“It’s a piece of theatre that reflects on big questions,” British director Carrie Cracknell says talking about her upcoming Broadway production of Sea Wall/A Life. “What happens when you become a parent. What happens when you lose your own parents. And the kind of massive transitions in life that we all go through. And the plays are very honest, open, funny, sad explorations of these big themes in different ways.”
Sea Wall/A Life, an evening of two one-act monologue plays about life, love, and the looming presence of death marks Cracknell’s Broadway directorial debut. The playwrights are, respectively, Simon Stephens (Heisenberg, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) and Nick Payne (Constellations); the performers are, respectively, Tom Sturridge (Orphans, 1984) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Constellations, Sunday in the Park With George). The evening was a sold-out critical and commercial success at Off-Broadway’s Public Theatre earlier this year before moving to Broadway’s Hudson Theatre, where it begins previews July 26 prior to an August 8 opening.
Cracknell served as co-artistic director at the Gate Theatre in London from 2007 to 2012 and was an associate director at the Royal Court and Young Vic Theatres there. Her directing credits at London’s National Theatre include Julie, Medea, Blurred Lines (working with Payne), and The Deep Blue Sea. Her Young Vic production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (English-language version by Stephens) played the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014.
Here, she speaks about Sea Wall/A Life, how she directs, and her future plans.
Why she became a director:
“I’ve been directing in different ways since I was seven or eight, I think. Making stories inside tiny sets that I built in cardboard boxes, through to having my own little theatre company when I was about eight with a friend from my street. We used to make a show every year. It just kind of kept evolving. Through my teens I made different pieces. It’s always been in my bones, and I’ve always been interested in, I guess, making experiences for other people, and to some extent living half in-half out of an imaginary world.
“Oddly, I didn’t see that much theatre when I was growing up. It was an innate thing that I did. The first really sort of compelling experience I had was seeing Hamlet at the Young Vic in London. We went on a school trip on a bus and I remember thinking that it absolutely blew my mind because it was really modern. The direction was incredibly authorial, the performances were really deep. That certainly totally opened up the idea of what theatre could be for me.
“But actually one of the strongest influences for me was watching MTV when I was growing up. I used to watch it a lot when I wasn’t in school. And I developed this quite cinematic grammar. In some of my early work I was interested in trying to recreate film and television grammar onstage. My early work particularly was very led by music, more so than text maybe.”
Her directing principles:
“I always have what’s called a hot-pulse read of every play I’m sent, and then I make myself have a very cool read in which I try and be very rational and pragmatic about the strengths and weaknesses of the piece. I guess it’s a combination of falling in love with a play and then thinking about how I’m going to feel when I’ve been in a relationship with that play for years. I try to do both of those things at the beginning. That’s really important.
“The central tenet of my work is, do I bring something unique and unusual to this play because of my life experience and the affinity I have with the material? I’m interested in truth always, whatever that means, but trying to make deep psychological work with actors. And I’m also normally interested in trying to find a very visual imagined world for the play. And then I have rules about a desire for all of my work to feel progressive in different ways. Whether that’s about trying to put at the fore female protagonists, or to think slightly differently about gender within my work—that’s something that I come back to a lot. I’m really interested in themes around gender and around family, and how that intersects with men’s and women’s lives.”
With an actor in the rehearsal room:
“For me, working with an actor is the greatest pleasure. There’s no pleasure greater 90 percent of the time. I love trying to unlock each actor’s process and trying to understand what makes them tick, what makes them deepen their work, what makes them shut down. I have quite a clear process working with actors but I try to adjust it for each individual. With some actors that’s all about love and safety, and with other actors it’s about toughness and specificity. I find it endlessly fascinating, both emotionally and intellectually.”
A mistake she made she learned from:
“I started running a venue when I was 26 called the Gate in London. I was very young and very green. I ran the theatre with another director called Natalie Abrahami, and we were full of ambition and we wanted the theatre to be this punk radical space, making European-influenced dance theatre, and to some extent we succeeded in that, and some of the work was great. But I made a show which was based on a series of 999 calls—like 911 emergency calls basically that had been depicted in the newspaper. It was such a kind of strange and ill-considered conceit for a show. Although the thing we made was quite beautiful it never had enough muscle to be a show. I learned a lot about being really mindful about what you enter into when you’re trying to create work and not being quite so willful.”
About Sea Wall/A Life:
“I’ve collaborated with both playwrights for a long time, and I wanted to work with them on these two beautiful plays. Jake Gyllenhaal and I had looked for a long time for something to do together after he’d seen a show of mine in London. He had this obsession really with this monologue by Nick, and Tom Sturridge also had an obsession with Sea Wall. It was this brilliant marriage of two pieces of writing I find really compelling and these two exquisite actors.
“One of the things that’s unusual about the show is that these two incredible actors talk in a very direct, very open way to the audience. It feels quite unusual to be in such direct contact with them. They’re playing with the audience, they’re playing off the audience, each night. I think particularly for people who are aware of Jake’s film work it’s really kind of compelling to see him in this way. It’s very different.”
“Well, I am currently working on my first feature film, which I will make next year. I can’t say what it is yet. But that’s the next thing. I’ve been thinking for a long time about moving across to film and that’s happening.”