The UF School of Theatre and Dance’s production “The New Mrs. Tesman” will open Friday.
The play is a twist on Henrik Ibsen’s classic “Hedda Gabler.” The adaptation of Ibsen’s play came about after Michael “Mikell” Pinkney, a UF professor of theatre and the coordinator of minority affairs, noticed a lack of “visible minority” actors — particularly a lack of African-American male actors, he said.
For UF, there is less American diversity, specifically in the number of African-American students, than that of foreign diversity or of students coming from different countries, Pinkney said.
“Diversity has become different,” Pinkney said.
The adaptation focuses on Hedda, the daughter of the first minority member of the Parliament of Canada. Pinkney said Hedda could be similar to President Barack Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, in regard to leading a less-than-normal life.
The adaptation, however, is about Hedda’s irrationality and is an investigation into what makes a human being act in that manner. The entire story unfolds within a 24-hour period.
While researching for the adaptation, Pinkney found that moving the setting of the play from late-19th-century Norway to 1950s Canada meant he could keep the cold climate, which is central to the play, and create an opportunity to fill the cast with “visible minority” students.
As the coordinator for minority affairs, Pinkney said he, both accidentally and purposefully, created this opportunity for minority actors at UF to take part in the production.
“It really makes the play work on another level in regard to that,” he said.
Playing two of the central characters in the play are Chelsi Stancil and Ernest Briggs, both UF third-year graduate students acting in the play for their thesis roles.
Stancil plays Hedda Gabler, a Canadian Parliament member’s daughter who’s fun, mischievous and bored out of her mind. Lovingly referred to as the “female Hamlet” by Stancil, Hedda’s character is larger than life.
Briggs plays Judge Brack, a character who is almost the male version of Hedda.
Briggs said he shares some similarities with his character, but for the most part they are polar opposites.
“He’s larger than life; I like to think of myself as being somewhat normal,” he said.
Playing an antagonist is something Briggs wasn’t used to. Up to this point, he has played “the nice guy” but is excited to play a role in which the character’s agenda wasn’t readily apparent.
“I like to think that if you do it subtly, that by the end you can say, ‘Wow, I didn’t see that coming,’” he said.
When Stancil found out she landed the role of Hedda, she said she was proud and thankful. Since her undergraduate work, Stancil said she usually has been cast as older characters and never as the leading lady. She thanked Pinkney specifically for adapting this play and giving her an opportunity to portray the role she always wanted.
“I can be all of these different characters,” she said. “I don’t have to be a stereotype.”
For both Stancil and Briggs, these are their most important roles during their time at UF.
Rehearsals for the show first started with the artists on their feet. Because this production is done on an arena stage, or a theater-in-the-round, the actors had to feel comfortable moving in spirals.
“You have to be aware of the audience at all times,” Stancil said, “because if you stand in a particular spot, you might be blocking an audience member.”
For this reason, the actors had to look for “safe places” where they could stand without blocking anything.
For both Stancil and Briggs, this is the first time they will be performing totally surrounded by the audience.
Because Stancil is playing the title role, she will be onstage for nearly the entire production.
Having the audience so close while performing helps her make sure she is focused the entire time, she said.
Pinkney said he hopes audience members leave with their own sets of questions after seeing the play.
Because this play is about what happens behind closed doors, Briggs said people should come ready to pay attention to what the characters do not say to each other on stage.
“So much of what this show is going to be about is subtly and about finding moments between characters,” he said.
Stancil said people should come to the play ready to step into Hedda’s world.
“Come ready to listen and experience the different relationships between these characters. Come ready to laugh; it’s okay to laugh,” she said.
“The New Mrs. Tesman” opens 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Black Box Theatre in the Nadine M. McGuire Theatre and Dance Pavilion. Ticket prices range from $13 for students with valid IDs, $15 for faculty, staff and senior citizens and $18 for the general public.