Here be ghosts

University of Winnipeg theatre students experiment with the abstract ideas of August Strindberg

  • Susanne Portnoy as Tekla and Andrew Cecon as her husband, Adolph, in rehearsal for Creditors. – At Home Theatre Company

“What’s the point of talking, when neither of us can fool the other?” wrote Swedish dramatist August Strindberg in The Ghost Sonata more than a century ago.

It is this bleak honesty that drives this year’s StrindbergFest, the eleventh annual incarnation of the Manitoba Theatre Company’s Master Playwright Festival.

“Strindberg is a tough one,” said Tim Babcock, chair of the University of Winnipeg’s department of theatre and film, of this year’s choice of featured writer. “(He) was far more experimental than what we would consider traditional dramatists today.”

Originally founded to generate more public exposure for the MTC season and the theatre-going public in general, the annual festival honours the works of an influential playwright through various productions put on by groups based around the city.

Around the same time the Master Playwright Festival was being established, the University of Winnipeg was also looking to extend to wider audiences, and so a partnership between the two was forged.

StrindbergFest, which runs to Feb. 6, includes the product of the theatre department’s fourth production for the MTC’s festival – the metaphoric The Ghost Sonata.

“With Ghost Sonata, it’s mostly about the masks people wear in everyday life to survive,” said Elizabeth Stephensen, who plays the lead female role of “The Girl.” “In the show, it’s like removing that mask and facing who you really are inside.”

To be able to perform both the masks and the characters that lie beneath is a difficult task even for professional actors, but Babcock believes a university is the perfect place to experiment with more abstract ideas like the ones Strindberg embraced.

Hope McIntyre, director of The Ghost Sonata, agrees.

Because (Strindberg) is exploring with style ... it gives you a lot of stuff to work with. You can interpret, you can explore, you can play.

Hope McIntyre, director, The Ghost Sonata

“That’s part of the excitement as an artist,” she said. “You don’t want it to be all handed to you. And because (Strindberg) is exploring with style ... it gives you a lot of stuff to work with. You can interpret, you can explore, you can play.”

“He uses surreal concepts that as an actor you have to try and make real for you, which can be challenging, but fun,” added Stephensen.

For Justin Schafer, a third-year theatre student playing the central role of “The Student” who falls in love with Stephensen’s Girl, McIntyre’s years of experience have provided him with important guidance through Strindberg’s “purgatory world.”

“You do your own preparation, but it’s nice to have someone with a lot of experience to help you out,” he said of working with McIntyre.

The university’s contribution to a professional level festival like StrindbergFest is something Babcock sees as overwhelmingly beneficial, both for the university’s theatre program and for the student actors.

“We think it’s an important thing for our students to participate in the community,” said Babcock. “It’s a good way for other professionals to see what our students are doing, as well as the general public.”

Schafer is also happy with The Ghost Sonata’s off-campus presence.

“I was excited by it, because people who are just interested in Strindberg are going to come see the play, not necessarily just U of W students,” he said.

The Ghost Sonata runs until Saturday, Feb. 5. Tickets are $10, $6 for students, and available through the University of Winnipeg’s Theatre Department website or by calling 786-9152.

Published in Volume 65, Number 18 of The Uniter (February 3, 2011)

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