May 3, 2004
an interview with
More about Triad Stage's production of Hedda Gabler.
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The morning after Hedda Gabler opened, we had coffee on Elm Street at the shop across the street. Preston Lane, who is artistic director for Triad Stage as well as the director of this production, talked about his love for a good story well-told.|
You attended North Carolina School of the Arts.
Yes, for my undergraduate degree.
You grew up in Boone. Did you go to high school there?
I did, except for my freshman year. My father did a job exchange for one year - he taught at Appalachian, and we spent my freshman year of high school in New Brunswick, Canada. That was very different: a really small English town in an enclave of Acadian people. It was great to get that perspective.
You went to the Yale School of Drama for a graduate degree. Do many School of the Arts students go on to Yale?
Not really. The prevailing theory for School of the Arts undergrad is that you don't need a graduate degree in acting. I went in as an actor, and stayed all four years in the acting program even though I was beginning to be interested in directing.
Did you direct in college?
I did little things. There's a thing at the School of the Arts called Intensive Arts, where you spend three weeks on your own project. I would always choose to direct. Then, Gerald Friedman, who was a former director of the New York Shakespeare Festival, worked with Joe Papp, and did the original Hair, became the dean for my last year. I went to him and told him that I wanted to be a director. He really took me under his wing, allowed me to assist on something there, then took me to the Great Lakes Theatre Festival in Cleveland, where he was artist director. I assisted him there for a year, then went on to grad school.
Do you ever act now?
I do. I don't know that it's my favorite thing to do, but I think it's important to remind myself of what that is. It's such a different state of being. I do the Christmas thing every year, which is a one-man show. And every once in a while, like when the director of Art asked me, I'll think about doing a role. I really want to play Eilert Lovborg. It's my perfect role. You're onstage for maybe twenty minutes of a two-hour play, it's a big enough role that people remember who you are, but most of the time you get to sit in your dressing role and play cards.
Are you good at learning lines?
I'm pretty good. It's such a skill.
What's your process?
I learn them a lot in rehearsal. I pick them up pretty quickly from the page, and spend a lot of time trying to get them connected to action. I'm a notorious paraphraser, though. I get it more or less right, but have never been word-perfect.
So you don't insist that your actors get it exactly right?
It depends. On Debunked, I had a playwright who knew every single word he's written, and he was here. In that case, I insisted on it. On this, since it's my adaptation, if the actors came up with something that was better than what I'd written, we've used it.
What's your favorite thing about the Triad Stage space?
I love thrust spaces. I've never been a big fan of proscenium theatre. I love to go to Broadway shows, but always feel that huge distance between the audience and the stage, and the feeling that you're looking into a box. The building we're in dictated the shape of the performance space, but even if we'd built from the ground up, I'd have chosen a thrust stage. It creates such incredible intimacy, and allows you to truly view things three-dimensionally. You get such different views, something more sculptural.
Ibsen made a lot of his stage directions, with exhaustive descriptions of where each set piece should be. What parts of that do you keep when staging the play as you have?
The whole thing, with the adaptation and design, is about how much I love the piece. I think Ibsen is quite possibly that greatest playwright of all time. He's a genius. We wanted to honor the spirit of Ibsen, if not always the exact word. Doing Hedda Gabler in a thrust space is difficult, because it's written for a proscenium. We began with the stove's location, which is pivotal, and that helped to decide everything else. We have every element he refers to, and we think we created a way to find everything he was going for. When we move into the theatre, I typically spend the first couple of days moving to every seat.
Do you have any down time?
Sort of. Driving Miss Daisy ends in July, and we don't go into rehearsal for Bus Stop until August, so we have about three weeks there. I'll be in design and casting, but it's quieter that the rest of the year.
Do you go to New York to cast everything?
Usually, I see people here before I go to New York, so that at the end of my day in New York I have a full picture of what I'm considering. We work with Cindi Rush, our casting director, and I send her a list of qualifiers, and ask to see particular people. I asked to see Krista Hoeppner and Mark Dold for this, but had never met David McCann. There's always a mix of people I've asked for and people that are total surprises.
How long does the audition process take, once you are in New York?
It depends on the play. Hedda was four days. Driving Miss Daisy was one. It was supposed to be two, but we felt at the end of the first day that we knew who we wanted.
