Interview: Eleanor Bishop

[Interview conducted by Phoebe Robertson 10/01/2022]

Good afternoon Eleanor. Firstly, as a warmup, I’d just like to know how you are? It’s been a long couple of years of Covid-19 and its impact on theatre practitioners. How are you doing, and feeling about creating theatre in New Zealand?  

Thanks for asking – I’m feeling ok. I’m grateful we’re now in the traffic light system but I’m nervous about upcoming shows this year.  

 And, as a general overview before we get into details. Would you mind summarizing what the past couple of years have Covid has looked like for you? And the projects you have been involved in/commissioned for.  

For the three years prior to COVID I was working between the United States and New Zealand and was engaged in quite a lot of international activity. Being fully based in New Zealand has been a real change but has had some great rewards. My creative collaborator Karin McCracken and I have been recipients of Creative NZ annual funding for 2021 and 2022 for our work and that’s given me an artistic and financial stability that I’ve rarely experienced. For much of 2021 we’ve been developing Aliens & Anorexia [after this interview Aliens & Anorexia was cancelled due to Red Light settings], a theatre adaptation of Chris Kraus’ book which will premiere in the Aotearoa NZ Festival in March 2022. We’ve also done national touring of our show Yes Yes Yes and have two more works in development. Outside of EBKM, in 2021 I was the Friedlander Foundation Associate Artist for NZ Opera, which included being the assistant director for Lindy Hume’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, which toured to Auckland, Christchurch and was sadly closed by COVID the day it was meant to open in Wellington! And I was part of the Creative in Schools programme adapting and directing a production of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People with thirty female and non-binary teenagers at Wellington Girls’ College.  

Right now, I’d like to start at the beginning. On the 23rd of March 2020 the New Zealand Government announced that New Zealand would move to Alert Level 3 and within 48 hours Alert Level 4. What was your response to this? Were you expecting it to come, or was it still a shock?  

It was shocking but I was also expecting it. I have close friends and colleagues in the US and Europe so I was tracking the changes there along with how theatre was responding.  

Let’s talk about The Seagull. On the 8th of May 2020, only 46 days after the Alert Level 3 announcement, ATC released its first ‘episode’ of The Seagull. Which you were the Director and Co-adaptor of. In my mind, this was one of if not the first of its kind in New Zealand. A full-length play is adapted from a script and designed explicitly to be performed electronically. What was the process like for this?  

I believe it was the first of its kind – I think there were some zoom play readings happening in New Zealand but nothing that was intended as a complete performance online.

We worked really fast on The Seagull – I was eager for it to debut while we were still in level 3 (and the bars weren’t open) so it could have the maximum impact. We had one week of preproduction and we made an episode each week for four weeks. The week before we started ‘rehearsals’, Eli and I did a treatment for the overall play – trying to solve the bigger problems of how the plot would work in a contemporary time period and on Zoom. We really wanted to elevate beyond a straight Zoom and our media designer Owen had the idea of including an element set inside a desktop. I’d recently been in Germany observing Katie Mitchell work, so was utterly obsessed with thinking about how to stage subjectivity and this felt like such a great way to do point of view. Plus, I was particularly pleased that we could subtly give focus to the young female characters (Masha and Nina) by having the first two episodes set inside their respective desktops.

Our weekly schedule was that Eli and I would work all day on a Saturday (via Zoom, as we were in different cities), adapting each act. We could try things out as we wrote, because we were literally on Zoom. Eli and I have both done adaptations before for Auckland Theatre Company: Eli of Peer Gynt, which was called Peer Gynt [recycled], and me of Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession. Both of those could probably more accurately be described as deconstructions. This is the most faithful to an original text either of us have ever been! We were aware of not disrupting the delicate structure of the Chekhov. We would go through line by line, sentence by sentence. We tried to only add sentences if we needed to explain something to do with Zoom, or justify the characters not being together.

