Interview: Richard Nelson on The Gabriels
Tony Award-winning playwright Richard Nelson spoke to Edwin Gilson, Entertainment Writer at Brighton’s Argus Guide about his highly-acclaimed trilogy of plays, The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family ahead of their UK premiere at Brighton Festival
When did the idea for The Gabriels first come about?
I wanted to write about an American family with three plays all around the same national event – the election. Unlike with The Apple Family Plays [the trilogy Nelson brought to Brighton in 2015], which were about people moving to the little village of Rhinebeck and finding a home, this is a family of people who feel pushed out. These people are feeling like they are losing a home.
The play was written in real time. Does the fact that you were reacting immediately to the unfolding election keep the script alive?
Yes, I think so. The goal of the play, in essence, was to try and see the world through these characters’ eyes. I was constantly reading the news and trying to figure out what they might be thinking. I wanted to make it as immediate to the time of the play as possible. The last play is set, and was performed, between five and seven at night which is why the characters never know the result of the election. Each play I would write up to the opening night. They act as three snapshots in a year.
Would it be fair to say the play is more about people and their relationships than the election per se?
It’s not about who is going to win or lose. There are little to no arguments in the play and as a writer I’m not trying to make a point in any way. I just want to show how the familial, the personal, the financial, the artistic and political are all intertwined. The ambition of the play is to present the complexity of people. In each of the plays the characters cook a meal. When you’re cooking, conversations happen in a certain way that is very different to any other time. Human beings are the only animals that cook, therefore cooking is one of the things that makes us human beings. The play is about the complexity of human beings who centre around this fundamentally human activity.
What kind of people are The Gabriels? Where would you place them in the American social scene?
They grew up in this very small village but they are very cultured and play musical instruments. These are educated people who feel the pressure of a world in which they are being forgotten – at least in terms of economics.
The blurb for Women of a Certain Age, the third play, includes the line “the game seems rigged”. Is there a sense of determinism at play?
There is a refrain in the play that is quite significant in that sense; “what about us.” That feeling goes all the way through the play and it suggests a certain futility.
In an interview you said your characters are marked by a certain sense of “exile”. Can you pinpoint where this theme comes from in your work?
I think that’s accurate. It’s that sense of home, whether that’s feeling at home, homeless or in the process of losing a home. That theme is related to that feeling of not quite fitting in or being forgotten or lost. I also think my characters are resilient and there is a strength to them in the face of some serious problems, though.
Why did you take the decision to stop the narrative before Donald Trump was announced as winner?
Well, the play is not about the election in a news-like way. I’m trying to write about how the politics relates to people in both human and complex terms. I think that’s what’s not conveyed often in the news or television. It’s much more about the horse race and who wins and loses. That’s something others do – it’s not what the play is about.
How did you go about merging the personal and the political in a subtle way, without overstating the election narrative?
I think if any of us look at our lives, politics is involved. If there’s any kind of political event it’s going to be talked about by you and your family. It might not come up as the number one thing you have to keep talking about, though – it’s more incidental than that.
What was the audience atmosphere like in the election night performance of Women of a Certain Age?
It was an extraordinary night because the audience had no idea what was happening in the voting while they were watching the play. Everybody lived in that moment, in the present. We left and there was a party with big television screens so we could see the results. Everyone in the audience and those involved with the show were very, very surprised.
This interview was originally published in the Argus Guide. Visit the website for the latest news, in-depth interviews, features and reviews on the best events in Brighton, Hove and Sussex
The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family takes place Sat 20 - Sat 27 May at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts. You can book here for the individual plays, or click here to get a bundle for all three, which you can see together in one glorious sitting on Sat 20, Sun 21 or Sat 27 May, or in any combination of the performances (including evening performances on Tue 23, Wed 24 and Thu 25 May).
Boys Don't - interview with Rosemary Harris
What’s a boy to do? From the playground to the classroom, from home to the uncharted waters of online, boys learn that displaying their feelings is a no-no. But what happens to emotion that can’t be let out? Boys Don’t explores through spoken word what happens when boys show their feelings, written from real-life experiences of the diverse male cast.
Boys Don’t is the latest work from Papertale, following on from the Suitcase Trilogy of spoken word performances about migration for young audiences, directed by Rosemary Harris. We spoke to Rosemary to find out more about the show, its inspiration, working with performance poets and her thoughts on why boys don’t share their feelings.
