Ibsen Theatre
by E. Munch


Directing Ibsen's Little Eyolf

Having analyzed the text, the next step was to utilize the found information into the production design. With this, I wanted to exercise two points of my philosophy, as expressed in The Progressive Manifesto48, as to what theatre should do - to represent and challenge. It was important to remember that we were creating a world in the theatre, not trying to show an actual world, for our audience and that we wanted to challenge our audience, to engage them on as many levels as possible. 

Inherent in the text is much symbolism. I wanted to reflect the symbolism in the presentation of the play in all aspects of the experience - costumes, set, lighting, sound, and acting. I still wanted to keep the play set in the latter part of the nineteenth century in Norway. Not knowing that much about the visual aspects of the 19th century in Norway, I thought it might help to see if there were any Norwegian or Scandinavian painters at this time. It was then that I found the paintings of Edvard Munch. 

Munch was a Norwegian painter of the late 19th - early 20th century who influenced Ibsen and, subsequently, was influenced by the playwright. Munch, like Ibsen, practiced the artistic doctrine of "individualistic realism" - the practice of representing only what the artist himself has experienced. In a series of paintings called "The Frieze Of Life," Munch merged the current expressionistic and symbolistic ideas of painting. "Expressionism" is used in a broad sense, meaning ". . . the deliberate distortion of natural appearances for the sake of emotional effect. . ."49 "Symbolism," according to Loshak, means ". . . the portrayal of scenes of such a type and in such a way that they would imply more general meanings underlying external appearances."50 Colors and textures were used more to convey mood and emotion than for naturalistic intent. This can be seen in his works "The Three Stages of Woman," "Jealousy," and in his most recognized, "The Scream." In these paintings, we find very few details surrounded, usually, by a swirling mass of color. This is representative of the text of Little Eyolf - the characters are continually circling around the acceptance of truth and, like the palette of Munch, are quick to change from cool to hot. Thus, it was these qualities of Munch that drew me to use his paintings as a conceptual base. 

I was also intrigued by ideas expressed in articles on design and acting in a five-part article called "Postmodern Issues In Action Design" by Delbert Unruh. Though all five parts of this series were attractive, I shall limit my discussion to "Part II: Philosophical Problems of Space, Space As Text" and briefly restate its ideas that were influential to the production.

The basic idea of Action Design, according to Unruh, is that only those design elements essential to dramatic action, which connect functionally to the physical or psychological action, should appear on the functional stage; however, in a studio or arena style space, the entire space becomes functional.51 Since the words of the playwright are the most important element in the theatre, all design elements should, as their primary purpose, make the text accessible to the audience. When the space is seen as text, the following occurs: 

  1. The theatrical event is not looked at as a simple narrative flow that follows a linear sequence; the space of the production is looked at as containing multiple streams of information. 
  2. The audience is allowed to choose between parallel texts and construct the meaning of the event for themselves. 
  3. There is no attempt to create the imitation of physical reality or the creation of a place or even an environment in which the performers may pretend to be the characters. Rather, a physically and psychologically functional space is created in which meaning can be demonstrated on many levels. . . 
  4. The audience, which is viewed as a collaborator, is continually reminded of the artificiality of the theatrical experience; it is never enticed to believe that they are not in a theatre. 
In addition, the design must move, psychologically, through the time of the performance. Thus, the design is a visual text.52 

Having decided to use Munch and Action Design as a basis for the dialogue with my designers, I began my collaboration. I shall discuss each design area separately and in chronological order. 


We began by discussing Action Design and Munch, each interpreting the information to the other in order to construct a basis for our dialogue. In keeping with the Action Design idea, we wanted the costumes to reveal period and character as revealed through the text. We also wanted the costumes to be functional, to be used by the actors. It was important that we avoid having the actors only wearing the costumes. I was also interested in exploring the sound capabilities in the costumes. 

To show the slow revelation of truth in the text, we decided to have the characters in layers of clothing that could be stripped of and put on. With this, we discussed what was the core, or base, costume for each character; and, when, if ever, the audience would see that base. 

Finding an appropriate director/designer language played a large role in the ensuing collaboration. Three terms used by the designer were: "realistic", meaning historically correct; "stylized", meaning close to "realistic" but adding elements that are more universal; and, "abstract", meaning as far to the left from history as possible, using symbols and the psychological. I was invited to work more on the other side of my brain. For example, instead of discussing Asta as a person, i.e., how to act her, I should think of her as a non-human entity. Using this suggestion, the dialogue became easier to inject into the design. 

With this new dialogue, we decided on the symbolic/psychological costumes that were used in the production. A metaphor, indigenous to the location of the play, was chosen for each character that symbolized the character. Asta is a box - she has a secret inside but cannot find the key in order to let the secret out. Rita is a steamed spider crab. She has a hard, hot exterior, with her center being her most vulnerable point. Allmers is a worn leather book; he has a tough but pliable exterior, which is frayed. Eyolf is a cracked china doll. He is frail, pale, and a mirror to Allmers and Rita. Borgheim is a pine tree. He is firmly rooted in himself, aspiring to greater heights. The Rat Wife is a cross between a sea urchin and a nun. She is of the sea and a savior. 

