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March 12, 2009

Tonight was our penultimate preview, and we were lucky to have our technical consultant Beth Finke join us for the post performance discussion. She has been a tremendously valuable collaborator during this process, and has been open to helping us in many ways. One evening Beth and her husband hosted Emjoy at their home to watch Beth move around the space. Earlier this week, Beth came to tour the stage with the cast and Ron, and to discuss what kinds of movements she could and could not hear, as well as when she could perceive other people near her. Tonight she attended a full performance for the first time, and it was exciting to hear her responses. She said she laughed vigourously when Susy scolds Roat that ‘it’s not that hard’ to navigate around the midnight black living room. And she cried at the end when Gloria returns to the apartment and instructs the policemen to leave Susy alone because she can manage by herself. It’s been so illuminating for all of us to hear Beth’s perspective on Susy’s world throughout this process, and a delight to discover this new creative partnership.

Previews have been going really well. It’s been fun to see how vocally and physically audiences are reacting to the drama in Act II. There are nightly screams and gasps–something which doesn’t often happen in the theatre. During curtain calls, John Hoogenakker, who plays Roat, has been getting playful boos for his portrayal of the outrageous villain Roat.

We now look forward to opening weekend, and hope to see you there!

–Kate Bredeson, Resident Dramaturg

We invited Beth Finke, a local writer who lost her sight in early adulthood, to come speak to the cast of Wait Until Dark about her experiences.  She wrote about the two-hour conversation on her own blog, which you can read here:


Thanks for the kind words, Beth, and thanks again for all your help!

Back to the rehearsal hall!

Wait Until Dark started rehearsing last Tuesday. It’s directed by Ron OJ Parson, Resident Artist and mastermind behind Fences and The First Breeze of Summer. Ron is easily one of Chicago’s best directors of realism (and is nationally known as one of a couple go-to directors for the plays of August Wilson), but in the past couple years he’s started pushing himself and his designers into territory that’s a little more abstract and theatrical–like the tableaux in First Breeze or the final image of Flyin’ West–elevated moments that heighten the emotional impact of the scripts he directs.

Cree, our casting director, likes to brag that this cast is entirely new to Court Theatre, which is pretty cool. Charlie and Ron, the two directors who work here most often, do tend to cast from a pool of their favorite actors, people they’ve worked and developed a shorthand with (for instance the all-star ensemble of The Wild Duck). But WUD (as it’s become known in emails among the staff) is different. It’s a new kind of show for Court Theatre: a populist Broadway hit that most people know from the movie version, and also a thriller. This is a genre of play that no one seems to make anymore, outside of the annual International Mystery Writers’ Festival (at which Ron has won “Angie” awards in past summers). So we’ve got a new kind of cast for this show. It’s usually a star vehicle (Marisa Tomei played the lead in a disastrous New York production a few years ago), but we’ve cast non-Equity up-and-comer Emjoy Gavino in the lead role of Susy, the blind woman attacked by con artists. You’ll hear from Emjoy on this blog in the coming weeks.

The design presentations are very exciting.

Jack Magaw, our set designer, has created a meticulously-realized garden apartment, built all the way out to the back door, which the audience never even sees. But since the sound of entrances and exits is hugely important to the plot and the atmosphere of the play, he’s designed geography out to the street in front and through to the back bathroom (of which certain seats in the audience will have a clear view, while others will only hear the stuff that goes on back there). That’s another thing–Jack and Ron are taking advantage of Court’s semi-thrust to give each audience member a totally different perspective on the action, instead of building way upstage or designing a vast, uncluttered environment so everyone sees basically the same thing. This all contributes, we hope, to the tension.

Unlike the generic preppy outfits of the film version, our WUD, designed by Rachel Laritz, is going to take full advantage of the 1960s Greenwich Village setting. The renderings we saw at first rehearsal are heavily influenced by the setting’s art world, drugs culture, and high fashion. The characters, instead of existing in a “timeless” limbo, are clearly connected to the era and class strata in which they operate. Sam (Susy’s husband) is a fashion photographer, and Roat is a high-level drug dealer with a theatrical bent–drab is not the order of the day.

