Henrick Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House closes with one of the theater’s most iconic moments of sound design: after awakening to how her entire life has been defined by the men in it, Nora breaks free from her captivity as daughter, wife, and mother, descending the stairs of her husband’s flat; as her husband sinks to a chair and buries his head in his hands, Ibsen gives us the direction “from below, the sound of a door slamming shut. End of play”. Often called “the door slam heard ‘round the world,” Nora’s brave exit from the roles that confine her was a rallying cry for an interrogation of gender roles in the late 19th Century. But not all we ready to be rallied.
While preparing for a production slated to premier the work in Northern Germany, beloved stage diva Frau Hedwig Niemann-Raabe bristled at the sound of the door slam. “I would never leave my children,” she insisted, pressuring Ibsen to provide a tepid alternate ending in which Nora freezes at the door to her nursery. Thanks to Niemann-Raabe’s ego, the doors on dozens of German theaters remained un-slammed, and thousands of audience members were denied the powerful, challenging ending to Ibsen’s masterpiece.
The fortunate few for whom talent, skill, business acumen, and dumb luck have perfectly converged—the George Clooneys, the Gwyneth Paltrows, and the Hedwig Niemann-Raabe—have an enormous amount of power in the projects they choose to work on. They can demand rewrites, or play the diva, or simply not take the work in the first place. For the rest of us, we will sometimes have to work on something we don’t like. Plays and films that challenge your worldview, or investigate content that doesn’t interest you, or employ aesthetics that are not to your tastes. And while this is a small price to pay to work in a craft that you love, it can be difficult when that craft demands that you create from yourself, on your body, and with your heart.
When we study theater history, we study far more than just the events enacted on the stage. We consider the culture that contains that stage: its aesthetic values, its social norms, its intellectual interests, and its ethical quandaries. We ask not just, “What story is being told?” but also, “Why would they tell that story?” We unpack the conversation that the playwright was initiating with the world. And so, we learn to listen to the play and discover the project at its core. Its reason for being.
Performance requires the humility to separate your personal tastes from the demands of the script. Collaboration involves compromise, and a large part of working in a collaborative art form is nurturing the humility to recognize that your work may be participating in someone else’s vision—the vision of someone who sees the world differently than you. At its best, theater asks us to see the world from someone else’s perspective. It asks this of its audience, and it asks it of its creators tenfold. You may not love every play ever written, but reading the ones you love and the ones you don’t can grant you the wisdom to know what Niemann-Raabe didn’t: sometimes you just have to slam the door.
Learn About Theatre History Classes at the Studio
To learn more about the theatre history classes for actors that tiles teaches at the Maggie Flanigan Studio, visit the studio website or call the studio directly at (917) 789-1599.
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