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Three Sisters – in wartime, in plague time, in all times | Some reflections from a director in process

by Sara Holdren

EDITOR’S NOTE: Originally planned for staging in January 2022, preparations for Three Sisters were halted due to the Omicron Covid-19 variant. Rescheduled for a June production run, the cast and creative team had to wait some months before they could get back into the rehearsal room. Director Sara Holdren shares a reflection penned during that in-between time in Spring 2022, considering Chekhov’s play, the escalation of Russian violence in Ukraine, and the question: How do we make art at all in the face of the world’s endless brutality?

May 9, 2022
Day 1 of rehearsal, round two

Yesterday, as I was coming up here on the train, I missed a call from my partner, Beau, who is a writer. Then I got a text: “Someone just took Mass Ambiguous Loss.”

What this means is: Someone—in fact, a really exciting someone—just accepted one of Beau’s stories for publication. And not just any story. This is a big story that’s been out there, on submission, for a long time. It’s also an incredible story. It’s wrenching, compassionate, keen, and beautiful. There was absolutely no reason for it not to have a home. But, all the same, the waiting had been protracted and crazy-making. Hope had started to fade.

But yesterday, someone said, “Yes. This is amazing. We are publishing this.” And then I spent the train ride thinking about the story, about how what it’s about is, in fact, what Three Sisters is about — and what both are about is the State That We Are In. “Mass Ambiguous Loss.” That’s the title. And that’s what we’re all living with. “Ambiguous loss” is a psychological term — it was coined in the 1970s by Pauline Boss, a researcher who studied the families of soldiers who went missing in action. Wikipedia says: “Ambiguous loss is a loss that occurs without a significant likelihood of reaching emotional closure or a clear understanding.” Then scale it. Make it massive. And here we are.

Here’s something that I wrote exactly two months ago — in the precise middle of the time my ensemble and I spent apart, after our original rehearsal process was shut down on New Year’s Eve thanks to Omicron. I’ve found myself looking for rituals lately, for ways of acknowledging and releasing grief and also for ways of seeing and celebrating the present moment. Let this be the start of our ritual. Sing in me, muse, as they say. Very well. An invocation:

 

March 9, 2022

It’s March 9, 2022.

Here in a coffee shop in Richmond, Virginia, 5,000 miles away from the bombs that a mad Russian autocrat is dropping on civilians, I am sitting, trying to write about the necessity of a century-old Russian play.

The truth is, I’m not interested in the bits of inane news floating across my screen about universities banning Dostoevsky (an excellent way to stick it to a maniacal fascist: ban books). The question I think artists will find themselves wrestling with under the shadow of this new war isn’t, “Oh dear, how do we approach Russian art?” — after all, getting antsy about producing Chekhov or reading Bulgakov or Akhmatova because of Putin’s atrocities would be like eschewing James Baldwin or Walt Whitman because of Abbott, McConnell, or Trump.

The question is more essential, I think, and much harder. The question is, in fact, the only question; its edges are just sharper, glaring in the hard light of yet more violence, yet more loss. The question is: How do we make art at all in the face of the world’s endless brutality? Can we? Should we? If we can—if we’re lucky enough to still have the option, or brave enough to do it anyway—what form should it take? What can it do? Can it do anything at all?

In 1985, the founder of Bread and Puppet Theater, Peter Schumann, wrote, “All art is faced with starving children and apocalyptic politics. All art is ashamed and angry and desolate because of its impotence in the face of reality.”

In 1900, Chekhov wrote a play. Though it was the only one of his plays he didn’t describe as a comedy, it was hilarious. It was—is—also wild, angry, and desolate; devastated and devastating; a reckoning with the world’s chaos, with the shattering disparity between our dreams and our realities. It’s a ragged-throated howl of frustration and a giddy, hysterical laugh; a dance of grief and desire and impotence; and a resolution to go on despite everything. It’s called Three Sisters, and it’s as vital now as it ever was.

This is the play I—we—have been working on for months — perhaps, for some of us, years. It’s a play I’ve carried with me for over a decade, all the way from a scrappy, site-specific college production, through the winding mountain passes of grad school, up to the preparation and, finally, the start of rehearsals for an actual, honest-to-god production in the winter of 2022: a dream, it seemed, come true.

Of course, I should have realized what Chekhov has to say about dreams. Here we stand—bruised, tentative, a little lightheaded perhaps—about to Begin Again on our Three Sisters, a production which has technically now been delayed twice by the ravages of COVID.

But in the tumult of the days and months that have passed since our New Year’s Eve shutdown, one thing has been clear to me: This play is even deeper, broader, more profound, more humane than I thought it was. It’s a play that expands in the face of chaos — be it the chaos of personal pain and precarity, or the fearful widening gyre of the larger world. It opens up and holds it all, saying softly, a little wryly: This is what I’ve been about, all along. I am about human beings trying to live together in the face of crushing uncertainty and loss. I am about being trapped in a house with the same people for months on end. I am about loving those people and loathing them. I am about the absolute absurdity of being alive — the joy, the sorrow, the despair, the fear, the aspiration, the disappointment, the foolishness, the exhaustion, the resolve. I am here, bottomless and generous, ready to speak to the present, whoever and whatever it holds.

The Three Sisters we are creating together is messy and exuberant — full of pain and full of life. It’s a joyful defiance of our American preconceptions of Chekhov, whose name we tend to associate with ennui, nostalgia, a kind of privileged wistfulness: We hear Three Sisters and we think of Masterpiece Theater, of women on couches in dresses that look like couches, women drinking tea with men in uniform and complaining, women looking out windows at birch trees and sighing.

This isn’t the play. This is the starchy, stiff-necked cul de sac in which the play is being held hostage. It’s easy to be fooled by Chekhov’s ostensible domesticity (hell, it’s easy to be fooled by our own), but it’s a sad fate for the Prozorov siblings, whose story is all about rattling ferociously at the bars of your cage. Every house cat knows it’s actually a tiger — you can see it in their eyes. One day, they go to sleep dreaming, I’ll wake up enormous and free. That’s the tragedy, and the deep comedy, of Three Sisters. It’s a world full of cats, prowling, dreaming. It’s a wake for great, inarticulate loss — of our younger selves, of our dearest hopes, of the world we once imagined. And then, it’s a summons: to wake up again on the morning after the darkest night, to step out the door and keep walking.

This is the Three Sisters we are building here, now. It’s a world of dream ballets and epic rock anthems, of the unabashedly theatrical lurking inside the deceptively domestic. There’s Queen and Talking Heads, there’s puppets and ghosts, there’s a marching band. There’s curiosity and awkwardness, playfulness and sexiness, rage and yearning. There are no birch trees. We eat ennui for breakfast. We howl into the wind. We turn and face the strange.

Okay. Ready? Let’s go.