BWW Interview: Gabrielle Brooks Talks ANNA BELLA EEMA at Arcola Theatre
Actress Gabrielle Brooks, who has an impressive and varied amount of credits to her name, took time out of rehearsals to discuss the upcoming UK premiere of Lisa D'Amour's Anna Bella Eema. Brooks portrays Annabella, a child living with her eccentric mother Irene in a deserted trailer park.
BroadwayWorld spoke with Brooks about what drew her to the role, what we can expect from this intriguing production, and all things theatre!
What can you tell us about the play and your character in particular?
The show is described as a coming-of-age Gothic fairy tale and it is just that. It centres on two women and their versions of the extraordinary events that happen when my character, Annabella, creates a little mud girl, Anna Bella Eema.
Mother/daughter relationships often make for fantastic drama. How would you describe the dynamic in Anna Bella Eema?
My character, Annabella, is truly her mother's daughter: imaginative, energetic, bold, and thinks she knows best. In other ways, they are total opposites. Irene struggles with her fear of the outside world whereas Annabella longs for it, so the play also explores the dilemma of protecting your child when you have very differing views. Without giving too much away, this really is unique storytelling.
Isolation and loneliness are also explored in the play. Did you draw on anything in particular for that?
I think anyone can identify with the idea of loneliness, especially in childhood. Whether it's simply feeling left out, your circumstances changing, or feeling like your sense of self is altering because you're growing up, so I was definitely able to draw on some elements of my childhood. But the isolation is just explicit in the text.
It sounds like there are also some fantastical or otherworldly elements in the play. Can you give us a hint about how those are handled in the production?
There are many magical qualities to the play. Mostly it revolves around the title character, who changes the lives of Irene and my character Annabella forever. Music plays a huge part in this. All of the singing is a cappella, but impressive soundscapes are created by our wonderful music director Tom Foskett-Barnes. Lighting is also a huge part in creating the magic of the world.
Can you tell us anything about the rehearsal process?
The rehearsal process was very challenging for a multitude of reasons. I actually took the show because just about every part terrified me. I not only thought it was a challenge, but I had no idea what it would take to pull it off. That's pretty exciting to me. And scary of course! The piece feels very collaborative and the creatives leave space for us to breathe and take time. They are really behind us, which is a welcome lifeboat on the harder days.
You've performed in a variety of venues, from the Donmar to the Young Vic. Do you have a preference for performing in larger or smaller spaces, or does it depends on the actual play?
I don't have a preference for venue size really. I do think it depends on the show. I've happily performed in some beautifully intimate spaces like the Donmar and the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and seen wonderful reactions from audience members, but the assumption about theatre size and nerves is a lie for me. I am far more intimidated by tiny spaces. Give me the glare of lights at a West End theatre and I can almost pretend the audience aren't even there!
I recently saw Death of a Salesman with an all-black cast - it added a whole new layer and perspective to the play and its characters. Do you think representation of POC in theatre is moving as quickly as it might, or is there still a lot of work to be done?
Representation is a slow, slow process in all walks of the industry. The problem is much bigger than the industry though. Until people eradicate the unconscious bias that lurks in many individuals, we change nothing. You mention the shows with all-black casts, but not everyone who watches a show like that supports an all-black cast or agrees with it. Many people would still only prefer diversity in small doses - an amount they are comfortable with. The discomfort is a problem.
How did you get started in the industry?
It's very clichéd, but I was one of those kids who wanted to act from the word go. I joined a drama club with my sister and very randomly that drama teacher started an agency. I went to my first audition at the age of seven for the Annie the Musical tour, didn't get it, and I was devastated. My next audition was for Andrew Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down the Wind. I got that and I was off.
It's a pretty odd and amazing experience as a kid to spend three days a week in a theatre playing in a dressing room with your new friends and playing a bit on stage before having your dad just picking you up to go home. I decided pretty quickly I wanted to do that forever.
Is there any advice you'd give to those who want to go into acting?
I think the industry is full of competition - maybe now more than ever. Everyone wants in on the entertainment industry. The best advice I can give someone coming into it is to be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself constantly. You will work hard enough if you want it, you will stress, you will feel like you want to stop, but be kind to yourself. Find things outside of the industry that give you joy. No one is just an actor. Everyone is more than their career. Be good to you and make sure you remember that.
You've demonstrated your range and versatility with performances ranging from The Book of Mormon to Twelfth Night. Are there any particular roles you hope to perform or plays you'd love to be a part of in the future?
I'm constantly talking to my wonderful agent about a list of theatre venues I would love to tick off my list. I have quite a few, but if I had to name a couple it would be the National and the Royal Court. I don't really have many dream roles. I couldn't have guessed where my career would go, if you'd asked that seven-year-old desperado to be a little orphan in Annie, but I just know I want to keep playing roles that surprise people and myself.
What's next for you after Anna Bella Eema?
I'm not entirely sure what's next for me and that is pretty exciting. I've had a lucky ride at this acting thing for a while, so I am happily going to sit and wait for roles and shows that resonate with me in some way. I just want to be in plays, musicals, television shows, films that make me happy and mean something to me in some way.
Do you think UK theatre in general is in a healthy state? In this age of Netflix etc., what do you think it is that still draws people, especially young people, into the theatre? Or what more could we be doing?
I think theatre suffers from the curse of its old school reputation. I myself have been in shows where some of my circle wouldn't feel comfortable coming to the theatre. Theatres truly need to feel like a place for everyone. Get people in young. Tell their stories. Invite schools. Theatre is for everyone, so it's important we really make it that way.
Finally, if you had to sum up the play in just three words, what would they be?
Shocking, funny and magical!
Photo credit: Holly Revell