We were able to achieve sound in several of the costumes. In the Rat Wife, weights were added in the hem in order to make a swishing sound, analogous to the waves. In Borgheim, a large ring of keys was added that could be jingled. This was used in Act Three as a means of creating tension. 


Sound, as well as Set and Lights, was designed during the rehearsal period. Choices made for these three areas were products of the rehearsals and discussions and influenced the rehearsals. 

I wanted to exploit sound as fully as possible, finding ways to use sound as text and not just as segue music. To do this, we discussed ways of achieving the Action Design idea of reminding the audience that they were in a theatre, experiencing a made-world. We decided to use music only for the pre-show, intermission, post-show, and the set change between Acts One and Two. Intermission was between Acts Two and Three. This music reflected the disintegration of the relationships in the text. All sounds during the acts were to be ambient noise from the theatre. This sound was to reflect the psychological turmoil of the characters. This sound stopped when Allmers screamed "Ah!" in order to intensify the silence of isolation between Rita and Allmers. In order to control and intensify these, the noises were taped. The sound plot was as follows: 

Pre-show: Music - Shostakovich, Trio in A minor, Op. 67, and Berg, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. 
Act One: A high hiss (buzz of a fluorescent light) played through the entire act; a scratching and knocking sound (made by rubbing a microphone across blue jeans and tapping it simultaneously) running through a reverberation and echo unit was used prior to the Rat Wife's entrance; a crowd of children run through a repeating delay unit used for the drowning segment. 
Scene Change: Music - Webern, excerpts from Five Movements For String Quartet, Op. 5; A low rumble was added to the hiss 
Act Two: The low rumble and hiss continued Intermission: Webern, Four Pieces For Violin and Piano, Op. 7, and String Trio, Op. 20; the low rumble was intensified 
Act Three: The rumble and hiss continued to intensify: A steamer horn (a conch shell was used) was run through a reverberation unit before Asta attempted to leave; a stage microphone picked up Allmers' "Ah!" (after Asta and Borgheim leave) and was sent through an echo unit; at this same time, all ambient sound stopped; a microphone, placed under the stage, picked up footsteps and was run through the echo unit; the steamer sound and the children sound previously used was repeated as placed in the text. 
Curtain Call/Post-show: Music - Ives, The Unanswered Question 


Having discussed how to use the space as text, we decided to have the stage reflect the motion of the action which we likened to a spiral. We discussed the placement of each act in the text which utilizes three different levels and how that could be employed. We also were interested in creating a feeling of the state of limbo of the characters. To accomplish this, we discussed re- arranging the theatre space. Previously, it had been set up in a proscenium configuration; however, the seating was maneuverable, so the space was changed to a thrust configuration with the base of each section being a different height off the floor. The idea was to have the audience higher and lower than the stage in order to suggest "in limbo." The design of the stage had three levels and suggested a circular motion. This was also suggested through the painting of the floor in a spiral, incorporating a Munch-like texture. To this, railings were added at the edge of the two highest levels. These were used in several ways: (1) to reflect the deterioration of the relationships, the railings disintegrated between each act; and (2) for the actors to use as a support in selected moments. 

Furniture was used sparingly. We decided to use only that which the text required. Thus, Act One consisted of a settee, a table, a small stool, and a chair; Act Two used a table and two benches; and Act Three used a flag pole, and three benches. 


We approached the design of the lights in reverse, first discussing the final image of the play and working our way to the first image. We were not concerned with depicting "real" lighting of the time, day, place, but wanted again to depict the text. We decided on a final image of Allmers and Rita separated, each in their own small pool of down light. To this, we added area lights to the third act, more to the second act, and still more to the first. Hence, the lights deteriorated with each act. Lights were also used to heighten the "spell" of the Rat Wife in Act One. To accomplish this, the Rat Wife and Eyolf were placed in the center of the stage in an area of light, and the other characters - Rita, Asta, and Allmers - were placed on the fringes of the stage in similar pools of down light yet differentiated from the Rat Wife. This cue was lengthened to last the majority of the spell; full lighting was restored when the Rat Wife ended the spell. 

With each design, it was important to refer to the Munch paintings and the Action Design articles in order that the coherence of the production was kept intact. Word and image choices evolved as the design progressed, and, since rehearsals and the designs were evolving simultaneously, each inspired the other. In the next chapter, I shall discuss the evolution of rehearsal period, addressing some of the strategies used. 

Chapter 5  |  Table of ContentsHome 


     48 Frank Foster and Jeff Lindquist, "The Progressive 
Manifesto", 1991.  This was a paper written as a requirement 
of Dr. James Parker's Dramatic Theory and Criticism class. 

    49 David Loshak, Munch (New York: Mallard Press, 1990), 13. 

    50 Ibid, 15. 

     51 According to Unruh, this is due to the fact that these 
types of spaces do not, like a proscenium space, have a 
horizon.  Delbert Unruh, "Postmodern Issues In Action 
Design", Theatre Design & Technology 26, no. 2 (Summer 1990), 

    52 Delbert Unruh, "Postmodern Issues In Action Design" Theatre 
Design and Technology 26, no. 4 (Fall 1990), 28. 

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