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Lydia Interview with Director Saulius Kovalskas

Chalk Roots Theatre have produced their first audio piece, Lydia, which has been streaming online. The drama was chosen from over a hundred submissions. 

Drawing on a unique, semi-childish perspective, it tells the story of a young woman growing up entirely through perspectives outside her own. These voices are all in one way or another unfulfilled, lost, seeking to re-evaluate their lives, as plenty of us have been doing in the recent lockdowns: what they once desired, strived for, and where instead their lives have led. As Lydia grows older and her world expands, that inner voice gets quieter, and she finds herself increasingly relegated to smaller and smaller parts within her own story. But finally, she re-asserts herself – and, perhaps, her story begins again.

I spoke with director Saulius Kovalskas about the piece.

BTC: Can you please tell me about the production?

Saulius: Lydia is an audio drama of a young woman searching for her way through life. We are first introduced to her as a child and from then on accompany her throughout the years, experiencing all the joys and sorrows that growing up brings.

In its essence, it’s a story about losing one’s way and a desperate longing for what stayed behind in childhood outgrown. About towering shopping malls and a voice of certain someone – or something, whose importance becomes clear only after it falls silent.

BTC: How did you go about selecting this production?

Saulius: It all started with a feeling, something I noticed firstly within myself and then slowly began seeing in others around me. Lockdowns have both blessed and cursed us with time and space. The grip that all usual businesses and distractions had on us loosened, revealing a fertile ground for introspection.

Before long, a scary realisation crept in: that I’m not living the life I wanted. That certain sensibilities, qualities and feelings I held dear as a child were long gone. What remained was this empty husk of a stranger, whom I didn’t understand, whose thoughts and behaviours a five-year-old me would have found alien if not outright pitiable.

But was this change permanent, with no way of rediscovering the path forgotten? And, more importantly, was this feeling plaguing only myself and a few others - or was it a more widespread condition caused by the new normal and only now beginning to show its symptoms?

That led to the launch of a worldwide callout for audio scripts - to which we received over 170 submissions. But despite there being so many plays, many of which I would have loved to experience as an audience member, I was looking for something I myself couldn’t have explained at the time. Something that would take me by a storm, make me feverish with desire to bring that material to life.

Perhaps underneath it all there was just a very selfish desire to submerge myself and experience that unique world created by the playwright. To see characters – who on paper exist only as phantoms, a distant dream – becoming alive and tangible. Perhaps that’s all it was? A longing for different world, born out of dissatisfaction with the imperfect reality?

Difficult to say. All I know is that when I’ve read Simina Pitur’s Lydia, the very first lines brought me back to my childhood – they echoed that deep desperate longing for the times when the simplicity and destitution of external life was compensated by incredible richness of inner world. Before floor plans, procedural guidelines, regulations and rules – what I call the shopping centre culture encroached offering answers unwanted and engaging us in bright trivialities that no one asked for.

As I found out later, it was heavily inspired by American poet Kenneth Koch - and how he taught children to write poetry – doing away with the dull techniques of teaching meters and analysing rhyming methods but instead engaging them in the wildest flights of imagination, challenging them to question the usual order of things and see everything in their own unique way.

But, at the same time, somewhere in between the lines, the play was permeated with that same nagging question that started this whole journey for me: when and where did I stray off the path? It was absolutely perfect. 

BTC: The show is of a young woman re-evaluating her life. Quite relevant with how
we've all felt over the last year. Has that experience impacted how you worked
on the production?

Saulius: It could not not have. 

The main goal and the only reason for us all coming together to expend our time and energies is bringing the play to life. And the pursuit of it calls for every single resource at our disposal: from lived and observed experience to every single book, film, piece of music we ever came into contact with – everything that left a burning emotional impression. It all resurfaces and informs the artistic choices. And sometimes even all of that isn’t enough.

I think there may have been fewer discussions about spiritual and philosophical matters than usually. Every single person who worked on Lydia is an incredibly sensitive artist, observing, experiencing and reacting to the world around them in the fullest. Working with them, it felt like there wasn’t any need to talk about things everyone knows and feels already. But perhaps I’m wrong – really, this question is better suited for everyone else in the team.