Then on Mondays we’d do a reading with the actors, some more rescripting, rehearse Tuesday and Wednesday, dress rehearsal on Thursday and Friday morning we’d record in one take, spend Friday afternoon adding music and credits, and the episode would go live online on Friday night.  

Rehearsals were tremendously playful. We were all high on the joy of being able to create something at this time. The actors started turning up to the Monday morning reading with location, costume and prop offers, which weren’t revealed until we started the read-through. We all gasped when the actor playing Konstantin popped up on Zoom with a stand in dead seagull on a stump and said off camera “I shot this seagull’ and then slid into shot with the gun. So we kept it obviously! It was all incredibly live and surprising – as a group we just got so excited about the possibilities and particularly how the characters would use their cameras. And the designers and technicians were amazing, figuring out headphones and mics and tripods extremely quickly. I liken it to when you do something site specific or when you rehearse in a theatre, with the tech – the stakes and creativity can be raised because you’re actually doing the thing.  

As we had predicted, NZ did go down through the alert levels and so we adjusted the scripts to reflect the loosening restrictions. We got to know the actor’s locations and voices and we started writing to that too. We were crossing our fingers that we’d be able to have some actors physically together for act 4, as it’s set two years later, and fortunately we were able to do that safely.  

What was the thought process that led to its conception?  

The Seagull was not originally going to be a live theatre event. I conceived of it as an online project while we were in Alert Level 4.  

From 2016-2019 I worked as an associate director for the New York multimedia company The Builders Association led by Marianne Weems. They have been pioneering the use of media (video & projection) in theatre for 25 years. When the lockdown started in the USA, the Builders began an online project and I was waking up at 6am New Zealand time to join their zoom conversations and rehearsals. That process got me started dreaming about how the online theatre form could be used innovatively – beyond bedroom monologues and play readings (which was the dominant form at that time). Specifically, I began thinking about Zoom – could it be genuinely theatrically interesting and what material would work? I was interested in seeing characters who were actually on Zoom in the reality of the play (our time), but I was also drawn to approach classical material (timeless).  

Then when New Zealand went into lockdown I re-read Chekhov’s The Seagull again and it spoke so directly to me. My friends, colleagues and myself were questioning everything and in deep reflection about our lives – could we continue to make art? Were we failures? Had we achieved anything? It felt like we were oscillating between Nina’s determination to succeed and Sorin’s lamenting that he’s wasted his life. And the longing, longing for connection felt very present. And then of course, I was attending birthday parties on Zoom, and similar to the play – there was that sense of tedium, of languidness, of nothing happening – except of course these deep fundamental shifts in the characters and the relationships. So actually hugely dramatic. I thought – this could work in a zoom format.  

I pitched the project to Eli and to Auckland Theatre Company who were both keen and so we began work on it.

I should also note that I undertook my MFA in Directing at Carnegie Mellon University where the directing program was led by Marianne Weems of the Builders Association and was closely aligned with the MFA in Media Design led by Larry Shea. So I had three years of training in the ethos of ‘mediaturgy’ (coined by the critic Bonnie Marranca) which is an interweaving of design (particularly media design) and dramaturgy. I boil mediaturgy down to when a show’s media (or AV as we would say in New Zealand) is so intrinsic that a show can’t function without it. Like could you run the scene without the video? A lot of shows that use video could turn off the video and the show would still work, it would still play. I’m wired to aspire to media design being fundamentally integrated. I think Seagull’s like that in that the whole thing is conceived for Zoom, from script to acting style to design.  

In a lecture you gave  at Victoria University about your play BOYS, you mentioned it being made in context before the #MeToo Movement. Thereby it’s become a bit of a dated piece now. Do you see The Seagull in the same light? Moreover, do you see longevity in these online performances? 

Rather than say that BOYS is outdated, it’s probably more accurate to say that it is less urgent now than it was when first performed. BOYS’ potency comes from the very specific moment that it is responding to (a rising consciousness of rape culture but before the mass consciousness of metoo). However, BOYS still contains a lot of ideas that are confrontational even if they are more accepted than they were when first performed, which was made clear by the strong reaction it had when it was performed in Christchurch [in 2021].  

