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Farewell to “The Turn of the Screw”

10 Nov

by Adrienne Sweeney

As I write this blog I realize that not only am I saying farewell to The Turn of the Screw, I’m saying farewell to an incredible year on stage. I have had the amazing good fortune to be in three shows at the Commonweal this season — in three incredible roles.  I’ve welcomed in the 22nd season as Ella Rentheim in John Gabriel Borkman, shared the summer rep as Rose in Enchanted April and most recently celebrated the fall as the Governess in The Turn of the Screw. I’ve logged countless hours in the rehearsal room and completed 96 performances from April 9 through November 6. And in an unbelievable milestone, I completed my tenth season with the Commonweal! Scott Dixon and I were in our first show at the Commonweal in February, 2001 – An Enemy of the People. Fittingly, we shared our final bow for the 2010 season on Saturday night.

The closing of The Turn of the Screw has given me an opportunity to reflect. And, perhaps because of the upcoming holiday season, the thing I keep coming back to is how grateful I am. To make a living as a professional actor in this country is an astounding gift. So many actors consider themselves lucky to do eight WEEKS of stage work a year, let alone eight MONTHS as I just did. Most actors move from theatre to theatre, company to company, starting each project from scratch. I get to take the stage with people who have been my best friends, partners and family for a decade. Actors rarely have the opportunity to meet their audiences, let alone share a drink and conversation after a show.

I have a life in the arts. A big life. A busy life. At times quite an exhausting life. But it’s a life in the arts. I make a living, have a home, am part of a community — because of art. I get to tell stories and share them with others. And I hope they make the world a better place. It thrills me that some patrons come to see a show three or four or five times and bring different people with them each time and stay after the show to talk about it. (I am amazed that a 7th grade boy came to see The Turn of the Screw last week and stayed at Encore to discuss his theory of what happened at the end!) I love that I can be on stage with someone for 10 years and feel like I’m working with a brother. I am grateful that my best friend understands the unprovoked crabbiness and irrational weepiness brought on by the stresses of tech week, because she just had the same meltdown before her last show opened and I was there for her. I am blessed to share my passion for theatre with my husband and cherish the moments we sit on our porch with coffee discussing the projects we’re working on.

Theatre generally is a transient business. But not here, not at the Commonweal. At the Commonweal it is a life. So my goodbye to The Turn of the Screw doesn’t have that sadness that generally attends a closing – when you don’t know what your next role will be or when you’ll next see your fellow cast mates. I am instead flooded with gratitude for the opportunity to be part of a company that is part of a community. I am flooded with gratitude to have had a full-time job in the theatre for TEN YEARS! I am flooded with gratitude for you — because if you are reading this then you are part of the community of people that makes the Commonweal possible. So…thank you.

Wherever you are, and however you celebrate the coming holiday season, I wish you joy and peace and the blessing of gratitude.

The Poetics of Horror

12 Oct
by Scott Dixon 


Scott is our staff writer, member of our Development Team, and  playing a handful of characters in The Turn of the Screw.

We’re coming up on one of my favorite times of the year: Halloween. And the anticipation has been even greater because I’ve been working with Michael Bigelow Dixon and Adrienne Sweeney on our fall classic, The Turn of the Screw. Stela Burdt came in to see a runthrough a while back, even before we started adding lights and sound, and decided that children shouldn’t come see this play. Too scary. That made me smile. I’m a horror fan and a horror writer, and I think a good scare is a lot of fun. Stela won’t watch horror movies with me, because if I get scared, first I jump, and then I laugh. She doesn’t like it when I do that.

Every time I talk about horror, though, I feel like I have to defend myself. Horror gets a bad rap. I should know because a lot of times I’m the one doing the rapping. It’s so easy to do horror badly. It’s easy to make a cheap movie with a beautiful girl being chased by an axe-wielding maniac and make a lot of money at it. It’s a cheap thrill – the titillation of sex and violence.

