Read The Stage: Going Forward

Peter Gnit: A whiny, dorky narcissist who somehow has women, from his long-suffering mother to the sweet Solvei, ruining their lives for him.

Old story, right? Yes, really old story. Gnit (guh-NIT) is Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, which was in turn based on the fairy tale Per Gynt, altered and adapted, stripped of some of its mythic moments, made far more referential and funny, rewritten for the 21st century.

If the playwright’s both good and lucky, as Gnit’s Will Eno has indeed been in recent years, new plays go through several stages of development. One of those is the staged read. Gnit had a staged read at Portland Center Stage’s JAW: A Playwright’s Festival in the summer of 2010. The main character was annoying then, the action a bit too episodic, but the jokes were funny, and the audience enjoyed the show.

I wondered what Eno had changed since 2010 and how he’d trimmed or further altered the piece for a mainstage full production at the Humana Fest. We spoke just before the final performance of Gnit.

Louis Cancelmi and Tom Ryan in the staged reading of Will Eno's "Gnit," part of the Big Weekend during Portland Center Stage's 2010 JAW. Photo by Patrick Weishampel.

Louis Cancelmi and Tom Ryan in the staged reading of Will Eno’s “Gnit,” part of the Big Weekend during Portland Center Stage’s 2010 JAW. Photo by Patrick Weishampel.

What, if you can remember, changed between the JAW Festival and now – and I don’t just mean, of course, the actors aren’t walking around carrying their scripts this time?

It’s funny with readings, that was a one-week workshop out at JAW, and I don’t have bolts of lightening in a reading thing. Things sink in kind of slowly. I find it fairly easy. What happens is, a month or two later, you sit down, remember the feeling of certain parts, what feeling seemed right, what feelings seemed wrong.

I’ve had a couple more years of messing with the thing. I did a reading with Les [Waters, ATL artistic director and director of Gnit] in the fall in New York. Bit by bit you get to know a thing better and better, and then when we got down here, I really started hacking at it, doing some rewriting in earnest — well, more amped-up earnest.

Dan Waller and Kate Eastwood Norris star in Will Eno's Gnit.

Dan Waller and Kate Eastwood Norris star in Will Eno’s ‘Gnit’ at the Humana Fest.

What are some of the advantages of seeing it fully staged?
You see what you were hoping to achieve given the best chance to be achieved, and then, well, it’s not as black and white as whether it worked or not. Sometimes you have lines that just plain don’t work, or just plain work, but you get to see a moment given its best chance to be a moment. Even if it works, you then have to figure out, is that the time for that moment?

I’ve [rarely] felt more calm in working on a new play, it’s been a great, great feeling. All anyone cares about [at Humana Fest] is the play, and the writing of the play, getting into the strongest shape it can get. That makes your job feel very clear. Les is great, and this cast is great, so that’s been a very happy experience.

headshot_enoSo we’re asking everyone this: What is, or how do you define, success for a new play?

Since we’re all humans, everything is always kind of two things. In a constantly changing ratio, two of the things are: you like to have the sense that people had a good and enjoyable and meaningful time seeing the play; and you like to have the feeling that you said what you meant, and you meant what you said – that it was something difficult for you to say but necessary for you to say. Some balance of those two things.

Related to those two things, it would make me feel really good if people were seeing this play [after the Humana Fest ends]. Having never done an adaptation of any kind before, I feel this strange relation to the original play and to Ibsen. I have this funny feeling of some sort of responsibility to him and to the original play even though I very aggressively revised what he had to say.

In honor of all of Peer Gynt’s nightly suffering as he goes through his journey night after night on some stage in the world – well, it’s another two-part thing because the thing that I wrote is different with a different message, a different feel, but I hope that ultimately it is a loving representation of this character, both Peer in the original and Peter in Gnit. So I would love it if it went on.

How do you think the audience, if they don’t know the original play, is reacting?

Two thing about that too – it would make me feel very pleased and very useful if people got it in their head if they understood that this was what Peer Gynt generally was, that’s the play about X. But I also do feel it’s a complicated feeling having subverted that original play, or introverted, or … changed it. The guy who did the reading up in New York in the fall really did think it was very respectful. Certain Ibsen scholars might find this egregiously unkind and disrespectful to the original, but I hope on a deep level of consciousness and feeling and liveness, I hope that it’s done with love and respect, patience and other stuff.

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