When a global pandemic threatens to throw off a cross-nation theatre project, how do you pivot to not only retain the performance, but revolutionise the way we collaborate as artists? We speak to Sinéad Rushe (Royal Central School of Speech and Drama) and Margaret Laurena Kemp (UC Davis) to see how they created 'AntigoneNOW'.
Pre-pandemic, Sinéad was due to travel to the US to work on a collaborative adaptation of 'Antigone' with Margaret and the students at UC Davis, HOWEVER, the global pandemic forced flights to be cancelled and physical performances to halt.
This project was supposed to be a physical project, when did you find out that wasn’t the case?
Margaret: I was thinking about what was going on in the world before the school closed to students, and I had already started to think about what the next steps were and how we would do it. I didn’t want to cancel the production. We had done the auditions and a few table reads of the entire script as written but we hadn’t actually got up on our feet before we went into a different kind of process.
Sinéad: Quite late on, two weeks before we went into lockdown in the UK when the flights to the USA closed, Margaret and I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to go to the USA to work on the project. So we had a conversation about what we could still do. How could we continue the collaboration? Margaret suggested that we make a hybrid performance film of sorts. We hadn’t started any rehearsal process before moving online so we were able to conceive it freshly nearly from the beginning.
What was the response like from the students, what was the feedback?
Margaret: Most of the students were really relieved. A lot of these students hadn’t been in many performances before or this was their first one and they were pretty sure this was going to be cancelled. So even though they didn’t know what they were getting into, they were glad they were still able to do it. A few students were sceptical but they either came on board or decided pretty quickly that this wasn’t the project for them.
How did you guys feel about the project from making that switch, were there concerns from a tech view or was this your first entry into this type of project?
Sinéad: It was certainly a first for me. The only thing I’d done via zoom was acting coaching, but I hadn’t made a project that way so that felt completely new. I’d been involved in a lot of film edits, but I’d never made one from scratch whereas Margaret had and I felt confident that her expertise meant that she could hold up that end of it.
In the early stages I was really concerned about sound because I was thinking the sound was going to be of too low quality. I couldn’t quite imagine people filming this very significant text on their iPads and phones. I could see the images and the poetry – I could see it visually – but I couldn’t get my head around the speaking of the text. In the early stages we had a conversation about buying microphones and posting them out to half a dozen of the actors who would record most of the text. But then there was a point where we said let’s just drop all of that and embrace it for what it is. We’re using peoples’ devices and everything is a little compromised and that will be its beauty. Low fidelity. We needed to lean into its low tech-ness and that also meant from a sound point of view. For me, I had to work to let go of that.
Very early on we got the entire cast to record the whole text as a voice over; even towards the end we were pulling from those recordings. Even though we got lots of performers to record specific sections, we had a base to work with. And then Margaret and I spoke about embracing the fact that even the sound is out of sync, or that the voice isn’t with the body. Even if it was the same actor’s voice and image, we played with moving sound and image out of sync and we began to embrace that instead of working with a sense of lack.
Did you find, especially working across time zones, the sharing of footage and clips quite a long process? For something that may have only taken 5 minutes to fix in person you were working with much longer turn around times on work?
Margaret: It wasn’t so much a problem, but a very accurate description of what was going on! Things would be done during the day here in the US for Sinéad to see in the UK the next morning and you’d realise it was all wrong!
Sinéad: And then it was going to be 24 hrs later before we’d get something! So even at the end, we needed some re-recordings of lines. It was a real time crunch because Margaret was finishing the edit, I was working with the sound engineer and we were sending requests out via email saying ‘can you record those two lines and say them this way, put a break there’ and it would come back and be totally wrong and we had a six hour window to complete! There was a completely different relationship to time that we learnt to work with.
Also being creative under those time pressures must have been a real challenge! Did your students find it difficult to maintain the same level of creativity they would normally have but virtually?
Margaret: 80% of this cast had never done anything like this before, so there was no marker for them! Most of the students are going to be doctors or engineers – our school has expertise in agriculture – so this is something a lot of them do for fun and I think that was one of the things we were able to bring to the process.
Towards the end, the last couple of rounds of images were so rich, I thought if we had another week and a few more opportunities then we would really get some striking imagery. Their investment, their lack of fear and inhibition and their autonomy meant creativity was strong.