So how can we make “good” horror? What else can a writer or a filmmaker strive for beyond spring-loaded cats and buckets of blood in order to have an emotional effect on an audience? Edgar Allan Poe did it, so did Henry James in The Turn of the Screw.

Here’s my theory.

The landscape of human experience is vast. Try, right now, to imagine the perspectives and experiences of the nearly 7 billion people living in our world right now.  Pretty overwhelming, isn’t it, trying to of think of male and female, wealthy and poor, healthy and sick, educated and not, Americans and Europeans and Asians and Africans? If we tried to think of what everybody was thinking and feeling and doing all the time, we’d be unable to function. So we build a “box”, and the “box” is big enough to include what (and who) we need to take into consideration to get through the day.

Everybody has their own “box” and everybody needs their “box”.

The problem comes when we start to think our box is the same as the “universe”. That’s where Art comes in (and I use the big “A” here to include music, dance, painting, sculpture, poetry, fiction, theatre, etc). Art knocks on the sides of our box and reminds us that there are stories and experiences and ideas out there in the wide world beyond our box, and (in my humble opinion) it’s a good thing to take the lid off our box and look around. Maybe what we find makes our box want to be a little larger. Maybe not. Either way, it’s good for us to get “outside the box” sometimes and see what else is out there.

Most Art knocks on the box. It invites, it encourages, it offers. Horror Art is not so gentle. Horror lays siege to the box. It tries to burrow in, blow it up, infect it with rot and let it disintegrate. Horror is aggressive and confrontational, and it has to be because it draws its subject matter from the objects of our deepest repression. The ideas or experiences or feelings we most want to keep at bay are the very things Horror wants to drop in our laps. A Horror writer can explore what a character (a person) is really made of by subjecting them to extremes, taking away all the safety nets, and getting them to face the monsters both without and within. And if, in the process, we the audience start asking some hard questions about ourselves along with the main character…well, then…mission accomplished.

It’s uncomfortable to be scared, I get that. But whoever said that we were supposed to go through life being comfortable? It seems to me that some of the most interesting things happen to us when we’re not comfortable and have to walk a slightly different path than the one we’re used to.

So the next time you see me walking the streets of Lanesboro after dark…wanna come along?


Here's Stela and me in a photo shoot from last year's production of "A Midnight Dreary"


In the Eye of the Beholder

29 Sep

By Michael Bigelow Dixon

Michael serves as the director for The Turn of the Screw. Previews begin tomorrow! The show opens Oct. 8 and runs until November 6. You can read more about this show by visiting here.

For more than a century, literary critics have argued over the sanity and paranormal powers of the characters in The Turn of the Screw. Henry James wrote his novella in such a way as to offer no definitive answers regarding the experiences and mental health of the characters. As a result, they can be interpreted in various ways.

Questions that have impassioned critics and scholars include:

  • Who does and who does not see the ghosts?
  • Why are the madhouses of England full of governesses?
  • And is there truly nothing like a child in pain?

Such are the joys of literature. We all read the exact same text, but we understand it differently. And yet, as we argue the merits of our own interpretations, we’re able to hold conflicting ideas in our mind simultaneously. Either this or that could be true – which will I believe? (As I understand it, that’s what separates us from computers.)

The process of creating theatre, however, is different than reading a play.

Yes, we analyze the script to understand its possible meanings, but we must go further. Actors must create back stories that justify choices, which result in actions that are pursued by characters, who in turn react to the reactions of others and in so doing adjust the tactics of their pursuits, and this continues until the play ends. In other words, actors can only pursue one action at a time, and they do so in a series, which is based on a complex understanding of the history and inner lives of their characters. Actors do not have the luxuries of scholarly debate; their interpretations must be singular and definitive.

However!!! The extra-interesting thing about rehearsals for The Turn of the Screw is that we have needed to walk a tightrope so that actors can make specific choices for their characters, regarding things like ghosts, and yet make their choices believable to an audience in both rational and irrational ways.

