Because his shows are based on research and interviews, and are grounded in pressing social issues, the British writer and director Alexander Zeldin is often said to practice docu-theater.
The first part of his “Inequalities” trilogy, “Beyond Caring” (2014), is about zero-hour contracts (a British term for when an employer does not have to offer a minimum number of hours), while “Faith, Hope and Charity” (2019) is set at a community center for the poor and the homeless. Zeldin’s “Love,” which starts previews at the Park Avenue Armory on Saturday, and opened in 2016 at the National Theater in London, takes place in a temporary-housing facility. “The whole project is to write the tragic knot of our time,” Zeldin said.
Yet he grimaced when that docu-theater label came up in a video conversation from London, where he was rehearsing “Love” — so popular across the Atlantic that it has traveled to eight European countries since its premiere, including France, Austria and Serbia, and was filmed by the BBC in 2018 — before its American debut.
“I don’t see what I do as docu-theater at all,” he said, adding, “My script is about music. It’s about rhythm. Very modestly, that’s the ambition.”
For Zeldin, 37, subject and form are inextricably linked. In “Love,” for example, the house lights remain on and the actors portraying the people at the shelter often sit amid or walk around audience members, as if to say they are us and we are them, separated only by circumstance. Meanwhile, the narrative is carefully built in a tragic arc.
“The structure is very classical and that’s very, very deliberate,” Zeldin said. “It’s rooted in life with an ambition to be judged or experienced as theater, not as testimony.”
Zeldin grew up in Britain as the son of an Australian mother and a Jewish refugee father who was born in Haifa, Israel. His death when Zeldin was 15 created instant turmoil.
“I was in trouble at school and all sorts of things that made me find theater, a place where I could have a real concentration of life,” Zeldin said. “I was very drawn to how it was making me feel life with the intensity that I felt in the most intense moments in my own life, which were quite a few at that time.”
He started exploring theater at 17; his first play was an adaptation of the Marguerite Duras novel “Moderato Cantabile.” After studying at Oxford, Zeldin roamed the world, soaking up theater cultures and making works in countries like Georgia, Egypt, South Korea and Russia. In 2012 he became an assistant to the revered director Peter Brook and his longtime collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne, and started teaching at the London acting school East 15, where he began developing the hyper-real style of the “Inequalities” trilogy.
A big preoccupation was the austerity programs implemented by Prime Minister David Cameron, so Zeldin hit the pavement and conducted extensive research. For “Love,” he went to shelters and reached out to organizations like the housing and homelessness charity Shelter. He was put in touch with Louisa Walker, now 47, who inspired the characters of Tessa and Dean, a young couple marooned at the shelter with Dean’s children.
After Walker lost her home, Zeldin learned, she and her children ended up in housing that was meant to be temporary but lasted for months. She faced Kafka-esque bureaucratic labyrinths and had to juggle contradictory administrative demands, which we discover with horror in the play. “I do think that the whole system is designed to make you feel extremely uncomfortable and unworthy and just to stay in the squalor that this society put you in,” Walker said in a video chat.
“In every part of the process, Alex was like, ‘You’ll be involved and tell me if I’m relaying correctly the things that you’re saying to me,’” she said. “He allowed us to very much tell our story.” (She and her daughter Renée are in the BBC film.)
Zeldin wrote sketches of scenes, which he refined into an outline through a series of workshops. “We bring in 30 or 40 people, we pay them to be involved, and then we go out into the world working with families in their homes, understanding their situation,” he said. “Because I was doing so much work with community groups anyway, it felt natural to me that that should be part of the artistic process, that there should be a room, a great radical mix of people in the room.”
This is represented onstage as well. While some people in the cast have theater experience — like Amelda Brown, who joined the cast in 2021 and whose character, Barbara, is losing control over her mind and body — some don’t. It’s an important semantic distinction that Zeldin prefers to “professional” versus “amateur.”
“Hind’s a big professional,” he said, referring to Hind Swareldahab, who plays Tharwa, a Sudanese refugee like herself. “She’s performed at the Odéon twice, she’s performed at the Vienna festival, Geneva, the National Theater. She’s got a great C.V. and she’s a brilliant actor, but she’d never been in a theater before she worked with me. She didn’t know there was a front of house, she didn’t know there was a stage. And so that brings you face to face with the question of, What is the theater for? And unless we ask this question, if we rely on habit, we will die.”
Swareldahab, 46, who works as a pharmacist, heard about one of the “Love” workshops in an email from the Refugee Council, a charity and advocacy group. She has done the play many times now, and still marvels at its emotional toll. “Every second, every line, we feel it,” she said. “It’s not easy to watch. Every country, people cry. Everything is real. It’s hard to watch.”
At the same time, it should be clear that the show is not a huge downer but is about resilience and our shared humanity — and it pulses with the power of a good yarn.
“I want theater to be useful to the world, and I passionately don’t think that that is against poetics, against great storytelling, against entertainment, against accessibility,” Zeldin said. “I’m very lucky that ‘Love’ sells out. It’s a show that people want to see, and that’s very important to me.”
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