had the right to vote for less than 100 years. They still earn less money, are sexually harassed at work, are discriminated against based on the desire to have or not have a family,” Braun said. 

Taylor hopes that after seeing the play the audiences asks many questions about where women are now. However, she doesn’t want people to leave with the misconception that it’s a “pro-Hillary” project as she believes that Churchill “was very objective about presenting two sides.” 

Hawkins finds joy in the play because she believes that Churchill respects the decisions of all women, regardless of what society typically requires of them. “Churchill lays out each of these women for the audience to examine them and their choices, but she doesn't judge the characters,” said Hawkins.

Production is in the process of wrapping up after seven weeks, and the cast and crew are adding their finishing touches. Taylor believes that through their detailed work, the actresses have truly made “Top Girls” their own. 

“I think that my favorite thing recently has been watching the actors now steer it themselves. They're taking charge of it.” Taylor said. “It’s kind of that moment where I feel like I sort of disappear from the project, which is a little sad, but it’s also inspiring to see them take the story and tell it ... they’re living it.”