What: Auckland Theatre Company – The Seagull, an online version
Where & when: Your place via Facebook Premiere and YouTube Premiere, Fridays, 7pm until May 29

When Auckland Theatre Company opens its newest production this evening, it will be an event like no other. In the midst of a lockdown, where staying home and social distancing are the new norm, forget about throwing open the doors to the 675 state-of-the-art ASB Waterfront Theatre and inviting the city's drama lovers in for dinner, drinks and a spot of Chekhov.

Covid-19 has shut the theatre - but the show must go on. So, like millions around the world, ATC is hopping onto Zoom, the teleconferencing platform that's both blight and blessing for those of us who can work from home.

From tonight < Friday>, ATC delivers its first ever online play, Chekhov's The Seagull adapted by Eleanor Bishop and Eli Kent, directed by Bishop and starring a who's who of local theatre talent: Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Stephen Lovatt (who performed in ATC's 1994 stage version), Goretti Chadwick, Fasitua Amosa, Nathalie Morris, Arlo Green, Bruce Phillips, Bronwyn Ensor, Mustaq Missouri and Shadon Meredith.

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Auckland Theatre Company artistic director Colin McColl has announced a temporary new direction for the country's largest theatre outfit, using Zoom to make plays. Photo / Doug Sherring
Auckland Theatre Company artistic director Colin McColl has announced a temporary new direction for the country's largest theatre outfit, using Zoom to make plays. Photo / Doug Sherring

Rather than in a house by a lake, the action now takes place on – where else? – Zoom so the actors and crew don't have to burst any bubbles at all. Bishop maintains it's still Chekhov's The Seagull because the subtext and emotions at the heart of the story remain the same.

"Families are gathering. The young are thinking about their dreams and whether they are possible. Older people are reflecting on their lives and their disappointments - or just trying to figure out how to make their computer video and sound work."

The cast has just one week per 30 minute instalment to learn their lines, rehearse and be ready for broadcast on Friday of that week. It is, Bishop says, surprisingly similar to making theatre for an actual theatre. She and Kent spent hours – 13, all on Zoom – adapting the 1895 play before scripts were emailed to the cast who held a reading on Monday followed by rehearsals for the rest of the week.

Amosa, speaking via Zoom from his garage, says working out whether to use screen or stage acting techniques is probably the greatest challenge.

"Generally with Zoom, everyone sits in one spot and is in this one frame but we're seeing, with other characters, how far we can push physical action where people actually leave the screen or put their headphones down or go out of shot or through a doorway. What parameters can we play with?

"But it feels weird to be mentally in the space of doing theatre but also having to use screen acting skills that are slightly different."

Bishop, long used to tearing up theatre's conventional scripts and striking out in new directions, says it's an interesting middle-ground and she's enjoying the possibilities of making an entirely new kind of theatre.

"I am keen to get back to the theatre, but I think, in my mind, I am trying to think of this as a new kind of project rather than a substitute for the theatre."

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Which appears to be the way ATC sees things for the moment. Like every other entertainment organisation, it's been forced to re-think how it delivers its art and, says artistic director Colin McColl, it hasn't been easy.

"But, like almost every business across every sector, we've had to adapt in order to continue to deliver what people want and expect from us – and for us that means we keep going, even if the audiences are at home and our actors are working independently from each other."

He says the new online brand, ATC On Stage/On Screen will deliver new projects created especially for online platforms for as long as it needs to.

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