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A Pledge Honored

By Adrienne Sweeney

“An Enemy of the People” with Chris Oden

With the clock winding down on our production of When We Dead Awaken, a bit of bittersweet nostalgia can be forgiven, especially when I think about all that Henrik Ibsen has offered me professionally and personally. In some respects, I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for the dour one. In the summer of 2002, my seasonal contract with the Commonweal was coming to an end, as was my first marriage. Truth be told, I had no idea what I was going to do next or where I was going to do it. Eric Bunge, Commonweal’s founder, had the notion that the nascent Ibsen Festival could be expanded into something bigger and more audacious if someone took on planning and marketing the event full-time. Over coffee on the porch of the Cottage House Inn he offered me a six month position to work on the Ibsen Festival.

Fast forward 15 years…

The Commonweal has performed the works of Ibsen more than 500 times.  We have produced 14 of his plays, toured throughout the Midwest, and seen attendance of more than 40,000. But my relationship with Ibsen is about so much more than the numbers.

“Hedda Gabler” with Jerome Yorke

Fierce protector Catherine Stockman in An Enemy of the People was the first role I ever played here at the Commonweal—as well as the first Ibsen production I was ever cast in as an actress. Next came Hilde in The Master Builder, Hedda Gabler, Ella Rentheim in John Gabriel Borkman, and now Irene in When We Dead Awaken. These women…wow! I have learned so much about myself both as an artist and as a person from these incredible women. Hilde baffled and vexed me in ways that no other character ever has. Hedda scared the hell out of me. (She still does.) I found strength and footing in Ella and now with Irene, I feel it all melding together. What an amazing gift to have had the opportunity to play all of these women —characters as complex and fascinating as any woman I have ever known.

And then there are the “real people” he introduced me to — International Ibsen scholars like Joan Templeton, Erroll Durbach, Toril Moi, Amal & Nissar Allana, Astrid Saether, Oyvind Gullikson and Kari Grønningsæter to name but a few.  Ibsen granted me the opportunity to travel to Norway, tour his residences, view multiple productions of his work and see how cultures around the globe are still influenced by his genius. I’ve met fans from across the country who visit Lanesboro every year to see our productions.  And of course, I am so grateful for the artists I have had the honor of collaborating with here at the Commonweal—Hal Cropp, with his incredible vision and commitment to the work, directors like Risa Brainin and Craig Johnson, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, all my fellow actors and designers…all artists who viewed Ibsen’s work as a thrilling challenge.

“Can I get a cast of 26 down to 7 with no children – sure thing.”

“ An avalanche on stage? No problem!”

“ OK so, I’m a human woman AND a bird – got it!”

“The Master Builder” with Hal Cropp

Ibsen required us all to take the leap. What a leap it has been.  The company has learned so much, as have I. It’s been a true honor and when we take our final bow on June 17, I will be sad for sure. But my pledge to Ibsen is this: I will take all that I have learned from my time with the Father of Modern Drama and I will use it to make my art better.

Until the next time Henrik, tusen takk.

An Introduction to Joseph Merrick

You may only know Joseph (John) Merrick because of the physical deformities that earned him the label of “The Elephant Man.” He was, as is anyone tagged with a label of any kind, much more than that label. We at the Commonweal are thrilled to mount the later life story of Joseph Merrick and introduce you to the remarkable man that he was. 

  • By all accounts, was completely healthy and normal at birth. The deformities began to develop at age 5.
  • Despite his appearance, he attended his local school.

                  Frederick Treves

  • He spent most of his time conversing with his doctor and friend, Frederick Treves or writing poetry and prose.
  • He built a cardboard model of St. Philip’s Church.
  • Baffled by doctors and scientists when he was alive, it is now considered that Merrick suffered a rare case of neurofibromatosis or a disease known as Proteus Syndrome.
  • His parents attributed his disorder to his mother having been kicked and knocked to the ground by an elephant while at a fairground.
  • His head circumference was measured at 36 inches, his right hand at 12 inches and one of his fingers at 5 inches.
  • His life was saved by a business card that he kept in his possession for two years.
  • A replica of his skeleton is on display at Royal London Hospital. The actual skeleton is in the medical college of the hospital but not on permanent display.
  • He had three siblings who died remarkably young. Brother William Arthur died of scarlet fever at age four. His sister, Marion Eliza, passed at age 24 from Myelitis related seizures.
  • At age 13, Joseph was a door-to-door salesman selling items out of his father’s barbershop. He wore a burlap sack to cover his deformities.

