Alison Matthews - Observer Mondays Director - gives us an insight into the first week of rehearsals for Three Sisters, directed by RashDash


This is my first blog as the new Observer Director for RashDash’s feminist take on Chekhov’s Three Sisters. I’m excited to be here, and thanks to the Royal Exchange for having me. I’m a performance maker and singer interested in what happens when you put live music onstage in a theatre studio, what happens when a feminist and female-led company devise from scratch ‘against’ such a canonical male voice as Chekhov’s.

My first day in the rehearsal room coincided with RashDash’s first Manchester rehearsal (they had begun devising in London the previous week, where two of the three company members are based). As such, the day began with what I understand to be the usual Royal Exchange Day 1 order of ceremonies: a meet and greet followed by a production meeting with department heads.

From the start of the meeting portion of the morning, it became clear that RashDash do things slightly differently to other more director-led in-house productions and co-commissions that usually comprise the Royal Exchange’s programme – and that this is exciting for both sides of the equation. The nature of devising is about exploring material in the room and writing a show bodily; this becomes even more important when that show’s subject is three female bodies responding to a patriarchal canonical text. Hence, certain elements of the show’s design, costume and vision are still being formed and require the very time and space provided by the company’s residence here to come into being.

It was interesting to watch these two different approaches to a creative process (RashDash’s and the Royal Exchange house team’s) come to a mutual understanding and respect across the table. RashDash are not script-led; they do not have one director; each company member (extending to the mostly-female design and production team) shares an understanding of and responsibility to communicate the show’s creative vision as it unfolds. While the meeting brought some aesthetic quandaries to the surface (how to manage so many costume changes with so few bodies? How to make a bust of Chekhov look realistic? How to mic drums?), it left everybody with a better understanding of how this process will go over the next few weeks.

In the afternoon, I moved to the Swan Street building with the company, where rehearsals will occur for most of the coming weeks. It was clear that the company members were eager to ‘bed into’ the space. Costumes arrived on a rail for them to play with (selected during a previous visit), a chaise longue was tested for bounce potential, and the piano was immediately put into use. The afternoon’s work included the company members working solo on music or writing, sharing bits of writing (responses to and ‘rewritings’ of Three Sisters set during the previous week’s London sessions) by reading out loud together, and discussing certain larger thematic issues. The latter included an especially fascinating conversation on the politics of the female body doing ‘drag’ as a woman – essentially, whether or not a woman is allowed to perform drag as a woman, or only ever as a drag king.

This brings me to my final observation from this first day, which surrounds the importance of costume to RashDash’s process. From the second we stepped into Swan Street, these women were throwing on bits of outlandish and glamorous costume – tulle skirts, feathers, silk. There was a delight in watching them, a delight similar to that of watching little girls play dressing-up, but a darker resonance pervaded this play, because these girls understand that to perform being a woman is to constantly be in different types of costume. Cloaking oneself ‘as a woman’ while occupying a female body becomes a way of exploring contemporary femininity, of reclaiming the rags from the dressing-up box and showing the audience the roles we expect women to take on.

Three Sisters, By RashDash, After Chekhov runs 3 May - 19 May 2018, Studio

Observer Mondays is an Open Exchange Opportunity - sign up here for opportunities and to find out when Observer Mondays applications reopen.