Directing Ibsen's Little Eyolf

Having analyzed and designed the world of Little Eyolf, the final step was to cast and develop the characters of this world. In this chapter, I will discuss the casting, the exploration, the development, including various effects and affects in particular scenes, and the rehearsal of the production. 

In my thesis proposal, I requested the permission to cast outside of the department for three reasons. First, there would be a shortage of actors because of two very large cast shows being presented the same semester. Second, I wanted to cast actors who looked close to the ages of the characters. Last, I believed the material and depth of the characters required more experienced actors. However, I did not restrict my casting to non-department actors. I wanted the best actor available for each role.

The characters in Little Eyolf are as follows: 

Rita Allmers: middle to late twenties; "consumingly beautiful"; Junoesque; changes mood, energy instantaneously; commanding; 
Asta Allmers: early twenties; plain looking, compared to Rita; should not resemble Alfred; shorter than Rita; 
Alfred Allmers: middle thirties; approximately the same height as Rita; solid build; handsome; demanding; 
Borgheim: early to middle twenties; energetic; solid build; good smile; 
Eyolf Allmers: nine to twelve years; slight build; small; 
Rat Wife: any age; small; agile.

Three auditions were held - two for non-department actors and one for department actors. My attempt to cast outside of the department was enlightening, in that I have had the pleasure of seeing people audition that I would like to work with, both now and in future, and frustrating, in that the actors I would like to use most have obligations that require they search for paying jobs. The most difficult role to cast was Alfred Allmers due to the fact that there were very few tall solidly built actors to audition. After three weeks of casting and callbacks, the cast, which employed department and non-department actors, was announced. It was as follows: 

Allmers  ............ Steve J. Earle
Rita ............ Franci Stephens
Asta  ............ Jill Berri Steinberg
Borgheim ............ David Daniel
Eyolf  ............ Donnie Lee
Rat Wife ............ Mary Sue Carroll

One change was made on the first day of rehearsals; Kirsten Hirsch replaced Jill Berri Steinberg in the role of Asta. 

The rehearsal period was nine weeks. I wanted this length for several reasons. First, due to the complexity of the plot, I wanted ample time to analyze the text with the actors. Second, I wanted to allow all involved ample time to "play" with the drama. The rehearsal schedule was Sunday through Thursday nights, from seven to ten. Due to conflicts, the scenes were rehearsed in a non-sequential order. 


The first week consisted of discussions about Ibsen, the production design, and, primarily, the text, including the exposition and character relationships. The latter was important due to the drama's late point of attack. The rehearsals consisted of the actors discussing the text while I directed questions about plot and character. I introduced Backwards and Forwards at this time as a means of analyzing the text. I invited the actors to use sensory motivation as a form of motivation analysis. Instead of only asking "Why, intellectually, do the characters react?," the actors could ask "Why, sensorially, do the characters react?," i.e., is it because of something the character sees, tastes, touches, hears, or smells. This was a means of avoiding cerebral acting; the audience could be made aware of these motivations. Our catch phrase was "Assume Nothing". This reminded the actors that they were performing with an audience, not exclusively for themselves. We began exploring the space on the last day of this week. 

In the second and third weeks, the actors and I played with the development of the acting space. We also played with the text. It was important to me that the actors invest themselves not only in the creation and portrayal of the characters but also in the design of the production as well. I wanted to continue to develop the collaboration between myself, the actors, and the design team that began during the first design discussions. I invited the actors to play with the development of their characters and their movements, assuring them that it was never too late to play with an idea. I also invited the actors to have their individual characters play with one another. Since a large part of the drama consisted of manipulation, especially between Allmers and Asta, I invited the actors to play a game with the emotions, the winner being the one who could be most convincing. This game had to be played on two levels - to convince the other actor as well as the character. I continued to direct questions concerning actor and character motive and accomplishments. This strategy required the actors to search for the answers, an action similar to that of the characters. 


By the fourth week, the actors had a very good grasp on the text, though the exploration continued up to the end of the production. For the remainder of the process, I concentrated on bringing the intellectual knowledge of each actor into the physical realm of the actor, i.e., displaying the action of the thought of each character. I worked on having the actors listen to what the other actors were saying. A strategy to accomplish this was to have the actor repeat, sentence by sentence, the words of the other actor. In this way, the actor was forced to think about what the other said. An addition to this strategy was to have the actor repeat each sentence using the same vocal inflections. In this way, the receiving actor was forced to think about what the other said while the giving actor was able to hear whether or not the thought was "reading." We continued to develop the blocking. 

I also concentrated on developing effects that would result in desired audience affects. An effect is a creation, made by a part or parts of the production, that result in a psycho-physical response with the audience. This response is the affect. Since this audience manipulation was constant throughout the production, I have chosen particular effects/affects for documentation purposes. 