In this creative process, the actor’s job has been to make a specific choice regarding the presence or absence of ghosts, but it’s been my job as director – not to know the actor’s choice – but to see that each of their choices can be understood in various ways. Are they telling the truth, imagining things or lying? When each actor’s performance makes all those interpretations possible, we will have succeeded.

That way you, the audience, need to decide for yourselves. That’s how Henry James wrote his novella and that’s how Jeffrey Hatcher crafted his adaptation. Now, we deliver to you in a single evening, a performance in which characters see ghosts and in which they do not, in which they tell the truth and in which they lie. There is a truth each actor has chosen in the performance, but will you be able to discern the character’s truth or will you be left alone to deal with ghosts on your own?

It’s a scary thought, and we leave you with it.

The one question on everyone’s mind…

17 Sep

by Adrienne Sweeney

Adrienne is the director of marketing, Ibsen Festival coordinator, and performs as Rose in Enchanted April and the Governess in the upcoming The Turn of the Screw.

There it is…hanging in the air…at post-show discussions, in the lobby, at Encore. I know you want to ask. I can see it in your eyes. OK, go on…

How do you memorize all those lines?!

Ah ha! There it is!

It’s the question most every actor dodges because, well, to be frank, we don’t quite know – we just…do. And for every actor you ask, there’ll be that many answers. And more! Sometimes it’s different for every actor for every show.  The reality of it is…we just do it because we have to.

That said, I’ve had a lot of lines to memorize this year – most notably the lines for the character of the Governess in the upcoming Turn of the Screw, A TWO-PERSON PLAY. So I thought I’d take a crack at figuring out the ways I memorize lines.  (Though at this point I can hear past directors, stage managers and fellow actors thinking things like “she doesn’t actually MEMORIZE…she kind of…improvises.” But that’s for another blog.)

For most shows I don’t actually attempt to memorize the lines before rehearsals begin. I’ve tried that before and it tends to get me into trouble. I need to be sure that there’s a reason to speak the lines – that it’s coming out of something my scene partner just said or did, coming from my blocking or a specific piece of direction. In my experience trying to memorize a script cold is, well, cold. It actually distances me from my fellow actors as my brain leaves the rehearsal room, leaves the scene, in search of the right word.

My script for "The Turn of the Screw" - all those yellow words are ones I speak. This is one of many pages...

Certainly I want to be intimately familiar with the script so that I’m not stumbling into the lines for the first time at the read through. But generally, I’ve found that trying to memorize before rehearsal begins impedes my process rather than accelerates it.


Other times – like with Turn of the Screw – the role is so humongous, the amount of lines so daunting, that if you were to leave it to rehearsals you’d never make it. So what we did this time is record our lines. Scott Dixon and I sat in the stage manager’s booth a few months before rehearsals began and read the script out loud, recorded it into the computer and saved it into our MP3 players. I then listened to the script every chance I got. Hours working in the garden – listening to the script. Driving to Rochester or the Twin Cities – listening to the script. Sometimes I even wore my headphone to sleep, hoping I’d pick up some lines through osmosis.

That didn’t work.

However, I was thrilled to find that when I actually did sit down to memorize the lines, so much of the story – and the lines – were already there. I knew what the character wanted, where the story was going. There were very few surprises. And while there were still many of those moments in rehearsal which cannot be written about in a family-friendly blog (the swearing slamming head-banging moments where you go blank at EXACTLY the same place that you’ve gone blank the last five rehearsals!!!) they were far fewer than there would have been otherwise.

But as I said, every actor’s process is different…

Some of my fellow actors (myself included) are very physical actors. We ground ourselves in the character’s physical life. And it’s not until we’re moving around the rehearsal room that we can actually start to remember the lines, because the lines become integrated with the movement.

