Bringing Ibsen back to life in NY

Brooklyn Academy of Music’s educational program makes Ghosts relevant for teens

Photo: Stephanie Berger Brian McCardie and Charlene McKenna onstage in Ibsen’s Ghosts.

Photo: Stephanie Berger
Brian McCardie and Charlene McKenna onstage in Ibsen’s Ghosts.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Ibsen’s Ghosts has been staged countless times and performed in a variety of languages throughout the world. A new version by Almeida Theatre and Sonia Friedman Productions adapted and directed by Richard Eyre, is taking place at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), the oldest performing arts center in the U.S.

One wonders how you make a play written in 1881 relevant to audiences today, especially to younger folk. BAM is doing an outstanding job of this through its educational programming, in this case geared for high school students. According to Baha Ebrahimzadeh, Publicist for BAM, “The BAM Education and Humanities department looks at all the BAM programming every season from Executive Producer Joseph Melillo, and determines what would be of interest to teachers and appropriate yet engaging for their students. Being that Ibsen is one of the playwrights studied in schools, Ghosts was a top choice for BAM’s school-time performances this season.”

The curriculum they developed is sophisticated, with no dumbing down. It can all be obtained online. It includes an intro and teacher’s guide for educators. The “Story” section describes Ibsen’s importance as a playwright: “What makes Ibsen’s work revolutionary is the emphasis on realism and the attention to social issues of the day, such as oppressive and hypocritical nature of contemporary domestic life on display in Ghosts.” A character overview and brief explanation of each of the play’s three acts is also included. The “Artist” section presents an overview of the production’s company, director, and cast.

But what is really exciting is the meat of the programming. “Context” focuses on “The Stage and the Human Psyche,” discussing how Freudian Ibsen is. However, Ibsen’s plays were written before Freud’s work was published. Why these connections are so often made is because both Ibsen and Freud examine the workings of the inner mind; the conflict all humans face in trying to conform with society’s norms and mores, often by oppressing their personal passions, desires, and wants. This tension found at the core of this play continues 134 years later. In 2015, we still wrestle with this tension, and this wrestling is especially germane to teens who are walking the line between child and adult, learning how to negotiate, compromise, and find themselves.

The curriculum also includes “Enrichment Activities.” The first part is categorized as pre-show activities and examines inheritance. Today, that term is usually associated with money and property. Perhaps in the case of Ghosts, endowments in regards to characteristics and attributes would be a more apropos term. This gets into the sins of the family and behaviors we repeat, a very modern concept in our obsession with dysfunction.

Another pre-activity examines the relationship between Munch and Ibsen. After Ibsen died, Munch designed a set for a production of Ghosts. Munch’s “The Scream” is found on everything from t-shirts to small punching bags. Using a familiar image that students appreciate is a smooth way to bring them into a larger conversation. BAM suggests an exercise for students: to write a review of Ghosts from the viewpoint of a Victorian.

The post-performance activities are weightier. One looks at the elements used in the play itself, such as the environment and the use of dark and light. The symbol of the sun is very important. The son in the play, Oswald, speaks it over and over at the close of the play, while he is suffering from a syphilis attack: “The sun—the sun.” Lastly, the weighty subject of euthanasia is taken on. A choice that has no easy answer and one that continues to haunt us to this day.

The depth of BAM’s Educational Programming is impressive. I learned that, “for every school-time performance, the BAM Education department offers teachers a performance package which includes a pre-show preparation workshop led by a BAM teaching artist, a study guide available online for students and teachers to reference, and a ticket to the performance with a post-show Q&A to allow the students to dialogue with the artists.”

According to Ebrahimzadeh, “This season, a majority of the students we reached said that the preparation assisted them in truly grasping the theme(s), content, and artistry of the performance. The teachers also remarked that these programs challenge their students while introducing them to something new. Following the school-time performances this season, many of our students want to return to BAM with their family or friends, a wonderful success considering that over half of students who attended this season are seeing live performance for the first time.”

All I know is that I would love to have had this type of curriculum available to me as a teen. I was fortunate to attend a wonderful Lutheran grammar school and have teachers who thought outside the box. Once our class went to Stratford, Connecticut, to see a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The actors wore black turtlenecks and stood against a black backdrop; their hands and faces were the only things that mattered. That production and the stark power of it has stayed with me all these decades later.

Our French high school teacher would take us to the Jean Cocteau Theater, at that time in the sketchy neighborhood that is now the trendy East Village, to see Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and Sartre’s No Exit. Although the theater has had many incarnations, I always remember these performances when I pass the building.

For BAM to offer educators this insightful curriculum with its extensive supporting material is tremendous. Ghosts will be seen by almost 800 high school students at BAM, and that experience will last a lifetime. So, how lucky are we in the Norwegian community that Ibsen is part of the New York City’s High School curriculum and that BAM has made an 1880s play relevant to students today.

This article originally appeared in the May 1, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.