An apprentice's story:
Decorah native Ethan Bjelland hones his craft in acclaimed Commonweal production
Tuesday, October 23, 2012 5:49 AM
The fourth production of Season 2012 at the Commonweal Theatre in Lansesboro, Minn., "The Drawer Boy" has been hailed by reviewers as one of this venerable theatre company's finest production in years.
Decorah native Ethan Bjelland rehearses scenes for “The Drawer Boy” with Hal Cropp (top, right) and David Hennessey (bottom, right). (Submitted photos)
-- Ethan Bjelland
Decorah native Ethan Bjelland, a recent graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College and a member of this year's Commonweal Apprentice Company, has been drawing wide acclaim for his performance in the production.
The play centers around two bachelor farmers, Morgan (David Hennessey) and Angus (Hal Cropp), who have been friends for decades. During their time as soldiers in WWII, Angus suffers a brain injury resulting in short term memory loss and Morgan takes on the guardianship of his best friend. A young actor by the name of Miles (Bjelland) arrives at their farm to do some research for a project called a "Farm Play" he and his theatre colleagues are in the process of writing.
In going about the research, Miles reveals a secret between the two farmers which threatens their friendship and their trust in Miles.
"The Drawer Boy" is written by Michael Healey and directed by Leah Cooper.
Thanks to a contribution from the Land O'Lakes Foundation supporting a food drive, all ticket buyers receive a $5 discount off the adult ticket price to regularly scheduled performances of "The Drawer Boy" with the donation of fresh produce or a non-perishable food item brought to the Commonweal Box Office. All food donations will go to support local Food Shelves.
"The Drawer Boy" runs through Sunday, Nov. 11. Curtain times are emvenings at 7:30 p.m., with matinees at 1:30 p.m. There are no performances Tuesday or Wednesday. Call the box office at 800-657-7025 or visit Commonweal Theatre online at commonwealtheatre.org for exact performance dates and times.
In this exclusive interview, Bjelland describes some of the greatest rewards of working in theatre, and of his work with the Commonweal Theatre company.
DN: What have you learned from your experience working with Commonweal?
EB: In college, I did some really rewarding projects using community-engaged theatre and theatre for social justice, much like my character in the show, Miles. Working with two veteran actors that I'd seen onstage growing up has been the perfect place for me to continue doing effective and conscientious art.
"The Drawer Boy" couldn't have have offered a more perfect role for me. My character, Miles, is so much like me in many ways-he's just graduated college, he's working with a theatre troupe to make a play using the stories and interviews of real people, he's awkward, he's elated to touch people with his art and he's intensely gullible. I'm in the same boat as Miles, and every night I am able to reconnect and reflect, to check-in with myself and with Miles, and to reaffirm why we make art.
How did you prepare for this role?
A lot of research went into this show. My castmate David Hennessey and I went with director Leah Cooper to a local dairy farm to do on-site research for the show. I'd only ever been on my grandpa's farm before and I didn't really pay much attention at that time.
I was instantly floored by how much work went into running a farm. You never get a break because the milking has to be done regularly, nature determines your hours for you, all of the machinery looks like aliens made it, and the pay is significantly lower than the amount of manual input. That's not to say there aren't also amazing rewards to it -the family we visited seemed to be extremely close and loving and the scientific knowledge and understanding that these farmers gain was evidenced most clearly in their elementary aged daughter's frank and thorough understanding of the animals and the land. I wouldn't even know where to start.
The character of Miles is based on a real person. In fact, Miles Potter was the first director of "The Drawer Boy," and the show Miles is making, "The Farm Show," defined an important genesis in Canadian theatre history. A lot of my character research involved research on the theatre troupe referenced in the show, "Theatre Passe Muraille," "The Farm Show" itself, his alternative communal-learning education in 1970s Toronto, and Canadian drama and culture. I really wanted to understand the context that Miles was working in. However, I made the decision to not watch videos of the real Miles Potter, because I wanted to find the plurality of the character of Miles in this work of fiction. For all of us in the show, decisions like this have given a great sense of realism to the final product.
Another important part of the group's research with these roles involved Hal Cropp's role as Angus. Angus was hit in the head during the London Blitz in WWII, leaving him with the effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI), most notably, short-term and long-term memory loss. TBI is incredibly misunderstood, and feedback in our previews showed us that people were consistently questioning its relationship to mental illness, autism, and Downs Syndrome. We found through Hal's research and discussion with Leah that there are no clear visible signifiers that someone has had a TBI. We watched YouTube videos and interviews with people who have suffered TBI, including many who were veterans. Some of that is manifest in the show.
