Audiences moved to tears – actually, moved to sobs – were commonplace throughout last year’s nine-week Broadway run of Sea Wall/A Life, the pair of solo one-act plays starring, respectively, Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal. Directed by Carrie Cracknell, the plays – unconnected except by themes of unthinkable grief and the thin, piano-wire possibility of hope – combined for a powerful evening of theater, winning critical raves and full houses, recouping its $2.8 million investment just two months after its August 2019 opening at the Hudson Theater.
No small part of the production’s success, commercially and artistically, was the casting. Two actors with Hollywood names and Broadway know-how, Gyllenhaal and Sturridge, under Cracknell’s eloquent, immaculately detailed direction, gave performances that cut to the bone.
Sturridge took the stage first, climbing the “sea wall” platform that provides the title. Written by playwright Simon Stephens (Punk Rock, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), the play spotlights Sturridge as Alex, a sweet-natured British twentysomething staggered by the loss of his beloved young daughter and what might or might not be the collapse of his marriage.
Next up was Gyllenhaal in Nick Payne’s A Life. Speaking directly to the audience, as Sturridge had before him, Gyllenhaal played Abe, a man caught between grief over his recently deceased father and awe at his newborn daughter. Both prospects – life without him, life with her – terrify Abe before they fortify him.
In the year since Sea Wall/A Life ended its run last October, much – everything – has changed. Deadline recently asked Gyllenhaal, Sturridge and Cracknell to reflect on their show – one of 18 Broadway productions eligible for the upcoming Tony Award nominations – and what it offered audiences then, and to imagine what it could say to audiences in this grievous time. They shared what they miss most about theater, and what each hopes yet to do, perhaps sooner than you’d think.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
DEADLINE: Sea Wall/A Life has been over for a year now. What stands out as the most prominent memory each of you have of the production?
CARRIE CRACKNELL: With the pandemic, we haven’t been able to gather together at all and I keep thinking back to this sort of profound connection we had in the room. There was something about the directness with which Jake and Tom could speak to the audience, and the feeling of community that we somehow captured every night because of the openness that feels, now, in my memory, so oddly transgressive or just so alive and opposite to my current experience of being in these tiny, tiny groups all the time. That’s the thing that keeps playing through my mind, just how quietly radical it was to have hundreds and hundreds of people joined together in one conversation every night. It feels so very far from where we are.
TOM STURRIDGE: I don’t know I could say it better. The key thing that haunts me is that direct relationship with the audience. I would literally walk into the theater alongside them, we couldn’t have been more connected, and to think of these buildings and these spaces being dark right now is so bizarre. It’s scary.
DEADLINE: Jake, you actually had two new productions on Broadway last year – you were a producer on Slave Play. Usually you’d have a chance to reconnect with everyone in the spring because of the Tony Awards and all the craziness and parties that go with them. How disappointing has it been this year?
JAKE GYLLENHAAL: I think it was just so prolonged. Everyone on Broadway is a fighter so everyone was ready to keep going and to continue until we got pulled back and forced to stop. I don’t know any other business that works as hard and continues to work through almost anything, and it’s really only been stopped by this pandemic. So to me there’s always been this [forward] momentum on Broadway to not pay attention to what once was, and now we’re left without anything we could confidently say is in the future. So we’re looking back and we’re nostalgic. There’s a lot to be missed about the gathering and the people, be it parties for the Tony Awards or the performances, and that is what I miss so deeply.
STURRIDGE: I very specifically remember it feeling like a forum for healing, and what’s been so frustrating about this period is that we don’t have that forum any more at a time when it’s most vital and needed, a space where we can all come together and think together and exchange consciousness of what we’ve just experienced and been a part of.
GYLLENHAAL: There have been numerous times during this period where I felt so grateful to be an artist, so grateful to have storytelling as a job, even though it’s not possible to do right now. I never felt so grateful to have it as my job and to understand its power because of the lack of the opportunity to do it. I will also say, I think there’s a time now where there’s all this development and artists are coming together. There are people who I’ve wanted to speak to that I would never have been able to, but everybody’s talking, you know? Ideas are being exchanged and new things are happening and things I thought I really wanted to do have fallen by the wayside and new things have emerged that actually feel much deeper and closer to my heart.
CRACKNELL: The thing that strikes me almost daily is that there is no national story, there’s so little narrative in a way that is meaningful, that it doesn’t give people an opportunity to understand the pandemic in any kind of connective way. We’re all isolated, we’re trying to understand it through media but we can’t share or communicate stories around what’s happening. I think more than ever we’re going to go back to making work and ask better questions about why we’re telling the stories we’re telling.
DEADLINE: Is it possible to have real connection over Zoom?
STURRIDGE: We definitely lose a lot but at the same time I think one of the extraordinary things about theater is it’s a problem-solving medium, like you have to figure out a way in a small, black space to create Venice with a table and three chairs, and in the same way we now have to figure out ways to create Venice with a laptop. It’s a testament to the ingenuity and creativity and force of personality of the people involved who have to do that while these restrictions are in place.
GYLLENHAAL: I think the more you value those interactions the more you’ll fight for them, and the fight really comes from trying to practice patience and trying to fit in a space where that feels right to hold off, because if you really value the theater I think it’s worth waiting for. Any philosophy of theater [holds] that it’s not just the experience of watching the show, it’s the following week, it’s the week before, it’s the experience of buying the tickets, the entire thing. I think the catharsis that we’ll feel, the pride we’ll feel, the excitement we’ll feel will be tenfold because of the amount that audiences have waited for this experience. Speaking for myself, my experience of theater is still happening as I wait for it.
DEADLINE: Carrie, how difficult is it now to plan what you’re going to do next, especially in theater?
CRACKNELL: I looked at my slate the other day and I think I have nine projects and none have dates. Normally as a director you might have that many but they all slot into a timeframe, say between say now and 2025 or something, and so you know where to focus your energy and which part of the process you’re on for each project. Obviously at the moment what’s happening is everybody’s just trying to generate things that they love, that feel interesting. What we’re trying to do now is kind of pull together teams, so it’s like who’s the writer I want to work with on this, and get to the point where the piece is ready so that when the theaters reopen we have options. We’re starting to feel a small amount of optimism that we might be able to actually fit projects in the beginning of next year, but it’s so hard to tell, just as it is for every industry. We’re all trying to cook things without too much pressure.
GYLLENHAAL: I was headed to London [when the shutdown hit] to do Sunday in the Park with George in the West End and we had to postpone the show, so that is postponed a year and we have every intention of doing it. And then I have coming up some really fun stuff that I can’t really talk about but hopefully will happen just past the new year, and it would be done safely. As much as I talk about patience I still have to work on it and I’m trying to put things up hopefully in February/March, but safely. So there are plans to do a certain type of live performance, is the best way I could say it.
STURRIDGE: I’m actually doing my first reading of a play tomorrow. It’s quite literally my first theatrical experience since we stepped off stage last year, and I’m really excited about it.
GYLLENHAAL: I don’t know if I’m going to be okay with that – doing a show with anybody else but us.
CRACKNELL: It’s not allowed.
STURRIDGE: [Laughing] The point being that as we wait for these buildings to open again in a safe way, we’re preparing and we’re going to be ready.
DEADLINE: Are there any plans for the three of you to work together again? I know you did an Audible book for Sea Wall/A Life, but has there been any talk about filming it or performing it again?
CRACKNELL: I think something kind of happened at the Hudson Theatre which felt really perfect, like it felt we had made the perfect version. I don’t mean the show was perfect, obviously that would be a ridiculous thing to say, but our experience and the relationship we had with the audience in that room felt so magical that I think we have to come down off that in a way before we think about what the next step is. So I’m sure there will be, and I think we all would love to do something, but we just maybe haven’t worked out yet what that is.
GYLLENHAAL: It was such an unlikely combination of people, of words, and it came together in this serendipitous way that was, for lack of a better word, magical. I don’t think we feel like we’ve run out of that and I think there’s something special and I’m sorry to speak for all of us but my observation is that we’re all pretty much down for anything. I would do anything with this group again, including Sea Wall/A Life, which maybe will show itself in a different incarnation. And if it somehow never happens again I think we’d all be, like, okay, that’s the way it’s supposed to happen. But I refuse to not work with these two ever again.
DEADLINE: So you’d all be amenable to a film version?
CRACKNELL: I’m really surprised by how moving the Audible version is, like you’re having this very intimate conversation, so I guess if we were going to try and develop it for film that would be the spirit of it. Like, how do we make it feel so interior and direct and open that it would become something really special rather than a sort of filmed theater production. I think the hybrid form is really developing and lots of people are thinking about it at the moment.
GYLLENHAAL: If we were going to do this it’d be interesting to see what this material inspires in the authors and the way Carrie sees it and to see if maybe it elicits a whole new idea from what it was, and maybe not even just the thing itself but a new creation, almost like a sequel of sorts or something. I mean, I long for that. I feel like it’s probably terrible for me to say but during this time I’ve longed to find recordings of productions that that closed before I could see them, you know? To hear those voices singing, and see some of those performances, even if they were captured poorly. Not everyone can go to the Lincoln Center archives all at once, you know? I really, truly wish we could continue to show Slave Play right now. I wish people could experience it because it’s so prescient and I think so important. Sea Wall/A Life is too. Just thematically, it’s about grief and about communication and about being open and vulnerable in times when we’re terrified, and how hard it is to love and to be alive.