Four Letter Word’s production of Hedda Gabler opens this week in the Guild Theatre. I sat down with director Kate Douglas to talk about how the show came together, and what a modern audience can take away from their new adaptation of this iconic play.
I’d like to start by getting to know your background a bit. How did you get into directing?
I studied theatre in school through the international baccalaureate, which really pushed me into lots of different roles and one of them was director. Interestingly when I did it, I was like, I’m not sure I’m such a fan of it, because I was so young and I was working with people who are often a lot older than me I just felt like I wasn’t qualified. Which now I look at it and I’m like that’s silly, a director could be anyone really.
I played with lighting, I played with set design, I played with stage management, all of the above. Then left school, took a gap year, didn’t really touch theatre for a while. I missed it profusely. When I came to Melbourne I went to college and got involved in the theatre society pretty quickly.
First year I did the lighting design for Bonnie and Clyde The Musical. Then I directed Rent and that was the most unbelievable experience to date on top of this one – I would say I just learnt so much about having confidence in yourself. There’s a tendency in direction to be wonder if you can trust your gut, but you have to. I think that’s one of the best things I’ve learnt.
More recently, I pretty much bumped into Four Letter Word, because I haven’t done non-musicals for a while. I answered the callout for Everything is Fine and was blown away by the concept. I was lucky enough to get assistant director, and it was the most challenging yet rewarding experience I’ve had in theatre today. Then this production of Hedda Gabler was my next step.
What did you first think of Hedda Gabler? Did you know that you were going to be doing this play when you jumped on?
The process was that we were originally doing another play which fell through, and that’s what I applied for. Arthur, the creative director of Four Letter Word, said ‘okay, we don’t have this text anymore, what ideally would you like to do if we could find something out of copyright?’ All of a sudden, all options were open. Obviously Four Letter Word is 100% about what’s relevant, what can have a purpose in modern society. We struggled with that for a while, because with out of copyright texts— they’re old. When we first sat down I thought of Hedda Gabler, but we thought, it’s too big, it’s too risky, is it going to be able to be pulled off in only six weeks? But I was barracking for it because I’d seen it back in Adelaide when I was about 17, and I could just never get it out of my head. I just found [Hedda] as a character so amazing because she could absorb the space into her own head and she didn’t even seem to do it with any sort of effort. I thought, I think I can try and tackle this now, and I said we’ve looked and we haven’t found something else. We started with Hedda Gabler, so let’s go back to our first choice. So we said let’s do it!
I noticed your production is a new adaptation. Can you tell me about the process of adapting it? Was that to bring it more into the modern era?
Yes. We went through [the original text] and we said, there’s a bunch of archaic things and interactions here. I didn’t want to maintain them. I wanted to have the same humour that was created by Ibsen himself, but I didn’t want the sexist undertones throughout. I don’t think there’s space for that anymore. I thought it would be great to have people who love Four Letter Word, who love the text, sit down and create something fresh. I said to them that I want these people to be someone that we could see on the street in Melbourne, or anywhere. To create Hedda, create Tesman as these really relatable characters. I want people to not think Hedda is so far from what they perceive themselves to be. I want the sense of ‘I wonder what it would take to get me to that really unfortunate fate’, and bring the humanity back to it. Women can be mean and sadistic too, and it’s no different from men.
Coming from such a fresh place with the play, what was your approach in the rehearsal room?
Because of my experience in the semester previous with Four Letter Word, I wanted to make this collaborative. Usually I come in with all these notes and stimuli, but it was mostly that we sat down before approaching anything and talked about these scenes, talked about the characters and their motives, their background, and constructed a history for them that made them seem not so one dimensional. Especially the men. I’ve seen Hedda Gabler performed with these men that are not human, they’re just these triggers for Hedda to do something awful. I think a lot of the male actors entered into the space saying “I don’t understand”, and once we sat down and deliberated and created these backgrounds they could create the sense of humanity. They came in saying, “Kate I’ve been listening to this song and it reminds me of my character, can you have a listen?”
We also used the PEM technique. It was incredible to see what physical reactions could provoke. I was very hesitant about using emotional recall because of the dark themes of the play. I didn’t want my actors to feel like it was a space where we were going to delve really deep into their past. We looked at medical examinations of people who have suffered from alcoholism or depression, we looked at things like egotistical suicide, stuff that separates my actors from these characters.
You’ve spoken a little bit about bringing Hedda into the 21st century, what were the major reasons you felt like the play was still relevant?