Some of my fellow actors just lock themselves in a room with their script and a note card and they cover each line and go line-by-line down the page. They won’t leave that page until it is letter perfect. I’ve tried this. As someone who is more than a bit hyperactive, this does not ever work for me. I have to move around the space. Thank heavens for the very wide porch on our house – I can pace back and forth, back and forth, cats watching from the sliding door, repeating lines over and over again until it’s “in there.”

Some scenes/characters/plays are super easy to remember. There might be a lyrical quality to the text so the words flow out like a song. Or the character might be so like you that there’s no question what they’ll say next. Or at least a specific scene just makes sense – you know exactly what your character wants and how you’re going to get it. I love it when that happens. Check that scene off your list.

And then there’s the reverse…when you can NOT, for the life of you, remember a scene! Turns out that’s usually because you have no idea what the character is doing in the scene, what they want, why they’re in the scene to begin with. It’s a giant clue – if you’re struggling with the lines in a scene it’s very often because you don’t know what the heck you’re doing in the scene. Going back to basics often helps.

Sometimes it comes down to anagrams:


  • And then I see him
  • At the window
  • In the night
  • It is the same face.

A/A/I/I — The only way I could plow through day three of Turn of the Screw.

Sometimes you actually have to remember your lines AND your scene partner’s lines because the scene is so jumpy and terse and repetitive. When you have a sequence of lines like:

Go on

Tell me



Come on!

It helps to remember what’s being said BETWEEN your lines.

Sometimes you just have to go to bed and rest your brain ‘cause it just can’t take the abuse anymore.

And then one day…they’re there. The lines. All of them. Most of them. In, essentially, the right order. And you go on break and think, “How did THAT happen?!” But it does.

Like I said, ask any actor on any given day “How do you memorize all those lines” and you’ll get a different response. So please don’t think we’re brushing off the question – it’s just that we don’t quite know the answer!

And if you have ever asked that question – don’t fret. We probably don’t remember that you asked it because we’re working on our next script.

A Day in the Life of Renassaince Man: Stan Peal

3 Sep
(Stan does a lot of things for the company. He’s an actor, sound designer, video content guru–the list goes on and on. We won’t even begin to explain it all. Just read for yourself.)


My name is Stan Peal and I have a problem with time management. I have this fantasy of my days being extremely organized, so I plot out what I think I can get done in a day, make a nice, long list, and sail into my day, which quickly combusts into chaos. I’m sure this is good for me, as it teaches me patience and adaptability, though the process has yet to teach me good time management skills. I seem to wake up each day as though I’m in the movie Memento, with complete amnesia in regard to the previous day’s chaos and I make another ambitious list.

I won’t print the list for this particular day, partly because it of course bears no resemblance to what actually occurred, and partly because I lost it. (I also seem to lack simple organizational skills.)


(editor’s note – don’t be alarmed that this post is out-of-date, it’s a great read)

9:30 Morning routine – I make coffee, eat cereal, check Facebook (oh, the addiction) and walk the dog. Every day must start with showing the people of Lanesboro how cute our dog is.

Aslan T. Pooch, popular Lanesboro gadabout

10am – Mix Turn of the Screw sound cues – I put together the basic sounds for the production of The Turn of the Screw – mostly using tones from my keyboard in my office at home. Other sounds include a gong at slow speed and a cat’s yowl at very slow speed – sounds creepy, which is perfect. I process all of the sounds into computer files on a zip drive which I will take over the theatre. Stage one of disorganization – the process takes twice as long as expected (my wife Laura will tell you this is a truism for nearly everything I plan).

The keyboard from which came most of the raw sounds for A Midnight Dreary, 1940’s Radio Hour and Picasso at the Lapin Agile

Noon – Ripping wood – In addition to being sound designer for The Turn of the Screw, I’m also set designer. I have my trusty set construction assistant Michael available for an hour, so I use my next time slot to do one of the shop jobs, which (for safety reasons) requires two people; ripping lumber with the table saw. I love this task because it’s loud, it’s manly and there’s lots of sawdust.