Sound is, of course, extremely significant in Wait Until Dark, since it’s Susy’s primary source of sensory input about the men in her apartment. There will be plenty of live effects, as well as a full-on background score (!!) by Ray Nardelli. In general, the production is going to look and feel more like the stylized world of film noir than the realism you might expect. After all, Knott’s bizarre, twisty plot hinges on all sorts of fun secret codes and Byzantine con games that would, frankly, seem a little preposterous in a full-on kitchen sink world (not that we won’t have a kitchen sink).

What do you think? Are you excited about Wait Until Dark? Skeptical? Outraged? Indifferent? What questions do you want answered before you see the show?

Remarks by Resident Dramaturg Kate Bredeson.  Enjoy!

There’s something refreshing about Court Theatre’s approach to the preview process. At Court, there are not just a couple of previews, but a whole week of them: seven performances total. And every night, following the performance, there is a post-show discussion between audience and artistic staff (usually led by me and director Charlie Newell). The thing that’s really exciting is that not only does Court actively solicit the opinions of audience members, but that things drastically and entirely change within the course of previews, often based on those shared comments.

Last night, after Sunday evening’s performance of The Wild Duck and the subsequent production meeting, the artistic team convened to discuss the production. We talked about what was working, what wasn’t, what questions we have, what we love, what we don’t, and the last half hour of the conversation was devoted to a possible huge re-writing and re-staging of the final scene of the play. Richard Nelson, who wrote the new translation/adaptation of Ibsen’s play expressly for a début at the Court, spent the weekend with us to see the production and discuss the process, and suddenly in our meeting, he began discussing the tricky last scene, and pulled out his script and drew sweeping arrows, made slashes through dialogue, and scribbled new words in the margins. We don’t know yet if this will indeed become the final five minutes of the production, but Charlie is excited to try it and see what happens.

Today was our first day off in a week, and tomorrow (after the inauguration) we are back in the theatre at the MCA to explore new ideas, incarnations, and experiments. Characters are still evolving and growing, the set and lights and clothes continue to change. We still have questions, and, five days before opening, we still have time to explore—which is a good place to be.

Essay written for the production by Kimberly Kenny, Senior Lecturer in Norwegian at the University of Chicago.

The Wild Duck, the fifth in his prose play cycle of twelve, introduced a new phase in Ibsen’s drama.  The first of Ibsen’s psychological plays, it followed Enemy of the People, which concluded the so-called social plays.  Ibsen himself noted the singularity of this drama, saying that “it occupied a place of its own” and that its method was “in many respects a departure.” Still, The Wild Duck was hardly Ibsen’s first foray into innovation.  In A Dollhouse, he set the theatrical world on its ear when he subverted the concept of the well-made play, denying the expected resolution of conflict and, instead, had Nora slam the door on her way out.  His subsequent offering, Ghosts, ruthlessly depicted a corrupted family and a hypocritical clergy; while Enemy of the People, a quasi-comedy, provided a protagonist who characterized his fellow men as ill-bred mongrels.   Repeatedly, Ibsen sought to challenge his audiences both in terms of form and content.  Yet even in this larger context of provocation, Ibsen insisted on the newness of The Wild Duck,  “I think that The Wild Duck may possibly lure some of our dramatists down new paths, which I would consider desirable.”  What did Ibsen mean by “new paths”?  Clearly, he meant a new mode, a new type of drama, one that resisted the labels of comedy or tragedy; and, certainly, there are both tragic and comic elements in the play, but what is the effect of this combination?  The poignancy of the tragedy derives immeasurable power from the use of comedy, while the sharp contrast between light humor and terrible distress contribute to the pathos of the final climax.

