Dangerous Choices: An Interview with "A Doll’s House" Director René Augesen

Monday, February 4, 2013

Posted by Selena Chau, A.C.T. Web Development Fellow

René Augesen directs A Doll's House, February 12–16, 2013, at A.C.T.'s Hastings Studio Theater. Buy tickets now.
Beloved Bay Area actor René Augesen has been an A.C.T. core company member since 2001, and has appeared most recently in Endgame and PlayOnce in a LifetimeThe Homecoming, and Clybourne Park. In addition to performing in countless local productions, she is a teaching artist and peer to the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) Program students in the classroom and on the A.C.T. stage.

This season, she takes on an additional role as director of a new M.F.A. Program production of Henrik Ibsen's classic drama A Doll's House, which features actors from the class of 2013 and plays February 12–16, 2013, at A.C.T.'s Hastings Studio Theater. In this popular and often controversial play, conversations and interactions between Nora Helmer and her husband Tolvald present a complex dynamic of role-playing in marriage.

Although Augesen carries a Norwegian name, she grew up in west Texas. Still, she connects with Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen: "When I read him or perform him I feel the heartbeat of it, I feel the viscera of it, and I get it." She performed the role of Nora in A.C.T.'s production of A Doll's House during the 2003–04 season, but as a director working with her own cast of actors in this 2013 M.F.A. Program production, her goal is to push them as actors without being imposing. "I'm being very careful because I want this to be theirs," she said.

Augesen is also preparing to take on major roles in upcoming A.C.T. productions of the world premiere comedy Dead Metaphor and Tom Stoppard's masterwork Arcadia. She took a quick break from her busy schedule to discuss her approach to A Doll's House—and her facilitative role as the actors develop the characters' inner lives.
Faculty and core acting company member René Augesen works with the class of '13 in acting class. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Tell us how you came to direct this production of A Doll's House.
In the fall of 2011, I did a class on Ibsen with these students. For four or five weeks, we worked on A Doll's House and Hedda Gabler. Then this past summer, [A.C.T. Conservatory Director] Melissa Smith and I were performing in Blithe Spirit together at California Shakespeare Theater. I remember I was sitting over to the side of rehearsal one day and I said to Melissa, "Oh, I wish I could direct." So we started talking about it, and Melissa suggested that I direct A Doll's House as a great continuation of the work from that Ibsen class.

What is your approach to the play and the famous relationship between husband and wife?
We're not ever going to get away from the fact that people call it a feminist play. But Ibsen was very vocal that it wasn't a feminist play. To him, it was a story of a marriage—two human beings. This is what I prefer to have in the forefront of my mind.

Though it is shocking to us now to hear the condescending way Helmer talks to his wife, at the time, it wasn't. It was absolutely normal, and no one would have batted an eye. Thematically, it applies still—you have two people being complicit in the mask of a happy marriage and playing their roles perfectly.  I suppose from the outside it's supposed to make people really, really envious but there are just . . . secrets.
René Augesen and Stephen Caffrey as Nora and Torvald in A.C.T.'s 2004 production of A Doll's House

Can you share some of your directing experiences from the rehearsal room?
Every actor brings different perspectives to the rehearsals as we explore new situations in the play. I tell them it's okay to be frustrated. It's a hard play, and we figure things out as the experience becomes clear.

I like for impulses to come from the actor. I'm there to facilitate their process and find a way to figure out what we don't understand . . . and to push them to make the more dangerous choice rather than playing it safe.

The students pontificate about the possibility of other secrets in the play. Maybe Krogstad, a lawyer who works with Helmer, is holding onto a secret about him? What other information might the characters be hiding, what dialogue is left unsaid, and how does that affect the relationships between the characters? This kind of exercise is always great for actors because it stimulates them. It may not be apparent to the audience, but to the actors it makes the characters' lives richer.

How did you handle the casting of the play?
Melissa helped with casting. This class is so small, with only two women, and because Rebekah [Brockman] is playing Jenny in Dead Metaphor, it was obvious that Allegra [Rose Edwards] was going to play Nora, which I'm really over the moon about. She's going to be absolutely amazing. The men had to come in and audition for me, and Allegra came in and read a scene from the play with them. I've never been in that position before, where I've been picking.

What is your ultimate goal as you approach opening night?
I wake up every morning thinking, "What am I not doing that I should be doing?" And in truth, I don't know. Mostly, I want the rehearsals to be beneficial for them.  I am interested in making whatever we find to be the more interesting choice—the most dangerous choice. And hopefully to have the audience come away with more than the "feminist agenda" that's been put so heavily on this play. It's a play about human experience—not just a woman's.
 
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