Playing now at Studio Theatre, Aaron Posner’s latest adaptation, No Sisters, about the lesser characters of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, is a true companion piece to its renowned counterpart – also currently playing at Studio. The two plays run simultaneously, sharing the same cast members. So, yes, that means the actors are running backstage between two separate theatres on two different floors for two different audiences in two plays, all in the same evening of theatre.
Sarah Scafidi spoke with Aaron about his inspiration and the challenges of this crazy feat of careful timing and engineering: No Sisters.
What’s going with this play?
Aaron Posner: It’s the same core relationships as in Three Sisters. It’s the same struggles, but instead of everything living under the surface as it does with a Chekhov play, it lives much more on the surface. It lives very much in relation to the audience. If Stupid F***ing Bird broke the fourth wall a lot, in this one, there is never a fourth wall. The audience is always there. Every cast member speaks to the audience on a regular basis. The audience is always present. There is a lot of direct address and a lot of monologues, because there are many times when there is only one person available to me at any given time.
So, it does operate on it’s own terms. That’s why I call it a “dramatic poem of heartbreak and longing.” There’s not much plot per se. I mean there’s already not much plot in Three Sisters. It’s not a very plot-y play, and this one has even less. It’s not about plot. It’s about humanity. It’s about human beings, bouncing around and struggling. And so, in that way, it’s sort of like Three Sisters, but it’s done in a very contemporary dynamic.
Would you say that No Sisters is set in modern times?
Absolutely. I mean no one carries a cell phone. We aren’t flouting or highlighting its modernity, but it absolutely feels contemporary. And there is an interesting pull, of course, because the actors are still in their Chekovian clothes. They are in period clothes, but speaking and acting in contemporary ways. So, there is kind of a fun dynamic pull between those things.
The script calls for a live video feed of the Three Sisters production happening in the other theatre.
Yes. Three Sisters is on seven television screens on the set of No Sisters, so we are in continual relationship.
So, we’ll watch someone leave the stage of No Sisters and then be on the TV screens in Three Sisters?
That’s amazing! Tell me more about the design and production values.
It’s pretty open-handed storytelling; there’s nothing very fancy about it. I called the setting, “an awesome kind of weird-ass existential Chekhovian green room.” In some ways, it’s sort of backstage of Three Sisters, but it’s not the actors’ green room, it’s the characters’ green room. It’s where the characters hang out. At the beginning of the play, during the introductions, one of the characters says, “we know we are in a play – we know we are in two plays.” In Three Sisters they don’t know that they in a play, but in No Sisters, they know they are in two plays.
Where did you get the idea for No Sisters?
My wife. I proposed to Studio Theatre that they commission a version of Three Sisters. David Muse said that was interesting, and they’d like to do it in tandem with a production of the real play, and it would be interesting to find ways in which they could be connected. And that became the challenge. I was trying to figure out how you could do it so that they wouldn’t replicate each other but instead be engaged with each other in some interesting way. I was talking with Erin [Weaver, his wife], and she said, “what if you did it with mostly the smaller characters, and they did it at the same time?” And I thought, “well, that’s a crazy idea. You can’t do that,” and then, I thought, “well, maybe you could.” Then the idea of the title No Sisters occurred to me, which I liked. And that was the genesis of the play.
I like plays that ask people to view things in a different way than they have before – to make the event of going to the theatre somehow larger or more challenging or more complex. That’s why I like engaging directly with audiences. That’s why I like challenging assumptions or pushing on boundaries a little bit. No one has ever done this before. The closest equivalent to this is Alan Ayckbourn’s House and Garden, which was two different shows happening in two different theatres for two different audiences. But they were the exact same characters being written by one playwright. We are trying to create a production that responds to an existing classic – if anyone has ever done it before, we can’t find any evidence. It’s an exciting and really challenging thing to do.
Tell me about some of the challenges. I’m sure timing everything between the two productions is really tough.
Well, to try and write a play – it is hard to write a play period – but to try and write a play like this? Each of the four acts of No Sisters and Three Sisters are the exact same length. I can only have the actors who are available when they not on stage of Three Sisters. Some of the restrictions are artificial – they are chosen restrictions – but that became part of the game going on in addition to the play. So, figuring out, for example, if all of a sudden they add a little piece of music to Three Sisters, and their show is 20 seconds longer, I have to figure out how to adjust for that. And if I want to change a scene, or change the dynamic of something, that means something else has to change elsewhere. If I want to cut or if I want add – everything has ramifications. That is certainly challenging.
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closes April 23, 2017
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Have you been in the Three Sisters rehearsals?