Still, Ibsen meant more by “new paths” than this blending of tragedy and comedy. Already in Enemy of the People, he had signaled philosophical changes, revealing an increasingly contemptuous attitude toward humanity.  In The Wild Duck, Ibsen shifts focus to the individual soul and a new type of psychological interaction.  The central event is not, as was previously, the revelation of past sins or secrets, although there are, of course, secrets.  Rather, it is the way in which Gregers bonds with Hedvig and asserts control over her mind that provides the basis for drama. Utilizing the wild duck as his verbal instrument, as symbol, he promotes her equation of herself with the wild duck.  Her sacrifice is the predictable substitution of one quantity for another. Hedvig and Gregers connect via one old-fashioned, poetic phrase, “in the depths of the sea.” (på havsens bund).  Here, as with the wild duck, Gregers relies on verbal magic to establish a bond with Hedvig, who is vulnerable, caught between childhood and adulthood, between literal and symbolic meaning.

Indeed, symbolism nearly overwhelms the play, asserting itself as the most significant difference in Ibsen’s dramatic technique. It is hardly new for Ibsen to choose a title of symbolic weight—A Dollhouse or Ghosts, for example–but the wild duck, proves to be a remarkably plastic symbol, lending itself to any number of equations.  In terms of a broad category, the wounded duck gathers together all of the defeated dreams of the household.  In addition, the tale of the wild duck corresponds neatly with Gregers’s mission to bring the Ekdal family up from the mire, just as Old Werle’s dog retrieved the wounded wild duck. Potential symbolic value for the wild duck does not end there.  Perhaps it represents the enfeebled state of the modern imagination.  Consider the potential pun—vildand (wild duck) versus vild aand (wild spirit).  In fact, some have argued that the wild duck is so potent a symbol that it forces the action of the drama away from the realism of Ghosts and in a new direction. Earlier, symbols had served as points of reference or to underscore a central theme, now Ibsen extends his metaphoric structure, allowing it to pervade the stage sets and the scenery.

Ibsen acknowledged these tactics, referring to them as “galskap” (crazy tricks).  Consider the looming symbol, which is the Ekdals’ home.  Ibsen’s stage directions situate them in “a loft… with great panes of glass.” The changing light corresponds to the various moods of each act.   Below them are found Relling and Molvik, who are occupied with drinking, etc.  (Hjalmer will at one point descend to their level.) The Ekdals’ living space is divided between the photography studio in the foreground and the attic, the “natural refuge,” behind. Furthermore, the symbolic value of the home’s occupants demands attention; the paradigm is Christian.  Gregers, like Dr. Stockman before him, is a strongly parodic, Messianic character, and, like Stockman, an unsuccessful truth-bringer.  If Gregers is the apparent Messiah, then Old Werle is the supreme power in the world of the play.  A mysterious figure, operating in the shadows, Werle rules both the lower world of the Ekdals and the world of Høidal (high valley), the higher world, from which his son descends to raise up the Ekdals.  But where is the Holy Spirit?  Could Hedvig in the form of her double, the wild duck, fill this role? Finally, rounding out the party and serving as counterpart to Gregers, we find the Dr. Relling, the satanic figure of deception and purveyor of the “livsløgn” (life-lie), who operates in tandem with the priest-candidate, Molvik.

Eventually, however, we have to set aside Gregers and Relling, and ponder the real struggle, between the ideal of truth and the usefulness of the life-lie.  No longer on a “new path,” we find ourselves in familiar Ibsen territory, reminiscent of the closing scenes in A Dollhouse and Ghosts, grappling with questions which defy resolution.

Richard Nelson speaks

Interview with Translator/Adapter Richard Nelson and Charlie Newell, conducted by Resident Dramaturg Kate Bredeson


RN:  Immediately what brought me to The Wild Duck was Charlie.  Charlie asked me if I would do a new version of the play and I agreed.

There is a longer, more involved story about what brought me to Ibsen and how Ibsen now figures very importantly in my own career as a playwright.  That has come about by my trying to find a way, as a playwright, to articulate the world as I see it and the society as I see it; and trying to find that glue that holds the pieces of a play together, that determines what stories one’s writing and what one’s leaving out.  And that immediately asks questions of what holds a society together.  What holds a play together and what holds a society together are often in a strong relationship.

For example, in the twentieth century there’s a lot of large-scale societal plays that were held together by an ideological thrust.  That ideological thrust has been proven to be bogus, and so now in the 21st century we’re looking for other ways to hold things together.  And my route to Ibsen has been through that question, where I learned first working on a translation of An Enemy of the People and now on Wild Duck that Ibsen has held the answer for me in how to move forward.  That at the very center of these seemingly large-scale societal plays, they’re plays about family — and the complexities and the confusions of familial relations really reflect the complexities and confusions of a society at large.  And once I grasped that idea at work in Ibsen, that seemed to be an opening for me as a playwright to find ways of talking about the world as I see it.


RN: I’ve been a strong proponent of having playwrights translate and adapt classic plays.  Even when, as in this case, the playwright doesn’t know the original language.  I don’t know any Norwegian.  I worked off of 3 contemporaneous translations from the late 19th and early 20th centuries which functioned for me as literal translations.  Obviously the best possibility would be a playwright who knew the language–but there aren’t that many in America who know Norwegian.

For me the goal of a translation is to convey the intention of the playwright, as opposed to, necessarily, the exact words.  The reason for that is, it’s very different from translating a novel, it’s more similar to translating a poem.  In a poem, you as the translator are making choices about what’s important — is it the alliteration, the meaning, is it the rhyme, is it the meter — because in a translation you’re not going to keep all of those things.  You’re not going to find the same kind of expression that the original poet found.  So you have to make choices and figure out what is important to convey.  And the same is very much true of a play.  I was talking to the actors earlier today about a play by Nicolai Erdman, The Suicide, a play written in the 1930s in the Soviet Union.  It’s a farce, a very funny play, very political, in which there’s a 4 page section where various things happen to the main character — something falls down, something gets picked up, something gets put on his head — until finally all of these odd things that seem to make no sense come together and this character arrives at the pose of a very famous photo of Stalin.  In the 1930s in the Soviet Union that would have been a very radical, thrilling, dangerous thing to do.  In 2008 America that doesn’t make any sense.  No one knows that photograph.  Therefore, to translate the words to an audience that’s not going to get the result, that’s not translating.  That’s transcribing.  If you can’t convey the exact intention you try to convey something as close to it as you possibly can.  Therefore when I translated that I wrote my own political joke through that, rewrote the entire 4 pages into something else, but something that I think reflected the intent of the author more than just transcribing his words.  So the job of a play translator is to find and to convey the intention of the playwright.

Now, the language of the theater is character, it’s not words, that is how a playwright is trained — we think in terms of character and point of view.  On stage at any one time there’s 3 or 5 or 6 people — that’s 3 or 5 or 6 points of view colliding at once.  That’s the dynamic that  a playwright functions in.  That’s not the dynamic that a translator functions in, which is often much a more singular point of view.  So playwrights have an ability, a skill, a perspective that is necessary in conveying and translating classical plays.


RN: I don’t think The Wild Duck is a tragedy at all unless you consider Waiting For Godot a tragedy.  It’s in this no-man’s-land: a play that doesn’t resolve itself.  A tragedy requires a different journey.  There are tragic elements of the play without doubt, just as there are very comic elements.  But at the end of the day, Ibsen isn’t saying, “Learn from this,” he’s saying, “This is us.”  That’s a very different journey than a tragedy.


RN: Charlie’s been fantastic.  I did a draft of The Wild Duck, first a draft for myself in pencil on legal pads, then I cleaned that up, sent it to Charlie, and Charlie has given me hundreds of notes, always very specific.  “Should there be something else, what does that mean, is that necessary…”  It was a very good way of getting into a dialogue about the play that was tethered to specific lines and moments.

CN: It’s been such a thrill for me to work with a living playwright, on a piece that I have such a history with, because one of the principal reasons for asking Richard to do this translation/adaptation was to have a strong, new point of view about the play.  Richard has consistently provided eye-opening and — for me personally — really shattering ways to think about the play.  I have learned so much, not just about the play but also about what it means to be a translator, what it means to be a playwright.  I feel very lucky that he wanted to listen to anything I had to say, much less to get into such a detailed and specific discussion.

The intent of the entire production is, how can we bring The Wild Duck to a contemporary audience in ways that many people may say “Wow, I never thought Ibsen could be that.”  There might be many ways of describing what “that” is, depending on the audience, depending on the experience, but I’m very optimistic about that opportunity for the show.


CN: When I was an early career director, I had the opportunity to apprentice with the Romanian director Lucian Pintilie.  I assisted him on productions of this play in Washington, DC and Minneapolis.  My genetic identity as a director was transformed by that experience.  It was his ability to bring a fiercely intellectual rigor to the examination of the play while basing it deeply in a complicated emotional understanding of these characters.  And the combination of those things set me on a journey I’ve been on ever since.  My fear was, if I ever took on The Wild Duck again all I would want to do is what Lucian had done, because it was such a transformational experience for me.  It’s now 23 years later, and I began to think about what work we could take to the MCA.  That room was the first inspiration.  But it was really a conversation with Richard about the new Barbara Franke commissioning program: “What might you be interesting in translating?  What about Ibsen?”

For me the most important part is that now I can bring all that history and experience, but through Richard’s unique and powerful point of view, through a unique and incredible group of actors, we are not even going to attempt to do something from the past, but to take Ibsen to the next place.  That is the definition of how I think of myself as an artist: How can I challenge myself to what’s next?


RN: I think what’s most exciting is that it’s a living playwright working with a classic play.  It’s a two-way street.  Right now we’re watching a one-way street, where whatever skills I have I’m putting into The Wild Duck to make it accessible, meaningful to 2009.  But what’s isn’t seen is that there’s another route back, how The Wild Duck affects me as a playwright, gives me opportunities to learn my craft.  To spend months with Henrik Ibsen in his mind, trying to understand his intentions –second-by-second, moment-to-moment — it’s a way of growing as a playwright.  You cannot but grow as a playwright.

Today’s rehearsal just ended–the cast was staging and then working through Act V, the play’s manic, creepy, hilarious climax.  The actors, to my eye, seem a bit desperate, a bit terrified of the whirlpool Ibsen’s created; they’re holding on for dear life.  The staging moved very quickly–Charlie has a a clearer and more complete list of specific images he wants to see than I’ve ever known him to bring into initial blocking.  This is actually not that comforting to actors in the process of creating behavior for characters in extreme emotional distress.  Today, the cast mostly expressed a desire to slow down and work through the logic, and sometimes they got pretty frustrated.

From what Charlie’s told me about his intentions for this process, that’s precisely where he wants them.  As ever, he’s reluctant to hand out moment-by-moment logic, always preferring to help the cast to find it themselves.  This usually leads to satisfyingly surprising individual stories.  But on this one he’s taken that notion quite far, attempting to zoom past knots of confusing cause-and-effect, leaping from picture to picture, trusting that there will be future rehearsal hours to clarify and redefine the moments.

This goes back to something he said at First Rehearsal, past the point where my last entry ended.  I intended to give you another semi-verbatim chunk of his remarks, but after observing today’s rehearsal, I think it’s more useful to contextualize it in today’s work instead.  What he told the cast was, “Unlike [for instance] Titus Andronicus, where the process was about figuring out what the hell that story is and how best to tell it, I know exactly what The Wild Duck is.  I’ve worked on it, I’ve seen it done exquisitely.  So for me, unlike any other rehearsal process I’ve directed, I’m going to be starting with very clear ideas.  And I need you to push me to take it to the next place.  The last thing I want is to just do a warmed-over version of Lucian’s production.  This is ours, and we need to be rigorous about challenging the first idea.”

So what he’s doing now, I think, is laying out that first draft, putting all his favorite Lucian images and his already-congealed understanding of the story on the table, for the cast and himself to then take up, shake, break open, rebuild, discard, replace.

