Me Too, The Women’s Marches, and now the Blue Wave in the House of Representatives all came after Lucas Hnath wrote his darkly comedic take on what would happen if Henrik Ibsen’s Nora, from “A Doll’s House,” came back after one of the most famous exits in theatrical history—or her-story. When she comes back, she’s a changed woman, and actor’s director Betsy Aidem is at the helm. Star of stage, with Brian Cranston in “All the Way on Broadway,” and screen, with Hugh Jackman in 2017’s “The Greatest Showman,” Aidem is also an Obie-award winning performer. She brings her panoply of skills to this show, which was a hit on Broadway last season, and brings it home to George Street Playhouse, opening on November 30. Aidem took a few moments to share some more about Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part Two.”
Q on Stage: When did you first become interested in directing?
Betsy Aidem: You know it’s always interested me. I somehow didn’t have the confidence to make the segue until I started teaching about a dozen years ago. Teaching helped me define my skills as a storyteller–understanding the whole. One of my challenges as an actress is that I see the whole rather than just my part. My frustration was that if the whole story wasn’t being told well, it bothered me. Directing lets me include everyone–and invite the collaboration. You have way more control, but ironically directing is about being open rather than having control. Some actors don’t want to hear from anyone but the director, but I‘ve been lucky with this cast. I have a group of thoroughbred racehorses in this cast, and a new young actress who’s getting her Equity card as well by performing in this production. That is exciting!
QoS: What does this play say to this current politicized environment and where do you think we’ll be going in the future?
BA: It’s interesting–I mentioned this in the talkback last night. When it was produced on Broadway, Me Too hadn’t happened yet. We have the cultural moment of having the Ear of history. People are willing to say we have to overcorrect this centuries-old bias that men are empowered and women have not been empowered in any way, particularly in the 19th century where women had so few options for meaningful expression. In my lifetime, having come out of school and working in the 1970s, I was treated in a particular way at that time and not having agency was difficult. The pendulum will always swing back. What is culturally impossible to move forward is the question of how a woman can leave her children that is central to Ibsen’s play. Lucas Hnath‘s play stands apart from Ibsen. Ibsen’s illustration of what that marriage was like is not in Hnath’s play. Each character has a revisionist history of what the “Dolls House” is about. Kelley Overbey, who is playing Nora, is a strong union Person and who is a spearhead of Fair Wage on Stage, gets all of what Nora is about. She comes back as a feminist author and we’re lucky to have Kelley in this role activism is in her blood.
QoS: What has been the most surprising part of this process?
BA: Each night is completely different. I assembled the design team and the first big surprise was when I got the actors who said yes, they are all a dream. One of the big ones for me is that I’ve been incredibly happy and even tempered, hopeful, and excited. I’ve never felt lost in this process as the director. In my acting, I have that doubt. I have a weird certainty that we’re on the right path. Whether this show is for everyone isn’t for me to say. I think that people are going to get a lot out of it. Using as many parts of my brain as I’m using on directing this show has shown me that I’m happier with more that with less.
QoS: Are you more of a visual or an intellectual person?
BA: I’m first an emotional person, and a highly visual person. I collect visual arts, I take drawing and painting classes, I was an Art History major before I became an actress. All of my designers were chosen because of their visual talents. The set designer riffed off the paintings of 19th century Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi’s subdued palette–that set the template for a lot of the visual.
QoS: How does time and light factor in to the feeling of the play?
BA: (laughs) I don’t want to give away any of our surprises, but we have ways to show you the passage of time–there are time jumps. It is part of current storytelling and even novels where we see things backward and forward and there’s almost something like a whodunit and what the outcome of the plot will be, who will prevail.
I’ve tried to humanize the intellectual debate that is at the heart of this play. I love to read and I’m old fashioned–I love to hold the book. I have a hard time reading online, but I don’t know how people do it. I wanted people to have this experience in the theatre.
Another big surprise–David Saint called me in June and said, “So next season, we’re thinking about doing this play–‘A Doll’s House, Part Two’—and I was just thinking we need an actor’s director, and I think we should also have a female and I think you’re ready. Also I’m directing something at Cherry Lane and I’d like you to be in it” and that was an extraordinary experience–two jobs in one day – Hnath and A. R. Gurney’s cycle of plays “Final Follies.” Ten days after “Final Follies” closed, we were here!
QoS: How is your preparation different as a director versus an actor?
BA: I read the play every day whether I’m acting or directing. The best way to learn a part is to understand where your character fits into the whole. You miss a lot of really valuable material if you just highlight your part and go cue to cue. It helps you expand your vision to see where your part is and how it interacts.
I had the book from the play service and I’d write my thoughts on it. During the first week of rehearsals, I transcribed my notes into the script. There are certain things that stick in your mind. I have an incredible ability to know where we are when someone is lost for a line. It helps–I don’t have to follow the page. I know the play so well.
I get just as nervous before the show, acting or directing. I get that weird numb thing that happens. I manage fear by shutting down–then I saw my two good friends come in to support me for the first preview and I got even MORE nervous. I’m watching the show like I’m orchestrating. I need to sit in the back, to not distract the others watching (laughs).
The talkbacks are very important in helping refine the work. This audience here at George Street Playhouse is invested in the theatre and you feel like you’re part of a community. There’s an openness here that is really welcome–they’re not jaded.
QoS: Let’s talk about the house–how do you feel about the longer run in this house? The former location of George Street Playhouse was a bit larger, this house is about 2/3 the size, so the run of the show is a bit longer.
BA: When you only have a three week run, and four weeks of rehearsal, you hope it continues to be a process. You feel it’s over before you can blink. I can’t speak to the difference as I haven’t played this house but it’s a different experience and a different configuration. But more time to tell the story is good. The actors get more of an opportunity to get into the play.
QoS: How has the way you tell stories changed over the course of your career?
BA: I’ve always kept studying to strengthen my voice. The life you’ve lived helps create your voice. I’m a mother. I was married, then I wasn’t married, and I was a single mother. I raised my son and sent him off to college. You fall in love, you fall out of love, and when you’re younger, you have your imagination, but now you have experience. When you get older, you have the experience, as well as the imagination. As you get older and richer and more resonant, there are less people interested in that particular story, with the emphasis on youth that still exists today. There are only seven different themes in drama and people want to see the same things. Hopefully that’s changing too.
QoS: What do you want us to take home from “A Doll’s House?”
BA: The final lines of the play are what to listen for—Nora says, “The world didn’t change as much as I thought it would, but I know that someday everything will be different, and everyone will be free–freer than they are now.” Torvald says, “I can’t imagine that.” Then Nora, “Yeah … well. I just hope I live to see it.” I couldn’t say it any better than that.
Get your tickets now for “A Doll’s House, Part Two”– this brilliance is perfect for the Season of Light! Check it out at www.GeorgeStreetPlayhouse.org – experiences make the best gifts of all.