“I make work about the things that keep us awake at night” says Nina Segal on a busy New York morning. The beauty of Skype made the five hour gap unnoticeable. Segal is nervously and excitedly getting ready to debut as a playwright. Her first work, In The Night Time (Before The Sun Rises), will be premiered at The Gate Theatre, from the 4 February. Her incredible journey has seen her travel from the UK to Amsterdam, and to the US where she is based.
Segal is an avid explorer of anxieties – those that cause hallucinatory and hyperreal states during sleepless nights. She delves into the world of plays with In The Night Time (Before The Sun Rises), focused on discovering one couple’s experience of having their first baby. “Why is the world the way it is, and how could you possibly explain that to a child?” Segal questions. “You look at a shooting, a bombing, or benefits being cut, and I know I would find it impossible to explain that to a young child. In any coherent way. So the play really came out of this idea.”
Segal was inspired from her odd and surreal time as a playwright resident at NDSM Treehouse, in Amsterdam. “It was in the north of the city, in this very underpopulated, industrial warehouse area. Which sounds a lot like a secret agent thing,” she says in a fit of laughter, “but it actually was like living on a desolate wasteland in the middle of winter”. This would be the first of many amusing anecdotes.
“The actual residency was in this shipping container,” she continues, “and they took one side of the container off and replaced it with glass… Suddenly I was in a really desolate, quiet wasteland, and also in this weird zoo-like behind glass container, which for the two months I was there spent a lot of time thinking ‘God the world is so strange. It’s so strange that I’m in this container, what am I doing?’”.
Segal comes across as a deeply questioning writer. “It feels important to be looking at these things,” she explains. “Essentially, you’re creating a work that says ‘look at this world!’… I tend to write from a position of, at best, a question I have and, at worst, a deep and terrifying fear.”
Yet it’s not all doom-and-gloom. Segal describes her fascination with heightened awareness very light-heartedly – by pointing out how weird buses are. “Do you ever get that feeling… like you walk down the street, see a bus and suddenly think ‘wow buses are weird!’” Creating a theatrical space where an audience can feel this “sense of leaving a space and seeing the world slightly differently” is something Segal strives for. “Or just have a nice time!” she quickly adds, “I’m making the play sound very dark!”
“Over the course of one night, mum and dad try to calm their screaming infant – but as the hours grow longer, the world becomes elastic around them and the horrors that scar our planet crash in to the baby’s room. Should they ever have brought this child into such a wounded world?’
Segal and Director Ben Kidd, who won the Young Vic Future Director Award in 2012, have been tackling the production for the past three months. A great “collaborative partnership”, with mutual respect for the “internal logic within the play”. A logic which Segal says has been great to bounce off Kidd, the actors – Alex Waldmann and Adelle Leonce playing the parents in question – and in workshops in the US and UK. “A strange element of this play is that I wrote it and then workshopped it in America,” explains Segal. “It’s being produced in the UK, so it’s gone back and forth in terms of Americanisation. There have been small elements, such as the actors that I work with here [America] ask for small little changes to make it more American, and now we’re back and people are like ‘what the hell is motherfucker? We can’t say that in a British accent!’”
Exciting processes like these are what Segal thrives on, but it hasn’t always been this way. “I think the reason I stayed away from writing plays for so long was because I feared it would be a very lonely, stressful, isolated situation, and I don’t think it’s been that at all!” With a self-described rhythmic and poetic style of writing, Segal feels she has finally embraced the world of playwriting. And her work fits perfectly with The Gate Theatre’s family orientated season. “I really love what they’re doing with this season,” she says, “I’ve respected The Gate for a long time before I ever started a relationship with them. They’re like family”.
Segal’s wit cannot be ignored. “Ben and I have been joking around in rehearsals calling this play a rom-com,” she says. Why? Probably because bus-like anecdotes are riddled throughout. Ones born perhaps from hallucinatory, sleepless nights.
In The Night Time (Before The Sun Rises) is playing at The Gate Theatre until 27 February.
Image by Bill Knight.