A Young Gun Yearning to Move Forward
At only 28, playwright David Eldridge is an old hand at being a “new talent.” Hailed in a recent London Guardian article headlined “Who’s Who in New British Theatre,” it was not the first but the second time in Eldridge’s young career that the U.K. media had deemed him part of the latest wave.
“My first play was at the Bush Theatre in West London when I was 22, and it had some considerable success,” recalls the quietly well-mannered writer. He was referring to the 1996 debut of “Serving It Up,” which featured a world of disaffected youth not unlike the young heroin addicts in the film “Trainspotting,” which came out the same year. “So I was called part of the angry, urban, twentysomething, ennui ‘Trainspotting’ generation back then.”
Since produced at such noted British venues as the Donmar Warehouse and the Royal Court Theatre, Eldridge made his American debut at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts last year with “Under the Blue Sky.” The same play opens at the Geffen Playhouse on Wednesday, staged by Geffen producing director Gilbert Cates, and starring Sharon Lawrence and Willie Garson.
Eldridge is under commission to the Bush Theatre, the Royal Court Theatre and BBC Radio. Yet he remains ambivalent about whether he’s part of any wave. “The thing that I feel about being in those articles, ultimately, is that I bear some sort of responsibility,” Eldridge says during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “It’s an opportunity for me to say what I believe in and what I think might be better.
“There’s a bit of me that thinks this is a lovely compliment, and there’s another bit of me that kind of feels like I don’t want to take it too seriously,” he continues. “I think ultimately the work has to speak for itself.”
Eldridge is hopeful that his latest effort will be allowed to stand on its own, particularly because it’s so different from the piece with which he made his breakthrough. An exploration of intimacy among three different pairs of teachers, “Under the Blue Sky” is the first play that Cates has chosen to direct at the Geffen since 1999’s “Collected Stories.”
“It’s a fearless play,” Cates says. “It’s remarkable in terms of its maturity and its depth. David goes to dark places that are uncomfortable and necessary to pursue to understand life. It’s remarkable to me that a young man has the life experience that’s necessary to tell these stories. David’s attempt is to explore a part of our human psyche that doesn’t have light thrown on it often, a part that deals with our fears and our sexuality.
“It’s a play about seizing the day, taking advantage of opportunity when it presents itself, and about luck and timing,” Cates continues. “It’s about how in relationships when one person’s ready and the other’s not, and how things work out simply because of timing and the willingness of one person to say, even though the timing doesn’t seem right, ‘I’m going to do it.’ ”
When Eldridge completed “Under the Blue Sky” in 1999, he had a very different idea of what the piece was about. “What was really strong for me in it was that it was about the importance of personal responsibility,” he says. Now his ideas about the play’s themes sound much more like Cates’ interpretation--hardly a coincidence, considering that director and writer have been working together for many weeks.
“Now I think that it’s much more about connection,” says Eldridge, whose puppyish face, even with glasses, belies his frequently edgy writing. “You miss the boat so often in life. Things don’t work out, because you’re not ready and you don’t know who you are, and when it happens it just fits wrong.”
In fact, he’s talking about more than just personal relationships. “I read this quote in a book about patterns in history repeating itself,” he says. “Then I thought about friends of mine that were in bad relationships. People get into cycles in their relationships.”
As a writer, he looks for connections between public events and personal lives. “That was really interesting for me, thinking about the last century and those patterns in history and conflict and the personal relationships,” he continues. “I saw a really clear link between them. For me, there’s a strong, clear and deep link in the first act of the play between a bomb going off and a young woman feeling so angry and upset.”
In an intellectual gesture more common among British than American writers, Eldridge connects the dots between the personal and the political. “If I hadn’t done English and drama at university, I would have done history and politics,” the Exeter graduate says. “I think that in my writing, it’s just natural that it’s that way, that there is the personal and the political.
“I like finding resonance for society through interpersonal relationships or through metaphors that you explore in a play,” Eldridge says. “I think that’s what’s important to me.”
