Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Cohesive Contrasts: A Closer Look at McKay Coble's Scenic Design for An Enemy of the People

An  early sketch of McKay's design.
An Enemy of the People takes place in a Norwegian town circa 1950. McKay Coble's scenic design puts the audience directly in this specific setting by utilizing contrasts between a stark, industrial water feature and an inviting family home.

In order to reflect the action of the play, her design incorporates muted greys alongside brighter colors to symbolize the pessimistic versus the optimistic. On one hand there's the idealistic Dr. Stockmann, morally prepared to do the right thing. On the other is his brother, Peter, repressing the truth for the sake of money and self-interest.

McKay explains, "There's this nugget of idealism with Dr. Stockmann and his family, which I've tried to portray as a sunny, warm, cohesive environment where everything fits together. Their comfortable home contrasts with a grey outside world that threatens to fall apart at any moment."

The Stockmanns' charming 1950s home. Photo by Curtis Brown.
McKay's aim is to create a space in which truth can unfold. Her detailed design allows the actors to discover their reality. And, as always, she's gone above and beyond, fine tuning to be accurate to the time period and support the work of the ensemble onstage.

Look for childhood photos of cast members adapted to fit the era, and notepads, not left blank, but filled with stories to keep the actors engaged in their craft! Details like this are indicative of McKay's meticulous approach to design and her ability to give the actors a realistic space to create, discover, and live in the moment.

Some truly remarkable elements of McKay's scenic design are the set transforms as plot and characters evolve. A monumental transition occurs when the Stockmanns' cozy living room fades into the background and a newspaper office rises to become the focal point. This transition parallels the shift of public opinion away from Dr. Stockmann and in favor of his conniving but impeccably dressed brother, Peter.

The transition from the Stockmann home to the newspaper office. Pictured: Benjamin Curns and Gregory DeCandia. Photo by Curtis Brown.
The water feature surrounding the Stockmanns' home proves to be a stand-out piece of the production. Because water is so integral to the plot, McKay felt it was a necessity to the scenic design. And the moat-like segment of the set is not just there for looks, it serves an important purpose. When the action shifts away from the Stockmanns' home to the office of the town newspaper water begins to fall from piping in the ceiling, changing the mood of the play from happy-go-lucky to ominous and eerie, causing the audience to question what's to come.

Just as his brother, the newspaper, and the townspeople turn on Dr. Stockmann, so does the water. Following a one-sided debate, Dr. Stockmann is bombarded by an unsavory crowd that removes grates from the edge of the set, scoops water from the trough, and throws it in his face. This moment in the play serves as a snapshot of the troubles yet to come for the Stockmann family.

McKay felt the water could represent the truth that's being kept hidden from the townspeople. She explained, "The truth could not be contained, just as the water could not be contained."

The mob entering the Stockmann home. Photo by Curtis Brown.
The feasibility of destroying set pieces presented a challenge to McKay. Once Peter announces that Dr. Stockmann is to be labeled "an enemy of the people," the unrelenting mob takes its aggression out on the Stockmann home. They enter with weapons, and when they're done what was once the safe nest of this loving family appears leveled and torn apart. McKay's design set the stage as the actors embody a whirlwind of destruction, creating a shocking scene that propels the story to climatic heights.

See McKay Coble's fantastic set for yourself. Book your tickets for An Enemy of the People - onstage through March 15!

Click here for more info or call our box office at 919.962.7529.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Director Tom Quaintance on creating a true "Enemy of the People"

Tom Quaintance, director
Although An Enemy of the People was written by Henrik Ibsen in 1882 and adapted by Arthur Miller in the 1950s, director Tom Quaintance believes it is as relevant today as it was for those eras. With characters that grapple with corruption, the influence of money, and the power of the media to shape public opinion, Tom says this play "feels like it could have been written yesterday."

The plot follows Dr. Stockmann, played by Michael Bryan French, who tries to alert citizens when he discovers an underwater spring feeding the successful town spa is threatened by toxic waste poisoning. His brother Peter, played by Anthony Newfield, serves as Chairman of the Board of the spa. He works against his brother, feeling it's in the town's best interest to conceal Dr. Stockmann's findings.

In our current age of leaders with questionable ethics, nonstop surveillance, and unverified media sources, the story of Dr. Stockmann could not be more pertinent. Tom explains:
"It is the story of science versus politics. It is the story of a whistleblower. It is the story of how money influences everything. It is the story of how the media shapes how we view the world. In today’s increasingly divided society, where people increasingly only hear the news and the spin they want to hear, it is an important play."
With the show holding many themes, Tom has collaborated with scenic designer McKay Coble and costume designer Patrick Holt to create a production that evokes the truth and realism Arthur Miller sought to portray when adapting the play.
McKay Coble's scenic design model

Tom describes the costumes as extraordinary. He says Patrick's "control of the color palette and specificity of cut and style tell each character’s story."

