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Brief Encounter - Broadway

The hit from London's Kneehigh Theatre transfers to Broadway.

Tristan Sturrock on Mixing Love and Laughter in Broadway's Brief Encounter

Tristan Sturrock on Mixing Love and Laughter in Broadway's Brief Encounter
Tristan Sturrock in 'Brief Encounter'
I never really thought of [acting] as a career. I always thought I was going to be an artist.

Age: “43 and loving it”

Hometown: Cornwall, UK, “the tiny southwest leg of England that protrudes from the country.”

Currently: Tugging heartstrings in his Broadway debut as debonair Dr. Alec Harvey, who embarks on a doomed love affair in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Brief Encounter.

The Artist as a Young Man: Growing up in rural England, Sturrock was always artistically inclined, but his family’s interest in theater stemmed from his dad, an English teacher. “My father built a theater on the moors of Cornwall,” Sturrock says. “We lived in the countryside in the middle of nowhere, and he built an outdoor theater there.” Young Tristan had a different path in mind: “My thing was art. I trained as a sculptor, and I did painting and drawing. I’d go along with the idea of doing shows that my dad did and I loved those, but I never really thought of it as a career,” he says. “I always thought I was going to be an artist.”

Finding Kneehigh: At age 18, Sturrock received an invitation that would change his career path for good. “I’d just left art school and I was earning money as a building laborer,” he remembers. “I was doing one of my dad’s shows, a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a then-administrator of Kneehigh Theatre came and said, ‘You should audition for our theater company.’” It turned out that Sturrock’s love of visual art was a natural complement to the Cornwall-based company’s collaborative style of work. “The whole ethos was about doing everything. We make the props; we make the set; we make the work.” Rather than heading back to school to train as an actor, Sturrock dove right in to work with the fledgling company. “My training has been doing show after show after show with Kneehigh,” he says.

Back From the Brink: It’s incredible that Sturrock is on stage at all, let alone a Broadway one. Six years ago, he fell and broke his neck. He was instantly paralyzed, and was tetraplegic for a month. “It makes you look at your life and the work you do in a very new way,” he says of his brush with death. He credits his experience with Kneehigh with aiding in his miraculous recovery. “I’m convinced that my training in terms of physical theater helped,” he says. Eight short months after his injury, Sturrock was back on the road as the lead in Tristan and Yseult, a collaboration with London’s National Theatre. He also credits his injury, which left him without feeling in his hands and feet, with informing his theater work. “When I had full senses I might have been a bit lazy about how precise I was physically, whereas now I have to be that much more precise in order to hide my disability.”

Encountering Coward: Though he’s found work onscreen, including a role in the popular British television drama Bad Girls, “TV and film never inspire me the same way devising work does,” Sturrock says of the stage. So he was excited when director Emma Rice asked him to join her adaptation of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter as romantic lead Alec Harvey, who falls in love at first sight with a beautiful blonde named Laura in a train station tearoom. Both are married, unfortunately, and the social constraints of 1930s Britain provide a tragic framework for an otherwise lighthearted production that mixes film clips, slapstick, musical underscoring, performances of nine Coward songs, and even puppetry. “You’ve got this doomed love affair of Alec and Laura,” Sturrock says. “They’re very straight and real in the play, whereas the rest of the show is very broad and very vaudeville, so it’s great fun.”

Storybook Ending: With all he’s been through, Sturrock is floored that the company that brought him to Broadway (after a brief run a year ago at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse) is the same one that gave him his first job. “I’m in a dressing room on Broadway with my name on the door and a huge billboard with a picture of me outside,” he says, “and I think back to a time when I was 19, crouched in a school cupboard working for this same company, setting up lights, doing the sound, doing two hours of a show and then packing it all into a van and moving on to the next gig. That’s the journey it’s been.” He’ll soon be joined in New York by his actress wife, Katy Carmichael, and their kids. “A role on Broadway is incredibly exciting, but I try to keep my head on about it,” he says, adding with a laugh, “After all, I’ve got three young children.”

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