Three Sisters in the bubble

One moment, they were rehearsing Anton Chekhov’s seminal Three Sisters for the first time, the next moment New Zealand went into lockdown and the world was spun on its head for Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington THEA301 students, who had been readying themselves for a choreographed production of Russian theatre.

“I had this strong image of creating it in the theatre, having it in traverse with the audience either side, and having very beautiful stylised images and lots of choreography, and that just went out the window,” says Professor David O’Donnell from the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies.

“I had chosen Three Sisters for the 20-person class to perform because that period of Russian theatre was all about the ensemble company, which is the point of the course—to form a theatre company to put on a full-length show.”

The theme of the play is the yearning of three sisters, stuck in a small town miles away from anywhere, to move back to Moscow. “We realised while it references Russian things from 100 years ago, these are stories we can recognise now, especially from our bubbles,” notes Professor O’Donnell.

His co-director for the play was alumna and independent director Cassandra Tse, invited by  Professor O’Donnell’s vision of a ‘Greta Gerwig-like’ take on the classic, who became the driving force towards creating a web-based production.

“We chose to use digital storytelling to produce the play because I thought that would be most interesting to the audience, allowing students to get as many opportunities to do different forms of performance as possible. It is kind of a collage storytelling system, where we have bits in video, bits in audio-drama style, some monologues, and sketches and illustrations as well,” says Cassandra.

“It’s an amalgam of these different types of forms, which I think is one of the things that web-based storytelling does really well.”

The team found that creating a web-based production involved all of the traditional roles of a theatre company—lighting, sound, props, set design—and more.

“When we had our first production meetings, before we came back after the break, we had a clamour of students saying ‘oh, I can edit video’, and ‘I love doing storyboards.’ One of the visual concepts students proposed was that it was presented in black and white, but with colour isolation—there was a student who knew how to do that as well,” says Cassandra.

“We were scattered through the country,” says Professor O’Donnell. “I’ve found it kind of magic when I’ve been watching some of the footage, where two or three people are acting, and the backgrounds match—I keep forgetting that those people were in completely different places. Everyone was in isolation, having to imagine the other actor.”

Student actor Kate Hudspith-Gooch says, “Occasionally we used our phones to read ‘opposite’ one another, to keep the sponteneity and intimacy of the moment. This was really important, as this is a theatre show, not a film.”

Video scenes have no more than two or three people, while audio only was used for bigger crowd scenes, with sound mixing to make the distance melt away.

Kate says of  the production process, “We had lectures, then on Tuesday we had production meetings where we could check in with one another about the process to make sure we were on track, then rehearsals three times a week in the evenings.

“It was unusual—I’m not used to doing rehearsal from my bed—but we would still engage our body in things. If I was just sitting and talking to a camera, it won’t sound interesting, so we had to be physical with our bodies to make our voice work as good as it could be.”

The company recorded everything on Saturdays, with each person recording their part to their phone in individual clips, then the sound editing team bringing them together, adding sound effects and music.

“We have a very talented composer in our class,” says Professor O’Donnell, “so he has just been composing wonderful music that added so much to the atmosphere. He wrote a theme for each of the different characters, which we’ve used occasionally throughout the production.”

The directorial process for film and audio is very different from directing for stage, he says. “That was a challenge, with radio you have to put a lot of vocal energy in, you have to be very clear, and if people were moving around physically, it sounded much better in their voice. But on film, you have to be quite still, you have to be very truthful. It’s a more intimate kind of medium.”

“It’s like two opposites of the acting spectrum,” says Cassandra. “It was as much a learning curve learning to direct this type of production as it was to act on it. This was actually my first time working with another director on something, it was fantastic to have David and his clear vision to begin with.”

While unexpected, the switch to a digital production built the skills of the participating students in exciting ways.

“I feel like the thing about working today in arts is that most people work across different mediums, without them becoming a replacement for live theatre,” says Cassandra.

“I feel like the students will find this useful in terms of making them adaptable and resilient and being able to work effectively in arts industries. A lot of people in the industry are saying ‘this will change theatre forever, because we’ve learned new skills, we’ve found new audiences online,’ and our students have had the exact same experience,” says Professor O’Donnell.

“But it has made us hunger for live theatre again.”

Kate says, “We aren’t going to forget this. It’s the first production of its kind in this course, and it’s going to be remembered. It pushed me, but looking back, I don’t think I would rather have done this any other way.”

Three Sisters will be available on from Friday 12 June.