Tell us a little about Boys Don’t. What’s the show about?
The show is a spoken word piece for young audiences, exploring cultural prohibitions on boys expressing their feelings, particularly around the act of crying. It also explores the mental and social cost to everyone (boys and girls alike) when boys feel they can’t fully express their feelings, and hopefully offers a different, more positive way of thinking about the issue.
What was the original inspiration for the story?
Working a lot with young people you become very aware of the gender structures that still persist, and how keenly they are felt by young people. Boys and girls really suffer because of this, and for boys a lot of the expression of distress goes into anger, which is a major problem for schools and for our culture as a whole. As a company committed to delivering issue-based work for young audiences, we identified a real need for further exploration of the subject.
Boys Don’t was written using the real-life experiences of the cast. How much of a cathartic experience was this for them?
Writing and performing together has been a rich opportunity for the male cast to engage with the bigger issues around this subject, drawing on the personal (which is so central to spoken word) and then moving into the bigger social and political discussions. Of course, the work is for young and family audiences, so the writing was also about trying to make the piece accessible, fun and above all real, to take the real-life experiences and make them speak to young people now.
The production features a diverse male cast. Did they find a common bond in their stories?
Definitely. One of the key points was for us all to examine how these ideas of what boys and men should be are often really central to cultural identity, which can be why they are so persistent and entrenched. And then although they may be culturally specific, there is also a great deal of common ground across cultures about notions of ‘manning up’ and what that entails. Finding common ground is key, not only to Boys Don’t, but to all of Papertale’s shows.
You’re working with some of the UK’s leading poets and performers. What’s that been like?
A total joy and privilege, because you are working with the full package when you work with artists who write and perform their own work. One of the real delights is in bringing a team of spoken word artists together who are open to collaboration, who are keen to collaborate, because spoken word is often a very solo activity. Casting people who are enthusiastic to share and engage with a team in developing their own work is a really thrilling process, because everybody’s work impacts on everyone else’s – and you end up with something so much greater than the sum of its parts! And of course all of these poets bring their own unique approach to language with all sorts of influences, including poetry, rap, stand up, dramatic monologue, and so you get a wonderful cornucopia of wordplay.
Why do you think boys have problems sharing their feelings?
That’s a huge question with a complex answer. We’ve been very clear that this is a feminist piece about boys and men, because one of the things people often fail to fully comprehend within our culture is that inequity damages everybody. In 2017 boys are still handed these antiquated, unhelpful, unwritten rules about what is permissible for them as human beings expressing emotion, and that has a serious effect on their mental health, with a knock-on effect to the wider community.
What do you think can be done to combat this and let them express their emotions?
The issue of boys’ (and young people’s) mental health is currently being spotlighted more within the media, and it is imperative to see government funding supporting initiatives to tackle these issues. It’s incredibly helpful to see more men especially, challenging the stereotypes within their own lives and work. Seeing people like Barack Obama, David Beckham, cry on TV, these are helpful role models – and Papertale’s aim with Boys Don’t is to offer role models of male performers closer to home, exploding some of the myths, and sharing their feelings. Cultural change happens slowly and we all have a part to play. We have a responsibility to young people to offer ways out of mental distress, through accessible stories and examples that entertain as well as inform.
What can audiences look forward to?
Something engaging, current, accessible and diverse, that has humour as well as meaning, that provokes discussion and speaks to young people’s lives now. Oh yeah, and great language, rapping and poetry.
Describe the show in three words.
Real, important, entertaining.
And finally, what would you like audiences to take with them after seeing the show?
An increased understanding of the issues involved, a sense that they’ve shared some great contemporary writing and performing – plus a greater sense of shared communication around the emotions we all feel, young, old, male, female, all of us!
ACE funding success for Brighton Festival 2018 event
Arts Council England has announced our success in a recent application for funding, in collaboration with LIFT festival, to bring a piece of world-class Korean music theatre to English audiences in May and June 2018, as part of a £1.4 million in international collaboration and exchange with Arts Council Korea.
LIFT and Brighton Festival will collaborate to present a fascinating adaptation of Trojan Woman by the internationally-renowned director, Ong Ken Seng, with the National Changeuk Company and the National Theatre of Korea. The two festivals will each present this extraordinary piece of work that combines the musical storytelling and drumming tradition of Korean opera and pansori with the best of contemporary theatre.