McKay's detail-oriented design complements the natural exchanges of the dialogue and allows the actors to discover their own truths within the space. Tom calls it, "both strikingly realistic and beautifully abstract."

Although the play is set in the 1950s, the scenic design utilizes a surrounding water feature inspired by a modern treatment plant. This is purposeful, "to invite the audience to consider the contemporary relevance of the play."

Bottom line: Tom believes An Enemy of the People is timeless and "a critical play for 2015."

An Enemy of the People is onstage February 25-March 15. Do not miss this critical play!

Click here for more info or call our box office at 919.962.PLAY (7529).

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Patriot Acts: Ibsen, Miller,
and Other (Un-) Reasonable Men - Part 2

By Gregory Kable

 (Continued from Part 1)

In 1950, Arthur Miller was commissioned to adapt Ibsen’s play by the actor-director Robert Lewis, a
prominent member of the seminal Group Theatre which established both modern acting and political commitment on the commercial American stage during its existence from 1931-41. Beloved Broadway veterans Fredric March and his wife Florence Eldridge would play the Stockmanns, and Lars Nordenson, a passionate, Swedish senator’s son would serve as producer. Not unlike the driving force behind Ibsen’s original, this revision of An Enemy of the People was rooted in indignation. March and Eldridge had been implicated in the rising tide of the Communist witch hunts led by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy under the auspices of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Miller immediately grasped the affinities between the play and the current climate, identifying its core theme as “the crushing of the dissenting spirit by the majority, and the right and obligation of such a spirit to exist at all.”

To highlight this focus, Miller rang major changes on the original, tightening its action from five to three acts, leaving motivations more ambiguous than explicit, and rephrasing dialogue in contemporary colloquialisms to purge any semblance of Victorian sensibilities. Miller altered Ibsen in other ways as well, most significantly in suiting the tone of his version to the grimmer mood of the time. Still, Miller’s devotion to Ibsen, already apparent from All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, which had opened in 1947 and 1949, respectively, asserts itself as forcefully in the timing of this project as much as in its substance. To revisit An Enemy of the People at all in the Fifties was an act of political conscience. Miller has reflected on the decade throughout his career, coloring it an era of “gauze” with a theatre correspondingly sapped of vitality and heat. “For one thing,” he wrote in a 1983 essay, “it was a post-Odets and pre-Brecht time, when things artistic were supposed to deal with sentiments and aspirations, but never with society.” In taking up the Ibsen challenge, Miller was leading by example, publicly avowing the need to reengage with the world.

Though cautiously received by audiences who had mastered reserve as a survival strategy, the endeavor was liberating for Miller, who would go on to amplify his rallying cry three years later in The Crucible. Initially cowed by McCarthy’s power, when Miller found himself called before HUAC in 1956, he refused cooperation, ending in a contempt of Congress charge. As with The Crucible’s John Proctor, Miller “had his goodness now” and affirmed the same faith in personal dignity he had admired in broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow’s 1953 television rebuttal of McCarthy, which concluded with Murrow’s defiant assertion, “We are not a nation of fearful men.”

The paradox, of course, is that such lofty individualism is as frequently resented and persecuted as lionized. And in our present context of heavy surveillance and heavier hacking, of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, of inflated college transcripts and deflated championship footballs, it can be more difficult than ever before to distinguish between the heroes and villains. More than three decades after his adaptation, Miller championed Ibsen’s play as “but one more evidence that the artist’s powerful desire to penetrate life’s chaos, to make it meaningfully cohere, has literally created a truth as substantial as a sword for later generations to wield against their own oppression.” 

But like Ibsen before him, Miller’s Enemy and his subsequent works acknowledge the fragility of such a weapon, comprehending both the courage and potential folly in revolutionary zeal. A possible reconciliation of these viewpoints can be found in a statement made by an aged Ibsen at an honorary banquet in 1898, where he insisted on being “more of a poet and less of a social philosopher than people seem generally inclined to believe”, a claim as appropriate for Miller as well. 

In his landmark study of Ibsen first published in 1891, fellow Ibsenite Bernard Shaw concedes the hazards of regressive majorities while cleanly identifying the shared battlelines Miller vividly dramatizes. In defining the contrary perspectives of idealists and realists, Shaw makes a strong case for reconceiving of such allegiances as follows:

“To the idealist, human nature, naturally corrupt, is held back from ruinous excesses
only by self-denying conformity to ideals. To the realist, ideals are only swaddling
clothes which man has outgrown, and which insufferably impede his movements….
It is always a case of ‘The ideal is dead: long live the ideal!’ And the advantage of
the work of destruction is that every new ideal is less of an illusion than the one it
has supplanted; so that the destroyer of ideals, though denounced as an enemy of
society, is in fact sweeping the world clear of lies.”

