Interview: Chalk Roots Theatre’s Saulius Kovalskas on the Company’s Out of Control Series

What do you do when you’re a theatre maker without the means of creating live theatre for live audiences? You adapt. You go online. You create work which tells the stories of our current experiences and explore the human condition through a slightly different lens – at least that’s what Chalk Roots Theatre (and others) have been doing. Here, Artistic Director Saulius Kovalskas discusses the online series Out of Control, giving some great insights into both the material and the intentions behind it…

Before we talk about the Out of Control series, can you tell me a little about how your love of theatre began and your route into the industry as a director?

As a child, I would often go to see puppet theatre with my mum. The exact details of the shows I saw escape me but to this day I remember the sensation of sitting in the audience and trembling with anticipation as the lights were about to go out – as if suspended on the threshold between two worlds. And then the curtain would rise revealing a completely different reality. Suddenly puppets were able to speak and move, inanimate objects would come to life and act upon feelings and desires, the intensity of which, as it seemed to me at the time, rarely an adult was capable of.

But even more memorable was the frame of mind with which I walked back out to reality. On the way home it seemed that every pebble I stepped on was a living being, with its own intricate inner world. After a while this effect would wear off and then I’d yearn to return back to theatre – back to this mysterious way of seeing the world.

Such pursuit – or rather an attempt to hold onto one’s childhood led me to Theatre Directing studies at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre under prof. Jonas Vaitkus – to whom I’m grateful to this day. He would hint at the path one could take but never enforce it, leaving it up to ourselves to discover the pace and direction in the dark woods filled with our inner demons. Constantly questioning and doubting ourselves until finally arriving at the realisation that such is the nature of our craft: no straightforward and easy paths exist. Each theatrical venture is a journey into the unknown, a calling to rise up to the challenge and strive for perfection, which, while unattainable, is something that you endeavour towards again and again.

And as Artistic Director of Chalk Roots Theatre, can you tell us a little about the company?

Chalk Roots Theatre is a London-based ensemble of recent Drama Centre graduates and myself, with a small but constantly growing pool of other collaborators joining us depending on the venture.

The company was born out of necessity: we found ourselves wanting to delve into classical literature: explore the timeless ideas that govern our lives, their manifestation here and now – and present them in a contemporary manner without rewriting or changing what the playwrights wrote.

We had chosen the play – Strindberg’s ‘The Pelican’ (which, fittingly, opened Strindberg’s own Intimate Theatre back in 1907), translated by Gregory Motton, who’s not only an expert on Strindberg but also a strong advocate of translations that preserve the author’s intentions and worldview rather than versions or adaptations that often have little to do with the original play. Then we were joined by a set designer and composer duo – at that point we had to either begin submitting proposals and wait for outside intervention – potentially forever, or proceed to stage the work with what means we had available, asking for favours and depending on the kindness of others. We chose the latter and that’s how Chalk Roots Theatre came to being.

So moving on to Out of Control then, it’s billed as ‘a creative response to the human condition in lockdown’. I won’t asked what inspired such a thing… but I will ask whether you think our current situation is helping new work to be seen and heard in a significant way? Is that the silver lining for theatre in this pandemic maybe?

I wouldn’t equate live theatre with online lockdown performances. The two, while they share some similarities, are completely different mediums, with their own grammar and tools of expression.

This new genre of lockdown theatre being presented online is something that we’ve just begun to explore. While the absence of live theatre definitely sparked some interest in online performances, unless the theatre finds a way to adapt, using the limitations of the medium to its benefit rather than outright ignoring them, the audiences will turn away in favour of other forms of storytelling: cinema and audio theatre being just a few examples that utilise this medium a lot better.

I’d say that the current conditions are more of a challenge to the theatre than anything else. If we accept this call for new forms and new ways of working, we could discover something that could not only reveal the present human condition in previously unseen depths but also inform future theatrical practices – for theatre is constantly evolving and adapting, being changed by our ephemeral relationship to an-ever-changing present moment.

And if we shy away from this call to action… To quote Peter Brook: “Lack of invention is not simplicity, just dull theatre”.

Your callout for playwrights asked for six monologues and those selected are a combination of established playwrights and newcomers. Who ‘handpicked’ this collective and if it was you, what sorts of things made these writers and their work stand out amongst the submissions?

We did discuss the pieces with the actors but essentially it was my responsibility to assemble the showcase. We got a fantastic response to our callout – in less than a week over a hundred pieces were submitted. But in the end, only six pieces could be selected as we were limited by the means we had: Out of Control was conceived during the period when there was absolutely no certainty about the future of theatre, much less any grants or funding opportunities. But that is the beauty of theatre – the possibility to instantaneously react to the events of the world, adapting and making the best of whatever circumstances are enforced upon us.

The main thing I was searching for was playwrights that had distinctive worldview and an unrelenting desire to question; to look underneath the comforting answers offered by the appearances of things and proceed to share their discoveries of what lies beneath the pretty façades – share their doubts and discoveries, telling the stories that only they could tell.

Then, of course, there was the matter of the medium. Some of the pieces would have made for a great experience if staged live but were completely unsuitable for this mixed genre combining theatre and film.

And Out of Control looks at ‘continuers’; those who choose to stay in lockdown despite this no longer being mandatory. Do you think this is something that could prove a reality for any significant number of people considering our current circumstances?

I think it has been a part of our reality for quite a while already. From hermits which were known since prehistoric times (although always more as an exception rather than the rule) to modern-day Japan, that for the last 30 years has been experiencing hikikomori phenomenon (adults choosing to withdraw from society in favour of spending their lives in isolation).

