Early in the development of “Sea Wall/A Life,” director Carrie Cracknell considered seating a handful of audience members onstage. The double bill of monologues, performed by Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge with stripped-down authenticity, didn’t have much need for an elaborate set, anyway.
“This is what that experience would have been like,” he says during a recent phone interview, “right next to us, with us telling the story directly to you.”
Gyllenhaal plays Abe, a music producer processing the death of his father and the birth of his first child, in playwright Nick Payne’s wistful “A Life.” For Simon Stephens’s “Sea Wall,” Sturridge inhabits another young father coping with a family tragedy.
Kate Navin, the artistic producer for Audible Theater, read both works and expressed interest in an audio recording of the show well before it was staged. When Navin saw “Sea Wall/A Life” off-Broadway, she became even more confident that it would resonate beyond the live theater medium.
“These stories that these men are telling are so personal, and so intimate, and that really works beautifully in audio,” Navin says. Regarding Gyllenhaal’s recording, she adds that “you can hear how open he is. He obviously knew the material so well at that point — it was in his soul.”
Payne performed an early version of “A Life” in 2014 at London’s Royal Court Theatre, under the title “The Art of Dying.” He later forwarded the piece to Gyllenhaal, when the actor was preparing to star in the 2015 Broadway production of the British playwright’s “Constellations.” Struck by the vulnerability and honesty of the text, which Payne wrote in response to his own father’s death, Gyllenhaal made his desire to perform the monologue abundantly clear.
“[Payne] said, ‘No, I wrote it for me,’ ” Gyllenhaal recalls. “Basically, every year or six months from then until he granted me permission, he said no.”
Payne reworked the play after the birth of his daughter in 2017, and “The Art of Dying” was reborn as “A Life.” In the new iteration, the speaker tangles parallel narratives of life and death in intentionally disorienting fashion. “I don’t understand why we plan so . . . wonderfully and elaborately for birth,” the character Abe muses, “and yet, so appallingly and haphazardly for death.”
Eventually, Payne relented and gave Gyllenhaal his blessing to perform “A Life.” Although Gyllenhaal does not have children, he says he immediately latched on to the play’s universal themes of love and loss. When “Sea Wall/A Life” hit Broadway, he relished the stage-door interactions and post-show talkbacks in which audience members opened up about their own experiences spinning through the cycle of life.
“There has literally been nothing like it in my career, and really nothing like it in my life, the energy of [hearing so many] people’s stories every night,” Gyllenhaal says. “You realized that we were a part of this extraordinary organism that is humanity. Regardless of what we may perceive about each other or we project onto each other, we all have a story to tell.”
As a fan of radio plays (he had a particular affinity for Garrison Keillor’s “The News From Lake Wobegon” monologues), Gyllenhaal embraced the idea of preserving “Sea Wall/A Life” in an audio format. Understanding that live theater and audio recordings are distinctly different mediums, Gyllenhaal says he and Sturridge recalibrated their performances so the monologues on Audible would “feel like a phone call with a friend.”
“There is something about the charismatic energy it takes to make contact with all of those people” during a live performance, Cracknell says. “The work to transfer it to an audiobook was about holding on to the same meaning and same pictures and same ideas, but really taking it to a much smaller and more personal place, in terms of performance. I really enjoyed trying to help him shrink it but keep the same essential ideas alive.”
Although the Audible recording was announced in September, its release amid the novel coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity for listeners to scratch their theater itch during an indefinite intermission from stage productions. It is available free to the service’s members through the end of May.
“There’s a sort of solitude to the pieces, but there’s a deep humanity to them, to the words that both Tom and I speak, that I think is really comforting, particularly in a time like now,” Gyllenhaal says. “It felt that way when we did it, and it was the reason why Tom and I both felt we wanted to bring it to a wider audience.
“Though they were seemingly small stories, they seemed to really communicate something deeply universal. It’s not to say that’s rare, but particularly on Broadway, there seems to be a lot of flash in order to stir up attention. This has very little of it — it just had two simple stories full of rich complexity.”
More than a year after Gyllenhaal first performed in “Sea Wall/A Life,” the release of the Audible recording marks the end of his experience with the show. Reflecting on how “A Life” has resonated with him, the actor acknowledges that his own trepidation and enthusiasm about maybe one day becoming a father seeped into the performance.
“To me, always, the idea of making a family, my own family, is intimidating but also exciting,” Gyllenhaal says. “If you wanted some sort of sense of my feelings about it, I think you need to listen to the show because it was a process of Nick communicating and collaborating with me and trying to share his experience of actually being a father, and my thoughts about potentially becoming one.”
“It’s been an amazing journey,” he adds. “I spent the last year of my life basically devoted to that one piece. In one way or another, it’s a letting go — but it’s also a birth.”