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It's an exaggeration, but not much of one, to say that Henrik Ibsen changed acting. The theater he inherited was star-based, ornate, and illusionary: plays about the upper classes written for the upper classes. Everyone else was a type. Stage pictures were rigid affairs.

Ibsen did a 180. He demanded realistic truth in speaking and performing. "No declamation!" he yelled in a rehearsal, "No theatrical emphasis! No pomposity at all!

"Give each mood credible, true-to-life expression," he added. "Do not think of this or that actress you have seen. But stick to the life that is going on around you, and give us a true, living character."

For Ibsen it wasn't just what actors said, but also where they were in a scene. "The lines should sound different depending on whether they were said in the morning or evening."

Where you were, wrote Stella Adler, had to be as truthful as Ibsen's new dialogue. Acting became three-dimensional.

Old hat today, but storm-the-barricades revolutionary in the 1870s.

Ibsen's plays combined harsh social realities with challenging ideas. They were so different and unpopular that, at first, actors were reticent to perform them. They didn't cater to being boo'd or watching audiences storm out in a huff.

But the break from a stilted tradition had such an appeal that more and more came around. They also learned that the Norwegian playwright - whose An Enemy of the People opens this weekend at Intrepid Shakespeare Company - loved actors.

"More than anybody who ever wrote for the stage," says Elizabeth Robins, who played all of his heroines, "Ibsen could, and usually did, cooperate with his actors. He regarded the actor as a 'fellow-creator.'"

All of them. In effect, and this was rare at the time, Ibsen widened the spotlight on stage. He wrote for the entire cast - the theatrical ensemble - and saw each character as important.

When an actor would thank him for writing such a great role, he'd reply: "I have not written roles for actors and actresses. I have written to portray human beings."

He would even have famous actors play 'minor' parts. One of them, Mrs. Wolf, at first balked at having to play a maid. After Ibsen convinced her of the maid's importance, he said, "beside being an actress, she is also an artist. She does not pride herself on 'acting parts' but in creating real people from their fictitious roles."

Henry James: Ibsen gave actors "work to which the artistic nature in them joyously responds...to do the deep and delicate thing. He asks them to paint with a fine brush, for the subject he gives them is our plastic humanity."

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Bravo. This is the kind of "preview" piece that is always welcome -- and needed.

Feb. 1, 2012

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