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.

Two Decades, One Playwright

Henrik Ibsen Festival IbsenfestTwenty years ago, a pledge was made. A pledge to a playwright and his works. A pledge to an audience base. A pledge to a company of artists that, for the foreseeable future, the works of that one playwright would be produced on an annual basis. Countless other things have come and gone but that pledge remained strong.

This season at the Commonweal, we celebrate both the pledge and the fact that the pledge is now considered fulfilled. It has been an honor for this company to stage the plays, both original and adaptations, of Henrik Ibsen for past 20 years. As we say adieu to that commitment, members of the Commonweal ensemble have been asked a question: “what is your strongest memory or fun fact about the company’s connection to Ibsen? I hope you’ll find these to be a good read and if they inspire any of your own memories…please share!

Stela Burdt: I met my husband (Scott Dixon) during rehearsals of Enemy of the People in January 2001.  Rehearsals were at Luther College, as we had students in the production. We got to know each other over the drives back and forth between Lanesboro and Decorah.

Scott Dixon: One of my favorite Ibsen experiences was directing Enemy of the People in 2011, ten years after appearing in it in 2001—my Commonweal debut.

Eric Lee in When We Dead Awaken, 2017

Eric Lee in When We Dead Awaken, 2017

Eric Lee: When We Dead Awaken is the very first Ibsen production I’ve been involved in. It is an honor to be a part of the final Ibsen Festival, as a part of a 20-year tradition.

Philip Muehe: I saw Adrienne perform the title role in Hedda Gabler when I was in high school, and in college, I wrote my Theatre History II capstone paper about groundbreaking female protagonists…Hedda won.

Abbie Cathcart: I got to try lefse, Gjetost cheese (omg so good), Aquavit, and pickled herring (no me gusta) for the first time at last year’s festival!

Ben Gorman: The Wild Duck (2005), which also toured. I played the usually drunk, wry Dr. Relling, taking over the role a month into the production from Patrick Bailey; also played Werle’s house servant Pettersen. We toured upstate, including Fergus Falls MN, and a few of us did a day trip over to Fargo ND—in my case, just so I could say I’d been there.

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

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

Adrienne Sweeney: An Ibsen was my very first show here at the Commonweal—An Enemy of the People, 2001. It was also the first Ibsen play I had ever done.  AND…my first of TWENTY THREE shows with Scott Dixon! (WHA???)

Hal Cropp: Of the Ibsen productions in our 20-year history, I have performed in nine, directed seven, adapted one (The Wild Duck) and am the only member of the company who has been here for all twenty.

David Hennessey: Former resident company member Irene Erkenbrack Green and I have a record we suspect few actors can match. We have appeared together in separate productions of the rarely performed Peer Gynt: once at Luther College, 2003; once here, 2008.

Brandt Roberts: The Master Builder was my first exposure to Ibsen in college and my first Ibsen production at the Commonweal. Japanese shadow puppets have been an interest of mine and I got to play with shadow puppets in The Master Builder.

Bailey Otto: I have stage managed one-quarter of the productions during this commitment.

Megan Pence: My first stage kiss (A Doll’s House). My first stage death (Brand). My first (but possibly not my last) time appearing in only undergarments on stage (The League of Youth).

Jeremy van Meter: The first Commonweal play that my wife Catherine Glynn and I appeared in together as ensemble members was Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Pillars of Society. We played brother and sister—true willing suspension of disbelief!

Share your own memories and be sure to join us this weekend,
April 21-23, as When We Dead Awaken premieres during the 20th Annual Ibsen Festival to open Season 29 at the Commonweal!

Politics: Entertainment, Government, or Both?

Guest post by David Hennessey,
CWL Resident Ensemble Member

“You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”—former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, The New Republic, April 4, 1985


David Hennessey appears as Anders Lundestad in The League of Youth at the CWL.

Early in Ibsen’s political satire, The League of Youth, Chamberlain Brattsberg, an established and powerful civic leader, is quite taken with the recent charismatic speech of Stensgaard, a young politician. Brattsberg invites Stensgaard to the next room, eager to hear his supposedly innovative views on “by-pass restrictions and conservation variances.” When Mr. Hejre, the town cynic, is also invited to join the discussion, he replies in a near monotone, “I’m all a quiver.” As he knows well, the legal minutia of governing is just not as sexy as the thrill of a fiery speech.

This year’s presidential election is a perfect backdrop to Ibsen’s only comedy, a story about politics. Like actors, politicians also tell stories and we’ve heard many on the campaign trail, with varying degrees of effectiveness. There have been established candidates like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush dishing out far more prose than poetry; a visionary like Bernie Sanders tapping into poetic, though surprisingly one-note, inspiration; the youthful son-of-immigrants narrative of Marco Rubio that never quite caught on; the I’m-an-outsider perspective of Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina that failed to cut through the din; the traditional-values stance of Ted Cruz; and, of course, the Joan Rivers-like candidacy of Donald Drumpf.

“Comedienne Joan Rivers was obscene, vulgar, and cruel. No one escaped her vicious attacks. Not her friend Elizabeth Taylor, her family, or even the Queen of England. For this, we loved her.”—Stacia Friedman, Broad Street Review, September 5, 2014

sealI’ve often thought that some things that Drumpf says at rallies would be considered somewhat typical, though edgy, entertainment if uttered on Saturday Night Live. In that context, many people wouldn’t give them a second thought. But hearing them from someone running for the most powerful position in the world is a new phenomenon in my lifetime. Maybe I’m deluding myself, but I don’t remember hearing such over-the-top insults—usually reserved for stand-up comedy—in a presidential campaign before. That’s probably why he’s generated so much passionate attention from both supporters and opponents alike.

Passionate attention is very much what actors and performers of any kind strive to create in their audience.  But in a theatre, the audience willingly suspends its disbelief to let actors sometimes say and do things we’d never dream of doing in real life.  And if we do our job right, audiences will think our characters are believable, but only in the context of that story.

“Back-and-forth banter with fans, as Drumpf calls them, is a staple of the act. ‘The misconception is that this is just stream of consciousness,’ said Corey Lewandowski, Drumpf’s campaign manager. ‘It’s not. It is thought out. It’s strategic. It is precise.’”—Michael Finnegan, LA Times, January 29, 2016

covers-2016-1-league-of-youth-draft01-page-001When watching a political campaign, though, I look for the candidate whose words and deeds I can trust the most. It’s a bit different than belief—I might believe a candidate’s promises just because I want to hear them, but can I trust them, too? If elected, his or her actions and words will have consequences in the real world, not just a storytelling world of suspended disbelief.
Take a break from stories of the election and listen to us tell Ibsen’s story, brilliantly adapted once again by Jeffrey Hatcher. To be sure, it will have echoes in the real world, but none of us is running for office, so the lines between story and reality won’t blur—as they do on much of reality TV and on this year’s campaign trail.

The opinions in this post are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the Commonweal.