Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Peter Cieply: This Bitter Earth

By | Published on Friday 17 February 2023

Beginning this week at the White Bear Theatre is a staging of ‘This Bitter Earth’ by US playwright Harrison David Rivers.

This production marks the play’s European premiere and is directed by London-based American director Peter Cieply. 

The play focuses on an interracial gay relationship against the backdrop of the beginnings of the Black Lives Matter movement, and explores issues of class and race. 

To find out more about the play, the playwright and the creatives involved in the production, I spoke to Peter ahead of opening night. 

CM: Can you start by telling us about the narrative of ‘This Bitter Earth’? What story does it tell? 
PC: ‘This Bitter Earth’ is about an interracial gay couple navigating a relationship at the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Neil, a white activist from a privileged background, meets Jesse, an introspective black writer, reluctant to join any cause.

As tensions mount amid the killings of black people across the US, and as Neil becomes more and more involved in activism, the two young men must find their equilibrium in ever-more-turbulent times.

The story’s time setting also encompasses a period when hate crimes generally, including against LGBT people, were concurrently rising, and the play explores that intersection as well. 

CM: What themes are explored through the play? 
PC: Wrestling with issues of race and class, love and loss, it is a reminder of the strength it takes to find one’s voice and one’s place in response to the world, and to live out loud.

CM: What made you want to direct it? 
PC: Harrison David Rivers is brilliantly intelligent, and he writes emotionally rich characters and powerful stories.

‘This Bitter Earth’ offers tremendous scope to play with, because it’s both a political and timely cri de coeur, and a tender and moving love story, and also because its structure is fragmented, and that invites creative and imaginative leaps. It’s a puzzle that can be solved in a lot of different ways.

CM: Can you tell us about your approach to it, as a director? 
PC: I grew up in Chicago, whose – generally under appreciated – theatre scene has a distinctive flavour. It is known for its ‘gritty realism’.

When I was working there a lot of people took Meisner classes and actors used to talk reverently about ‘the work’ – the work of trying to bring truth to a moment, to make something real onstage.

That is the theatre community that shaped me. Having come up in that world, it is the style of theatre closest to my heart and fundamental to the dreams of what I hope to share with audiences. 

Now having trained here, and having visited many times before moving here, I am increasingly interested in trying to find a sense of truth onstage coming from other directions as well, so I approach a script probably more systematically than I used to.

And – in this show in particular – I wanted to go further in exploring a physical language for the staging, and so have been working with a terrific movement director, Gareth Taylor, which I’m very excited about.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the playwright?
PC: Harrison David Rivers is a gay black writer who lives in Minneapolis/St Paul, Minnesota. He is an award-winning playwright, librettist and television writer whose most recent show, ‘The Bandaged Place’, won the Relentless Award and was produced last November at New York’s Roundabout Theatre.

‘This Bitter Earth’ has had a number of successful runs in the US, but Harrison’s work has not been performed abroad.

Whenever I get in touch with him, he’s working on a commission or in a workshop or with an opera or in a room for a new TV series – he’s a very busy guy at the moment.

CM: Can you tell us about the cast and other members of the creative team?
PC: Martin Edwards and Max Sterne are bloody geniuses who deserve immense fame and fortune.

I’m so blessed to have them, they have been with the project from the beginning when we workshopped it, and I can’t imagine this show without their lovely warm chemistry and visceral connections to their parts and to the story.

They’re a total joy in the room, smart and funny and generous and fearless. And Gareth Taylor has been a godsend, I’ve previously only worked with a movement director on smaller bits, and he’s been inspiring and revelatory.

CM: Can we talk about you now? How did you come to be working in the arts? Was it what you always wanted to do? 
PC: I studied theatre in college, and worked as an actor and director in Chicago, then I stumbled into a career in publishing, but I found I could never give theatre up.

I kept doing it as much as I could on the side, with my day jobs. Then a number of years ago, I decided that I wanted to really give theatre my all, and I’d always longed to have a proper drama school experience, so I moved to London to train on the MA Theatre Directing course at Mountview.

So yes, you can definitely say working in theatre is not only what I always wanted to do, it’s what I’ve never been able not to do, though I’ve tried several times.

CM: What would you say have been the highlights of your career thus far? 
PC: Oh, gosh, it’s hard to choose, I’ve mostly been blessed doing projects I really love and care about, so as I think of each, I can see it as a highlight.

I was first time lucky and the first show I ever directed ran for just over a year, so that was momentous. But then I also loved directing a big sprawling show for a community theatre in Michigan, which was really affecting, and that gave me a huge sense of accomplishment and confidence.

I guess maybe just coming to London after dreaming about it for a very long time, and making work here, that’s the current highlight. 

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future? 
PC: I want to continue to explore the intersection of these worlds that I’ve moved through, Chicago and London, and their different traditions and strengths.

I have produced this show under the banner of my new company Storefront Theatre London, so I’ve officially planted a tiny flag for trying to bring something of Chicago style theatre here.

I’m particularly interested in continuing to figure out how to make really great work on the fringe – the majority of Chicago’s theatres are what we would think of as fringe venues.

It is a city full of storefront – or shopfront – theatres, and people often make big work in small spaces, which I’d love to figure out how to do, if it’s financially possible.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this? 
PC: One word: Malaga.

‘This Bitter Earth’ is on at the White Bear Theatre from 21 Feb-11 Mar, see the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.