Interview With… Ellen McDougall

The Gate Theatre’s Artistic Direcotr spoke to Emma Clarendon about Faces in the Crowd.

Hi Ellen, could you explain a bit more about what Faces in the Crowd is about? Faces In The Crowd is a novel by Valeria Luiselli, which I have adapted and directed. The play introduces us to the mind of a Mexican writer. She is a wife and a mother, living in Mexico City with her family, and she is attempting to tell us the story – her story – of her past life in New York City, whilst being constantly interrupted by her family in her present life. In that past life, she discovers, and becomes obsessed with a Mexican poet, Gilberto Owen, who lived in the same building as her in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. In him, she finds common ground, an escape, a sense of her lost identity. As she tries to tell her story, the reality of her family life folds into her memories from her past, and her imagination, until all three collide, and she loses her grip on what is real as she attempts to rediscover who she really is.

How did you come across Valeria Luiselli’s novel? I first came across Valeria luiselli through her essay in forty questions-tell me how it ends-a devastating portrait of the children on the Mexican/United States border. Her writing is immediate, incredibly sharp, and full of humanity. I was really inspired by her approach to writing and form. So I read Faces In The Crowd and it all started from there.

Why did you think that this story would make for a good stage production? I think that Faces In The Crowd is a story about life and living and all the complex twists and turns that you experience as you go through it. The honesty of the writing makes the story so open and accessible and means it has something in it that everyone relates to. I wanted to make a play that confronted life in all its complexity as well as having a great story at its heart and that’s what I think this is. In my opening season I directed The Unknown Island and we talked a lot about form and the structure of storytelling and how our existing structures of telling stories often trap us or contain us and how new forms can allow us to see things differently. Through the three interweaving narratives and the fragmented text, full of interruptions and collisions, this felt like a really exciting new text to continue this exploration, and open up a world where we’re all able to see ourselves and each other a little differently.  

What are you most looking forward to about bringing Faces in the Crowd to the stage? The writing in the novel feels very immediate, live and present – so it has been really joyful to translate that into a live experience on stage. The novel is made up of fragments of text, told in short bursts, which interweave the three different storylines of the woman’s present, past, and Gilberto Owen’s life. This fragmented form is one of the things that most excited me when I read the book because the story isn’t told in a linear narrative. It reflects the creative process, drawing on multiple references, images, experiences and moments to try to understand the world and her experience of it.

It’s been really exciting to experiment with form trying to hold and contain the breakdown of a persons’ mind, a descent into a kind of madness, or out of body experience, whilst also relying on that character as the narrator of the story. Using the fragments to hold this structure, we’ve been able to really play with how the narrator balances her memories with her present, which keeps the play really fresh and live, as time bends and characters blend into each other, and as always at the Gate the audience become a big part of allowing this story to come to life in front of them. I’m really excited to share it with everyone. 

What can we expect from the production? The production is going to be lots of fun as well as heart-breaking and visually exciting. Jimena Larraguivel who plays the Woman is a captivating performer-she plays the intimacy of the gate space very beautifully. We’re working with musician and performer Anoushka Lucas who is performing new songs as well as her covers of mid-century American classics. I’m excited to share it with an audience and really start to see the inner workings come to life.

Why should people come along and see Faces in the Crowd? Faces In The Crowd is such a rich and beautiful story. Because it’s so multi-layered, there really is something in it for everyone. It offers a tapestry of a life, and an attempt to reconcile and make sense of that life in a real and honest way. It holds so many questions about marriage, and parenthood, and how to hold the multiple parts of you, both your past and present self. I think that the attempt to capture that on stage and work that out as a room full of people is beautiful, not neat or finished, but true. So anyone coming to see it will feel part of that experience – plus you even have an opportunity to taste some Mexican tequila before the show.

By Emma Clarendon

Faces in the Crowd continues to play at the Gate Theatre until the 8th February.

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