I See You

By Jeremy van Meter

As the final performance of The Elephant Man approaches, I am struck by the power of learning lessons as an adult—an “almost 50-year old adult.” In the portrayal of a character, there is always something to be learned if one remains open to the process. Even in playing the most minor of characters, I have always walked away knowing a little bit more about myself as a person and about the world around me. In the portrayal of Dr. Frederick Treves in The Elephant Man, what I have gained is invaluable and, I know this sounds cliché, what I have gained has made me a better man.

When rehearsal began this past April, I knew the life story of Joseph Merrick but I had no idea or had forgotten who Merrick was as a person. I had no idea that he was an avid reader. I did not know that he was a lover of poetry. I was not aware that he built, with one hand, miniature models of cathedrals and churches. It was a surprise to me that several times over the course of two years he vacationed and walked the grounds of Fawlsey Hall Estate in Northamptonshire where he would collect wildflowers to return to London with. I, like so many others before me, had labeled him as “less than” and not as intelligent as he actually was. And that is the most powerful lesson I have learned.

I, like Treves at the outset of the play, made my impressions about Merrick based on his outward appearance. Treves saw the advancement of science and his own career through the discovery of something that no one had ever seen before. For Treves, Merrick was a “case study” and it was not until he had the opportunity to see the man inside the study, that his life was changed. In today’s society, it is so easy and convenient to toss around labels. And once that label is placed, for whatever reason, the human being inside is overlooked and done a huge disservice. We do a disservice to ourselves as well.

Because of these characters—Frederick Treves and Joseph Merrick—and this play, I have made a vow to avoid placing labels on anyone. I have made a vow to live in a way that I “See” everyone I come into contact with. And, yes, that capital S I just used in the word “see” is intentional. There are amazing human beings all around us especially those that we categorize as “other.” I have made a vow to never look past them but to instead attempt to look inside them.

The Elephant Man plays through September 2nd at the Commonweal and if you have yet to experience it, I urge you to do so. The play, the story and the man inside both altered my life and I just bet it will do the same for you.

A Valuable New Experience

By Lizzy Andretta

When I first received an email in March from the Commonweal Theatre offering me the role of Mrs. Kendal in Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, I was honestly torn. On the one hand, I was excited beyond words at the chance to tackle this challenging story, but on the other hand, I had a sense of trepidation because I’d been firmly rooted in the New York/New Jersey area since finishing graduate school a few years prior. Moreover, I’d never been to the Midwest before (a three day trip in high school to Appleton, Wisconsin for a public speaking tournament doesn’t count) and I didn’t know how I would adapt to what I assumed would be a different environment. The pros outweighed the cons, however, and I quickly accepted the role and began the process of preparing myself.

Madge Kendal

After arriving in Lanesboro, settling in and beginning rehearsals, I was immediately struck by the differences between the environments of the Commonweal and the New York theatre scene. Whenever I did a play in New York, the emphasis always seemed to be more on getting the show up and running as quickly as possible than on actually taking the time to examine what it was we would be putting on stage. This always frustrated me because the time crunch meant I had to scramble in order to memorize lines and blocking and I never felt that I had time to research and dissect my character, which in turn led me to doubt my own abilities. So when we started rehearsals for The Elephant Man, you can imagine my delight that not only were we doing multiple sessions of table work where we talked about every scene of the play in detail, but we could also take our time to work out where we were going on stage and why.

As we continued to rehearse, I fell more and more in love with this play, which I must admit I was ignorant of until I was cast. I felt connected to Joseph Merrick’s plight because when I was a senior in college, I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. Although that pales in comparison to Merrick’s situation, like his condition it is still a handicap I’ve had to learn to live with (I was particularly struck by Treves’s line “It is a disorder, not a disease” for this reason). And I couldn’t dream of a better role than Madge Kendal. In reading her memoirs, I discovered that she was a highly intelligent, witty and sensitive woman who was a pioneer in her field (she was actually the first woman to deliver a lecture at the annual Social Science Congress in England) and I felt honored to play her.

Lizzy Andretta as Kendal, Brandt Roberts as Merrick, The Elephant Man, 2017My favorite aspect of working at the Commonweal has undoubtedly been the sense of community and inclusiveness that the ensemble projects. In New York, I never truly felt at home or comfortable in the theatrical community due to the intensely competitive nature of the business, where the prevailing attitude has always been that of “me first,” which is very much not what I experienced in college and grad school. At the Commonweal, I felt more welcomed and embraced than any other experience I’ve had thus far. Thanks to the love and support of my fellow artists, I personally feel like I’ve grown tremendously both as an artist and as a human being during my time here, and that is something I’ll always keep with me.

Lizzy Andretta makes her Commonweal debut in The Elephant Man currently playing through the month of August. 

A Pledge Honored

By Adrienne Sweeney

Chris Oden and Adrienne Sweeney in An Enemy of the People, 2001

With Chris Oden in “An Enemy of the People,” 2001

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.

Adrienne Sweeney and Jerome Yorke in Hedda Gabler, 2009

With Jerome Yorke in “Hedda Gabler,” 2009

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!”

Adrienne Sweeney and Hal Cropp in The Master Builder, 2003

With Hal Cropp in “The Master Builder,” 2003

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.