This is the end of your third season. Is there something about being in Greensboro, in particular, that has changed your attitude toward programming the upcoming season?
I've always viewed myself as a populist. I know what I love, and very rarely is it the avant garde. I certainly respect the experiments that people like Richard Foreman do, but I've always loved great story telling told in relatively traditional ways. I had a teacher at Yale who wrote an article about the death of character, and I agonized about that, because, for me, it's all about character and action. Sometimes, I may be a little more highfalutin, because I like Harold Pinter and Sam Shepard, and playwrights that might be a little edgier. Part of the balance is how to reach out to the audience and, at the same time, move the audience. You don't want to pander, but I've never been one to feel that you should push away. I think we made some mistakes in our first season. They were all made in good faith. We tried to bring in plays that hadn't been done here before. We had no idea that September 11 and the economic downturn were going to happen, and the season was ultimately too dark for the tastes of the audience. There was this huge shift in our national conscience, but there was really nothing we could do. And in some ways, it was a signature season, and we developed a core of supporters who loved what we did and stood behind it. But, as we grow, I want to make sure we don't push people away. People really like well-told stories & honest characters that they can latch onto. That's what I love, too. I would argue that Pinter is a well-told story with great characters. It may take me few years to get our audience to come along on that ride, but that's the journey we're on. If we can do Hedda Gabler this year and have audiences respond positively to it, then maybe in three years we can do When We Dead Awaken or Little Eyolf, something of Ibsen's that's a little harder to find your way into. It's a building process. Someone made a remark to me about The Rainmaker, and called it a tired old play. The truth is, I love that play. I love that mid-century realism - a lot of it we've forgotten about - that magic, or poetic realism of William Inge and Richard Nash, so when people see Bus Stop as next season's opener, and may say it's a tired old play, I say it's a classic. Or Thornton Wilder's Our Town: I think it's one of the five greatest American plays of all time. Hands down. It's a brilliant piece of writing. We've all seen far too many high school productions of it that have warped our notion of what the play is. It's hard-hitting, and it says so much about who we are. I've been very proud of everything we've done.
When you put together a season, do you start with one play and build from there? How you approach it?
Choosing a season is a long process. I'm already thinking of 2005-2006. I have cocktail napkins with six titles scribbled on them. One thing I've realized is that our audience is not wild about New York plays, not New York-centric plays. I'm not happy with a lot of new theatre - all these people are leaving their regional bases and moving to New York to work in the theatre, then they're writing about people who leave their regional bases and move to New York to work in the theatre. If Tennessee Williams had done that, or Arthur Miller, the American drama would be in terrible shape. We've got to find a way for American playwrights to write about America as opposed to some big city. For Triad Stage, I try to find one lynch pin in the season, and this year it's the opening of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. There were a couple of plays about the sit-in movement that we considered. We knew it would be set in North Carolina and that it would be appropriate for the family. We chose North Star. The rest of the season fell into place within about forty-eight hours, after six months of planning. I rediscovered Moon for the Misbegotten - O'Neill usually seems so heavy to me, but this is a very funny play. I want the season to take us to different places and times, and I knew we wanted to do a musical this year. That was a complete accident. I was reaching for another script, & the script for Das Barbecue fell off the shelf and hit my foot. "Ow. I love that play."
How do you research material?
I hang out at the Drama Bookshop when I'm in New York, or in the drama stacks of any bookstore wherever I am. People send us stuff. For instance, North Star and An Infinite Ache were sent to us for consideration. And, coming off of Rainmaker, I thought we were ready to consider Inge. I read Come Back, Little Sheba, which I loved, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, but it was Bus Stop that I felt most lent itself to our space.
Getting back to Hedda Gabler, what is it that draws you to this particular play?
This play made an impression on me at a young age. I saw it at the Barter Theatre, and have always loved it. I'm drawn to it, I think, because I'm drawn to those plays that make us feel like we're peering into something secret. It could be happening in our next door neighbors' house. The characters are so richly, fabulously drawn. Their actions seem to be, though not always understandable, clear. It's a great story, and I feel like everyone of those characters I somehow understand. I understand Eilert Lovborg, and there's a moment when George Tesman admits his jealousy about the book... everyone thinks George is just a bumbling fool, but he has emotions that everyone can recognize. He's ashamed of himself for feeling jealous for someone else's success or genius. I also think that this play is so much about people trying to control creation. The society is off-kilter, and plays from times of transition, as from the turn of the twentieth century, are very rich to me. Plays from the mid-century have that same thing - enormous transition.
