– Simon McBurney
One of the many things I love about the theatre is the transient nature of the work we create. But when the pandemic hit, work as we knew it either stopped or had to pivot. Many of us, including Akvarious Productions, took the digital resources available and started sharing our stories online. Then we got a call from the Aadyam Theatre Initiative asking us if we wanted to revive our 2015 production of The Hound of the Baskervilles for the digital medium. That production had shut down, so while this opportunity was exciting, it also proposed a challenge not just to revisit in a pandemic, but to reinvent.
When mounting a new production in ordinary times you would start with planning, move onto development and then end with the presentation. But these were extraordinary times; while the planning could go on without much variation from the norm, the development and presentation phases were significantly altered. The rehearsals, which are the backbone of any production, and take up the most amount of time, were to be conducted in a short span of time, most of it apart. The development of set, props and costumes, which usually consists of recces, shopping trips, and physical production meetings, now had to be carefully considered, and remotely executed. Even the presentation, which is a live show to a live audience, was now being done in an empty theatre, to multiple cameras, with additional considerations of camera angles, framing, continuity, editing and post-production.
One thing we were certain of, from the beginning, was that to do justice to this text it needed to be performed in continuity, as a non-stop run, even though we had the option of doing multiple takes for multiple scenes. That made it more challenging, but it ensured we kept the theatrical essence of the production intact.
Rehearsals started online as soon as the project was greenlit in September. This proved to be a challenge because the show rests on the three actors who play over fifteen characters, and the energy of three people in the same room cannot be recreated in three little windows on a computer screen. Therefore the time was spent in the cast familiarising themselves with the text and all the characters they had to portray. We also mapped out areas on the set that certain scenes would take place and actors’ entries and exits. All this to ensure that we had a solid foundation to jump off of when we finally were in a room together. Also keeping in mind the limited physical rehearsals we would get, we planned to have all costumes and props ready before our first day.
The first day of physical rehearsal felt surreal. I was meeting people who I had only seen on screens for over eight months. Even though I was one of the lucky few who was able to work through the lockdown, all the work was online, and nothing can replicate the feeling of actually creating work for stage with collaborators you love. After over a month of poring over excel sheets, google slides and zoom windows, we could finally touch, feel and play. This is when the production really took off.
While health and safety of the team is an important consideration in all the work we create, this time there was the added pressure of the coronavirus. Every decision we made individually and as a company had to be looked at from the lens of health and safety, and some of these were factors we didn’t consider before. We kept the team small to limit our exposure, we ensured food and water was never shared, we sanitised everything before it was used, we limited rehearsal hours to limit exposure, we found well-ventilated rehearsal spaces and everyone made a concerted effort to limit their social interactions outside of the team, for the duration we were together.
Creating for the camera also meant the attention to detail had to be different. A black and white chequered costume whose contrast was wonderful for stage, had to be dyed so that it wouldn’t jitter on camera. Fake food had to look fake as required by the script but detailed enough to look almost real in close-ups. Lighting levels could only be set once the cameras had checked them. But once we got to the theatre, everything felt almost normal. We were going to shoot the play as a continuous run, a few times over, so we followed a regular production schedule. The presentation phase of setup, technical rehearsals and runs, even if for a largely empty theatre and a few cameras, felt so good.
As I write this, with the liberty of editing and backspacing so that you, the reader, can read the perfect piece, we’re also editing the ‘play’. And I’m acutely aware that both these things I’m doing are attempts to preserve moments we created in the present, to be consumed at some point in the future. Not something I’m used to, or looking forward to getting used to.
I have gone on to do live shows and another play shoot after we shot The Hound of The Baskervilles but it will remain special for many reasons. This was the first project I got to work on in the new normal. It allowed me to expand my skills and knowledge about this new medium that we are all adapting to. It allowed me work with and be in the company of people I love and admire and had sorely missed in the past many months. But most importantly, it allowed me to be in a theatre again!