Why Ibsen? Part One

Why Ibsen? Part One

“Why Ibsen?”  A colleague asked me this question before rehearsals began in New York a few weeks ago for a performance piece I dreamed up and titled Ibsen’s Women. The question caught me off guard in some ways since my colleague, a fellow theatre scholar, clearly knew the significance of Ibsen’s body of work. The same question coming from someone who knew nothing about Ibsen would have initiated a short theater history lesson followed by a discussion about the controversial themes Ibsen employed in the late 1800s. But, for my colleague, I explained that beyond the obvious merits of directing a piece from one of theatre’s most significant writers, I had some personal artistic experiments I wanted to take for a spin.

The idea for Ibsen’s Women came from my desire to showcase some of the famous female characters in Ibsen’s plays, to explore how those characters compared and contrasted from one another, and to discover how the stories evoked social change during the late 1800s and today.  From the very birth of the idea, I wanted there to be lighting and sound cues along with some form of illustrative composition through the use of powerful stage pictures. A simple reader’s theatre this was never destined to become.

Theatre scholars often research information and commentary about a playwright, characters, plots and the play’s themes. This research often becomes the basis for articles and discussion among the scholars, students, and people interested in the topic. But my goal was to conduct research in a different way than conventional scholarly research involving books, journals, and internet databases.  Instead, I aimed to conduct research through the actual process of developing and performing the roles. What discoveries could be made by performing the roles? Ibsen’s plays are worthy of literary study and make for compelling reading. But they are meant to be staged and performed. My research style fused an innate desire to tell stories through theatrical performance with a high value placed on literary content and discussion.

I wanted the audience to feel. I wanted the actors to experience the inner strength of Ibsen’s most famous women. Time and budget restraints required that this be a quick process, one that would best be suited as a staged reading, allowing actors to have scripts in hand. Since this was not a new work being workshopped, or some other made-for-read-only script, it was important to find ways to evoke emotion without the actors simply standing behind a podium reading text as is often the case in a reading. The complexities of the scene did not afford us time to fully stage each scene, and we certainly did not have time to deal with major movement patterns, props, or set pieces.

To begin our first read-through, I shared my vision with the cast about wanting the audience to feel and experience Ibsen’s works in a powerful way. I proposed an idea with which the actors could experiment the next day at rehearsal. The idea was for the actors to play each moment out front, as if the other person in the scene were standing directly in front of them. It was similar to someone performing a monologue, speaking directly to their “other,” who in this case was simply a fixed object on the back wall. It reminded some of our actors of film acting, playing directly into a camera without a fellow actor in the scene with them at all. The actors seemed enthused and willing to try the experiment. I emphasized that it would be an experiment and if it did not work that we would scrap the idea altogether.

Cynthia Shaw and Robert Eigen perform a scene, demonstrating our chosen convention of playing all dialog out front.

The very first scene we staged the next morning went beautifully. I could tell right away that the idea to play the scenes out front, without acknowledging the other actor on stage, was going to create a unique and powerful experience. Throughout rehearsal, it was not easy for our actors to abide by the fixed object rule. I would often catch them sneaking a peek at their fellow actors or making eye contact with them. They would simply grin and fix the problem each time I reminded them of our unique convention.

The night of the performance, the audience was part of the play. They were Nora being looked at by Torvald. They were Torvald being dismissed by Nora. They felt the sensation of what Stanislavski termed as “communion.”  That is, the moment on stage when one character communes with another through the powerful and spiritual medium of connection. Stanislavski once said “The eyes scream what the mouth is afraid to say.” In our telling of Ibsen’s Women, the eyes screamed and the audience felt. It was a successful choice.