Cool blue lights dimmed over a crowd of about 60 at the Spreckels Condiotti Theatre Saturday night, where the one-night special of the play, “Munch and His Mentor,” by Norwegian playwright Gunnar Germundson, premiered.
The 60-minute play followed the story of how the painter of the famed work of art, “The Scream,” Edvard Munch, started out in the early years of his career and how his mentors around him and the rise of the Bohemian era of existentialism, inspired him to paint.
Set on a small stage with a backdrop of the deep blue shade of the ocean and a few props of a broken row boat and a seagull, a nod to many of the seascape paintings Munch did throughout his life, five actors took the stage to begin the show.
Germundson, who normally resides in Oslo, Norway, said with this production he wanted to highlight the importance of how the Bohemian era influenced Munch’s personally expressive works.
“There is a lot of subtext and it is a story about why this man ended up painting like he does… The Bohemian experience was very important for this painter. This was the first time that artists, writers and painters had the guts to express themselves subjectively and putting themselves in it (the art), so Munch’s project was to paint his own life,” Germundson said.
Director David Yen, described the play as a set of “nesting dolls,” with the play starting out where we see Edvard trying to get inspiration by painting his muse, played by Shawna Oliva Eiermann, who also played all three of the other woman roles throughout the play.
Yen explained the pacing and content of the play, “There was the idea of ‘let’s stop looking at things from the outside of painting nature and landscapes and start painting things like we experience them internally, that is really what the play is about. It’s about his whole journey and his ongoing battles with his own identity and his need to paint,” Yen said. “The play is written like a series of Russian nesting dolls, there is a story inside of a story, inside another story. It’s a crazy memory rush that Munch is experiencing.”
However, according to Germundson, the play was originally going to be about a group of Bohemian artists meeting together, rather than just Munch, since the rise of this new generation pioneering new ways of thinking about life and society was inspirational to Germundson.
“It started out as a story about the Bohemians in general. They were all over the world, it was similar to the Hippie movement in the sense that it traveled around the world and had the same philosophy. Everything was questioned in a way that is still very much innocent. These young people were the first ones that had to find themselves, so I had a vision of writing about having all these great Bohemians meet; for instance Mark Twain from San Francisco meeting Edvard Munch from Oslo, meeting Walt Whitman from New York and all of these Bohemians that were born out of this movement,” Germundson said.
Yet after four years of research and writing, Germundson realized how important this era was for this particular painter and decided to write about Munch’s life instead.
Germundson normally writes in his home country of Norway, where he has been a playwright for nearly 20 years, however, according to him, he was able to bring his play to America through a variety of sponsors such as the Norwegian American Cultural Foundation, the Royal Norwegian Consulate General in San Francisco and the Norwegian Arts Council.
Gail Shelton, the program coordinator at Spreckels Theatre, said the center will often rent out the theatre space for non-local events and non-theatre events from weddings to funerals.
“We rent the space and contract it out for other events. Usually we do dance performances and we’ve even done weddings,” Shelton said.
However, this event proved to be a unique and challenging one for Director Yen, who was tasked with “Americanizing” the play and getting it ready for an American audience.
“The script when I read it had just been translated from Norwegian into English and there were parts of it that were a thing that I don’t think the American audience would dig, so it was working with him (Germundson) on the play. One of the key things that has been really fun about it was which things were important and why. Like do we need this guy to carry four items or do we need two? But it still retains a lot of its original sensibility,” Yen said.
Despite this different take on directing, Yen said his main goal in directing any play is to tell a good story.
“My approach to directing anything is that I am a storyteller first, so I really want for people to walk away having understood what they are looking at and have gotten something out of it. If it’s something they got out of it, a few laughs and a smile on their face great. If it is something that is thought provoking, great. But I really want people to leave having felt like they can walk away with something feeling enriched,” Yen said.
While the playwright isn’t local to the area, staying on his producer’s farm in Sebastopol for the past few months in preparation of the play, all five of the actors have had acting careers rooted in Sonoma County and have been seen in various Spreckels Theatre productions.
Actor Nate Mercier, who played Munch himself, is about to get his drama certificate from Santa Rosa Junior College and initially became interested in musicals. Mercier said he got his start when he was working at a local market in the deli department and heard a woman frantically talking on the phone saying she needed more actors for a show.
Mercier intervened and said, “why don’t you give me a try,” and he auditioned and then got a spot singing and dancing in a local production of “Chicago.”
After the play concluded, Yen, Germundson and the actors held a Q&A and heard questions and comments from the audience, which gave a resounding round of applause at the end of the show.
One audience member who wants to study theatre himself said of the show, “It’s fascinating work that you’ve done and I think you’ve done a great job.”
However, multiple audience members did pose a suggestion to Germundson on perhaps changing the title of the play, to which he agreed may be a good idea, “I have problems with the title myself, it sounds bad in Norwegian, I’ll think about giving it a new title,” he said.
He noted that maybe they’ll add the word “Bohemian” in the title since the play focuses around the Bohemian ideal, plus, “There is something sexy about the word Bohemian,” Germundson said of the potential name change.
The play is also in conjunction with a Munch exhibit of his work being shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Germundson said that as the exhibition travels to New York, he hopes to take the production to New York as well before premiering the play in Norway.
“It has been a four-year process, so it started in Norway and the world premier is in English, which is very unusual, usually you have a premier in your own language and in your own country and then you travel abroad,” Germundson said.
At the end of the Q&A Germundson noted the importance of the play, and what he hopes the audience and future audiences will get out of it.
“It’s… truly very important for young people to know about the Bohemians,” Germundson said, mentioning how finding oneself is important and how you don’t have to have a career plan when you’re 17 and could instead take the time to discover what hobbies and careers you may want to pursue that will make you happy. “Kids already have a career plan when they are 17, I wonder what they’ll be like when they’re 40…”