I walked into this Broadway play, Sea Wall / A Life, starring both Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge without any major context… the play is currently running at the Hudson Theatre on 44th Street in New York City, NY; just off Times Square.
And what did I find?
I discovered, first of all, that the balcony of the Hudson Theatre is actually a nice spot – it’s not too far away from the stage and since the play’s set is a two-tiered it worked really well to watch this one from the balcony. The balcony is cheaper too! The Hudson’s balcony doesn’t feel like a remote bird’s eye view though; it still feels near to the stage for some reason. In my opinion from my experience at the matinee on August 28th, 2019.
I also received a lesson in performing monologues; and I took special note. The play’s structure opens with one man, a photographer, Alex, discussing loss (played by Sturridge). The next half of the play juxtaposes another man, a music producer, Abe discussing his own experiences with birth and new beginnings (played by Gyllenhaal). As I said, I had no expectations, but I found myself listening very intently to the monologues. The language was very metaphorical, illustrative and expressive.
My main purpose of being in New York City was personal and fairly self-centered so I didn’t expect to be writing a theatre blog post. In preparation for Fall; I’d just spent two days improvising in actor masks and a whole morning reading a science fiction script I wrote – this means I’d been listening intently to language and considering what sorts of combinations of words might express each character’s point of view and purposes better than before.
Perhaps that work was a perfect primer for listening to monologues, I may have been desperate to escape my personal life for a few hours, or maybe it was because there was no dialogue in the play, only monologues; but for some reason after watching this play I found myself drawn to writing these few words because I was compelled to listen to Sea Wall/ A Life.
Either way, the truth is that I let the world quiet from my mind for a few hours and began to feel as if the characters were talking to that large New York audience. I learned about listening. We were active participants in the theatre. Hidden in the balcony, eavesdropping, I felt the relationship that developed between the actors and the audience became special that day.
I remembered what an NYC teacher, Austin Pendleton, often states about monologues in the classroom – you’re not alone – you are always talking to someone else – and it is important to remember that in performing a monologue you must still be in dialogue with another person. There are a lot of situations, in classical plays such as in a Shakespeare’s soliloquy, where an actor must talk on stage alone. In theatre school and in auditions we are always learning monologues too. I suppose we all live amidst a never-ending inner monologue in our minds each day as well. Anyway, my point is, because the actors in this play were personalizing the text and speaking to a live audience the words also came alive! In turn, very rich imagery and emotions were able to be evoked in the audience (myself included) and it was a beautiful experience fuelled by language.
The other thing that struck me was that these were male actors on stage. The monologues were about two men expressing their thoughts and emotions. In fact, spilling out their thoughts and emotions to all those compelled to listen.
It was interesting to note that their expression allowed the audience greater insight to understand the human experience – and to understand loss and birth through their lenses. Rather than hiding behind masculinity or their own human experiences; these male characters seemed to be opening up and letting the world into their experiences. For example, an experience that should have hardened Sturridge’s male character (loss of a child) actually seemed to open his character because his private thoughts were being made public through the monologue.
In that dialogue with the audience I saw people that I recognized and heard male voices that were expressive, human and in line with female experiences as well. You might call that a point of connection! I recognized that relationship between the characters and the audience – a bridge between two people regardless of gender. Therefore, I found myself listening.
I won’t give away the play or the plot. However, I will make a few notes about what I learned from watching these actors work (for any other actors geeking out at the play): I felt that Sturridge’s strengths included his use and integration of destinations and stillness. I say this because his movement never distracted from his storytelling; in fact, his movement fed the story. Gyllenhaal provides a lesson in an actor’s use of breath, character work and humour. Both actors were skilled at building relationship and personalizing the text. I would have seen the play again; however, circumstances will not allow it.
I am sure I must also credit the writers (Simon Stephens/ Nick Payne) and the director (Carrie Cracknell) for the play’s success. I ‘googled’ and read that this play was remounted from time spent at The Public Theatre. I am so happy for that production decision as my watching this play has left me inspired!