Interview: Peter Cieply on This Bitter Earth, “How much can we make the audience lean forward?”

When award-winning Black US playwright, librettist, and television writer David Harrison Rivers’ modern, nuanced, complex portrait of an interracial relationship received its world premiere at New Conservatory Theatre Center, San Francisco in 2017, it received rave reviews. It has since been staged to great acclaim across the U.S.

It now receives its UK premiere in a new production opening this week at the White Bear Theatre directed by Peter Cieply and featuring Martin Edwards and Max Sterne. Ahead of opening, we caught up with Peter to talk about his background, This Bitter Earth and his production wishlist.

Q&A with Peter Cieply

Hi Peter, thanks for talking with us! Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your new company, Storefront Theatre?

I majored in theatre in college in the US, and worked as an actor and director there for many years, but in middle age, I decided that I wanted to finally have proper drama school training, so I moved to London to do the MA Theatre Directing course at Mountview, and I’m now a permanent UK resident. I grew up in Chicago and worked primarily on the fringe there—in the Storefront Theatre scene, which has a very specific culture and ethos. The Storefront Theatre Movement in Chicago began in the 1960s–70s and established fringe theatres in shopfronts and found spaces throughout the city. Today there are more than 200 small to mid-sized theatres currently operating, a majority of them professional theatres (though not all with Equity contracts). I truly love London and its own amazing theatre scene, and I plan to stay here, but that world is still my theatrical home. I love the intimacy that you can only get in smaller houses. The city’s theatrical ethos is also informed by the fact that Chicago is the birthplace of improvisation, so immediacy and spontaneity are prized, and it also has an unusually high number of ensemble companies, so ensemble playing is highly valued. Chicago also presents a lot of new American writing. All of these things colour my choice of work and what I hope to do going forward.

What can you tell us about This Bitter Earth and the themes of the play?

This Bitter Earth is about an interracial gay couple navigating a relationship at the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. Neil, a White activist from a privileged background, meets Jesse, an introspective Black writer, reluctant to join any cause. As tensions mount amid the killings of Black people across the US, and as Neil becomes more and more involved in activism, the two young men must find their equilibrium in ever-more-turbulent times. The story’s time setting also encompasses a period when hate crimes generally, including against LGBTQ people, were concurrently rising, and the play explores that intersection as well. Wrestling with issues of race and class, love and loss, it is a haunting reminder of the strength it takes to find one’s voice and live out loud.

What kind of opportunities or challenges does the White Bear Theatre’s intimate space offer?

Small theatres like the White Bear do indeed present both real challenges and interesting opportunities. But to me the opportunities outweigh the challenges, because I think the most powerful and engaging theatre can be created in spaces where the actor-audience energy exchange is unavoidable, and as an audience member a show demands that you be a part of and engaged with it. I love the experience of something that feels true and meaningful actually happening mere feet or even inches away from you. And creatively, constraints and challenges often require and engender brilliant imaginative solutions.

You’re both a director and an actor – how much does that influence your approach to directing?

It’s been a while now since I lived there, but while I was working there, Chicago was very much an actor’s town, and I think it still is. There were and are many brilliant directors in the city, but the work there is driven by a deep regard, an almost spiritual reverence, for “the work”—the onstage exchange between actors, immediate connections and strong relationships. So that’s my first focus: how real can we make the connection between the actors? How much can we make the audience lean forward?

What can we expect next from Storefront Theatre?

Well, let’s see how I survive this show! …I am interested to continue to explore that Chicago style sensibility and my love for working in smaller spaces, and to see how Storefront can fit into the landscape here. I don’t yet know how it might be possible, but I’d be especially interested to try to make bigger work in smaller spaces—I find it disappointing that financial constraints here in the UK mean that we get a lot of solo shows and two-handers, unless you’re working in a building. In terms of texts, I’m primarily focused on new American work, though I’m open to anything that touches hearts and draws audiences into a shared experience. My current wish list includes several newer US plays but also a little British gem I’ve long dreamt of reviving and even a new Swedish play.

Finally, how would you describe This Bitter Earth to someone considering buying a ticket for the show?

It’s a powerful, complicated, sexy, political play that is at its heart a deeply moving love story, told in an exciting and immediate style.

This Bitter Earth is at the White Bear Theatre from 21 April to 11 March