Eldridge’s writing about relationships is informed by a typically British class-consciousness, heightened by his proletarian origins. “I think it’s inevitable, to a certain extent, given what my background and experience is,” Eldridge says. “I had a very schizophrenic upbringing. My dad was a shoemaker, and my mum didn’t work. There was no other money coming into the house.”
Raised in the working-class suburb of Romford, outside London, Eldridge’s first job as a schoolboy was selling shoes in an open-air market stall. His ticket to a better life came in the form of a scholarship to a private school. Despite the fact that he felt out of place among his wealthy classmates, Eldridge describes his private schooling as a generally positive experience. Indeed, it was during those years that he discovered the love of theater that would lead him to his vocation.
While at Exeter, he began writing plays, and he hasn’t stopped. Indeed, his first few plays came fast and easy. “I didn’t really think about how I wrote them, I just kind of wrote them,” Eldridge says of his early work. “I had a story to tell and a great passion for it.”
Yet the process of writing “Under the Blue Sky” turned out to be very different. Eldridge began with nothing more than a world from which he knew his characters would emerge.
“I knew that I wanted to write about teachers,” he says. “I’ve got quite a few friends who are schoolteachers. I’ve been listening to them gossip about their colleagues’ sex lives for years--who doesn’t like whom and who wants to move on and all kinds of office politics.”
Apart from interpersonal conflicts, there was a deeper concern that the playwright found compelling. “It’s the ultimate reinvestment back in society,” Eldridge says of teaching. “I wanted to write a play that explored the gap between the people that we are and the people that we wish we could be, and there’s something about teaching and education that throws that idea directly back with your subjects--teachers. But what you’re writing about is teachers as human beings, where they become complex, and they’re as strange and complex as anyone.”
Perhaps because of this complicated subtext, it took Eldridge longer than usual to decide how to structure his play. He ended up with three separate yet interwoven narratives.
“It took me a long time to write ‘Under the Blue Sky,’ ” says Eldridge, who spent about two years completing the piece. “A lot of that time was searching around for a way to tell the story. It’s the first time I wrote a play that I really thought that I’ve got a choice now about how I tell the story. That’s not diminishing any of the other plays that I’ve written. I just think that I wrote them in a different way.”
Then, too, it could simply be a sign of his maturation as a writer. “Under the Blue Sky” was hailed by the Daily Telegraph in London as a new level of achievement: “First-class new plays are few and far between, but when they appear they send your spirits soaring. Just such a heavenly piece of writing is the latest by 27-year-old David Eldridge.”
Looking forward, Eldridge hopes to push toward more new challenges. “I’d like to write for a bigger company of actors, to try that out for a couple of plays,” he says. “So the play I’m writing for the Royal Court, which is actually what I’ve been spending most of the last year on, is for eight actors.”
The piece is inspired by his ‘80s experiences selling women’s shoes in an outdoor market. “There was this bunch of wild teenagers,” he recalls. “We were just out of control, these kids running around, with petty crime and everything.”
At the same time, Eldridge is also in the midst of six months as playwright-in-residence at the London advertising agency TBWA/GGT. He’s helping employees try their hands at playwriting, and the Soho Theatre, which is sponsored by TBWA/GGT, will receive a play inspired by the world of advertising in 2003-04. “They were suspicious of me at first,” Eldridge says of his ad agency office mates. “But I’m becoming their friend now, which is great.”
For the moment, however, he is thrilled to be working with Cates in Los Angeles. It’s a long way from Romford and a big step forward. “I’ve had success in London as a kind of an up-and-coming playwright, and so I was frustrated slightly that the plays hadn’t traveled beyond their immediate context,” Eldridge says, looking back, once again, on the mixed blessing of being a recurrent flavor of the week. “It feels really nice to have written something that is speaking beyond its immediate context.”
“UNDER THE BLUE SKY,” Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Dates: Opens Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. Plays Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 20. Prices: $28-$46. Phone: (310) 208-5454.
Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar.