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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

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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.

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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.

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

WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO THE WILD DUCK?

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.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR PROCESS IN TRANSLATING AND ADAPTING A PLAY.

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.

DO YOU THINK THE WILD DUCK IS A TRAGEDY?

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.

WHAT’S BEEN THE COLLABORATIVE PROCESS BETWEEN THE TWO OF YOU?

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.

CHARLIE, WHAT IS YOUR HISTORY WITH THIS PLAY?

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?

TELL US ABOUT THE COMMISSIONING PROGRAM.

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.

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Reposted from SITI Co.’s own blog: http://siti.collectivex.com/blog/

“I am writing on election morning in Hyde Park, Chicago, Barack Obama’s very own neighborhood.  We are in tech today, Election Day, for Radio Macbeth at the beautiful Court Theatre on the campus of the University of Chicago.  I am full of thoughts and feelings about the world we inhabit and where we are headed.  How will we function productively in the future, this very particular future we are headed into?  The disorienting sensation of these past weeks is oddly familiar. In the wake of shattering worldwide economic and political events we find a certain silence emerging from what the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan calls “the real.”  Our ship has slammed up against the shores of “the real.” The real is what lies behind our daily busyness, our symbols and our imaginative flights.  Markets dive, jobs are cut, consumers stop consuming and the assumptions that we carved out to describe our futures are in jeopardy. Silence arrives because familiar words, sentences and paragraphs are suddenly not sufficient to quell our anxieties.

The market culture and its manufactured desires and materialistic promises have failed miserably.  The unregulated markets resulted in a ravaged landscape of unpaid for despair. In this uncertain and cataclysmic climate, the creative impulse and the art experience is essential. In art we find a direction. The capacity to see, to perceive the world through another’s eyes, to empathize, is a vital sign of a civilized culture. To touch upon the unsaid and find articulate shapes for our present anxieties is the goal of our work together. The myth of economic progress as the answer to our baseline problems is simply not true.  What else can there be?

I have come to understand that the creative act is ultimately action against natural human tendencies.  Left to natural devices, human energy and endeavor moves towards entropy and disintegration. Our lives lead inevitably to decay and death. In the morning we are weighted down by the burden of sleep, requiring a supreme effort to arise and join the world.  The end of a gesture, when not treated with an artistic attack of acceleration, tends to die out. The artistic impulse, in contrast to the entropic direction of a life cycle, rises above the tendency towards death and negation.  The artist searches for lightness and for exactitude in the face of rot and decay.  Fueled by curiosity, energy and hope, we enter the darkness.  We accept the darkness and in that acceptance sometimes we discover a thin vein of light.”

-Anne Bogart

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Brittany A. Little, Production Dramaturg:

Let me tell you, this has been a fantastic experience for me–hectic and a little intimidating, but fantastic. Being a third-year History major at the University of Chicago and an artist, the chance to really dig deep into a work like Kushner’s, with a cast and production team as wonderful as this one (Charles Newell and E. Faye Butler…what more can you ask for in life?) has allowed me to bring my academic and artistic lives together.

I’ve been working with Court for a while now. I started as an intern in the Development office (hey guys!), went on to work as the Assistant Director of last season’s The First Breeze of Summer with Resident Artist Ron OJ Parson (One of my favorite people) and then I found myself trusted with this position, one usually handled by someone older and with a lot more experience than I. But that’s why I love Court–they give younger people like me, the opportunity to learn new things and grow under their guidance.

So, it was either sink or swim and I was determined to swim because I could not let Court down. I must admit, it was daunting at first. I had to balance a fellowship with a theater across town, make time to wrap my head around all of the complex themes that are featured in Caroline, and present them in the most informative and beneficial way possible.

Complexity is a feature of Tony Kushner’s work and Caroline is no exception. This musical touches on so many topics that are rarely seen in theater that my job was difficult (rarely, for instance, do we see African-American women at the heart of a full-scale show). With Caroline, I found myself elbow deep in books, microfilm and documentaries trying to find images and written accounts of these silently suffering Southern maids who seldom got to tell their stories. Add that to other themes like the Civil Rights Movement, racism, segregation, poverty, JFK, Jewish/Black relations, music of the 1960s, the Jewish American, Louisiana and domestic appliances and you end up with stacks and stacks of some of the most interesting material that a Dramaturg could ask for.

To work on such a huge show with a cast and crew this experienced made me nervous, and I rarely doubt my abilities. How much is too much and how much is too little? These worries plagued me until I sat down with Charlie and realized that he liked his research short but informative. Answer his inquires, send out anything that I find interesting to the team and give the actors a 20-page packet with lots of great pictures. Charlie gave me freedom to explore and share my findings and I really began to fall in love with the material.

By the time rehearsal came along, I was so excited that I was ready to share everything with the cast (whether they were interested or not). So, I put up a table full of books and historical research in the rehearsal room but honestly thought that the cast wouldn’t even glance at. I was wrong–they actually checked items out and wanted further information! That is what is so great about having an extraordinarily talented and intelligent cast. They really worked at their characters so that they could present the best show possible. They asked such fascinating questions that I was excited to find the answers for them. The cast and the entire production process motivated me, as a student and an artist.

There is nothing like watching the indescribably fabulous E. Faye Butler and Music Director Doug Peck work through a song note by note, Kate Fry find the subtlety in a phrase, Harriet Nzinga Plumpp flow effortlessly between characters, Iris Lieberman execute perfect comedic timing or the child actors scramble through their hilarious first act number. Being able to add to that experience in my small, complicated way feels amazing. As I sit and watch the final product, I can see a little Martha and the Vandellas in the Radio, know the significance of the oil that fries the latkes, and understand the desperation in Caroline. It makes me realize how much insight Caroline, Or Change has to offer to the audience.

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Hi, I’m Harriet Nzinga Plumpp. I am the Washing Machine and the Moon in Caroline, or Change.

Well, let’s see….where to begin. First off, I want to say how happy I am to be back on my feet in rehearsals. My son is 11 months old and I have not done a show since my first trimester with him in the Winter/Spring of ’07. Our cast is full of parents so I feel a great sense of support–Yay to that!  It’s an even bigger delight to be in rehearsals at Court Theatre.  Caroline, or Change is my third musical at Court (I had the pleasure of working on Man of La Mancha and Raisin).  It is great to be back.

Just yesterday I was conversing with Melanie Brezill, who plays Emmie in the show.  We were discussing how valuable the rehearsal process with Charlie Newell is for us as actors. At Court, the musical is treated first and foremost like a play.  This theatre definitely strives to present a strong, focused point of view. Many of us have been in this business for many years and have experienced a rehearsal process that does not allow time to explore and to ask questions about who you are as your character.  It should be natural…second nature. For me as an audience member, it’s much more enjoyable to follow an actor’s journey when every breath, every gesture and thought has intent behind it. Oooweee, don’t get me wrong, this is not an easy feat–but, it’s a great thing to strive for.  In rehearsal, Charlie gives us this time to explore. Which is, as Charlie says, “fantastic!”. So, hopefully, by the time you see the show our instincts are settling in. You can feel our anguish, our joy, anticipation etc… This takes a lot of energy, focus, and patience from everyone and can be exhausting.

We did our first run-thru of the show two days ago and I was exhausted afterward, in a good way;-)  Because I am playing the Washing Machine and the Moon I need to figure out how to separate the two vocally, mentally, and physically.  This past weekend it dawned on me that whatever energy Caroline (E. Faye) has I must feed off of it for the Washing Machine to work.  The W.M. is truly a part of Caroline.  Once that clicked, I was able to start taking the W.M. and the Moon on their own separate journeys.

I’m off to rehearsal now, so I look forward to seeing you in the house.  Enjoy the show!  I have a great feeling that you will.

Peace, Harriet Nzinga Plumpp

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