Interview with alumni Paule Constable & Adrian Sutton

Professor Mark d’Inverno, Pro-Warden (International), caught up with alumni Paule Constable and Adrian Sutton in New York to talk about their work on ‘Angels in America’, which is currently on Broadway, and their Goldsmiths experience.

This year, the National Theatre production of ‘Angels in America’ broke the record for the most Tony Award nominations for a play in Broadway history. Both Paule and Adrian received a nomination for their roles, as lighting designer and composer respectively.

Paule Constable and Adrian Sutton

Paule Constable read English and Drama at Goldsmiths and trained in lighting design while working in the music business. Paule’s works prolifically in theatre and has won multiple awards, including the 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2013 Olivier Awards for Best Lighting Design, and the 2011 and 2015 Tony Awards for Best Lighting Design of a Play for ‘War Horse’ and ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’.

Adrian Sutton is a composer best-known for his scores for the National Theatre’s hits ‘War Horse’, ‘Coram Boy’ and ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’, all of which have gained him Olivier nominations and in the case of the latter, a joint Olivier Award for Sound Design in 2013. He studied Music at Goldsmiths. His output is defined by a strong sense of symphonic narrative and harmonic richness, blended with contemporary studio technology, sound design and software design.

‘Angels in America’ is the new staging of Tony Kushner’s multi-award-winning two-part play directed by Olivier and Tony award-winning director Marianne Elliott (‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ and ‘War Horse’). The play takes you to America in the mid-1980s. In the midst of the AIDS crisis and a conservative Reagan administration, New Yorkers grapple with life and death, love and sex, heaven and hell.

Tell us a little about the play?

Adrian: It’s called ‘Angels in America’. It’s on at the Neil Simon Theatre, 52nd Street on Broadway. It’s actually two plays… both very long. The total running time is seven hours.

Paule: Marianne Elliott was commissioned to do a production. It was never planned to be played in New York, but people seemed to like it. It’s also brilliant because Tony Kushner, who wrote it, is a New Yorker. It was amazing playing the show in London, but bringing it here, there’s a whole other level of understanding. And also, to bring it here in the current political climate was really prescient. He wrote it in the ‘80s. Roy Cohn, who is the kind of arch, evil, baddie in it, is a real character who was Trump’s lawyer. To actually be in the current climate playing it, it’s extraordinary.

It’s also funny because we both started at Goldsmiths in 1986 during the AIDs crisis. We were all so aware of it. I remember the friends I made there who I lost, I remember being in that world. Going back to Angels brought back very vivid memories of that time in my life.

How did you start the creative process?

Adrian: Certainly, from my point of view, it’s absolutely essential to really find out what the play is about as early as possible. Writing the music score for a play is a bit like designing a set, you have to understand what the issues are and really find out about the characters. You have to work out the language of the play and how that might translate into the language of the music. There are some composers who will leave the actual writing of the notes till the very end – it’s sort of about finding out what you shouldn’t be writing.

Paule: As a lighting designer you’re not, generally, creating a world. Generally, a director and designer will meet and go, “This is the show, this is how and this is the sort of thing I can smell or feel about it.” Once that starts to be articulated is when I get involved – my work tends to be more reactive. I’ll read the play so I know what I need to achieve and what we need to do to get from the beginning to the end of it, but I won’t read it to have my own strong feeling about how I want to interpret the play – my job is to interpret this production of it. I work with the director, costumes designers and set designers more closely on this show than I’ve ever worked on anything. It takes a huge amount of research, the world of it is very, very rich, but we did use a lot of ‘80s movie references. There’s a lot of Ridley Scott. A lot of Blade Runner.

How did the light and sound develop across the two plays?

Paule: Tony Kushner is playing with the idea of the mythology of America in this kind of huge epic play that slowly unfolds into this epic landscape. You are sort of trying to find idioms that relate and are reflected in that, but then deliver these very short sharp domestic scenes that slowly breakdown into a much more methodological space as the play goes on.