Every one of us are locked in our own heads, blessed and cursed with a very subjective understanding of the world – an understanding that isn’t necessarily grounded in factual reality. The only way for us to ever find out what is and isn’t real, is through the communication with others.

What happens during small talk? It’s essentially people confirming that they perceive easily objectifiable things (like weather, news, public transport delays etc) the same way – finetuning their wavelengths before engaging in conversation about more subjective topics. A conversation that would make them vulnerable to be influenced by others and in return influence them.

It was Henri Bergson who put forth an idea that laughter is a means through which society corrects itself. By mocking those who adopt preposterous (from society’s point of view) ideas and threaten the stability of the community, society, through laughing at such individuals, forces them to either conform or withdraw. However, if society enforces too much control, we’ll be robbed of individualistic visionaries. Too little – and the society will crumble, with everyone acting upon their own varying perceptions of reality without ever coming to an agreement.

The current and any potential future lockdowns will definitely affect our society – and I believe that theatre is one of the many fields that can and must explore the effect this will have.

Out of Control looks at this delicate balance through six characters that find themselves cut off from the society and are thirsting for confirmation of their identities. Reaching out to others to beg for reassurance that they’re still sane, that they still matter, that they’re not alone with their thoughts – however ridiculous and uncanny they may be.

Are you aware of any of the pieces being autobiographical? Is the work we are seeing a reflection of the lives of those who wrote it in some way?

None of the pieces are autobiographical in the sense of factual retelling of events (at least as far as I could tell). However, I don’t believe it possible to write something that would be completely separate from who you are as a human being. Your experiences, feelings and thoughts will find a way into your work – whether you wish so or not.

All six of the selected pieces deal with characters that question the nature of their reality, having become untethered from the society in the lockdown, panickingly attempting to reach something or someone to hold on to, to save themselves from floating away.

I believe this is something mostly everyone has dealt or avoided dealing with in their lives. Lockdown only emphasised this feeling, leading to different ways of approaching it – some of which can be seen in Out of Control.

The series also explores ‘the boundaries of theatre/film genre that emerged in lockdown’ – can you give us a little more insight here? What are the core challenges and benefits of being forced to explore the merging of those two mediums?

From the very first moment I started thinking about Out of Control, it was necessary to consider how it’s going to be presented: what sort of form would reveal the processes taking place within us here and now – in this lockdown?

A form is like a lens. For a subject to be seen, the correct lens has to be chosen – just like you wouldn’t pick a microscope to gaze at the starry sky, so you shouldn’t treat the question of form carelessly, hoping for the content to become visible on its own.

Simply filming a theatrical performance was out of the question – that would have been the equivalent of preparing a splendid full-course dinner only to dump it carelessly on the table – without any tableware – and then expecting the audience to pick everything apart with their fingers and have a fine experience at that.

It had to be something closer to film but not film enough to obscure the theatrical nature of the work. Something that would reveal this particular desperate need to reach out, to be heard from under the lockdown. That’s what led me to the decision to have the characters film themselves – in the style of Facebook stories, Instagram livestreams, YouTube video blogs, etc.

The characters are filming themselves, setting up the frame and background in which they want to be perceived. They’re directly addressing their intended audience through the camera but it is human nature to wish to be perceived not as you are but as you wish to be – and so these characters aren’t always truthful, they’re attempting to conceal their weaknesses, presenting themselves as someone they long to be – begging for the confirmation from the unseen viewer.

And you’ve directed all six episodes, all of which are performed by Chalk Roots Theatre associate actors. Can you tell me a little about the process of directing filmed work under lockdown and how that differs in any significant way from directing live work?

We worked mainly through group Zoom meetings and individual phone conversations. We looked at how painters present their subjects – how background always defines the character. Exercises – both group and individual ones – were used to explore the characters and their psychology. One particularly fruitful task was for every actor to create a short Tik Tok video as their character – to better understand how these characters want to be perceived by others – and to what extent they’re willing to go.

However, all the usual directorial challenges were heightened due to not being able to be as involved in the process as during normal rehearsal period or a film shoot. Due to the circumstances, actors were called to take responsibility for choices that are usually beyond their control. They had to pick the locations, design them appropriately, take care of the costumes and make up, set up the frame, in some cases even to write and self-direct to a degree. And they’ve proved to be more than able to rise up to the challenge! Which makes one wonder what could be achieved in the post-pandemic theatre with the same trust and belief in the creativity of actors?

Would you say directing filmed performance is something you would like to continue with post-lockdown? Either as a feature of your future live work or otherwise?

Multimedia became so ingrained in our daily life, affecting the way we interact and perceive the world around us that to deny it would mean denying the present. There already have been numerous successful explorations of how to combine live and filmed performances – one most familiar to UK’s audiences would be Katie Mitchell’s ‘The Forbidden Zone’ that was shown at the Barbican a few years ago.

Not every performance needs to have this – but that must be a conscious decision based on what one wants to present – the question of correct lens and the form revealing the content all over again.

Finally, in a nutshell, why should audiences head online and watch these monologues from Chalk Root Theatre and playwrights in lockdown?

One of the reviewers wrote that “if it’s escapism from the lockdown environment you’re after, I would look elsewhere.” (Chris Omaweng, London Theatre 1). Those words accurately express the essence of Out of Control.

If you’re looking to forget something or to just flip something on to play in the background while preparing dinner – this performance won’t do you much good.

If, on the other hand, you don’t need a show that confirms what you already know but want to discover even more questions, if you’re searching and longing for something – then Out of Control has been made for you.

After all, if we don’t examine and talk about the experience of human life in theatre, where else will we get a chance to do so?

So there you have it! You can watch the Out of Control series here and you can keep up to date with Chalk Roots Theatre via their Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages.

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