In ‘A Doll House,’ CCBC theater students bring lessons to life

“We are all just dolls” (Frey Photographic)

A trip to most college bookstores is an excursion into the conventions of campus life. Tee-shirts and trinkets mix with pencils and paper, and a plethora of grossly overpriced textbooks. In short, these stores carry all the essentials for a busy school year. All, that is, except for stage make-up and a generous supply of greasepaint.

I don’t know if the bookstore at the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) carries greasepaint or stage make-up. The store was closed when I was there last Tuesday night. But the theater adjacent to the bookstore was open for a run through of Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll House. Director Nancy Murray invited me in to watch as her talented cast worked through their last technical rehearsal.

CCBC has a proud tradition of putting on outstanding plays. Between the Essex and Catonsville campuses, CCBC stages five different productions a year. Program coordinator Julie Lewis (who was on hand for the tech rehearsal) told the Baltimore Post-Examiner there are about 25 theater majors enrolled at Essex and another 10-15 at the Catonsville campus. Together with set designers, artists, make-up people, tech crews and costume and prop makers, more than 100 students participate in these college productions every semester.

A Doll HOuse Cast LARGE
The cast of CCBC’s A Doll House (Frey Photographic)

“These shows have a broad appeal across our campus.” Lewis explained. “It’s not just our theater majors, but English, Sociology and many other disciplines come on board to learn the craft or fill out the audience. Some students take theater as an elective.”

A handful of the students graduate and go on to careers on the stage; in film, T.V. or commercials. Others stay close to home, but continue to act in amateur or semi-professional productions.

CCBC also supports the long-lived summer series Cockpit in Court, the Dundalk Community Players, Children’s Playhouse of Maryland and the Senior Showcase.

“We really cover theater here from cradle to grave,” Lewis said.

I found a seat just behind Murray and Lewis as the lights slowly dimmed and the technical rehearsal got underway.

A Doll House was first staged in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1879 and was one of the most controversial plays produced in that era. A prose play in three acts, A Doll House tackles the marital norms of the 1800’s and concludes with the cental character making choices more akin to a 21st century woman. Originally penned in Ibsen’s native Norwegian, the script the students are working with was translated by Rolfe Fjeld.

The first act moved dutifully along, and there are only a few minor hic-ups on the technical side. The lighting on one part of the stage seems faint; a video clip is somehow misplaced. I also notice some odd stage business, and a few problems with vocal projection and pacing but see director Murray busily taking notes.

It’s hard to write in the dark, but Murray somehow manages to jot things down as she moves about the theater, checking sight lines from different seats to make sure her blocking isn’t blocking anybody. This is Murray’s first show at Essex but the tall, striking woman is no stranger to the stage.

Nancy Murray is well known around Baltimore as a thoughtful writer, an accomplished actress and an able theatrical director. Murray said that over the years she has directed all levels of talent, but she prefers working with the students because of the academic element.

“They have to put their schooling first, and many of them also have part-time jobs, so you work around their schedules and rehearse whenever you can actually get the students together. They really have to be dedicated to be here.”

Murray said the students have been studying Ibsen’s iconic play in class this semester. “They’ve been talking about its nordic roots and the difficulties found in its various translations, so they are coming to this production pretty well prepared.”

The students aren’t the only ones who have been leafing through the pages of A Doll House. Several potential audience members have also called Murray to say they are reading this play ahead of the curtain.

Maia Punksungka as Nora looks at life through the prism of A Doll House (Frey Photographic)

There is a break at the end of Act I and Murray and Lewis compare notes. The pair are joined by Scenic/Lighting Designer/Technical Director Terri Raulie. Together with stage manager, Sarra Lewis, they talk about wigs, stage directions, sound effects, lighting and some problems with one of the actor’s make-up.

Sarra (no relation to professor Lewis) is a sophomore in the AFA program. Interestingly, stage managing this show is her first try at working backstage. “I’m seeing all sorts of mistakes as I watch the play, so I’m making adjustments as we go along.”

Sarra admits she got off to a rough start. “For an actor, it’s a completely different view working behind the scenes. I notice a whole lot more when I’m up in the booth.”

Like the fact that it’s almost time to begin Act II. Sarra excused herself and returned to the booth as the house lights started to fade.

With the exception of the dance scene, the next two acts went off without a hitch. After practicing their bows, the actors repaired to the dressing room to get out of costume. Once that task was complete, they returned to the stage for some notes from Murray.