Sinéad: It was moving to see the huge journey some actors took from the image they offered at the beginning to the offering towards the end. In terms of the aesthetic proposition, the journey of their creativity really changed. They would see others’ offerings on our shared drive and this would influence their work. There was a process of exchange and collaboration where they were growing as makers of work and learning from each other. The lighting, camera angles, everything was developing.
You can feel that they have that agency on the camera, in their costume and lighting choices and that it is feeding their performance. They had full license over their work. In the beginning we proposed shots in relation to text, but as time went on, either through exhaustion or time or choice, of a combination of all those, we threw it open to say ‘tonight you’re working this section, propose something’ and people began to make propositions. Margaret was building an aesthetic through selecting shots for the edit which helped to drive the creative process.
Margaret: Also a big part of the rehearsal process was to help the actors to think differently about the internet and the constant invitation was to think about how your body can be engaged, how can we make it a 3D exploration and not just a 2D of your headshot. Veronica, who was the digging Antigone, dove into that in a purposeful manner from the early days. That was what the students were bringing: they were thinking about their bodies and about how does Antigone do love, for example, or how does Ismene do betrayal. We said, find the physical life that supports the text. Record that relationship with your digital text and with your digital device.
Sinéad: The one thing we did do was send everyone the white jackets and gloves. It was a conscious decision to try and have all of the Antigones at least be in the same colour and give a suggestion of unity. Wanting to bury the body, yet not being able to touch the body became the story and with the current situation of Covid-19 it became very relevant.
Sinéad: Early on in the edit Margaret was playing around with separating out the sound from a clip. So actually in the final film there are often low-tech sounds of someone running outside with their phone overlaid on top of a completely different clip. This was another way of leaning into the conditions and creating a poetic that had its own logic and charm. Given that there was a polyphony of Antigones it made sense to have a polyphony of sound. Nothing ‘belonged’ to any particular performer playing Antigone; anything could be extracted and transposed to another Antigone. They were one. The ‘chorus’ of Antigones manifested not just in the multiplicity of actors but in the form of the sound and the way sound was collectivised and shared. Our sound designer, Lex Kosanke, enhanced and integrated those choices.
Having finished the project and the final piece, what was the biggest success,challenge and what would be your best advice:
Margaret: My advice is that you need a stage management team! From the outside you might think you don’t need anyone but you need a lot of stage managers. The amount of attention to detail and organisation required means that you need people that really enjoy that task: that’s my advice!
Sinéad: The organisation of the files, categorising and filing properly, chasing up with a performer who hasn’t delivered a scene, all of that coordination is key so to keep a hold of that in a digital world becomes hectic.
Sinéad: One of the challenges was also the sense of not being ‘in the flow’ with the ensemble. A key question is how can you find the flow for you and the ensemble? In the end, I found this with the daily conversations with Margaret on what we were going to do in rehearsal, or about the latest edit or selecting the clips so we had a sense of immersion through this exchange. I like sustained, immersed concentration and I need to be in that space to do anything fruitful so I found it hard to sustain or feel that. It was my own work to find that for myself in the project when I wasn’t in the room or in the same time zone with everybody.
Margaret: It was important to support the actors in helping them to feel that they were an ensemble. No matter where in the world they were, we had to say Saturday or Thursday is our all-day rehearsal. Everybody shows up and because this group of artists felt like they were an ensemble and because there were over 800 pieces of video and the film was twenty minutes long – knowing it was an ensemble and that they created the work really helped. It was crucial to make sure that people felt that every single one of them created the work. Whether their image was used or not, it was a collaborative process. One image may have been cut from the edit, but that image was part of a process that got us to the image that made it into the final film.
Do you think this is the future of what theatre is going to be, even after lockdown will we see a turn to more mixed theatre.
Sinéad: I think there will be a desperate desire to be in the live so I think it will open up interesting questions about what it means to be ‘in the live’ and ‘in the flesh’ together, and to galvanise that as a form. I also think it does open up other ways of working and international collaborations that I feel excited about. I want to embrace what the possibilities are instead of its limitations. This experience will offer positives for both.
Margaret: I agree. Smaller theatres might not be able to bring people in from Berlin for example, so now there may be a way to bring that expertise in virtually which will blend in and be part of that experience instead of just sitting on top.
Sinéad: You have to work hard to find the contact virtually. Of course, we always have to do that anyway in physical rehearsal rooms but the online process makes that effort truly explicit. That’s a good thing.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Theatre director and Senior Lecturer, Acting and Movement - Royal Central School of Speech and Drama
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