Guest Blog: Interview with Creators of ‘Mr Mineshaft’

Director Griffith Rees and performer Oluwafemi Nylander discuss the surprises that arise in the rehearsal process and why Mr Mineshaft is an important and timely piece of theatre. 

Mr Mineshaft arrives at CPT on Dec 15-16 at 9pm, get your tickets here

Mr Mineshaft explores the extraordinary life and work of forgotten black composer Julius Eastman, articulating his fall from the heights of the American avant grade to the depths of drug addiction, vagrancy, and worse.

Eastman is most known for his work as a composer, singer and pianist but also choreographed and was incredibly influential in the early to mid 1970s at SUNY Buffalo (New York State USA) Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. He was one of the founding members of S.E.M. Ensemble (a contemporary music ensemble) and lectured and performed regularly. He then moved to New York City and famously performed in an opera by British composer Peter Maxwell Davies at the Lincoln Center. However, by the early eighties his career took a nosedive and doors started to close on him, and after he was evicted from an apartment he ended up homeless. To our knowledge he died in 1990 alone, and it took 8 months for a friend to know and write an obituary. His music has finally resurfaced, and is being performed in London (most recently the LSO at the Barbican) and the US; it has taken a very long time for people to come round to accepting him and his art.

Here we have an interview with Griffith Rees, Director of Mr Mineshaft and Oluwafemi Nylander who plays Eastman in Mr Mineshaft.

So who was Julius Eastman ?

Griff: The short answer: he was a gay, African-American composer, musician, dancer and choreographer who sadly he died in poverty, homeless and alone, and it’s taken this long for his work to start to get the attention it deserves.

Why is this piece of theatre important ?

Femi: Being both gay and black Eastman was at the crossroads of two persecuted minorities in America. Many believe this is a key factor in his downfall. His music is only just getting the recognition it deserves and his story should have been told long ago.

Griff: Exactly – basically, it’s a really sad story about a very talented individual that needs to be told. This was an artist who created incredible things but faced a lot of prejudice, because of his sexuality and race but also simply because he experimented: he broke the rules, and he was passionate about rule-breaking. His commitment to experimentation was so strong that he was willing to risk the safety and structure of his career—and by extension his livelihood—for it. It wasn’t even just musical experimentation; to the point where he used to leave his flats unlocked on principle and frequently got burgled.

Has anything surprised you about working on or performing this piece?

Femi: Of course things surprised me, I think the non-linear version of the script is probably the most unfamiliar thing about the project.

Griff: Yes I agree – managing to tell this story in an engaging and clear way, given how conceptual and visceral some elements of the script are, is both what I was most anxious about when I read it and also what has surprised (and inspired) me about the piece. Because from talking to audiences, it seems that it is such a gripping tale that even with the abstract, jumping way of telling the story, which is inherent to the script, the narrative is still engaging and clear. I think actually that’s what brings out the glimmers of hope in this otherwise despondent biography.