To be honest, I feel like ultimately it’s difficult to relate to anyone who’s in that headspace. But there were glimpses of this person in Hedda that made me say, ‘I have felt like that way’. We sometimes have this assumption that gender expectations have been destroyed in the 21st century, but unfortunately that’s sometimes not true. To see this woman feeling like she has to portray a sense of womanly duty and be this family-loving, supportive wife… her whole character seems to have been stripped from her being forced into this marriage. There are times when I’ve felt like other people provide me with my identity, because I feel I’m not worthy of determining it myself. The discussion of mental health, which may be isn’t what Ibsen intended, is something we need to talk about now. I understand the play isn’t necessarily super realistic, but the fact that we see this seemingly heroic person created and then self- destruct exposes how people have that capacity. We need to step in as friends, as family, as a social set-up and say this doesn’t need to happen, this doesn’t need to be the last resort. Also, recognising that there are unhealthy relationships that need to be addressed in society. What intrigued me was Hedda’s capacity to encourage this mentality— social expectation can rub off on the people around you if you’re not careful. This is still a recurring issue now.
How did you approach casting this show?
We had a lot of interest and fantastic auditions. The major audition process happened over one weekend. I mainly wanted to see who could lead a group dynamic. I knew these were the people who would be able to get the show done efficiently and well. A lot of the time it did come down to emotional maturity. From the get go, we needed to be real. We had a range of ages come through, from 18 to 32, which was amazing. We got a group together, and the male roles were pretty much sorted after that process. We did callbacks, where we gave them some of the text from our adaptation, and had them cold read. From there it came pretty clear. Essentially it became, what would the dynamic of this group be like? What came down to choosing Hedda particularly was, who could own and dominate the space without the detriment of overpowering the importance of what is being said by others. Venus’s take on Hedda still makes me smile from the audience. It’s so, so real. She never takes it over the top and I think that was what sold me. Overall the group dynamic is more important than individuals, I believe.
Can you tell me a bit about the visual aspects of the show?
We had a design team of three people. Jack Murray was the set designer and costume designer and there was a reasoning for that. I wanted to space to be as if we were seeing it through Hedda’s eyes. I don’t want it to be particularly inspiring or feel safe or logical. It is this really ambiguous space, like you’re filling in gaps for yourself. Jack came back with this design, with lines of colour. The lines of colour are almost like they shouldn’t be there, like they’re taking over an aesthetic. We were very semiotic in the space. We have these three colours that intersect in the space, like the characters. They overlap and they meet. The house is supposed to be this dated, awful place that Hedda doesn’t want to be, so they’re like antique colours. We were going for this aged house vibe. Having something that makes it feel like a really distorted, uncomfortable space, while still remaining very much real to a lounge room setting was important. We still have the piano, the fireplace, a mirror— things that are liveable — barely liveable. We really use The Guild, and I love that. It really allows the actors to move around. The costume is modern dress, and a lot of it we sourced from the actor’s wardrobes.
It was a lovely process to see that set develop. It was one of the most fun design elements I’ve ever worked with.
What about the sound of the show?
Our sound designer came to me and asked what sound do you think of when you think of Hedda Gabler? And I said I want to keep this as kind of dated. I don’t want to pretend it wasn’t written in the 1800’s. I thought about Hedda’s massive attachment or relation to the placement of the piano in a space where it doesn’t belong. I wanted that piano sound to penetrate every now and again. We created very simplified musical pieces that are very classic. I didn’t want them to be perfect or complex. I wanted it to be this very stagnant noise that just sits or develops an energy. It’s the kind of sound that could have been used in an original production. At the end of the day, Ibsen was a supposed feminist, so I didn’t want to disregard that he wrote a beautiful play.
Finally, what do you want an audience to get from your production?
I want them to come in and feel like they can enter into Hedda’s head for a little while. I don’t want them to justify what she does— I don’t think there’s any way to justify what she does— but perhaps just think, is there anything about this that is relatable or that I’ve seen before, and how can I reflect on this experience in a way that could be beneficial and make sure that something similar never happens to someone that I’m close to or myself. More than anything, with it being around RUOK day, I want the awareness that these things happen. We need to not make such a stigma around mental health anymore. It should…something we can talk about if we need to. That’s what I’d love.
Four Letter Word Theatre’s production of Hedda Gabler runs from the 13th-15th of September in the Guild Theatre.