Curtain closes on 20 years of Ibsen

Ibsen’s final play, When We Dead Awaken, brings a close to Lanesboro’s annual festival

Photo: Ana Hagedorn
Commonweal company member Thomas White poses with Ibsen.

Molly Jones
The Norwegian American

For the last two decades, the Commonweal Theatre Company has been bringing Henrik Ibsen’s works to life in Lanesboro, Minn., supplementing their annual Ibsen production with a weekend-long festival to celebrate the Norwegian playwright and the culture of Scandinavia. After much deliberation, Commonweal has decided that the 20th Annual Ibsen Festival will mark the final installment of the event.

The 2017 Ibsen Festival will offer a variety of events, presentations, and performances in Lanesboro throughout the weekend of April 21-23, with a special focus on the adaptation of Ibsen’s When We Dead Awaken, directed by Craig Johnson and adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher.

To learn more about the history of the festival and the decision to conclude it, I spoke with Commonweal’s Marketing & Communications Director, Jeremy van Meter.

Molly Jones: Why did the Commonweal Theatre decide to conclude the annual Ibsen Festival this year?

Jeremy van Meter: This was not an easy decision to make due to the fact that for the past 19 years, we have been thrilled to stake the claim as being the only theatre company in North America to annually produce the work of Henrik Ibsen and kick off that work with a weekend-long festival. In all honesty, the festival is the conclusion of several months of planning and organizing, and the company is beginning to see some toil because of that additional workload. But more importantly, the festival and the commitment to Mr. Ibsen have made their accomplishments and done exactly what the founders intended.

Photo: Ana Hagedorn
The Norwegian flag waves in front of the Commonweal Theatre.

MJ: Can you tell me a bit about the history of the Ibsen Festival? What has been the objective of the festival over the years?

JVM: The festival originated from a gathering called Norse VinterFest. This was a winter event sponsored in part by Lanesboro’s Sons of Norway lodge. As a tourist destination, Lanesboro sees the majority of that traffic in the warmer months; the VinterFest was a way to extend tourism into the winter months. When the core members of the Commonweal decided to pursue an annual commitment to Ibsen, the founders of the Norse VinterFest approached the company with the idea of merging the festival into an annual gathering to open the theatre season in tandem with the theatrical opening. The idea sparked fire and over the past 19 years, we have welcomed thousands of Norwegian enthusiasts through the doors of the Commonweal. A February blizzard in 2007 moved the festival from the winter months to the somewhat warmer climate of mid-April.

As the festival grew, the primary intention was to invite the best and brightest Ibsen scholars and thinkers to inject a higher sense of education into Ibsen’s writing and uncover some of the mystery behind his tragic characters. In addition to that, an alternative objective was to highlight the great cultural aspects that set Norway apart. Ultimately, the purpose of the weekend was to surround a fantastic piece of theatre with a celebration of “all things Scandinavian.”

Photo: Ana Hagedorn
Minnesota playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has adapted eight Ibsen plays for the festival, including this year’s version of Ibsen’s final play.

MJ: Why was When We Dead Awaken selected to be Commonweal Theatre’s final Ibsen production?

JVM: It is the final play that Ibsen wrote in his collection of masterworks. The culmination of the festival matches the culmination of a writing career. We also wanted to give our Ibsen adapter, Jeffrey Hatcher, a chance to adapt Ibsen’s final piece. This year marks Mr. Hatcher’s eighth Ibsen adaptation for us.

MJ: As the final installment, this year’s festival is intended to be more retrospective in nature. What will you be doing to honor the past years of the festival?

JVM: We think that there are two highlights of the festival that will produce a lovely walk down memory lane. The first is a panel discussion that we are calling “Twenty Years at the Ibsen Festival.” The panel will include Commonweal Executive Director Hal Cropp, now in his 25th Anniversary Season, Liz Bucheit, Peggy Hanson, and Lynn Susag. Liz is the owner of Crown Trout Jewelers in Lanesboro where she creates pieces inspired by Scandinavian folklore and myth. In 2013, Liz received a Minnesota State Arts Board grant to create pieces inspired by Ibsen’s tragic characters; in 2013 and 2014, these pieces were displayed during the festival. Peggy Hanson was pivotal in the arrangements for Norse VinterFest and will discuss the very early days of the festival. Lynne Susag is heavily influential in the Sons of Norway lodge in Lanesboro and will focus on the value of the festival in partnership with that organization. All panelists have a long relationship with the festival and will truly be able to speak to how the event has “grown up.”

The other event is the festival weekend performances of The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen. This piece of theatre originated in Chicago at the popular Neo-Futurists theatre company and is exactly as the title suggests. The final moments of Ibsen’s entire body of work are presented in order based on the year they were published. We think this piece pairs quite well with a festival that is “looking back” on a body of work with a piece that touches on an entire body of master playwriting.

MJ: Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers of The Norwegian American?

JVM: Henrik Ibsen is simply taking a break from the Commonweal stage! The decision to end our annual commitment is simply a strategic one, and Ibsen will take his place in the line of other classic writers from which we will choose to produce. We have loved our connection to Norway’s greatest playwright and are quite pleased with the recognition we have received both from the Norwegian government and from the Norwegian Parliament itself through the nomination of Hal Cropp for The International Ibsen Award in 2009.

There’s still time to make it to the Ibsen Festival before it’s gone forever! For more information, visit www.commonwealtheatre.org/programs/ibsen.

This article originally appeared in the April 7, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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