Shakespeare, Chekov, Ibsen. What makes certain artists able to make work which perpetually provokes and touches their audience—generation after generation, at any age, in any place?
“Because it has a universal truthfulness and humanity that transcends time and space,” says Kristin Marting, artistic director at HERE Arts Center in Manhattan and director of Jennifer Gibbs’ Sounding, a multimedia rock performance created through a process initially inspired by Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea.
This is the core of the conversation Gibbs, Marting, and I are having atop bulging burritos at a small downtown eatery. In fact, Ibsen and the burrito have a lot in common. People all over the world love them, and ever since the knowledge of their existence, new generations have found pleasure in digging into their material. They are both universally popular, and we are sitting across the table eating one and talking about the other. And, no, we’re not eating Ibsen (although he is scrumptious…).
By opening night at HERE Arts Center on February 17th, it will have been 13 years since Jennifer Gibbs started her relationship with The Lady from the Sea, when she brought friends and fellow artists into her living room to read and hear the piece and investigate the inner workings of Ibsen’s play.
“I was always drawn to Ibsen and The Lady from the Sea”, explains Gibbs. “I felt like there was something underneath. It was a flawed play—it should not work, but yet it does—why was I so mesmerized by it? It’s a funny yet suspenseful play—with something highly supernatural underneath the naturalistic world. I felt that something of Ibsen’s own struggle was coming through in this play—a blind constructive drive to break out of his own consciousness and limitations—and that he is allowing us to experience his struggle through this play.”
Those intimate living room presentations launched her on a long voyage, engaging with Ibsen’s play through her screenplay adaptation, The Stranger (written with Jennifer Turner Hall), and ultimately to this year’s Sounding, a rock concert/ensemble performance that she has developed with Kristin Marting during a two-year residency at HERE Arts Center.
Gibbs’s screenplay The Stranger takes its title from one of the characters in the play—a character Gibbs describes as a “Dionysus character”. “Those who deny him go mad,” says Gibbs. “The screenplay’s lead character Leda (inspired by Ibsen’s original character Ellida) is connected to the Stranger through a long-buried murder. In Sounding, Leda’s story is different: she becomes the conduit for the Stranger’s force and everyone gets effected by his energy through her.” This relationship, and the impact of the Stranger is something Gibbs and Marting have focused on exploring in Sounding.
Marting became involved in the project after she attended a reading of Gibbs’s screenplay in 2007. After the reading, she approached Gibbs and asked her if she’d be interested in transforming the screenplay into a multimedia stage performance. Since then, Gibbs and Marting have pushed the textual, visual and musical form—creating what they call “a live indie film play with an original art-rock songscape influenced by Patti Smith, Bartok, and Portishead”.
“Every word in Sounding is written by Jennifer,” says Marting, “and the experience will be very different from a traditional performance of The Lady From The Sea —and at the same time, it is grounded in a realistically based world that is very much moment-to-moment actor based. What interests us is the contrast between that naturalistic world and the mystical world Leda is reaching for—and her struggle that lies in this contrast.”
“Our lead actress Okwui Okpokwasili has become a major contributor in the development of Sounding since we cast her a year and a half ago,” Marting continues. “The development of the piece has been strongly inspired by what she brings to the character with her powerful voice and captivating stage presence.”
Gibbs says she “sees text as music” and explains how the involvement of the composer Kamala Sankaram and Okwui Okpokwasili has become pivotal in the development of the rock concert element of the show.
Being that every word is newly written by Gibbs, and there is not a word of Ibsen left, how is Ibsen still present? Or, is he?
“I don’t consider it an adaptation,” says Gibbs. “It’s a new play, with a special relationship to Ibsen’s world. Leda’s struggle is like the one at the core of Ibsen’s text and, as I mentioned earlier, it is what I think Ibsen himself was struggling with at the time—the desire to break out of his own consciousness.” “A desire he continued to explore in his later plays,” adds Marting, “as in Brand and When We Dead Awaken, to mention two examples.”
