A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen - Adapted by Gregory Ramos
Royall Tyler Theatre, 2010
The notion of taking on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was both thrilling and terrifying. In my graduate school years, like all other playwriting MFA students, I studied the play as a model for dramaturgical structure. I also read quite a lot about the play in playwriting textbooks during that time. When the decision was made to mount the play at UVM, I immersed myself in some of those sources and emerged feeling confident that I was familiar enough with the play from a “mechanical” perspective. That is to say, I could explain the play’s structure, character, and ideas. But bringing the play to life in real time and space would be a true challenge. I knew I had to trust my understanding of the inner mechanisms but also find a hook into the play that would fuel my passion and creativity as I took on the role of leading an ensemble of actors, designers, and crew. And I had to ask myself, what could my work as a director say to audiences? How could I fully engage and present a production that would allow the themes to be relevant and meaningful?
I continued my research by reading several different English translations, all of which I found to be stilted, stodgy and to varying degrees, outdated:
NORA. Why, Torvald, surely we can afford to launch out a little
now. It's the first Christmas we haven't had to pinch.
Now that I was directing the play I was forced to think about the realities of taking the audience moment to moment through the story and the need, from my point of view, to imbue the production with an excitement far above and beyond formal treatment of language and beautiful designs. I knew immediately that the language could be a barrier to the play feeling relevant, and I would have to find some way to address that issue.
In reading and re-reading the play, one of the many successful elements of plot structure is the change in Nora, indisputably the central character. I don’t mean to say the she changes, but something inside her changes. I don’t believe effective characters in drama really change. I believe their perspective changes. A Doll’s House is the classic model, when treated effectively, for believably charting (realizing in the production) the awakening of the central character’s true self. Although some historical reviews challenge the veracity of Nora’s “sudden” revelation and decision to leave, I believe hints leading to that climactic moment can be discovered in the structure of the play. The journey of hints in Nora’s actions and reactions, that lead to that famous final moment, were undertaken in my research. Thus, my initial hook into the world of the play was my identifying with Nora’s sense of imprisonment. For much of the play she doesn’t quite realize she is a prisoner, because her survival skills in acting her part, have been so acutely developed over the years. And much of the work has been done on an interior/subconscious level. But the text tells us that Nora has a secret inner life and a deep desire for independence. I began to fall in love with the character. Not the person, per se, but the character and all her possibilities in the given circumstances. Identifying with her need to be her true self, pulled me deeper and deeper into the world of the play, and provided the start of a vision for the production.
At that point, I began research on various actresses throughout the last century plus who had achieved acclaim portraying the role. These included: the original Nora, Betty Jennings in Copenhagen 1879; Eleonora Duse, who played the role internationally throughout her long stage career; Eva La Gallienne, who translated the play to English and toured the U.S. in 1934; Claire Bloom, Broadway, 1971; Janet McTeer, West End 1996 and Broadway, 1997. Studying the role as the heart of the production and interpreting the various comments and reviews over a century lead me to think about Nora as an “everywoman.” Her circumstances and her dilemma were as unchanged and relatable in 1997 as they were in 1897. I began asking myself how much social change had there been for women over the course of the century after the original Nora famously slammed the door on a world of lies. We could point to social changes, like the right to vote or increase of women in the workforce, but at the same time, modern day advertising is saturated with “acceptable” images of women and shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” propagate images of women “acting” in a manner that belies authenticity. The process ignited my passion to tell the story of a woman imprisoned but desperately seeking to express her true self.
After gaining what I felt was a secure introduction to Nora as a character, I was struggling with the manner we’d use to tell the story. I like to always think of a production as a story, because that reminds me that the play has a beginning, a middle and an end, and audiences bring specific expectations in relation to those segments. It has to be clear, yet it has to seduce, and it has to remain a mystery of sorts that the audience is compelled to solve. And important in mounting the play - each segment has got to set up the segment that follows. A Doll’s House is steeped in realism (A paragon of realism!) and yet I was at a time in my artistic development where I was very interested in exploring suggestive representation on stage. I made the decision to combine my fascination of the historical Noras with my goal to challenge myself by telling the story in time and space in a manner that combined naturalism with suggested realism. At the same time, I aimed to challenge the elements of the translated script that I felt were stodgy and potentially dated.
Working primarily from three translations (William Archer, 1890; Eva LaGallienne, 1957; Christopher Hampton, 2010), I adapted the script so that a different Nora from three different historical moments appeared in the play: a Nora from 1897, a Nora from 1955, and a Nora from 2010. The Noras would take turns driving (playing) the segments of the story, while the other Nora’s watched from the edges of her world. For transitions from one segment to the next, the Nora’s executed overlapping dialogue. For deeper meaning and heightened emotion, all three Noras were present for some segments of the play, such as the emotionally intense “Tarantella” scene, and the final movement of the play when Nora leaves Torvald before the final blackout.
The costume designer, Martin Thaler, and I determined that in order to make our statement clearly, each of the Nora’s from the three different time periods would wear a costume indicative of her era. The other characters in the play wore costumes that suggested the past but would not lock the character solely into one particular time period. As an example, Torvald wore jeans, but also a formal white shirt and vest, suggesting the late 1800s. The other characters were dealt with in the same manner; costumes that suggested the past and present simultaneously. My work with Jeff Modereger, the set designer, involved furniture choices that suggested the past. These were placed in a central acting area on the elevated thrust, indicating an “open concept” we might find in contemporary home design. As a nod to the legacy of the piece, Jeff created an upstage wall (from the ground level and extending up to the top of the proscenium) comprised of hanging doors at various levels. Exits and entrances were made from off left, off right, and through the voms until the very last moment of Nora’s exit when all three Noras simultaneously exited through three doors, equal distance apart in the upstage wall.
One of my favorite segments of the production was the final scene. The three Nora’s all return on stage dressed completely in white, new blank slates. They enact the last pages of dialogue with the singular Torvald. During this last scene, the other actors slowly strike the scenery leaving Torvald and the three Nora’s in a void of space, suggesting everything that took place up to this moment in their lives was an illusion. When the Noras make their way to the three exit doors, they are each illuminated in stark down light. Torvald is left center stage holding a snow globe with a miniature doll house inside; a dream of the home believed he lived in. (The snow globe is the Christmas present that he had offered Nora at the top of the play.) He shouts out: “Nora!” Three doors slam. Sudden Blackout.
Working with John Forbes on the lighting design and Stefan Jacobs, the sound designer, offered other fun and exhilarating collaborations. Because the approach was suggested realism, John was able to create cues that at times suggested Nora’s psychological landscape rather than the material world. Our design meetings often involved going through the script and marking the segments of the play that were the material world and those that were Nora’s interior thoughts and feelings. Stefan, the sound designer created a multi-dimensional soundscape that included music from all three periods represented by the Noras, as well as undertones that built little by little, reflecting the tension Nora feels as the play progresses. Other creative elements of the production included three life size dolls that represented Nora and Torvald’s children, and an opening choreographed segment set to modern music that introduced the three Nora’s and the conceit of the production.
I felt the production to be an artistic success for my development in that the story held together and emerged as effective. Collaborating with the designers proved to be very effective and cohesive. And the production was also a building block in my continual desire to reimagine spatial elements and ways to tell the theatrical story with my own directorial imprint.
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