This play is difficult.  The laughable absurdity of the situation is horribly tinged with the pathetic, human scrambling of the characters.  Empathy and revulsion form a wholly new sort of audience-actor relation as their notes are plucked together.  Today, it was exhausting to watch, even for half an hour, the actors running around holding up lines and stories and props and jackknife emotional transitions like plates on sticks.  I suspect that when it’s up, it’ll still be exhausting to watch, but for much more satisfying reasons.

It’s First Rehearsal again.  This one, The Wild Duck, is the show I’ve been waiting for since last February.  The cast is outrageous — they’ve all worked at Court before, in some of our best shows (Hamlet, The Glass Menagerie, Carousel, Titus Andronicus).  Jay Whittaker is back in town!  It’s a smaller group than the Caroline cast (11 instead of 18), which was the last of these big rehearsal-room gatherings we had.  The table feels sort of empty by comparison.  We’re missing two actors today, so I’ll be reading the part of Old Werle (for John Rieger, oh my god) — two angry scenes opposite Jay, whose work as Tom in Menagerie was basically mind-blowing to my fresh-out-of-college aesthetic.  I’m pretty nervous.

Charlie’s introduction, paraphrased (I had to take longhand notes on the back of my script instead of the usual furious typing):

“My journey with The Wild Duck began when I moved to Washington, DC after college, to apprentice at Arena Stage.  This was 1984.  They were bringing in Lucian Pintilie, a Romanian director, to remount his famous Paris production of this play with an American cast, and I was asked to assist him.  This was a major formative experience — it changed my DNA as a director, partly because of Ibsen’s play, but mostly because of Lucian.  The doors he opened for me in two areas of the director’s craft were essential to all the work I’ve done since, and I’m still exploring them.  The first revelation was of a director’s clear, powerful, dangerous vision for a play.  Lucian’s images were profound and provocative, and his confidence in them was unshakeable.  His approach to the text was rigorous and extremely intelligent — he took nothing for granted.  The version we used was his own adaptation, which pointed up the ridiculousness, the outrageous comic potential of these characters, as well as his own strong political point of view.  The second of Lucian’s revelations was of actor process; the size of passion and gesture that actors are capable of while still maintaining the rigor of craft and storytelling.  All of you have worked with me before, and you don’t know it but whenever I speak about acting, or the process of creating a role, I’m quoting Lucian.

“Three years after that Arena production, which was a legendary moment for those who saw it, I was assisting the late, great Garland Wright at the Guthrie.  And because I had worked on the DC production, I worked on Garland, who was wary of big personalities like Lucian — perhaps because his own left little room for another! — to bring The Wild Duck to the Guthrie.  So I got to assist Lucian again, to bring this profound production to another audience, and again the people who saw that show still talk about the effect it had on them.

“Like the film Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano which transformed how I understand Chekhov, Lucian’s Wild Duck made me see Ibsen in a completely new way.  Ibsen is alive and present for me, his judgments and insights inform my world because the heights of Lucian’s staging and his direction of the actors were unforgettable.  I wrote down every word he said through those two rehearsal processes, and for years I thought, I can’t do The Wild Duck because I’ll only want to do what Lucian did.  But now it’s 23 years later and I came back to the text and thought, now’s the time.  I’m ready now — but I’ve gotta get the A-team to do this with me.

“This process is going to be different from the others we’ve done together.  In part that’s because I know this play better — I know exactly what it is, inside and out.  And so I need to push myself, and you need to push me, to move past the answers I’ve already got.  It’s not like Titus, where the point was that I had to discover the mechanics of that play along with you.  I want to start from answers and push past them to new questions, harder questions.  I’m not going to be thinking about “Does Kevin like me today?” or how to keep you feeling safe and comfortable — we need to live at a place of discomfort, so that we don’t just rely on knowing where we’re headed.  If that makes you nervous, that’s good.  I’m scared.  This one needs to be scary.  The piece demands that we be more than we are right now.”

More to come…

“I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.”

–Orson Welles