Pictured: Hillary Clemens in rehearsal for “A Doll’s House.”
Our “Inside” series takes you behind the scenes of productions through blog posts written by the artists in the trenches. To read past “Inside” pieces, clickhere.
By Jack Kneessy
The cast of KCAT’s production of “A Doll’s House” is, like many of their shows, a treasure trove of theatre experience. As the production prepares to move out of their rehearsal space at the Living Room and into the actual set at the City Stage, a portion of the cast; Hillary Clemens (Nora), Todd Lanker (Torvald), and Carla Noack (Anne Marie) reflect on the production, the play’s author, and the communal process of creating theatre.
What was your first experience with “A Doll’s House” or some of Ibsen’s other work?
Carla: Prior to moving to Kansas City, I was a core artist of the Commonweal Theatre Company in Lanesboro, Minnesota, where we held an Ibsen Festival for many years every winter. We started with a desire to honor the Norwegian heritage of the community, with “Ghosts,” and we learned quickly how Ibsen’s plays spoke to all of us and provoked fascinating conversations—at a time of year when it was too cold to do anything but huddle around a fire and talk! Ibsen gave us big ideas to chew on–marriage, gender roles, forgiveness, work, love, jealousy, greed. The company did an Ibsen play every year for 20 years—“A Doll’s House” twice—imagine! The Ibsen Festival grew every year, attracting quite a following. So many fun things became part of it—cookie bakes and lutefisk dinners and costume parades and jewelry exhibitions and luncheons and lectures and all things Norwegian. I even got to work with community members to create a super fun play about Ole and Lena, complete with dinner of Norwegian meatballs and lefse! (It is much easier to watch Nora eat her sweets, of course, when your stomach is already full of lefse.)
Hillary: I read the play for the first time early in high school, and then studied it in college. I didn’t see a production of it until my early 20’s. Not long after that, I also saw a modern-day adaptation by Rebecca Gilman called “DOLLHOUSE,” at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Instead of practicing the tarantella for a masquerade ball, Gilman’s Nora does a desperate version of the “She’s a Maniac” dance from Flashdance, for a 1980’s theme party!
Todd: I first encountered “A Doll’s House” in high school, as part of one of my English courses. Honestly, I don’t really remember much about that first encounter other than the tarantella, some letters, and a vague idea of what the story was about. Since then, I’ve been able to see several different productions, each with very different takes on the storytelling. What I think is great about working on material like this is that, as it’s been around for a while, no one feels the need to be precious with it. Each production is able to bring a really unique perspective.
For someone who might be unfamiliar with the process of making theatre, what is table work all about? As an actor, how is it helpful for you personally?
Carla: Table work is detective work. It is a deep investigation of the text, learning the facts that form the basis of building a character. It’s learning what others say about you, what you believe, what’s happened to you, where you are (exactly), what time is it (exactly), what the rhythms of the world are, how the vocabulary and language work to create an overall style. I love table work because it almost always involves snacks and sitting down with a group of imaginative people with lots of books and samples of art and snippets of poetry and everything that evokes the world of the play. It’s also a low-pressure time to get to know your character before you get up and start making some decisions. Good table work can help you trust your instincts early in the process, on your feet. Good table work can make an actor salivate to act!
Hillary: Table work is exactly what it sounds like! The cast, director, stage management, and often a dramaturg and/or other members of the team sit around a table in the rehearsal room and work through the script, reading it aloud and talking through any questions or issues that arise. I absolutely LOVE table work, because it gives you a chance to really dig right into the play with everyone, without added variables like blocking or trying to remember your lines. You can focus on what’s there on the page and address everything from pronunciations to relationships to historical context to tactics, plus you have the opportunity to just hear the play out loud, get to know your teammates, and get the words more comfortable in your mouth before you get up on your feet.
What are you most looking forward to with getting to work on with your character?
Carla: I look forward to learning more about the relationship between Anne Marie and Nora. Imagine—raising a child after having given up a child, and then having the daughter you raised become your “boss” while you raise her children! What a fascinating character is Anne Marie. I wonder: what does Anne Marie think of Torvald? How can I protect Nora from Krogstad? Have I ever had a Doctor Rank in my life? What do I ache for? Of course, “A Doll’s House, Part 2” gives me an imagined future, which is really fun to work backwards from. I am so happy to be partnered with Kathleen Warfel in this way—both of us playing Anne Marie, at different stages. We’ve already had some great discussions about the world of Anne Marie. I also love what costumer Sarah Oliver has taught me about Anne Marie: that she wears the pants!
Hillary: Well, there’s no denying that Nora is one of The Big Roles. It’s a lot, both literally (I’m onstage for nearly the entire play and have a mountain of lines to memorize) and, you know, existentially. People have a lot of opinions about this play, and about Nora and the choices she makes. She is thrillingly complicated and human, and playing her is an enormous challenge and an absolute dream. And I think it’s pretty remarkable how urgent and necessary it feels to tell this story in 2019, 140 years after it was written.
Todd: I think it would be really easy to vilify Torvald, and to play him as just sort of this one-dimensional antagonist to Nora’s growth. I don’t really see him that way though. He, like all of us, has things that he does well, things that he is passionate about, and things about which he is mistaken or misguided. Finding the human side and developing empathy for a paradigm different than my own and trying to share that paradigm clearly with our audience is really what is important in theater.
What would you like a 2019 audience to take away from seeing this play?
Todd: I want the audience to see themselves in every single one of these characters. We tend to want to connect with what we think is the “correct side” and distance ourselves from the “wrong” characters, but I think personal change and societal development come from noticing in ourselves both the heroic and the villainous, the enlightened and the repressed. We all can use a little broader mind about our own place in the world and how we think and feel and challenge and accept others.
Carla: We’ve come a long way, baby!
“A Doll’s House,” runs August 7 – 25 at the City Stage Theatre in Union Station. In addition to Hillary, Todd, and Carla, the cast also includes Christina Schafer, Brian Paulette, Tyler Alan Rowe, Aria Rose Smith, and Drew Squire. For more information visit kcactors.org.