Adrian: There’s a thing about the shape of the two plays. ‘Millennium Approaches’ is in many ways more naturalistic, more realistic and then you get to ‘Perestroika’, which is the longer of the two plays, and the scenes are becoming longer and longer and more weird, more fantastical. That is a path I was trying to follow in the music. It’s more formalised in the first play and then as we get into it, the language of it becomes more and more unhinged – we start getting a little bit David Lynch.

What attracts you to a show?

Paule: I have a five questions I ask myself about the piece. So I ask myself, whether I want to be part of bringing it to life? Is it important to do it, topical, does it has a voice? Do I like it or feel I have something to relate to about it? So that’s the first question. Then, who is it with? Who is the team going to be? Is it people I’ve worked with; I have a lot of really long relationships so it’s generally that it’s people I’ve worked with before.

Do I have the time to do it properly? ‘Angels in America’ in the UK was three months of work. Not every play I do takes three months, but Angels really needed a big investment in time. Where it is? Where does the space and the building meet? Also the piece both in terms of me and what else I’m doing and also if it feels like the right place to be doing that project.

And finally, I always have the question of money, which isn’t how much I’m going to be paid, but am I happy to do the work required for the amount I walk away with. That means sometimes I’ll do things for nothing if I want to. It’s standing by your choices, so it’s making active choices.

Is there anything that you think that you learned at Goldsmiths that you still use in practice?

Adrian: The thing about my degree at Goldsmiths was that it taught me the value of absorbing, listening and learning, doing everything that you can. The degree at that stage in the late ‘80s was a very prestigious academic useful degree. It’s was very rigorous.

As an institution, Goldsmiths itself just felt like a bit of a spaceship that just landed in New Cross – it was in the most unlikely place. It was also the first really urban place that I’d ever lived. I grew up in a rural town in South Africa, so all of a sudden, it was just this exploding of stimuli. University life became a rigorous and bracing and exhilarating exposure to new things, new music, new ways of thinking.

Paule: The head of the drama department was an amazing woman called Nesta Jones. She was the first really senior woman that I met and was running this amazing department. There was completely no comprise in terms of the quality of her voice. She was very exciting to be around. Growing up in the ’80s, there were very, very few women in the world that I went into.

I know that there are certain women who I have met on my journey who are benchmarks for me, they were role models, they were mentors. They were brilliant women who made me believe I could take the next step, whatever that was going to be, and Nesta was certainly one of those. Also the kind of political environment at Goldsmiths, in terms of the gender politics was very, very positive for me. It was a very enabling and empowering environment to be in.

This is the last place in the world that I’ve ever imagined I’d be when I was graduating, but I’m making good work with people I enjoy being with and people who challenge and stimulate me. The thing I value most about the people I enjoy working with is rigor. It’s about the rigor of the making and that’s definitely some of the craft that came from Goldsmiths.

You’ve both mentioned rigor – could you both tell me what you mean by rigor?

Paule: Rigor is the thing I value most about the people I enjoy working with and this is so true of Marianne and Angel. It’s absolutely about the rigor of the process. One of the things that’s interesting about being a collaborative artist in the medium is that we can get notes and thoughts from our colleagues and we can have conversations, but also ultimately you have to be your harshest critic. The most exciting work is when you feel that everybody is really questioning themselves and each other. I never stop, I never watch a show and don’t think of notes. That’s one of the things about theatre, it’s never finished, it’s never finite, it’s never fixed.

Adrian: Rigor, it’s exactly as Paule describes it, concentrating on a craft in detail. It’s not about getting hung up on whether you’re making art – just do the work and know the art may or may not show up, but it’s not your job to try to make art – it is counterproductive. What I view as rigor is doing things to the best of your ability, constantly learning. I’m always looking to learn the next thing.

One memory each from your time at Goldsmiths, bring me back to the late ’80s.

Adrian: Oh my gosh, the Rosemary Branch.

Paule: There was so many brilliant things around the Albany Empire – jazz at the Albany Empire; watching Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer perform at the pub on the corner; and seeing geographical duvets, that was that mad dance company. Do you know the thing that I will always love about Goldsmiths, is the black and white checked floors. 

Adrian Sutton, Paule Constable, Mark d’Inverno