In scene one, the effect created was two motionless actors (Rita and Asta) at either end of the stage, beginning just after "Rita: Oh, it's you." and continuing through "Asta: As a matter of fact, I didn't." The desired affect was a tension that would minimize breathing, followed by a release, an exhalation, when the actors moved. This showed the tension between the two characters. In scene four, one effect was the Rat Wife moving her walking stick along the sofa and stool, audibly inhaling through her nose, as she looked for a place to sit, culminating with her saying "A thousand thanks" after "sniffing" Eyolf's seat. The affect was curiosity, mysticism, and a slight smile. This showed the mystery and magic of the Rat Wife, hinted at her reason for entering, and foreshadowed Eyolf's departure. A second effect was the "spell." The Rat Wife was seated on Eyolf's stool, talking slowly and softly to a wide-eyed Eyolf seated at her feet, while Asta, Rita, and Allmers stood in three different corners, slowly becoming motionless. This was enhanced by a slow cross fade, placing Rita, Allmers, and Asta in their own down light, placing the Rat Wife and Eyolf in a different light, and dimming the rest of the stage. The affect was a pulling in of the audience into the center of this spell, mysticism, curiosity, and paralysis. At the top of scene ten, the effect was Alfred seated nonchalantly, hearing Asta approach, assuming a pose that suggested that he was lost in his thoughts, and Asta entering unknowing. The affect was detestation of Allmers, sympathy and confusion toward Asta. It attempted to put the audience on the alert, creating a desire to reveal the truth about Allmers to Asta. The idea was to strengthen Allmers' selfishness. In scene thirteen, the effect was Allmers and Rita laughing at their realization that they are fighting over "a little stranger boy", having been through two previous rounds of fighting. The affect was disgust, a release of tension, and questioning. The collective affect of the repetition of tension and relaxation, each transformation coming quicker than the previous, culminated in scene seventeen. The effect was placing a struggling Asta between Rita and Allmers as they pulled her arms in opposite directions while Borgheim stood apart, jingling his keys. When Allmers said the word "Brother," Asta broke loose screaming "No" and ran to a lower level. Borgheim at this moment stopped the jingling and, like Rita and Allmers, remained in the same area. Borgheim looked away to answer Asta's question about the steamer's departure; Rita and Allmers looked at her. Asta is unable to carry her heavy bag. She asks "Are you coming with me?" Allmers made a move to Asta, then realized she was talking to Borgheim. All three characters looked at Borgheim. Borgheim turned around, realized that Asta was referring to him and not Allmers, and jubilantly says "Yes" and runs to Asta. The affect was tension, pathos (Asta struggling), followed by a slight release (Asta's escape), followed by tension (Asta unable to leave), followed by more tension (Allmers' movement toward Asta and Borgheim's distance), followed by a strong release and laughter (Borgheim's jubilation). 

Though each effect and affect was significant, none were more intriguing to me than the final effect and affect. This moment was one feature that compelled me to direct this drama. Beginning with the moment Alfred raises the flag, the effect was Allmers looking at a watching Rita, sitting in a chair in a corner on the lowest level, who subsequently turns her face away. Allmers slowly walked to the upper level and moved hesitantly from post to post, looking for something. Allmers looks at the mountains, moved to the railing farthest from Rita with his back toward her, and said, "Upwards." Rita looked at Allmers, smiled, turned back around, and said, "Yes. Upwards.", looking straight ahead. Allmers said the rest of his lines, paused, and dropped his head. After six seconds of silence, Rita said her last line. In conjunction with this, the lights slowly faded to black with only two white down lights, one on each character. The affect was curiosity, the movement of the audiences' eyes back and forth, aloneness, pity, tension, and hope. 

The fifth through seventh weeks continued much like the fourth week. I worked on the honest portrayal of each moment with the actors, reminding them to think of what they wanted to do to the other character instead of what they themselves had to do. This required each actor to know their lines well enough to forget them.53 I also worked on the viciousness of Rita and Allmers. I was fortunate to work with the two extremely genial actors portraying these roles; however, the effects of their geniality emerged often during their portrayals. A strategy to relinquish these effects was to have each actor avoid elongating any syllable. This was a way of avoiding the elongated lilt in the voice of one who is diffident about commanding. In the middle of the seventh week, we were able to rehearse on the stage platforms. 


The eighth and ninth week of rehearsal added the solidifying of the blocking and full run-throughs to the agenda. I deleted movement in certain sections, having the actor remain in one place instead of walking. This was done for two reasons: (1) the movement was distracting from the text; and, (2) I wanted to have the actor concentrate only on the text at that moment. We continued to work the honesty of the moments, being careful not to anticipate, and to addressing moments when the thought and the voice were not connecting. 

Technical rehearsals began two days prior to the opening and ran smoothly. Due to the complexity of the design, I focused much of my attention on tightening the technical aspects of the production. The play was reviewed on the first technical rehearsal and was received favorably. 

Little Eyolf opened on 19 March 1992 in Shafer Street Playhouse and ran for four consecutive performances. I continued to take notes for the first two performances and passed them to the actors and technicians after the performance. The audience reaction to the production was quite positive. Several attendees were surprised at the modernity of the play; others were happily surprised at the excitement and energy in the work of the Norwegian playwright they once viewed as "stuffy, old, and boring." 

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      53 I thank Dr. Campbell for this expression. 

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