Thomas P. Gardner appears as Krogstad in A Doll House.
Thomas P. Gardner appears as Krogstad in A Doll House.

Thomas P. Gardner, the actor who portrays the wily Nils Krogstad in this production, is a first-year theater major at CCBC. Gardner has appeared in a number of shows – mostly musicals – over the last seven years, spending time in the footlights of several area stages including the Phoenix Festival Theater at Harford Community College and at his alma mater The John Carroll School in Bel Air.

Gardner says his favorite roles are Phil Davis in White Christmas and Captain Von Trapp in the Sound of Music, but he believes appearing in this production will help him sharpen his acting skills. “I’ve done a lot of musicals, but in those shows, the book is almost an after-thought. This will give me some experience at developing stage relationships and better characterizations.”

It will also give Gardner and fellow thespians plenty to think about as they continue their studies.

Hereford High graduate William B. Meister (who plays Torvald) broke into the conversation to agree when Gardner said, “We had this discussion in class today about the play. One of our classmates said he thought Torvald was an abusive character, but we said, ‘you’re wrong’. Torvald acts that way because of the social constructs of the time.”

Director Murray laughed lightly when she heard this and retorted, “So, we don’t leave room for creative interpretation?” The entire cast joined in with the laughter at this friendly give and take, but Murray’s point was well made. Even away from the classroom the education of these eager young actors continues.

William B. Meister as the overbearing Torvald in A Doll House.
William B. Meister as the overbearing Torvald in A Doll House.

Murray addressed each player and critiqued everything from entrances, dialogue and make-up. A’anisah K. Saunderlin was wearing a zigzag pattern below her eyes; that would have to go. Ian McDonnell had misplaced his red dancing scarf. Juan Hunter needed to project a bit more.

There were notes, too, for Ashley Saville and Rebecca Goode, then Murray gave a few final instructions to the entire cast. “Are you breathing deeply,” she asked. “Warming up between each act? If you don’t do this, there will be no modulation in your voice. You will just be saying lines, not acting.”

The director also reminded the players that, “Rehearsal is the time to try things out to see what works. Not in front of the audience during the run.”

Murray finally dismissed the cast and turned to give a few quick notes to her stage manager, Sarra Lewis.

Freshman student Maia Punksungka stopped briefly to talk with me about being cast in the lead of A Doll House. Maia is the wild card in this cast, in that, unlike the Theater majors who surround her on stage, she is actually a Secondary Math Education major. Maia sees no conflict here; to the contrary, she says, “Acting can help me now with my communication skills and with the way I will interact with my future students.”

A’anisah K. Saunderlin & Maia Punksungka in Henrik Ibsen's A Doll House (Anthony C. Hayes)
A’anisah K. Saunderlin & Maia Punksungka in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House (Anthony C. Hayes)

Maia said she has been acting since she was in the sixth grade. Her talent helped to place her among the top students in the area when she was enrolled at the Carver Center for the Arts & Technology in nearby Towson.

“At Carver, they had the best of the best and I was never cast in a lead. But I decided to try out for A Doll House, thinking, ‘What have I got to lose?’ I thought, well, at least here, I might have a chance to be cast in a small part, such as the nurse. I was surprised when I got the lead. So many good people showed up for the casting call.”

Having watched Maia so thoroughly inhabit the part of the oft belittled, embattled wife Nora, it is hard to imagine her playing any other role in this production.

I returned to the stage to finish my earlier conversation with Sarra Lewis. Sarra said she plans to move to New York after she graduates from CCBC, to do as much acting there as she can and perhaps someday land in Hollywood. Till then, she’ll continue her studies in school and audition for every show.

It was clear that Sarra longs to return to the stage, but I wondered if this experience behind the scenes has changed her approach as an actress?

“I will be more serious going forward with my own acting career. Be on time, have this cue or that prop ready because it’s so important for the other actors. And I’ll put myself out there. Acting is serious work, and to get better, you have to do tons and tons of shows.”

And learn lines and work on characterizations and stay at school long after other students are gone.

Seven student actors appear in this production of A Doll House, and another thirty-some are waiting in the wings.

It may be time for the campus store to stock some make-up and greasepaint along with their t-shirts, trinkets and very expensive textbooks.

The CCBC – Essex Campus production of A Doll House runs now – Oct. 22. Showtimes on the 17,18,19 are at 8:00 p.m. The curtain for the Oct. 21 show at 10:00 am. Oct. 22 is at 2:00 pm. Tickets and more information may be found here.