Hedda Gabler was, and is, regarded as a modern play. The facet of this most often examined is that of its style of dialogue. It seems that there's much more to it: that it's more Hedda's situation that makes the thing modern. What do you think keeps this play in the realm of the modern?
I think it's a couple of things. It's one of the greatest female roles. We have actresses to think for keeping this play around. It was not well-received, critically, although it was popular Ibsen was denied a Nobel Prize for literature because his work did not "elevate."
There's a quote in the program that I love. Elizabeth Robbins, who was one of the first English-speaking Heddas, said "Hedda was not all of us, but she was a good many of us." He writes so truthfully about the human condition, and he was a realist when that was avant garde. He moved away from realism in his later plays, and I think he set the tone for the more chaotic modern theatre. There's more of Pinter, Shepard, Beckett, Mamet, and Naomi Wallace than there is of Hellman and Miller and those writers. And, uniquely among Ibsen's works, it is almost entirely free of exposition.
How did you develop your adaptation?
I worked, at first, from the original English translation by William Archer & Edmund Gosse. I knew the play, primarily, from the Rolf Fjelde and Michael Meyer translations, which were taught when I was in school. I kept those around, too, and I know the play from having studied it over and over. I also had Brian Davis and Rick Johnson's translation, which is probably the definitive one for authenticity and word-for-word ness. They are the greatest Ibsen scholars alive today, and I love their work, but it seems too literal, too wordy, for performance.
How long have you been working on this adaptation?
I started working on it sometime last summer, and we still making changing up to opening night. I did the majority of it right after Debunked opened. We were about to go into auditions, so I really needed the script. I began to get the final shape of scenes. It was a slow process with a period of intense work in the latter part. I love adapting things.
So, to paraphrase George, messing with other people's papers is perfect for you?
That right. "I'm very good at arranging other people's work." It's true. That's what in me is like George Tesman. I do have an idea for a play. I want to write a play about Thea; I've become fascinated with her. I want to write about what happened to Thea before she arrives at Hedda's house.
She's true to herself.
She's Nora from A Doll's House. A day after. She's slammed the door and she's walked out. She's done the thing that nobody does.
That resonates in moments of the play when you realize that not just her reputation, but her ability to keep body and soul together, is completely on the line.
Just about everyone in this play is on the brink of financial disaster.
What is Judge Brack's motivation?
Brack is more like Hedda than anyone else in the play is. With him, pleasure is about being able to intrude and control, and to remain free.
Is Brack the only character that doesn't know that Hedda is pregnant?
Well, George is pretty dense about it until she tells him, and Thea doesn't know. There are some analyses that suggest that she may not be pregnant. But I believe it's important for the structure of the play. I don't know what it buys you for her not to be pregnant. It's the final bar in the prison wall - she can't bear the thought of it. Hedda wants to control creativity. She doesn't care at all about Lovborg's manuscript beyond the fact that it was inspired by another woman.
Do you agree that this is a feminist play?
It's so confusing. Ibsen is inconsistent. At times, he seems to be indicating that this is a feminist play, and at times he's indicating that it's not. I think it's about women who are impacted by society. I think it's a mistake to call Hedda a feminist, or to look at her in the same way you might look at Nora. Nora becomes a feminist. Hedda doesn't. Hedda is trapped by a male-dominated society. I could say that it's a feminist statement to portray what happens to a strong woman in those circumstances, but Hedda is not a feminist. I think she's a fascist. She reminds me of Diana Mitford Mosley, the wife of the British fascist leader, in the way she has this blind love of beauty and dreams of courage that care nothing about human suffering. There's another character that I love to examine: Muriel Spark's Jean Brodie, an intelligent character with repugnant views about beauty and world order.
Having said all that, it's great to work on a play that has so much depth, and provokes so many questions. Plays that leave you feeling inspired are the best.
Thanks for talking to us.
~ Lydia Arnold