I don’t think the ideas in Seagull will age in a similar way because it’s Chekhov and his work is timeless and our interventions into his text are minimal. But there is a certain similarity with BOYS in that it is rooted in a very specific cultural moment, even more so than BOYS.  

I believe online performances will continue to exist but not as a replacement for live theatre – I am hopeful it will become its own format. The form is young so I don’t think it’s there yet. I do believe digital theatre is one of the best mediums to grapple with digital life and the digital self, and since we exist so much in digital space, this is an important space to be making art from and for.

I’d also like to know what the impact has been with projects you’ve missed out on? I know you had Maybe Something Different will Happen postponed. How far in the development process were these shows? What's your hope for their future?  

Maybe Something Different Will Happen is an adaptation of Euripides’ The Phoenician Women that Eli Kent and I wrote for the Actor’s Program graduation show in 2021. It’s about power, violence, trauma and memory. We wrote the show, cast it and workshopped it with the actors digitally during August-October in the lockdown in 2021 and then eventually it was clear that an in person presentation would not be possible in 2021. Currently the show is scheduled to perform in February 2022, however I’m no longer available to direct it so Julia Croft is. Working on the concept, script and fitting it to the actors was a complete project in itself so I felt ok to leave it there. Julia and I have worked together before, she was already on the team as the movement director, has a long association with the school and is completely brilliant. I’m excited to see it.

Not trying to just focus on the negative, I know Creative-NZ has boosted its funding and there are other artists who have gained opportunities over the next couple of years they otherwise wouldn’t have had. Have you gained any opportunities from being in the pandemic?  

Most of the universities in the UK and US were entirely online for 2020 and some of 2021, and were figuring out what this new online performance space was – so I did a lot of teaching and masterclasses in digital performance for universities overseas, including for directing programs run by Katie Mitchell. This was really wonderful to be in touch with international colleagues and students.  

Furthermore, what was it like producing your Yes Yes Yes which toured New Zealand in 2021 and BOYS down in Christchurch. How was the process for these projects? Did you implement any ‘Covid-proofing’ measures?  

Yes Yes Yes played at Circa in Wellington, The Court in Christchurch and in Te Kuiti in March through June 2021 at a time where covid proofing was as complex as crossing your fingers and hoping the alert levels didn’t rise. Looking back it’s a miracle we got through it.

Karin McCracken, my collaborator had other projects postponed or cancelled – Standard Acts took two postponements to get to the stage and battled through level 2 audiences in Auckland Fringe, and a production of Crocodile Fever, designed by Meg Rollandi and directed by Stella Reid was a victim of the most recent lockdown.  

BOYS was produced by the Court Theatre Youth Company and directed by Rose Kirkup. So I had very little to do with it apart from the pleasure of seeing the performance.  

As you are a multidisciplinary artist, I’d like to know if this has been a help or hindrance? Has (presumed) less opportunity stage directing given you more time for writing? Or have you managed to keep busy regardless?  

I’ve been fortunate that the projects I have been directing – Enemy of the People, Yes Yes Yes and the tour of the Marriage of Figaro have all been able to go ahead (bar the Wellington cancellation of the Opera). This is about as much directing as I would wish to do. It’s fortuitous that the development of Aliens & Anorexia, which was planned to take 18 months, has fallen into the pandemic years (I don’t consider the pandemic years over!). On a project like that the development – the conceptualisation, the writing, the design, the workshopping – that all falls into the (generative) directing for me.

I’d like to round out this interview by looking into the future. What are your expectations, or hopes for your practice in the next couple of years? Going into 2022 with the Traffic Light System in New Zealand and international borders about to open up.  

The border opening will be important – for myself and other NZ artists to resume our international touring, as well as to see work outside of New Zealand which is incredibly important to the cultural discourse. So I feel optimistic but pretty cautious. Plus there will be other variants, so it feels like COVID will be with us for a long time.  

Find out more about Eleanor Bishop's work at

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