Andrew Comben, Chief Executive, Brighton Dome & Brighton Festival says: “We are delighted that our joint funding bid was successful. I was lucky enough to go to Seoul for the premiere of the work in autumn 2016. It is an incredibly powerful piece of theatre which marries a familiar aesthetic with a completely different cultural form. I can’t wait to see it again at Brighton Festival in 2018.”
You can read about the other funded projects from this Arts Council England and Arts Council Korea funding pot here.
Spotlight: The Gabriels
Richard Nelson and actors discuss Nelson's landmark series of plays The Gabriels.
Richard Nelson’s The Apple Family Plays was the theatrical highlight of the 2015 Brighton Festival. Now the Tony Award-winning playwright and director follows up with The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, a landmark series that follows in real time, tracking their lives throughout the turbulent election year of 2016. History, money, politics, art and culture are all on the table in this moving three play cycle about a family celebrating, remembering and waiting for the world to change.
The UK Premiere of The Gabriels is at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA) at the following times: Sat 20, Sun 21 & Sat 27 May, 1.30pm, 4.15pm and 7.30pm (all three plays). Tues 23 May, 8pm (Hungry), Wed 24 May, 8pm (What Did You Expect), Thurs 25 May, 8pm (Woman of a Certain Age).
See more Spotlight films where we cast a spotlight on some of our Brighton Festival 2017 events.
Audio courtesy of Radio WNYC
UK premiere of topical play cycle set during the US election year are first shows announced for Brighton Festival 2017
The UK premiere of The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family - an acclaimed trilogy of plays by Tony Award-winning playwright and director Richard Nelson set during the turbulent US Election year - are the first shows to be revealed as part of Brighton Festival 2017 (6-28 May) ahead of the full programme announcement next month.
Particularly topical with the inauguration of Donald Trump as the next US president taking place this week, The Gabriels is the acclaimed follow-up to Nelson’s The Apple Family Plays which was the theatrical highlight of the 2015 Brighton Festival. The landmark series from New York’s leading theatre company, The Public Theater, follows one American family in real time, tracking their lives throughout the election year of 2016. History, money, politics, art and culture are all on the table in this moving trilogy about a family celebrating, remembering and waiting for the world to change.
The first play Hungry places us in the kitchen of the Gabriel family of Rhinebeck, New York. The family discusses their lives and disappointments, as they fight the fear of being left behind and attempt to find resilience in the face of loss.
What Did You Expect? brings us back to the kitchen of the Gabriel family, with the country now in the midst of the general election for President. In the course of one evening in the house they grew up in, history (both theirs and America's), money, politics, family, art and culture are chopped up and mixed together, while a meal is made around the kitchen table.
The Gabriels gather once again in Woman of a Certain Age to await the result of the election. As they consider the future of their country, town and home, they compare notes on the search for empathy and authenticity at a time when the game seems rigged and the rules are forever changing.
On his intentions behind the piece, Richard Nelson has said: 'In troubled and troubling times, theater has not only an opportunity, but the responsibility, to portray this confusion, and articulate the ambiguities, doubts, and fears of its time. Of course, it is a great temptation, in troubled times, to try and use the theater as a weapon… but….as a playwright, I try not to be co-opted by arguments and agendas. In other words, my theater is not a place to shout in, or be lectured at, nor where we go to be incited; rather a place to come together, sit among strangers in the dark, and recognize the complexity of the world before us.'
One of the nation’s most prolific playwrights, Nelson wrote the book for the musical James Joyce’s The Dead, which earned him a Tony Award in 2000. Among his other works are Franny’s Way (Drama Desk Award nominee), Goodnight Children Everywhere (Olivier Award), Two Shakespearean Actors (Tony Award nominee), Some Americans Abroad (Olivier Award nominee) and Principia Scriptoriae (London Time Out Award). Nelson also won the 2008 PEN/Laura Pels Master Playwright Award and a 2008 Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, both for his career. He is an honorary artistic associate of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has produced ten of his plays.
The Gabriels Marathons (all three plays): Sat 20, Sun 21 & Sat 27 May, 1.30pm, 4.15pm and 7.30pm. Hungry: Tues 23 May, 8pm, What Did You Expect: Wed 24 May, 8pm, Woman of a Certain Age: Thurs 25 May, 8pm
The full programme announcement is on 15 Feb 2017. Members' Priority Booking opens Thurs 16 Feb 2017. Public booking opens Fri 24 Feb 2017.
