Michael Avolio, director of Quotidian Theatre Company’s currently running production of Hedda Gabler, spoke with DCTS’s Christopher Henley recently by e-mail about the production and its reception.
Christopher Henley: Describe the genesis of the production concept.
Michael Avolio: After the success of my directorial debut at Quotidian, last season’s The Iceman Cometh, I was eager to direct at Quotidian again, and they were generous enough to want me to direct for them again. I asked QTC’s co-founders, Jack Sbarbori and Stephanie Mumford, about Hedda Gabler, a play I felt very passionate about. Stephanie suggested the idea of setting the play in the Georgetown of the 1950s or ’60s, and I loved the idea. She thought it would make the play more relevant for an audience, while keeping Ibsen’s themes and situations intact.
CH: The year 1963 is so specific! What about that particular year drew you to it?
MA: 1963 was right on the cusp of change. It was the year Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, the year Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, and the year JFK was assassinated (an event that takes place just a couple of months after the time of our production). The primary relationship in the play for me is the Hedda/Thea contrast, and I wanted a year between Hedda’s ’50s housewife mentality and Thea’s more liberated hippie-like feminist independence. I felt that if we set the play much later, Hedda’s feeling trapped would be less believable, or much earlier, Thea’s leaving her loveless marriage would seem like a fluke instead of a viable new option. Hedda and Thea have similar situations, but they make different choices about how to handle things — Hedda’s choices are ultimately destructive, while Thea’s are empowering.
CH: What about the play do you feel still resonates with contemporary audiences?
MA: On the surface, the play deals with how society oppresses women in subversive ways. Though women today have it better than they did in 1963, there’s still a ways to go until they’re treated as equal to men. And even beyond that, the theme of a subtle oppression, sometimes more implied or even imagined than explicit, is something I think we’ve all felt at some point in our lives. We’ve all felt restricted by our families or our co-workers or our friends or our classmates or our religious organization or whatever. I think Hedda Gabler will always be relevant because of this theme. And aside from that, the play is gripping because Ibsen has given us dynamic and colorful characters in a smartly-written story.
CH: What about the production’s time and place alters or enhances the relevance to or resonance for a contemporary audience?
MA: I think setting it in our own city in a year when some of our audience members were alive brings the story home for the audience and removes some of the divide that a lot of period pieces have. At a talkback following our second matinee, several audience members shared their own stories of the feminine struggle in the 1960s. I also think 1963 is recent enough that it feels pretty close to today, and our production has an immediacy and an energy that the audience finds contagious. I overheard an audience member use the word “bad-ass” after a performance last week-end; that’s not a word I’ve heard used to describe traditional productions of this play.
CH: What about the production concept has solved problems or addressed challenges inherent in the script?
MA: I don’t think there are a lot of problems in the play. Hedda’s not a good person, and some people consider that a problem, but I don’t. I think period pieces necessarily have a hurdle in reaching an audience because of how foreign or outdated the language or situations can seem. Updating the language to a ‘60s-style banter helped, and I think the basic situations remain relevant in a 1963 setting without needing any major overhauls. We were also able to be more explicit about some things in the dialogue — references to an affair and pregnancy didn’t need to be danced around as they were in Ibsen’s day. And thanks to the concept, we get to use some kick-ass ’60s music throughout the show.
CH: You mentioned [during an exchange to arrange this interview] that critical response has been polarized. Can the same fairly be said of audience response?
MA: Audiences have been very enthusiastic about our Hedda Gabler. The production’s still going on, and the numbers aren’t all in yet, but the show’s been very well attended so far, and the buzz as people exit the theatre has been electric. Someone even told me opening night that she never needed to see the play done in its original period again. Word of mouth has seemed strong, too. I’m gratified that the audience response has been so overwhelmingly positive. And it’s exciting to me that some people are experiencing the play for the first time with this production — it’s thrilling to hear gasps and murmurs at certain key plot points.
CH: Some critics faulted certain characterizations. Would the attitudes to the characterizations have been different, do you feel, if the setting had been traditional?