“It is true that I have written every word in Sounding,” Gibbs continues, “but the techniques of beat structure, conflict and contrast of realistic and metaphysical worlds are present in Ibsen’s play. He has an almost hypnotic beat structure where he creates suspense by carefully dripping information as the story unfolds. Sounding is very much subject to his beat structure.”
“This is one of the great discoveries with this piece,” Marting comments. “It’s important to not be seduced into over-explaining, but to trust the structure of suspense and that the uncovering of information guides the story and the audience.” This is not the first time Marting has delved into Ibsen’s material, with two other works inspired by his plays: Dead Tech (derived from the Master Builder) and When We Dead Awaken. “One of the reasons why I have chosen to direct Ibsen productions is because I enjoy distilling his text and creating a heightened experience,” she continues. “I think Ibsen lends himself to radical exploration.”
But beyond the hypnotic beat structure, there is that something deeply embedded in the original story which inspired Jennifer to venture onto this long journey in the first place—something that also intrigued Marting and swayed her to pull on her directing boots for Ibsen once again.
“Ibsen knew something somehow about a woman’s grief,” Gibbs begins to explain. “He knew something about our relationship to sexuality and loss and the connection between a woman’s intuitive creativity, her pro-creative power, and her sexuality.”
Ibsen’s Ellida in The Lady From The Sea as well as Gibbs’s Leda in Sounding are mourning infants who died inexplicably at about five months old and they both have an intense longing for the ocean and its mystical energy.
“Ibsen’s depiction of Ellida’s grief makes it clear that he understood something deep about loss,” Gibbs continues. “Nobody will talk about it, but it is true that often, women who lose a child at birth or in infancy can get a sexual urge; ‘I want to sleep with everybody!’ There is an unspoken instinct that takes over—the thought that maybe this baby was not supposed to be born—maybe I am not with the right man. Many marriages cannot continue after losing a child for these and other grief-related reasons.”
Ibsen is well-known as a forerunner for delving into the interiors of women—stirring up issues we still shy away from talking about publicly today. How is it that this averagely handsome Norwegian could have such intimate knowledge of the inner workings of women over a century ago?
“I’ve read some of his letters to his lovers,” says Gibbs, “and there was a fearless honesty and relentless curiosity. And very detailed! He went into surprising physical detail in one letter; uterine prolapse, the vagina, sexual dysfunction, etc.”
His specificity about physical details may make the letter shocking, but what it also tells me is that he really wanted to acquire detailed knowledge about his lovers, he wanted to learn and to understand. His letters reveal a strong curiosity and fearless honesty, and maybe this, in part, is how he gained his in depth knowledge about the female sex—thus equipping him to create some of the best roles ever written for women. I consider myself well informed, but even so, Ibsen’s characters are so vivid and intricate that I continuously expand my view on my own sex every time I read one of his plays.
How could Ibsen know the grief of a woman losing a child so intimately? How could he give voice to the experience better than could a woman going through it herself? The mystery of genius, we might reply. But what if genius is more accessible than that? What if some of the driving qualities of genius are actually curiosity and persistent honesty? Since, as Marting explains earlier, works that last exhibit a “universal truthfulness and humanity,” it would make sense that an artist’s fierce honesty is the path to achieving such a sense of universality.
These findings are encouraging, because, though Ibsen is long gone, his own journey, and the work he has left behind, illuminates a path for present artists. It suggests that maybe, if we dare to be completely open, honest, and persistently curious about the deepest truth in ourselves and everyone and everything around us, we all have a shot of creating universal work. So maybe the question we should ask ourselves is: Do we have the courage to approach our lives with that level of unwavering honesty?
No matter how universally liked the burrito is, a good one can be hard to come by. Today’s burrito was a disappointment, but our conversation was an encouragement. If the unafraid openness and continuous inquiry exhibited by the Gibbs/Marting team is any indication, chances are they are the kind of brave souls who will create some brilliant theater well worth seeing.