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How People, Places & Things changed Denise Gough's life
During her first audition for Duncan Macmillan's People, Places & Things, Denise Gough started crying. She was reading for the role of Emma, an addict and actress, and delivering a speech about the challenges of life as an artist. At the time, Gough hadn't worked as a performer for about a year, and she was almost ready to call it quits and pursue other avenues like teaching or working with children. When director Jeremy Herrin suggested that maybe the character wasn't that emotional, Gough responded, "Yeah, but I am."
If Gough cries at all these days, they're tears of joy. She ended up booking that part in People, Places & Things, which premiered at London's National Theatre in 2015, transferred to the West End, and is currently playing a limited engagement at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. The show revitalized her career -- she won the 2016 Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Play -- and helped her land a leading role opposite Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield in the National Theatre's lauded revival of Angels in America, which comes to Broadway in February. Although she's definitely elated, the Irish actress, who's never been to New York City before, admits she's still in shock. "All I thought was going to happen in my life was I would get a small part Off-Broadway somewhere at some point," she says.
People, Places & Things is an impressive introduction to Gough's talents. Her energy never flags as Emma, who shows up at a rehabilitation clinic reeling from countless substances. It's fitting that Gough takes a sort of victory lap on stage after every performance, pumping her first in triumph: The play is a physical and emotional marathon for the actress and the audience, too. That's probably why so many theatregoers are anxious to connect with Gough to share their addiction stories. "None of us are unaffected by this," she says. "I got a letter from a man from New York and his wife who had seen the show the day before the fifth anniversary of their son's death from heroin. I have it on my wall and I look at it every night before I go on stage to remind myself that that's the play."
To enhance the play's authenticity, the cast and creative team spent time at a treatment center in South London and worked with a sober community stateside. Those experiences have helped keep Gough grounded. "It's fabulous that everybody is celebrating us, but people die from this stuff," she says. Usually, "life-threatening diseases make people come toward you and want to wrap you up and take care of you, but addiction doesn't do that. Addiction makes people run away. It's about telling that story."
Although Gough has been performing the show on and off since 2015, she says it feels more relevant than ever. "At this moment in time, this play makes more sense than it did three years ago, because we didn't have Brexit or the man who will not be named," she says. In the play, Emma talks about "'the moral ambivalence you have to have these days just to get out of bed.' I relate to the idea of wanting to switch off the feelings. I relate to the idea of how difficult it is at the moment to watch the world and think, how are we all just not lying down on the ground in the street? How are we still functioning? The world has finally caught up with the play somehow."
For her Broadway debut, Gough will play another substance abuser: Harper, the Valium-addled Mormon housewife with a closeted husband in Angels in America. But she says their similarities stop at addiction. "When I started replaying Emma, having not played her for a long time, it was almost as if I could feel her saying to me, 'Oh thank god that Mormon housewife is gone!'" Gough says. "These two women are so entirely different, but what they have done in my body is make more room for each other. So I'm really excited to see how much space is in my soul now for Harper."
Gough feels lucky to be working on such potent productions back-to back. With People, Places & Things, she hopes audiences will walk away with a fresh perspective on addiction. "I've always believed in the power of theatre to change lives," she says. "It can sound like hyperbole, but I don't care. It's the truth, and I know what this show has done. I feel a huge responsibility to give it everything I've got so that I tell the truth for the people who are living sober in a world like this."
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Top image: Denise Gough and Jacqui Dubois in People, Places & Things. Photos by Teddy Wolff.
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