Caryl Churchill‘s plays are anything but straightforward. Her dealings with gender identity, love and sexuality are nuanced, profoundly unnerving, and yet, somehow, consistently relevant. Perhaps that is why her seminal work Cloud Nine is currently being revived Off-Broadway at the Seeing Place Theatre. “what really excites me about this play is its timelessness” says star Sabrina Schlegel-Mejia, “I’m fascinated by plays that speak to a larger truth in the human experience and society. Cloud Nine is definitely one of those plays and the fact that it still resonates, nearly forty years after its debut, is a real testament to that.” She will be playing Maud and Victoria in the revival.
“There’s so much to explore with this play, it’s a little intimidating honestly,” says Schlegel, “we’ve spent a lot of time discussing the characters, the oppression they face, the way they relate and deal with themselves and their desires within their circumstances.” Sabrina has been an ensemble member with The Seeing Place since she graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, a school that has given the world five generations of award-winning actors. “I tend to be very adaptable. I’m always in a rush to put myself in my character’s shoes,” she goes on, “I’m part Colombian, part Swiss, born in Mexico City, raised in Ukraine, then Switzerland, and I moved to New York three years ago. I have such a varied International background, I think I naturally seek out connection, greater truths, and the similarities in all of us” Sabrina travelled extensively as a child with her parents, a visual artist and a street photographer. “They gave me a wider view of the world,” she says warmly, “I will always be grateful for that.”
Sabrina’s work life is as eclectic as her personal life. “I recently did a political street play called The Uncounted about the 1988 mass execution of political prisoners in Iran; it was a beautiful and heart-wrenching experience. Was probably one of the most incredible projects for me as an actress so far. I was involved in a sketch show that did quite well. I appeared in a music video of a Filipino love song called Tadhana (From the massively popular group Up Dharma Down). I’ve just finished shooting a short film called ‘GIRL FRIEND’ , and not too long ago I was in a production of Macbeth,” she explains, “it’s quite the smorgasbord.” Sabrina takes her multi-faceted resume easily in stride. “I never worry about what medium or genre the project is. I don’t think there is such a thing as a stage actor, or a film actor. It’s the same muscles, the same tools, just applied differently, and I think I’m richer for the diversity.”
“things are more liberal, but being liberal has all these problems too”
She takes a moment and then addresses the text of Cloud Nine specifically. “What’s really fascinating in the first act is the disconnect between manners and actions,” she smiles, “it’s very funny. Very Victorian. When the character Harry tries to kiss Clive and is rebuffed, he plays the victim, says he has ‘a disease worse than diphtheria’.” She laughs before continuing. “In the second act, it’s all about seeing the Victorian era side-by-side with the 1980s. We see how things are more liberal, but how being liberal has all these problems too,” she nods, “it’s very ideological.”
As the conversation winds down, Sabrina returns to where the conversation started. “What I always come back to is the truth of the characters,” she summarizes, “no matter how dense and intellectual or symbolic the text gets, I have to play the character and not the metaphor or the “idea”.” This is an age old adage, learned well and adhered to by most of the acting greats in some form or another. “I love talking about the images and symbolism in the play, but it means nothing if we’re not making the audience feel something visceral. That’s my job as an actor,” she pauses, “I have my work cut out for me, don’t I?” She laughs at herself, before getting thoughtful again. “They said at the Academy, you have to be in love with the process, or you’ll never succeed in the craft. That has always resonated with me. Trusting the process, exploring, and observing has helped my work more than anything,” she hesitates, “that and just the love for theatre and human nature in general. Which I think is what sustains us as actors in the unforgiving business side of things. But that’s another story…” Indeed it is, but the message is clear: if Sabrina Schlegel-Mejia is anything to go by, the work going into Cloud Nine is not to be missed.