Theatre preview: behind the scenes on Lung Ha’s new production of The Three Sisters

Members of Lung Ha theatre company in rehearsals for The Three Sisters PIC: Peter Dibdin Photography
Members of Lung Ha theatre company in rehearsals for The Three Sisters PIC: Peter Dibdin Photography
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At the Lyra Theatre in Craigmillar, a 20-strong company of actors are moving around in the open theatre space. They’re winding up after a successful day of rehearsals for their forthcoming production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and the atmosphere is one not only of satisfaction, but of relief, after one of the most eventful and traumatic periods in the remarkable history of Lung Ha, Scotland’s only professional theatre company working with adults with learning difficulties, and – after 33 years – one of Europe’s longest-established companies in this field.

“During these rehearsals, we’ve had to battle snow, illness and Creative Scotland,” says company member Emma McCaffrey, who plays oldest sister Olga in this production. “Or, Creative Scotland, illness and snow, in that order. It’s been really hard, but we’ve kept going.” McCaffrey is talking about the profound shock Lung Ha received on 24 January, when it was among the companies told, in a brief email from Creative Scotland, that it would no longer be among Scotland’s regularly funded arts organisations, guaranteed support for the next three years. Twelve days later, the decision was reversed; but it was a desperately difficult period for a company which provides people with learning difficulties with the most stable environment possible in which to develop serious pieces of work.

“There’s really no way we can offer our company members the environment they need for real development if we’re purely dependent on project funding,” says Lung Ha’s artistic director Maria Oller, who arrived in Edinburgh from Finland almost 20 years ago, and took over the Lung Ha’s job in 2009. “I think anyone would say that Lung Ha’s work has developed tremendously since we first got regular funding in 2005, with a great increase in the range of work we can do, and our members much more able to emerge as individual artists.

“So when Creative Scotland started to talk about their new touring fund, and how we could end up with more money if we put in up to 12 touring applications a year, my heart sank. How would we have time to put together so many applications? When would we be able to do our work? And of course, touring is difficult for a company like Lung Ha. We need to travel with support workers, stay in places that are wheelchair accessible, not take our members away from home for too long. So we can’t undertake long tours at all, and anyway, that’s not our primary purpose.

“In any case,” she adds, “I think Scotland should be proud of a company like Lung Ha. We’ve been pioneers in work with adults with learning difficulties – ahead even of Sweden or Finland, where I came from. We’ve been on international exchanges, we perform newly-commissioned work as well as plays by writers like Molière and Chekhov, we’ve built some great partnerships in Scottish theatre. So why not cherish a company like Lung Ha?

The whole experience was baffling; and even now, we’re still baffled.”

The Creative Scotland situation had no sooner improved when a stomach bug hit the company, and then the snow came down; so the cast are delighted finally to be back together again at the Lyra, and also meeting – for the first time – the two musicians from the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, co-producers of the show, who will be creating the music for this new short version of The Three Sisters, written by Adrian Osmond.

“I was in the Lung Ha production of two Chekhov short plays a few years ago,” says leading Lung Ha actor Nicola Tuxford, who plays middle sister Masha in The Three Sisters, “and at first I found it so, so difficult. I had just never experienced anything that required such seriousness, and such emotion. But once I realised about the humour and the sadness and how they’re always there, I loved it. So when I heard we were doing another Chekhov play, it was yesss! I know how to do this!”

“Yes, for a doctor he writes really well,” says McCaffrey, who has autism and a razor-sharp wit. Both she and Tuxford have been cast to take part in the National Theatre of Scotland’s forthcoming show The Reason I Jump, about a boy with autism, and they are both delighted at this evidence that their professional achievement as actors is beginning to be taken seriously by other Scottish companies. And relatively new company members Paul Harper and Emma Clark are equally delighted to be part of such a remarkable organisation; Paul, who is playing Masha’s lover Vershinin, says that Lung Ha is like “another home, but one where you can learn so much about yourself, and what you can do.”

“People sometimes ask why we tackle writers like Chekhov,” says Oller, “and why we don’t do more devised work based on the company members’ own experience; and we have discussed this with our company. But their feeling is that they are disabled 24/7, their problems are something they have to deal with all the time. Whereas what they say they want from Lung Ha is to experience something completely different, something that challenges them to be people they never though they could be; and the encounter with great writers – both contemporary and classical – is part of that experience. We want them to feel part of theatre history, and part of the contemporary theatre community. Our actors love Chekhov, his kindly view of people, his humour, the way he can move from emotion to emotion within a single sentence; and we’ve found that working on his plays is an experience that really helps them to achieve that sense of belonging to a wider theatre world, in a truly wonderful way.”

The Three Sisters is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 15-17 March, Perth Theatre 23-24 March, and the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, 28 March,