A little bit to get the tone of things, but not much because we are rehearsing at the same time. The challenge for the stage managers is significant because everything is timed and coordinated, and the shows have to run together and be called together. A lot of the challenges are logistical, and a lot of them are artistic too. Eventually, of course, at the heart of everything, as cool, interesting, and fun an idea as this is, is it a good play? We already know that Three Sisters is a very good play. So, the real goal is to make sure that No Sisters, in and of itself, is a rewarding, engaging, and enjoyable play.
What do Three Sisters and No Sisters have to offer us in today’s world?
Chekhov is not a timely playwright. He’s writing about really core, basic questions that I think have been around as long as there has been civilization – or at least modern civilization in the last couple thousand years. Can I find somebody to love me? How will I get along? How will I get through these day-to-day struggles? How can I be happier? How can I get along with other people? How can I be fulfilled?
It’s not esoteric or complex or topical. How do you live in relation to your family? How do you find your true self? They’re the big core questions of being a human being. They are always relevant. They are never particularly timely, and they are never out of fashion. One of my favorite quotes of Chekhov’s was, “any idiot can survive a crisis, it’s the day-to-day living that wears you out.” That’s the experience of being a human being. Sometimes, it’s just hard to be alive. And I think that’s what he was writing about more than anything else.
I think it’s interesting to see that played out in two really different ways – the same issues, the same core struggles. For example, Natasha in Three Sisters can’t lash out, so she acts out in small ways through infidelities and through being a bitch to the servants. She has to act out in these ways, whereas in No Sisters, she can express herself and call Andre out on the carpet and scream and curse. She has a fuller range of expression because it is 100 years later. I think it’s interesting to see the way that the different time affects these characters.
You seemed to have created a niche for yourself, adapting books, Shakespeare, and Chekhov into new plays. What is that draws you to that form?
I guess part of it is that I have always loved getting to work with a genius in the room. So, whether I’m directing Shakespeare or adapting Kurt Vonnegut or Chekhov or Shakespeare, I’m living in direct relation to truly master storytellers – these great geniuses of storytelling. Whether I’m reimagining a Shakespeare play, where I’m doing reimagining the setting and trying to find a concept or idea of how to do it, or if I’m doing my own adaptations, it seems the same for me: it’s getting to work with, in some odd alchemical way, a genius in the room. And that’s just always been something I’ve loved.
In some ways, it mimics the experience of reading. You get to sit down with a great author and have this world open up to you because you’re being taken on a journey by a genius who takes your hand and leads you through the story. I never thought, “oh, I’m such a great genius as a person that I want to make up my own stories and hope that they’re worthwhile.” I think, obviously, that’s what the great playwrights do, but I became a playwright totally through directing. And it was because I was always wanting to live in relation to the other storytellers whose worlds I enjoyed so much and whose work I respected so much. So, that’s been my way into it, and I’ve found it to be a great balance for me that satisfies all parts of me as a creator and as an interpreter.
You mentioned that with No Sisters and with Stupid F***ing Bird, there are many moments of direct address and moments that surprise us as audience members and push the boundaries of what we might define as a typical theatrical experience. Why do you like using those moments in your writing?
I’m writing plays that I want to see. Thirty years ago when I started the Arden Theatre Company, we were doing adaptations. The very first show of our first season was an adaptation. I always wanted to create something that didn’t ever pretend that the audience wasn’t in the room. Shakespeare was doing the same thing. Chekhov has soliloquies. I’m not interested in pretending there is a fourth wall: realism. Maybe a tenth of the plays I’ve directed have had a fourth wall, pretending that the audience isn’t there. It’s never been where I’ve lived.
And so, taking that further and further: Stupid F***ing Bird certainly took it a step, Life Sucks took it a little further, No Sisters takes it further still. I’m not dis-interested in the truly immersive, where you actually throw out any separation between the actor and audience, but I’m still interested in a story being told. So, my inclination isn’t to go all the way to Sleep No More’s kind of immersive dynamic. I like the story. I like where we offer up a story but the audience can be directly implicit in it, can be directly indicted in it, and can be an active participant in the production. It seems more interesting and exciting to me.
What is next for you?
On March 21st, I start rehearsals for Or, at Round House – which has Holly Twyford, Erin Weaver, and Gregory Linington in it, so it’s a great group.
Is there anything more DC audiences should know about No Sisters?
It’s a great cast. We are asking eight actors to go up and down stairs and be in two plays simultaneously. It’s an incredibly ridiculous and odd challenge. They are crafting this performance into one performance – trying to rope these two plays into a single, seamless event in their minds, which I think is pretty fascinating. I am moved by them, and grateful to them for everything they bring to the production.