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How 'Sea Wall / A Life' Smashes the Actor-Audience Divide

Date: Aug 07, 2019


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Carrie Cracknell directs Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge in her Broadway debut


Theatregoers often react audibly at Sea Wall / A Life, a pair of complementary monologues by Simon Stephens and Nick Payne at Broadway's Hudson Theatre. Delivered directly to the audience by Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal, these cathartic stories about men grappling with fatherhood, loss and healing feel so authentic and conversational, they spark a range of responses, from quiet crying to unexpected laughter to shouted-out questions. At a recent performance, when Sturridge's shattered family man promised to divulge "the cruelest thing" he ever said to someone else, he balked as per the script. In that fraught silence, a voice in the darkness rang out: "So, what did you say?"

Director Carrie Cracknell was in attendance that evening, and although she admits that had never happened before, she wasn't shocked or worried. "One of the interesting parts of this project has been wondering how open can a relationship with the audience be?" she says. "I think both Tom and Jake have decided to be really brave and radically open. They take everything that comes. Sometimes they make the decision that they can't respond to something," as was the case with "What did you say?" Sturridge paused for a beat, then moved on. "Sometimes, if someone makes a comment, they'll turn and give the next section of the text to that person. The other night, a phone went off during a particularly intense part of Sea Wall and Tom just stopped and said, 'It's okay. It's okay,' and almost burst into tears. You felt this aliveness between the room and the actor -- that really was extraordinary. It's an evolving journey night to night."

That journey began two years ago, when Sturridge and Gyllenhaal's shared theatrical agent John Buzzetti and Cracknell spearheaded a reading of Sea Wall / A Life at The Public Theater. Buzzetti knew each actor was interested in the respective monologues, and he thought they would go well together. Meanwhile, Gyllenhaal and Cracknell, a sought-after British theatre director, had been looking to collaborate for a while. "I flew out from London and sat in this room and they just read them and there was a potency about the two being performed together," Cracknell recalls. "Tom and Jake have a connection as actors and a shared taste and interest in working in a super-naturalistic way. They need to have this light touch somewhere between fiction and reality. Intellectually, I find that an incredibly interesting landscape to be playing in."

The production had a sold-out world premiere earlier this year at The Public Theater, but Cracknell says Broadway was always a goal, assuming schedules aligned. This summer they did.

Initially, Cracknell had concerns about transferring the show to a larger commercial venue, especially since it's not typical Broadway fare. The design is purposefully minimal, and there is no fourth wall. At times Sturridge and Gyllenhaal actually venture into the house, completely eradicating that invisible line between actors and audience. Cracknell wanted to make sure that sense of intimacy was preserved on Broadway.


Happily, the layout and atmosphere of the Hudson has proved ideal. "I think it's the best theatre I've ever worked in, and I've worked in quite a lot!" says Cracknell, who served as the associate director at both the Young Vic and the Royal Court in London. "The seats wrap around and even if you're at the back of any of the levels, you still feel near the stage. The acoustics are great. Tom and Jake don't have to push as much as they did at The Public, actually. A lot of the challenges have disappeared as the piece has become bigger. The themes feel deeper and broader. There's an intense intimacy in this much larger room, and because we have more people, the responses are much more alive."

The star power of the two actors, who are well-known for their movie roles, seems to be attracting some folks who aren't regular theatregoers. Sometimes they come in not knowing anything about the show's emotional subject matter, but the surprise can be powerful. Sturridge begins his piece by taking a huge swig from what looks like a bottle of alcohol. The night I attended, two young women behind me jokingly whispered, "Chug, chug, chug!" By the end of his tale, their revelry had transformed into sobering tears.

"These plays feature men talking honestly about the responsibility of fatherhood," says Cracknell, who's a mother of three. "I co-parent with my husband and I know his role is as profound as mine as mother. That needs to be in the discourse, subtly altering expectations about gender. I'm really obsessed with gender. That's a consistent theme for me."

Throughout previews, Cracknell's been at the theatre, listening to the reactions so she can make last-minute adjustments. "That's my favorite thing, being in the belly of the audience and seeing the show through their eyes," she says. "That's how you learn what you've made. We are doing very detailed, sensitive work each day responding to what we learned the night before."

One thing she's noticed is that the show is inspiring repeat visits. There's a moment when Sturridge's character, who, like the actor, is English, asks the audience for help coming up with the word for "those blue things" worn at hospitals. "It's actually interesting, people come back with 'scrubs' quite quickly," Cracknell says. But recently she realized, "it's been the same woman for three nights! That's kind of lovely really. The show brings this real pleasure to people."


Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Jake Gyllenhaal Tom Sturridge. Photo by Max Vadukul.

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