No Name Players and The Sisters Sorella
In 2015, Pittsburgh theater troupe No Name Players explored the generational influence of family in the most ambitious of ways with The Sisters Sorella. Instead of a traditional two-act play, the production created by Producing Artistic Director Tressa Glover and directed by Artistic Director Don DiGiulio was a television-style sitcom performed live onstage at the Arcade Comedy Theater. The first “episode” premiered on Friday, January 16, 2015, with new installments taking place every month afterwards over the course of a year.
The Sisters Sorella revolves around three sisters who, for various reasons, end up living together after years of separation. “Reconnecting with siblings after years apart, exploring their Italian heritage throughout,” Don DiGiulio says of the two main themes of the production. “Neither one of us has ever really seen a story like this, about Italian sisters growing into adulthood and having to reconnect with their lives from their past. This was something very important to Tressa from her heritage standpoint.”
Tressa Glover herself is part Irish-American and part Italian-American, two nationalities that have traditionally had strong familial ties, and the childhood experiences of Glover reflect that cultural heritage.
“I’m from Pittsburgh and I’m actually Italian-Irish, so it’s a very similar big family situation,” Tressa Glover remarks in regards to the inspiration behind The Sisters Sorella. “My great grandmother just died a couple years ago at the age of 102, and my character is actually named after her. I grew up with all of these stories first hand, had all these older people in my life. It wasn’t just handed down from other people, I knew them. My mom took us around last year and told stories I’ve never heard before. On this corner is where so-and-so did this, and my great uncles all became boxers because if they went past a certain road, the Italians got beaten up by the Germans. I’ve had all of these stories sitting around and for a while I’ve been like, how can I apply them or how could I tell the stories to bring them out?”
Although Tressa Glover conceived the idea of The Sisters Sorella, the production itself was a collaborative effort between all of the actors involved. “In our No Name Players mission statement, it’s our goal to explore the collaborative nature of the theater ensemble,” Don DiGiulio explains. “So we make an effort to utilize the thoughts and ideas of every artist that’s involved in the process. No matter if it’s a play that we’re doing, or if it’s one of our Swan Day events. This is the first time that we’re actually having these three women write a piece together. I’m in the mix directing—it’s interesting to direct what is being written at the same time.”
Glover not only agrees but views the experience as both personally and professionally rewarding as well. “Using who we each are as actors, and getting to add that in from an actor’s standpoint,” she elaborates in regards to the scripting process. “What is our type or how can we make this work, and then writing for each other in that way. The three of us, the three sisters, know each other well and have worked together in one way or another as people, and so we have that going in, but then let’s keep getting ideas from everybody and kind of throw it all in there.”
Although the mishmash of ideas could have resulted in a convoluted narrative, the collaborative nature was ultimately beneficial for The Sisters Sorella instead. “It has worked out really well,” Glover continues. “Sharing, adding. ‘OK, here’s what we’re working on, here’s what needs to happen. Do you want to take this section on?’ It’s been really fascinating how the characters are continuing to develop with each of us kind of throwing things in. Or at rehearsal, discovering things just through improv. ‘This doesn’t feel right, what can we do?’ So there’s that benefit to it when all of the main actors are also writing it.”
Because of the nature of the production, special care went into the casting of the main leads with writing and comedic talents equally important rather than mere acting skills alone. Tressa Glover herself portrays one of the three sisters Sorella, with Julianne Avolio cast as the second.
“We’re both Italian and Irish, the same split going on, so we often talk about similar things,” Glover says of Avolio. “So she immediately came to mind. She’s really funny and I knew that she wrote as well, so it was a really great fit. That’s part of it too, that we knew all along that we wanted people who would be like, ‘Yes, I want to add to it, I want to write, and I’m comfortable doing that as part of it.’ Obviously as an actor, you’re not always called in to also write things.”
Maggie Carr, meanwhile, rounds out the main cast of The Sisters Sorella. “Maggie we’ve known as an actress but also as burgeoning playwright,” Don DiGiulio explains of Carr. “She does a lot of stuff up in New York, sending scripts out everywhere, so when this opportunity came up, where it was not only an actress who was funny but also a playwriting opportunity, we thought why not? Maggie has a very unique sense of humor. She writes jokes essentially in the style of the sitcom in that you need to have that voice in the room too. Because you can’t just have the situation in comedy, you have to have punch lines, and Maggie is our ongoing punchline.”
In addition to an actual episode of The Sisters Sorella, each installment of the production included live commercials featuring members from various improv groups within the Pittsburgh region.
“We’ve had musicians create scores that we use for our shows,” Tressa Glover explains of past No Name Players’ productions. “We’re also trying to do that, which is part of The Sisters Sorella, by having these live commercial breaks. Musical accompaniment will be there, but then also the commercial breaks are going to be live and are improvised sketch comedy.” Some of those commercial breaks include additional twists and surprises as well. “We’re doing an improv-mercial where one of the improvisers is going to get an object and the audience is going to tell him what it is,” adds Don DiGiulio. “And he’s going to have to run the old-style ‘sell it to the crowd.’”
With all of these complementing forms of comedy, the Arcade Comedy Theater felt like the natural locale for the No Name Players. “One of the coolest things about Arcade is that they are so welcoming to any crazy ideas that we have,” DiGiulio says. “Being a transient theater company such as we are, in that we have to use spaces when they’re available, Arcade basically has said yes to everything we’ve ever pitched to them. ‘Hey, we want to do a one-man version of Toy Story the movie.’ ‘OK.’ ‘Hey, I want to do a musical about a vengeful Santa Claus.’ ‘OK.’ And they host you, which is nice. They just provide a nice artistic venue for people who are focused in the comedic vein. And they’re transitioning into hosting more theatrical things, because when they first started, it was more of a standup and improve venue, but now they’re going into scripted works and branching out, embracing comedy as a whole. Which I think there’s just not enough of in the world.”
With a live stage production of a television-style sitcom that includes sketch and improv commercial breaks, The Sisters Sorella is a celebration of comedy as a whole in its own right as well.
“I’m really excited and inspired by the things I couldn’t have thought of, or the things that came out of collaboration with the other actors and the sketch/improv people we have doing the commercials,” Tressa Glover says of The Sisters Sorella. “All these other voices coming in and making it even more so. It’s what I had in mind in a basic way, then there’s all the newness that’s been added in. It’s kind of infinite in possibilities. What was in my head from the beginning was that you keep bringing in new characters and new writers, you keep bringing in new actors, and then the ideas. Family and friends, or neighbors. In every episode, you can have these new people. Then the idea that you can have these commercials, that’s infinite too.”
Over the course of 2015, those infinite possibilities were on full display at the Arcade Comedy Theater and performances of The Sisters Sorella, proving once again the originality and versatility of No Name Players in Pittsburgh.