Michael snaps a photo instead of catching the wood like he’s supposed to.

1pm – Lunch – My lovely wife makes a healthy salad, mostly from local produce we’ve received from Featherstone Farms. I contribute to the effort by doing dishes.

1:30 – Install cues – I go to the tech booth at the theatre and download the sound cues into the theatre system, setting general levels and timing for the 2pm tech rehearsal.

In the booth, dazzled by the pretty lights

2pm – I’m only a third of the way done installing cues (surprise, surprise) but the director is focused on the lights (ha ha ha… focused. Theater pun), so I keep installing the cues while they don’t need me.

3pm – Filming for the Trailer – The sound cues are installed, but the director is still working with the lights, so I create some secondary shots for The Turn of the Screw trailer. Using the digital camera, some fabric I had pulled for the set, and a couple of props, I set up a mini studio on a booth chair and get some moody prop shots, doing a little arm ballet to simulate twisty crane shots. Hitchcock is in no danger of being usurped.

4:00 – Building – Released from tech rehearsal (we’ll get to sound the next day) I go back to the scene shop (generously loaned workspace at Andy and Eric Bunge’s Magical Wood Cuttery and Saw Emporium) to modify a piece of scenery. I’m able to do the initial work, but then need to run across the street to do…

5pm – Set changeover for Enchanted April – Running two shows in rep means changing the set every two performance days. Enchanted April: 12 minutes. Picasso at the Lapin Agile: 13 minutes. Having the same guy design both so it’s that easy: Priceless.

5:12 – More Building – I run across the street to finish my project, which is basically to shrink a piece of scenery; a window frame/mirror set-piece, which can be wheeled around the stage. The frame I had originally built was too large and couldn’t fit in some of the places the director wanted it (picky, picky), so I made a few strategic cuts and scaled it down.


Too large and prone to falling forward, much like me in college


Honey, I shrunk the scenery!

615 – Dinner Break – I have a snack and walk the dog. He gets dinner, I get a snack. Slacker!

6:30 – Trailer Soundtrack – I take 15 minutes in my home office to do some of the sound effects work for The Turn of the Screw web trailer. Not a huge timeslot, but this is one of the items I was hoping to get to earlier in the day, so I try to at least put a dent in it.

6:50 – Call time for Enchanted April – I arrive at the theatre and begin my pre-show routine for Enchanted April – Which is basically slicking my hair and waxing the goofy moustache I’ve had to wear since June.

7:45 – Understudy work – Once I’ve done my first scene, I have time to begin memorizing lines for my understudy job in Picasso at the Lapin Agile – I went in for Gaston last weekend, and in two weeks I’ll be going on as Einstein. Ah, a character actor’s work is never done.

Highlighting in two colors helps me tell the characters apart!

8:40 – Intermission make-up – I got a tattoo last year. Just a few months before I found out I was cast in a role in which I’d have my shirt off on stage for the first time. I’m not known for my great timing. Since it would be out of character to have such body art, I cleverly disguise it with make-up.



well, actually this is the before picture photoshopped – the real after picture is out of focus – but it looks just like this!

My stage manager is not amused by the constant backstage picture-taking

10:30-  Dinner – Also walk the dog and watch Battlestar Galactica!

11:30-  Trailer sound scripting – Normally, I like to keep the work day down to 12 hours, but the web trailer has been a little behind schedule, plus, I’m kind of excited about finishing it up. It helps to love what you do. If missing sleep is considered helpful.

I start with an already- recorded creepy narration from Scott Dixon, and mix some effects, bending pitches of screams and Hitchcock-type strings, and finish it off with one of the unsettling background tones used in the show’s actual sound design. I create a basic editing script for Jason Underferth, our cinematographer and video editor, and send him the whole kit and caboodle in an email. Then I listen to the final sound file I created about 8 times because I love what I do.

1:30 – Time for sleep. G’night!


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