BTC: Do you think the relevance will make the piece hit home differently to a

Saulius: I think that for the longest time we were in a rush to get somewhere. And then suddenly the pandemic hit, forcing everyone and everything to come to an unexpected halt. It’s only natural that this brief pause unearthed a lot of questions that were previously suppressed or simply couldn’t have been addressed due to the lack of time. And one of them was perhaps the most important question of all: does the destination we’re heading towards align with who we were, are and want to be?

But while the importance of this has been briefly amplified by the pandemic, it’s by no means a novel occurrence. Simina, the playwright, wrote Lydia long before there were any hints of the pandemic. To her, these themes and questions were relevant then. For me – and countless others – it was the pandemic that highlighted this spiritual crisis. Then there were countless others who explored these themes before us, just as there’ll be just many more after us. I think that as long as there are people travelling through life, there will be plenty of stops - sometimes dictated by inner turmoil, sometimes by outward circumstances - to pause, look around and re-examine where we’re going and why.

BTC: The production is Chalk Roots's first audio piece. How has it been to produce
and what challenges does it bring working in audio form?

Saulius: Our sound designer, Raimundas Paulauskas and myself have successfully collaborated on audio dramas before. Most of the cast were also experienced in doing audio work, so it wasn’t an unfamiliar undertaking in that sense.

The biggest challenge was creating the world of Lydia solely through sound. In majority of mediums that have a visual element to them, sound and music often exist as a supporting element to a much larger whole. The sound is dictated by the image and is usually used as a vehicle for emotion, an emotional amplifier of sorts. Sound and music evoke feelings - tell audiences how to feel about something they’re seeing. But in audio drama sound is the main and only tool we had at our disposal.

In many ways, audio dramas can be equated to animation - particularly in terms of world building. In the beginning there’s nothing, just an empty page and every single detail has to be hand-painted in by the artist as a result of their conscious decision.

It’s precisely the same with the soundscape in audio dramas. And then there’s the paradox: while we’re attempting to represent life truthfully, we can’t just faithfully reproduce reality. If we were to include every single noise that one would expect to hear realistically - it’d result in a meaningless chaos. 

Reproducing realistic soundscape is impossible. In life, we’re very selective about what noises we pay attention to – single out – and what passes through unnoticed. All of that is determined subjectively, depending on one’s personality, their inner world and the precise mood and external circumstances they find themselves in. And so, you must strive to represent the emotional truth of the characters and their individual perception of the world by artificially selecting, tampering and combining certain sounds.
It may not be possible to successfully fulfil these theoretical demands each and every time - there are constraints of time and budget, and sometimes – even despite all your best efforts you end up short of the goal envisioned. But to not try at all…

We’re already under siege by generic sounds that are blasting at us from every single screen and speaker, tirelessly attempting to convince us that we’re not only living a shopping centre, but that this shopping centre is all that exists.

One of the first decisions Raimundas and I made, was to go against this current, to seek soundscape that’d be unique to Lydia and her world.

BTC: Did the COVID restrictions make the challenge harder?

Saulius: I wouldn’t say so. The biggest challenge, as always, was the time constraints. As a child you always wanted just five more minutes outside before the inevitable call for dinner came, and it’s exactly the same now. You always desire just one more hour, day or week. Just one more small detail to add or fine-tune. But sooner or later that ‘dinner call’ inevitably comes and you have to say “This is it. This is the best we could achieve within the time we had” and bravely go forth to meet the audiences.

The restrictions, if anything, made this challenge slightly easier. Working remotely, over Zoom, eliminated most of overhead costs, enabling us to be more flexible with the schedules and spend more time (some would say unusually long time) rehearsing. Which, considering the size of the cast & crew, would have been significantly more difficult to pull off when working in person. But that was one of the reasons why we chose the audio drama medium - so we could avoid making compromises forced upon other theatre forms.

BTC: Why should audiences listen to the piece?

Saulius: I think that if there’s turmoil within oneself, a desperate longing for something inexplicable, a person will naturally turn to art in search for something that’d reflect their inner struggles and inspire hope. Whether that something will be Lydia or something else - that’ll depend on the person embarking on the search and what they’re searching for.

For me, personally, Lydia embodies the idea that while time is a constraining factor in all matters, it holds no power over the life of the soul. And that gives me hope.
Perhaps it will do the same for others too.

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