November 22, 2013

Emmanuel Premieres Adaptation of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People”

Mullett '15 and Ferguson '14

This weekend, the Emmanuel College Performing Arts Department continues their brand new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's classic play, "An Enemy of the People," with a script written by Assistant Professor of Performing Arts Scott Gagnon and shaped by a talented cast of Emmanuel students.

Originally written in 1882 and set in a small coastal town in Norway, Ibsen's drama centers on medical officer Thomas Stockmann and his brother, Peter, the town's mayor. Hoping for a surge in tourism and prosperity, the town has invested a large amount of public and private money towards the development of medicinal baths. Despite the growing popularity of the baths, Thomas discovers that waste products from the town's tannery are contaminating the waters, causing serious illness in the tourists. The townspeople, including Peter, pressure him to suppress the story.

"I have always loved the play, but felt that while its topic was incredibly relevant and ahead of its time, its time and setting may not have been best for our audiences," Gagnon said.

After studying several other adaptations and translations, as well as research from a range of other sources, Gagnon shifted the play to the fictional town of Ridge, Oregon, in 1936.  While noting his early outline set the story in the present day, he eventually chose a time before the Internet was readily available to question and dispute the advice of scientific authorities. In 1936, much of the country was still struggling through the Great Depression, making the success of baths even more crucial for Ridge's economy.

Gagnon's other considerable change comes to some of the main characters in the typically male-dominated cast. The role of Peter Stockmann has been rewritten as Alice Stockman, the town's first female mayor, played by Lauren Mullett '15. Jackie Kempe '14 plays Kay Billing, the fiancée of senior Alex Ross's character, Mike Hofstad, editor of The Peoples' Messenger, in a role that was originally a fellow male reporter named Billing. While Gagnon mentioned the gender switch was partly for practical reasons-owing to the number of accomplished female actors in the department-he also felt the change put more at stake for the characters.

Mullett agrees that while her character's struggle to hold onto power adds depth to the script, the determination of the play's main female roles should not be underestimated.

"Along the economic and environmental issues with the baths, as my character says, the townspeople are just waiting for the first female mayor to fall flat on her face," she said. "With Jackie Kempe's character, people like to assume how she got that job at the newspaper, working with her fiancée. Really, these are women who are branching out for the first time, who've had to fight tooth and nail to get where they are."

Though Alice Stockman reveals herself as a ruthless politician in dealings with her brother, Thomas, played by Charlie Ferguson '14, Mullet admits that she liked her character, that she knows Alice is doing what she thinks is best for the whole town.

The cast rehearsed the play for just five weeks, reworking lines during rehearsal and pulling the set together over the course of a weekend.

"Dealing with a classic, there are some things you can negotiate, some things you can't," Gagnon said. "Sometimes, the actors said, 'My character would never say this,' but at some point, we had to look at the script and say, 'OK, this is what we've got.'"

Emmanuel's Performing Arts Department has found much success in recent years. In 2011 and 2012, The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival named Emmanuel's "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and Mystery Radio Theater's "The Lost World," respectively, as one of six Outstanding Overall College Theater Productions, Region One (New England/New York). Gagnon hopes to submit this script for publication after the show closes on Sunday.

"It's always nice to have that outside recognition," he said, "but we really just wanted to create something that would resonate on this campus."

Performances of "An Enemy of the People" continue in the Emmanuel College Auditorium this evening, Friday, November 22nd, at 8:00 p.m., Saturday, November 23rd, at 8:00 p.m., and Sunday, November 24th, at 2:00 p.m.

On "An Enemy of the People"

"The play could have easily been written today, when we discuss environmental crises almost daily, when governments wrestle with the suppression of civil liberties in the name of public welfare, when some people counter scientific findings they find inconvenient with their own set of 'scientific findings,' and when the legitimate needs of the business community run counter to the moral responsibly we all share."
- Scott Gagnon

Learn more about the Performing Arts Department