Princess Alexandra of Denmark

  • In his four years of living at the London Hospital, he was visited and befriended by the highest levels of British Society right up to Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra who held the title of Princess of Wales from 1863-1901, the longest anyone has ever held the title.
  • He was highly intelligent and wrote many letters, mostly of thanks for much patronage while he lived in the London Hospital. Those letters were always signed off with the following poem:

‘Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God;
Could I create myself anew
I would not fail in pleasing you.

If I could reach from pole to pole
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measured by the soul;
The mind’s the standard of the man.

  • He died on April 11, 1890, at the age of 27.

The Elephant Man begins previews Friday, May 19 and the gala opening performance is Saturday, May 27. 


Two Decades, One Playwright

Henrik Ibsen Festival IbsenfestTwenty years ago, a pledge was made. A pledge to a playwright and his works. A pledge to an audience base. A pledge to a company of artists that, for the foreseeable future, the works of that one playwright would be produced on an annual basis. Countless other things have come and gone but that pledge remained strong.

This season at the Commonweal, we celebrate both the pledge and the fact that the pledge is now considered fulfilled. It has been an honor for this company to stage the plays, both original and adaptations, of Henrik Ibsen for past 20 years. As we say adieu to that commitment, members of the Commonweal ensemble have been asked a question: “what is your strongest memory or fun fact about the company’s connection to Ibsen? I hope you’ll find these to be a good read and if they inspire any of your own memories…please share!

Stela Burdt: I met my husband (Scott Dixon) during rehearsals of Enemy of the People in January 2001.  Rehearsals were at Luther College, as we had students in the production. We got to know each other over the drives back and forth between Lanesboro and Decorah.

Scott Dixon: One of my favorite Ibsen experiences was directing Enemy of the People in 2011, ten years after appearing in it in 2001—my Commonweal debut.

Eric Lee in “When We Dead Awaken”

Eric Lee: When We Dead Awaken is the very first Ibsen production I’ve been involved in. It is an honor to be a part of the final Ibsen Festival, as a part of a 20-year tradition.

Philip Muehe: I saw Adrienne perform the title role in Hedda Gabler when I was in high school, and in college, I wrote my Theatre History II capstone paper about groundbreaking female protagonists…Hedda won.

Abbie Cathcart: I got to try lefse, Gjetost cheese (omg so good), Aquavit, and pickled herring (no me gusta) for the first time at last year’s festival!

Ben Gorman: The Wild Duck (2005), which also toured. I played the usually drunk, wry Dr. Relling, taking over the role a month into the production from Patrick Bailey; also played Werle’s house servant Pettersen. We toured upstate, including Fergus Falls MN, and a few of us did a day trip over to Fargo ND—in my case, just so I could say I’d been there.

Adrienne Sweeney w/ Chris Oden in “Enemy of the People”

Adrienne Sweeney: An Ibsen was my very first show here at the Commonweal—An Enemy of the People, 2001. It was also the first Ibsen play I had ever done.  AND…my first of TWENTY THREE shows with Scott Dixon! (WHA???)

Hal Cropp: Of the Ibsen productions in our 20-year history, I have performed in nine, directed seven, adapted one (The Wild Duck) and am the only member of the company who has been here for all twenty.

David Hennessey: Former resident company member Irene Erkenbrack Green and I have a record we suspect few actors can match. We have appeared together in separate productions of the rarely performed Peer Gynt: once at Luther College, 2003; once here, 2008.

Brandt Roberts: The Master Builder was my first exposure to Ibsen in college and my first Ibsen production at the Commonweal. Japanese shadow puppets have been an interest of mine and I got to play with shadow puppets in The Master Builder.

Bailey Otto: I have stage managed one-quarter of the productions during this commitment.

Megan Pence: My first stage kiss (A Doll’s House). My first stage death (Brand). My first (but possibly not my last) time appearing in only undergarments on stage (The League of Youth).

Jeremy van Meter: The first Commonweal play that my wife Catherine Glynn and I appeared in together as ensemble members was Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Pillars of Society. We played brother and sister—true willing suspension of disbelief!

Share your own memories and be sure to join us this weekend,
April 21-23, as When We Dead Awaken premieres during the 20th Annual Ibsen Festival to open Season 29 at the Commonweal!


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