MA: Aside from updating the setting, our production is different than the way the play is done traditionally because it’s closer to what Ibsen intended. For one thing, the actors are much closer in age to what Ibsen wrote than how the roles are typically cast. Ibsen says Hedda is 29, and that George, Thea, and Lovborg are about the same age. He says Judge Brack is 45. Usually these roles are played by much older actors. I think casting it according to Ibsen’s wishes retains the vitality and sexuality that many productions of the play completely miss. Judge Brack isn’t a dirty old man; he’s virile and sexy. He’s attractive to Hedda for more than just his skill at conversation. (I expect your production with Heather Haney’s Hedda and Frank Britton’s Brack was also more on the mark than most productions, but unfortunately I didn’t see it.)
I directed the actors to play for high stakes with a ferocity and intensity not usually seen in a production of this play. It’s a passionate, sexy, sometimes funny production with a strong pulse and sharp teeth. We approached Hedda Gabler almost as if it was a new play, instead of treating it as a dusty old museum piece. I think our production’s more like something you’d see at Woolly Mammoth than at a conservative classics theatre, and it’s attracting a young audience in addition to older patrons who are familiar with the play. It’s understandable that such an approach has ruffled some feathers, but I think it’s closer to what Ibsen wanted than how the play is traditionally approached.
CH: Which translation was used? Has much been altered in terms of dialogue to establish the new time and place, or is most of that work done by the physical production?
MA: I adapted the script myself, starting from a tremendously dated version that was in the public domain. I altered a lot of the dialogue to make it feel fresh. I kept Ibsen’s custom of sentence fragments, which I think keeps the play sounding modern and more realistic. Aside from updating certain references (changing “ship” to “plane”, name-dropping DC-area locales when appropriate, etc.), most of the suggestion of the 1963 Georgetown setting was done with the style of speech, the costumes, and the set. Ibsen didn’t pepper his script with references to 1890, the year he wrote it, so I didn’t feel the need to fill my adaptation with references to 1963.
Closes November 23, 2014
Quotidian Theatre at
The Writer’s Center
4508 Walsh Street
Approx 2 hours, 30 minutes, 1 intermission
Fridays thru Sundays
MA: I cut very little. I did a bit of trimming to streamline the play, but the bulk of the play is intact, and I even added a little humor in the first half (there’s already some comedy early on in the play, especially involving George, and I think the lighter moments help make the dark moments even stronger) and a few details here and there (a brief confrontation between Hedda and her African-American maid, the idea that George didn’t like the house and only bought it because he thought Hedda liked it, and things like that — details that I think enrich the play but don’t drastically alter Ibsen’s original). The running time is two hours and five minutes plus intermission.
CH: QTC is known for traditional productions. Do you think the response to this production has affected its attitude to taking similar approaches to classic plays in the future?
MA: To be honest, we haven’t discussed this, but I expect QTC will remain open to updating classics in a similar way if it’s warranted. Quotidian’s previous foray into Ibsen (before my time with the company) was also an update — a production of A Doll’s House set in 1918 Texas. And I’ve heard mention of an idea to update another world theatre classic, but I can’t go into detail. I don’t think Quotidian will ever update a classic just for the sake of updating it; classics are classics for a reason. I think Stephanie’s idea to update Hedda Gabler‘s setting was rooted in the strengths of the play, and a desire to showcase those themes in a more compelling way for a modern audience. The new setting doesn’t feel ill-fitting or forced to me. It’s a new approach to the piece, but it’s still basically the play Ibsen wrote.
CH: Was the critical reception a surprise or did you, on some level, expect it? Are there aspects to the response that you feel are fair or inevitable?
MA: Hedda’s challenging for an audience. She’s the main character, and the audience spends more time with her than any of the others. But she isn’t a good person. She’s certainly a victim of society’s oppression, but Ibsen gives us a contrast to her in Thea Elvsted. I think A Doll’s House is a similar play in many ways, but Nora in A Doll’s House is much easier to side with. It’s unfortunate that some people seem to be unable to separate their dislike of Hedda from their feelings toward the actor playing her, and it’s too bad that some people see the lack of empathy they feel for Hedda to be the actor’s failing. Fortunately, those who feel that way about our production are in the minority.