Brighton Dome & Brighton Festival international programme is kindly supported by Gatwick Airport and The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family by University of Sussex.
Digging for Shakespeare cast to go under the hammer
The knitted cast of Brighton Festival 2016 commission Digging for Shakespeare are to go under the hammer as part of the Big Heart Auction next month, a partnership between Brighton Dome and Chestnut Tree House children’s hospice, which aims to raise valuable funds for the two organisations.
The twelve Shakespearean characters were immortalised in wool by Welsh knitter Annie Hardy as part of the acclaimed theatrical production which made its world premiere at the 50th edition of Brighton Festival in May. Devised by artist Marc Rees, Digging for Shakespeare took as its subject eccentric Brighton character James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, a 19th-century joker and world-renowned Shakespearean scholar who lived on the outskirts of Brighton. There in his 'rustic wigwam' (a series of conjoined sheds), he obsessively curated a huge hoard of Shakespearean rarities.
The unique promenade performance took place in the Roedale Allotments, close to the site of the eccentric recluse's former home, and imaginatively involved allotmenteers, the Hollingbury Park Bowls Club and a group of young performers. Audience members explored sheds and hideaways, discovered the Shakespearean characters reborn in knitted form along with quotes featuring herbs and plants from each of the twelve Shakespeare plays, and gathered a wealth of horticultural tips along the way.
Ahead of the auction, the knitted characters will be on display as part of a special free exhibition dedicated to Digging for Shakespeare in Brighton Dome’s Founders Room from 17 to 27 June. Also on show is artwork by graffiti artist Pure Evil which was also commissioned to feature on two specially-built sheds which journeyed through the allotments with the audience.
The individual knitted characters and artworks by Pure Evil will then be auctioned at the Big Heart Auction from 1 to 10 July. For more information please visit www.bigheartauction.org.uk.
All artworks for sale as part of the Big Heart Auction will also be on show at Brighton Dome from 1 – 5 July.
Marc Rees said: 'It's fantastic that the dozen characters can be included in the auction. Annie Hardy spent between 30- 50 hours lovingly creating each figure and all from her vivid imagination too- no pattern, just free form which I think is incredible! They were such an integral part of ‘Digging For Shakespeare’ and everyone wanted to know who made them. It's great to see the figures all together as one family in the exhibition, they are very special and deserve a special home.'
In Pictures: Brighton Festival 2016
The 50th Brighton Festival is almost over, so we're taking a look back at the pictures from some of the shows and events we've loved the most.
Picking out these images put a grin on our faces, and we hope it makes you smile too!
Why not have a look through some more photos from this year's festival and re-live something special?
Photo credits: Victor Frankowski, Adam Weatherley, John Hunter
In Pictures: Week 2
The second week of Brighton Festival 2016 saw two performances from our Guest Director Laurie Anderson: the spellbinding Song Conversation, where she performed with fellow musician-composers Nik Bärtsch and Eivind Aarset, and Slideshow, a sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant journey touching on projects, memories and adventures from her past.
On top of this, there were blockbuster performances from Duke Garwood and Haçienda Classical, Children's Laureate Chris Riddell answering questions and illustrating the answers live, the sonically spiritual Lou Reed Drones, and much more besides.
Find out what's going on in the third and final week of Brighton Festival 2016.
Photo credits Adam Weatherley, Vic Frankowski
Discover what's going on in Dr Blighty week
In the last week of Brighton Festival the Pavilion Gardens will be filled with a dreamlike environment of immersive installations, ambient soundscapes and theatrical interludes examining the legacy of the Indian soldiers who were wounded in WW1 and treated in Brighton.
In Dr Blighty, performing arts company Nutkhut commemorates the 2300 Indian soldiers who were treated at the Royal Pavilion Estate, particularly focusing on the letters they wrote home.
The title of the show is significant - Blighty, taken from the Urdu, ‘vilayat’ (specifically Europe or Britain) and ‘vilayati’ (Britain, English, Home), spread widely during World War 1. The term became an accepted reference to England, but also had a deep signficance for the south Asian soldiers.