However welcome or unwelcome, justified or misguided, reasonable or treasonable, the stubborn resolve of Shaw’s realists prevails. And as Ibsen and Miller’s linked plays suggest, there must be something in the human psyche to account for this deep sense of mission. But Ibsen and Miller go further in interrogating the limits of human reason and exploring the relativity of truth. Perhaps Shaw’s certainty is yet one more layer of protective illusion, and we are less available to ourselves and compelled by self-interest than we’d like to admit. An Enemy of the People refuses to comfort us with a definitive answer. It’s completely plausible that our rebels are informed by a higher awareness that legitimizes their opposition. But the contrary and darker perspective may hold equal validity: as Enemy might have it, in the end, maybe there’s just something in the water after all.

PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “An Enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller.

February 25 – March 15, 2015. Directed by Tom Quaintance

Call 919-962-PLAY (7529) or visit www.playmakersrep.org

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Patriot Acts: Ibsen, Miller,
and Other (Un-) Reasonable Men - Part 1

“All progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

--Bernard Shaw, 1905.

Like its steadfast protagonist, Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People is itself a play which refuses to give way. One hundred and thirty-three years after its premiere, it remains undiminished both in its power and topicality. Its situations and characters, even specific references in the dialogue could have been conceived by any number of contemporary playwrights, and we’d be forgiven for assuming some of its dominant actions have been altered by translators to more closely approximate current events. But as our adaptation by Arthur Miller confirms, the underlying concerns of Ibsen’s play collapse time and cultures to speak directly to our historical moment, proving the aptness of Miller’s chosen title for his autobiography, Timebends.

Such resonance can be partially accounted for in that Ibsen fearlessly strode right into one of the primal conflicts of democratic society, that of the individual taking a principled stand against the collective will. This dilemma is as old as Western drama, and in that light we can approach Ibsen’s play as a modern variant on Sophocles’ Antigone. But Ibsen fiercely pursues this conflict to the point where its quixotic extremity commands equal attention. As Ibsen confided to his publisher, “I am uncertain as to whether I should call it a comedy or a straight drama. It has many of the traits of comedy, but is also based on a serious idea.” That tragicomic tone contributes as much to the modern feel of Enemy as its parallels with whistleblowers, environmentalism, science colliding with vested interests, public debates driven by rumor and opinion, violently partisan politics and all collusions of the press.

Befitting an artist in the vanguard of Naturalism, upon beginning his play in 1882, Ibsen was already familiar with a pair of real-life models for his plot and protagonist. Fifty years earlier, a doctor in the spa town of Teplice (then part of the Austrian Empire, today of the Czech Republic) drew attention to a cholera outbreak during the height of the tourist season, necessitating his flight from a mob of vengeful locals. The second and more recent example was of a widely reported incident in 1874 involving a Norwegian chemist prevented from making a public speech denouncing his capitol city’s prosperous Steam Kitchen industry’s neglect of the urban poor. In both cases a determined crusading figure is beset by guardians of the status quo.

But the immediate catalyst for Enemy was the scandalous reception of Ibsen’s play Ghosts, published in 1881 and to be pilloried and denied Scandinavian production for several years. Ghosts critiqued conventional religion, bourgeois values, and included venereal disease as part of its narrative, resulting in an unprecedented storm of protest as critics strained to outdo one another in trumpeting their disapproval: “[A] disgusting representation” sniffed one review; “an open drain, a loathsome sore unbandaged, a dirty act done publicly”, proclaimed another. “Gross, almost putrid indecorum”, “literary carrion”, and “crapulous stuff” are further representative samples of the frenzied condemnations.

Ibsen responded with another work for the stage, unleashing the full brunt of his contempt for this
epidemic of provincial attitudes whether associated with conservatives, liberals, or moderates. Thus, An Enemy of the People, written more swiftly than any other Ibsen play, is a withering indictment of majority beliefs. But it is also a crafted and deliberate drama which is carefully contained in a five-act structure, and exhibits Ibsen’s characteristic mastery of symbolism and metaphor. Alongside its social problem play exterior, lie a moral parable about human corruption, and even a potential religious allegory of institutionalized faith (Peter), spiritual sickness (polluted water as an image of the impure soul), and a Doubting Thomas in the protagonist himself. In this, Ibsen’s play transcends the merely literal and his Stockmann takes his rightful place among a host of the playwright’s most notable characters, from the renegade Pastor Brand, and the prodigal Peer Gynt, to the non-conformist Nora Helmer and the tragically conformist Hedda Gabler, through the desperate architect of The Master Builder, the doomed financier John Gabriel Borkman and the decadent sculptor Rubek in Ibsen’s final play, When We Dead Awaken. Any and all might be designated an enemy, an identity which, in the name of progress, Ibsen dares us all to embrace.

PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “An Enemy of The People ” by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller. February 25 – March 15, 2015. Directed by Tom Quaintance

Call 919-962-PLAY (7529) or visit www.playmakersrep.org.