I love the challenge that Hedda herself presents to the audience, and I was never interested in making it easy on the audience. I like art to be challenging. And I’m strongly drawn to outsider characters like Hedda or Shakespeare’s Richard III or Robert De Niro’s character Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver or the countless femmes fatale in film noir — there’s a darkness you can’t forgive, but a charisma and brokenness I find fascinating and worthy of empathy.
One thing I love about the play is its fearless portrayal of someone who’s both a victim of oppression and an oppressor herself. It’s easy to feel sorry for a victim whose behavior we can approve of, and Ibsen gives us that in Thea. It’s much more difficult to empathize with someone who crosses a moral boundary she shouldn’t. And despite the fact that Hedda is a woman, she was also born into privilege, so it seems more difficult for audiences to forgive her that.
I think it’s troubling that some people are completely unable to feel sorry for Hedda even when she’s being sexually blackmailed. To be frank, the lack of empathy for a woman in that position reminds me that we live in a culture in which rape victims are asked what they were wearing. Hedda is selfish and she does some monstrous things, but no one deserves what ultimately happens to her.
I find Katie Culligan’s Hedda to be riveting, scary, and immoral, but also heartbreaking and tragic. One thing that I love about her performance is her understanding of how often Hedda herself is putting on a performance of her own. Hedda is usually hiding something and rarely shows her true self. Katie’s intelligence and hard work have paid off with a beautifully complex performance. She’s always listening and reacting, ever present, and I love getting to see glimpses of the wheels turning behind the mask.
Katie’s work in this role is so natural that she makes it look easy. But I think it’s a mistake to assume Hedda herself has to be likable, or that Hedda not being likable is the fault of the actor playing her — it’s how Ibsen wrote her. Katie’s Hedda is the best Hedda I could imagine. Someone else in the cast remarked that Katie’s performance alone is enough reason to see our production, and I completely agree.
CH: Do you feel that some critics didn’t “get” what you were trying to accomplish or were somehow closed to the value of the endeavor?
MA: A friend pointed out to me that Hedda Gabler is like Hamlet in that many people have a vague, idealized idea of Hamlet in their head, and sometimes it doesn’t even have to do with the play. I think some people misremember the character of Hedda as being much more likable than Ibsen paints her. (One person I spoke to about the play had gotten Hedda Gabler confused with A Doll’s House.) No matter how beautiful and charismatic Hedda is, there are certain things she does and says that make her impossible to root for.
Hedda Gabler is a controversial play with a controversial figure at its center, so it’s not surprising that some people come to the play with firm preconceived ideas already in place, be they right or wrong. Some of the criticism of the show has been specific, and some has been uselessly vague, but I’m pleased that the audience has responded so strongly in favor of the production.
CH: Can you point to any instances where different critics had opposite attitudes to the same element?
MA: I’d rather not get into detail with this, but the production and some performances and design elements in it have been praised by some critics and dismissed by others. We got reviews from DC Theatre Scene, MD Theatre Guide, Broadway World, DC Metro Theater Arts, and The Washington Post. All had strong reactions to the production.
CH: Looking back, would you have done anything differently if you had the chance? If so, would it be a response to critical reception, audience reception, peer reception, or self-reflection?
MA: There are always little things you wish you could adjust after a show opens, but I’m extremely proud of the production overall. It’s full of life, drama, sexuality, humor, intensity, and darkness. As a whole, I wouldn’t change a thing.
[Note: Henley appeared earlier this year in QTC’s production of Faith Healer and directed the WSC Avant Bard (then Washington Shakespeare Company) production of Hedda Gabler in 2008.]
Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen. 1963 concept by Stephanie Mumford. Script adaptation by Michael Avolio. Directed by Michael Avolio. Featuring Katie Culligan, Brian McDermott, Sarah Ferris, Francisco Reinoso, Christian Sullivan, Laura Russell and Kecia Campbell.
Lighting designer: Don Slater. Set designers: Michael Avolio and Jack Sbarbori. Costume designer: Stephanie Mumford. Sound designers: Ed Moser, Michael Avolio. Produced by Quotidian Theatre Company.