Leah has also been working on a community-engaged project with actors and writers in the Twin Cities area, collecting interviews with disabled veterans, most notably, those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We discovered that both Angus and Morgan also show signs of PTSD. Epiphanies like these abounded, and our understanding of the characters became increasingly deeper and more personal.
In his review of the play for the Rochester Post-Bulletin, Tom Weber writes, "The genius of Healey's play is that he unfolds the story with such restraint that we begin to think and create along with him, rather than simply watch the proceedings." As an actor in this production, how do you interpret Weber's commentary and how do you feel about it?
That restraint is really shown in Leah's direction coupled with Healey's cinematic scene structure. The pacing is indicative of the easy-going and steady forward motion of a day on the farm. The play resists getting too heavy, and has a light air of sarcasm that is driven by the incredible work David Hennessey has put into creating the ever-so-familiar sense of humor that is reserved for the farmers we see every day living in the midwest. That resonance, steady pace, and hilarious frankness invokes an incredible sense of curiosity in the audience, and provokes the heart without ever being melodramatic or overcooked.
Every night, after the show, I have been able to have meaningful conversations with audience members who wait to talk with me about what this show "did to them." There's an unspoken reverence for these men that you can't shake, and a familiarity and rapport that is established between the characters and the audience by the end of the show. It's incredibly funny, and because it's set in a very familiar culture to our own, the jokes become that much more hilarious. Everyone gets something and keeps it.
I'm increasingly struck by the amount of people that have come forward to tell us that they, themselves, or personal friends or family members of the audience members have experienced PTSD or TBI, and how affected they had become, the feeling of catharsis that these people have experienced by the accurate portrayals of these afflictions in our play.
One of the most exciting questions that people ask at the end of the play is "What will happen next to these characters?" Everyone seems to have a poignant answer for that question, but these answers vary significantly between each of the audience members. Still the implications are incredibly exciting to discuss, and watching people leave the theatre chatting up the show and wanting to discuss has been so much fun. People just become so invested in the plot and the lives of the characters that even though the story is finished and the ends have been tied, there's still an interest in what the sequel could be for this play.
What has it been like, to work with this director? How would you describe her approach to working with the material, and with the actors?
Leah Cooper is an incredibly talented and collaborative director. We hear the word "collaboration" thrown around a lot in this business but Leah has a great understanding for what that word actually means. Leah would come to each rehearsal with clear ideas and inspirational research to explore, but ultimately she was able to facilitate a tone of welcome input and discussion that allowed us as actors to really own our characters.
Can you say something about the other actors, and about working with seasoned professionals of their caliber?
I wrote my application to work at the Commonweal as part of a collegiate course a whole year before I actually applied. When I got the call from Hal (the executive director, and an actor in the show), I was late for choir rehearsal, and I fell into one of the practice rooms and broke out in tears. It felt right. It felt like it fit. And I couldn't believe that I was going to be working on this role in particular with these actors, whom I had looked up to since I became familiar with the Commonweal in middle school.
What do you most enjoy about working in theatre?
I love the amount of humanity that is involved in this. As performing artists we are challenged to study people - their intentions, their words, their values, their regrets, their movements, their uniqueness.
As audience members we are challenged to discover what makes this story stage-worthy, and discover new parts about ourselves and our community. The final experience is undoubtedly a coliseum to showcase and study humanity, even though it never feels like you're going to be tested; you can just sit there in the audience and enjoy the ride. Theatre is incredibly humanizing.
What are your plans for the future?
I'll be an apprentice at the Commonweal through April. Besides my role as Miles in "The Drawer Boy" and my role as Thomas in "Philadelphia Story," I'm slated to assistant direct "A Christmas Carol," and I'm working on a translation of August Strindberg's classic, "Miss Julie" for a limited run in March with the other three apprentices.
I'm also really looking forward to help with marketing the Ibsen Festival next year for which the theatre is presenting Jeffrey Hatcher's upcoming commissioned adaptation of Ibsen's most well-known play, "A Doll's House."
Is there anything else you'd like to say right now?
I really want to see my Decorah friends in the audience, and I know that the newspapers are such a great way of reaching everyone back home and starting communication. I loved growing up in Decorah, and I continue to think of it as home.