Many of the soldiers believed the rumour that their King-Emperor George V had given up his own palace for them to be treated in, although in reality the royals had sold the Pavilion long before WW1.
Those soldiers who were illiterate conveyed their messages and letters to scribes at the hospital, who censored criticism of the war in Europe.
From Tue 24 - Sat 28 May (2pm – 10pm), Pavilion Gardens will host a variety of audio and visual experiences and acted performances reflecting on these histories.
This will include a stunning visual projection onto the front of the Pavilion itself at nighttime, telling the story of Dr Blighty.
This map shows the locations and some of the timings of events.
Nutkhut have worked with Brighton locals to create some of the soundscapes that you'll be able to experience as you wander around the gardens. You can get a glimpse into this process in the video below:
Come along to one of the drop in diya making sessions at Brighton Dome Café-bar throughout the Festival and make your very own decorated clay pot for the final installation of Dr Blighty.
You can watch this video from Nutkhut on how to make a diya.
On Sun 29 May (4pm) in a special event thousands of diyas will be laid down to memorialize the soldiers' stay in the city.
A blue plaque will also be unveiled honouring Subedar Mir Dast, who was awarded the Victoria Cross by King George V, organised by Davinder Dhillon, from the Chattri Group.
Dr Blighty: The Concerts
In a special concert incorporating readings from letters and diaries of Indian servicemen, the Philharmonia will play alongside Indian violinist Kala Ramnath, Sat 28 May (7.30pm).
They will perform some of the best loved English music of the Edwardian era by Vaughan Williams and Butterworth as well as Kala Ramnath's The Seasons of India.
You can listen to Kala Ramnath performing with the London Symphony Orchestra string section to get a taste of this incredible meeting of East and West.
Afterwards (Sat 28 May, 10.15pm), slide guitar virtuoso Debashish Bhattacharya will perform a traditional raga concert alongside tabla player Gurdain Rayatt. Bhattacharya is one of the greats of world music and recently won a Songlines Music Awards 2016 winner (Asia & South Pacific) - this late night concert is not to be missed.
Book now for Philharmonia Orchestra and Debashish Bhattacharya
Philharmonia Orchestra ticket holders enjoy £5 off the ticket price for the Debashish Bhattacharya concert when booked together over the phone or in person.
Dr Blighty is a production by Nutkhut and is part of 14-18 NOW, the UK's arts programme for the First World War Centenary. It is further co-commissioned by Brighton Festival and Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove. It is supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England, QED, and by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Festival Hot Seat ... Zvizdal
We catch up with Yves Degryse, Artistic Director of Berlin, who are bringing their ‘filmic portrait’ Zvizdal (Chernobyl – so far so close) to Brighton Festival
Can you tell us what your show is about?
Over four years we have been filming near Chernobyl in the forbidden zone. Each time we went it was to meet two people, Petro and Nadia, a couple in their 80s, living in Zvizdal and who refused to be evacuated following the nuclear disaster. They have been living with no water or electricity and no means of communication with the outside world. Every time we went we took a plane and hoped they were still there. We spent time filming them in their everyday lives.
How and where will it be staged?
The audience will be seated in two tiers in front of a big screen, and underneath the screen will be three scale models of the couple’s house and grounds, depicting three seasons. There will be two cameras filming the models and these images will be interspersed in the film.
Where did the idea and inspiration come from?
The French journalist Cathy Blisson, formerly a critic, but who moved into reportage, came into contact with Petro and Nadia and asked if we would be interested to collaborate with her, and we quickly decided to start the project.
Why do you think it’s an important story to tell?
The moment you enter the forbidden zone, you are entering a microcosm of human experience. It is a very extreme situation, but there are layers that you recognise, and as you spend time there the layers become more visible.
What sort of person is going to love this show?
Our work can be complex but at the same time it appeals to a very broad audience.
What’s going to surprise people about this show?
There will be surprises, relating to the concept of the piece, but the surprises you should not know beforehand.
What does Brighton Festival mean to you?
We have brought work to Brighton Festival before including Perhaps All The Dragons in 2014, and Lands End in 2012. What I really like about Brighton Festival is that I have the impression that the audiences are very eager to discover things. I think it’s connected with the way the Festival approaches the audience, not underestimating the audience.
This year marks 50 years of Brighton Festival. What does it mean for you to be part of the festival in this milestone year?
I’m very happy that we will be part of that moment.