An introduction to ‘The Master Builder’

Looking for an arts-themed evening activity? This weekend, the Theater & Dance Department is showing Henrik Ibsen’s play The Master Builder, a complex and thought-provoking drama. This late nineteenth-century work is a landmark work, telling the story of a middle-aged builder struggling to navigate love, loss, and the passing of time. The Echo sat down with the director, Professor of Theater & Dance Toby Bercovici, to learn more about Ibsen’s masterpiece.

The Echo: What is The Master Builder about?

Toby Bercovici: Ibsen…is known as the founder of the Realism movement, [but] this is one of his later plays where he started veering away from Realism a little bit, toward a kind of magical, surreal kind of Realism. So, this play is a hybrid of several different styles, and it’s less overtly political than the political dramas he’s known for, like A Doll’s House.

It has to do with aging—it’s fairly biographical, since it was written as [Ibsen] was getting older, and he himself had several…romantic friendships with younger women in his later years.

This play deals with a friendship between an older man and a younger woman, but it’s also about the war within people at that time in Norway between more base urges and Christian morality. It’s about ambition and nearing the end of one’s life feeling that one hasn’t made the mark on the world that one wanted to, dealing with the fear and anxiety about leaving that world without making the mark.

Echo: Is there any particular reason you chose this play?

TB: Well, I’m a big fan of Ibsen in general and of working on his plays with young actors, because his characters are really well-written and complicated— fully human. There’s nothing one-dimensional about them, so…it teaches actors that you can’t go with your initial assumption of characters being…manipulative or fragile or cruel or sweet.

I think it’s an instinct of young actors to make a snap judgment and then play that character with surface-level adjectives, but you can’t do that with Ibsen’s characters, because they’re constantly changing and have hidden possibilities within themselves. It’s a way to look at characters as being as fully three-dimensional and human as ourselves, and I think that young actors can learn a lot through dealing with these characters.

Echo: What do you think was unique about the experience of putting this play together?

TB: Because it deals with the fear an older generation has of a younger generation, and the general hostility or distance between generations. I think it created a really interesting dynamic between the different artists here who are a generation or more older than the students, thinking about what different generations need from each other.

It also—[while being] rooted in realism—has a lot of surrealism which opens up design possibilities that aren’t usually available to realism because so much of [the main character’s] experiences are guided by his fears and his desires. There are trolls and demons that he…feels are at his beck and call, and he manifests them in order to make things happen, so…it was really interesting getting to work on designing that world.

Echo: Are you going for a more surrealist production, then?

TB: Not fully, but the soundscape definitely highlights the interior world of the characters. Some soundscapes are more diegetic, meaning[…]sounds that would actually exist in the real world of the play[…]but in this play, it’s a combo. There are sounds that are imposed on the world from an outside perspective that underscore many scenes, but many of the characters actually respond to those sounds in subtle ways, so I think that creates realism in a way. The sounds are used to project the Master Builder’s paranoia or the moments of his delight.

The set is not totally outside of the realm of realism, but certain elements are chosen to create the world [without the exact] details that a [realistic world] might have. But the acting style is as realistic…as is par for the course with theater.

Echo: Is there anything you focused on while rehearsing this?

TB: Well, I’m definitely reinforcing the hard work that actors have to do to create believable characters. These are really difficult characters for young actors to play, so I think—I hope—they have learned a lot about the kind of preparation you need to do as an actor.

The more I teach acting, the more I realize that it’s always going to feel false unless you do an incredible amount of research you have to do to understand your character’s reactions, background, history…and understand each line they decide to speak and what they want from the characters.

Echo: Did you face any challenges while working on it?

TB: It’s a very dense play. There’s a lot of ambiguity inherent in certain lines and the themes…and it can be incredibly difficult to figure out what is going on. [The characters] each have a very different understanding of the past that they share, a different memory, and so that’s a very interesting thing to work on with young actors, to balance the characters having a shared truth with having different truths.

Some of the actors who are playing older characters that have a troubled past…had some difficulty integrating that experience with their own experiences and understanding how to bring truth to something…vastly different from what they have. What I hope is that it’s teaching them…and that it understands their capacity for empathy [by] taking on these characters.

The Master Builder will show from Thursday, November 17 to Saturday, November 19 at 7:30 p.m. in Runnals’ Strider Theater. Tickets are free and Friday will feature a guided discussion about the play’s philosophy after the show.

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