With Switchyard Theatre Company’s production of The Half-Life of Marie Curie just closed at Durham’s PSI Theatre, company cofounder Charles Machalicky is trying to describe the experience of managing live theater.
“Actually, it’s a lot like a duck,” Machalicky grins. “Smooth on the surface,” he says before laughing, “with all sorts of activity happening underneath.”
After the company bowed with an outdoor late April production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the commons at Chapel Hill’s Southern Village, it turned to a historical drama by Lauren Gunderson, currently the most produced living playwright in the United States, for its first endeavor in a conventional theater.
The scripts and venue choices were not accidental. A decade ago, Chapel Hill and Carrboro hosted notable theater companies including Deep Dish and the Open Door, while Durham was a theatrical hub for innovative, independent companies including Tiny Engine Theatre, Common Wealth Endeavors, and Little Green Pig at spaces like Common Ground and Manbites Dog Theater.
Both of those venues shuttered before the pandemic virtually closed the art form down, and a number of itinerant companies went dormant or folded. Though Switchyard’s artistic director Noelle Azarelo calls Durham and Chapel Hill “very arts-forward areas,” Machalicky notes that the theater scene has “imploded” in both towns—leaving an opening for new endeavors like Switchyard.
Shakespeare would be a no-brainer for a theater’s opening bid, and Azarelo crafted an accessible, medieval-tinged production, with buskers and performers from the regional ren faire community entertaining and mingling with the crowds before the show.
But why do a historical drama about Marie Curie for a follow-up?
“One of the questions we asked was, ‘Who was going to enjoy that show?’” Machalicky says. “It’s women in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math]. And we have a lot of them in high tech, in Raleigh and RTP.”
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s reversal on abortion, Gunderson’s script was nothing if not timely: an examination on how women’s lives were and still are circumscribed by sex. “A love affair is about to bring the entire career down of the first person to ever win two Nobel Prizes,” Azarelo says. “Why do we even care who she has sex with?”
When the play’s two scientists place the highest possible value on proof—scientific moments of universal acknowledgment when what is known is known beyond all doubt—they expose the degree to which a gaslighting culture has so often questioned, denied, and delegitimized the experiences of women.
“It speaks to our moment,” Azarelo says. In its vision statement, the company plans to keep doing so, emphasizing “a broader understanding of current events and our shared humanity.”
Look closely, and you’ll see that in its upcoming season. Its next production, the dark comedy Fuddy Meers, runs at Burning Coal Theatre in October. In it, Claire, a central character with a form of amnesia like the subject of the film 50 First Dates, wakes every morning with no knowledge of her recent life. Her husband shows her a photo album and updates her on recent events.
One morning a different man enters, says he’s her brother, and tells her that the man who’s been waking her up has been lying to her. From that point forward, Claire—and the audience—has no idea whom to believe.
To Azarelo, the parallels with our current social and political landscape seem obvious.
“We are constantly getting conflicting information; we don’t know who to trust,” the director says. “How do you do your own research when the algorithms created for you just show you what you want to read, instead of what might be factually correct?”
“The more you get into your bubble, the more you’re only getting the information that someone else wants you to have,” Azarelo concludes. “That’s exactly what’s happening with Claire.”
The company’s first season will continue with a winter production of a rarely produced Noël Coward comedy, with a twist. Nontraditional casting “will have a really interesting impact on the show,” Azarelo says. Multiple roles will be open to actors of any gender identity; all roles are open to any race or ethnicity.
“Representation is so important,” Azarelo says, “because we’re not just making theater for straight, white, able-bodied, neurotypical, and conventionally beautiful people. We are making theater for everyone. Each body tells a story. And we tell different stories, depending on the bodies that we see.”
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