By Adrienne Sweeney
With the clock winding down on our production of When We Dead Awaken, a bit of bittersweet nostalgia can be forgiven, especially when I think about all that Henrik Ibsen has offered me professionally and personally. In some respects, I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for the dour one. In the summer of 2002, my seasonal contract with the Commonweal was coming to an end, as was my first marriage. Truth be told, I had no idea what I was going to do next or where I was going to do it. Eric Bunge, Commonweal’s founder, had the notion that the nascent Ibsen Festival could be expanded into something bigger and more audacious if someone took on planning and marketing the event full-time. Over coffee on the porch of the Cottage House Inn he offered me a six month position to work on the Ibsen Festival.
Fast forward 15 years…
The Commonweal has performed the works of Ibsen more than 500 times. We have produced 14 of his plays, toured throughout the Midwest, and seen attendance of more than 40,000. But my relationship with Ibsen is about so much more than the numbers.
Fierce protector Catherine Stockman in An Enemy of the People was the first role I ever played here at the Commonweal—as well as the first Ibsen production I was ever cast in as an actress. Next came Hilde in The Master Builder, Hedda Gabler, Ella Rentheim in John Gabriel Borkman, and now Irene in When We Dead Awaken. These women…wow! I have learned so much about myself both as an artist and as a person from these incredible women. Hilde baffled and vexed me in ways that no other character ever has. Hedda scared the hell out of me. (She still does.) I found strength and footing in Ella and now with Irene, I feel it all melding together. What an amazing gift to have had the opportunity to play all of these women—characters as complex and fascinating as any woman I have ever known.
And then there are the “real people” he introduced me to—International Ibsen scholars like Joan Templeton, Erroll Durbach, Toril Moi, Amal & Nissar Allana, Astrid Saether, Oyvind Gullikson and Kari Grønningsæter to name but a few. Ibsen granted me the opportunity to travel to Norway, tour his residences, view multiple productions of his work and see how cultures around the globe are still influenced by his genius. I’ve met fans from across the country who visit Lanesboro every year to see our productions. And of course, I am so grateful for the artists I have had the honor of collaborating with here at the Commonweal—Hal Cropp, with his incredible vision and commitment to the work, directors like Risa Brainin and Craig Johnson, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, all my fellow actors and designers…all artists who viewed Ibsen’s work as a thrilling challenge.
“Can I get a cast of 26 down to 7 with no children—sure thing.”
“ An avalanche on stage? No problem!”
“ OK so, I’m a human woman AND a bird—got it!”
Ibsen required us all to take the leap. What a leap it has been. The company has learned so much, as have I. It’s been a true honor and when we take our final bow on June 17, I will be sad for sure. But my pledge to Ibsen is this: I will take all that I have learned from my time with the Father of Modern Drama and I will use it to make my art better.
Until the next time Henrik, tusen takk.