In the living room of a house on Howland Avenue in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, a group of eager young actors — including multiple U of T grads — used to read plays together. 

That was 2013.

Flash forward to 2022, and The Howland Company, the theatre company that sprung out of this reading group, is a mainstay of the city’s indie theatre scene. 

This fall, they are returning to the Annex with a contemporary adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters by Howland founding member Paolo Santalucia, who is a U of T alum. The play follows three sisters as they try to realize their individual dreams while collectively wishing to move back to their hometown of Moscow. The show is a co-production with UTSG’s Hart House Theatre, which hasn’t produced a show since March 2020. 

In an interview with The Varsity, U of T alum and Howland founding member Hallie Seline explained why she thinks now is the time for Three Sisters. “There’s always this myth around Chekhov that it’s something you have to ‘get’, and it’s this line between humour and sorrow that is so elusive,” Seline said. “But it has never been more present, especially after what we’ve all gone through… [We all] know that line between complete humour [and] utter devastation is right there.”

“To work on that now is both really exciting and also a little terrifying,” Seline added. “There’s no hiding in Chekhov… This play requires so much honesty, openness, [and] humanity in every moment.”

There certainly won’t be any hiding for Seline; she’s playing Olga, one of the titular sisters. And Hart House Theatre, where Three Sisters will be performed, is quite large, at 428 seats. But she’s looking forward to it. 

“Especially as a young artist, your opportunities to perform on a stage like that, of that quality and size, can be so few and far between,” said Seline. “To be able to work at that scale is kind of magic. So we’re just so excited. And so excited to be in that space with audiences again. That’s going to feel — I’m so emotional thinking about it. It’s going to be overwhelming [and] magical.”

A lot of energy is needed to fill a space like Hart House Theatre. This version of Three Sisters gets that energy from its large ensemble cast of 13 actors. I visited one of their rehearsals, and found that having that many high-level actors together in one space generates quite the powerful aura. Even before the first line is spoken, the easiness of the ensemble’s collective physical presence begins the adaptation’s work of contemporizing the story.  

Ensembles like this are common to Howland productions: “A big thing of what Howland does is big ensemble work. We love having many voices at the table. We love offering more opportunities for more artists. Especially intergenerational artists,” Seline said. “So we have recent grads, we have students helping on the production… We have seasoned veterans who have spent years at Stratford, across Canada, [and who] are currently on TV. To have all of that experience together is so valuable.”

One of those recent grads is Maher Sinno, who graduated from U of T’s Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies in 2018, and who is playing the role of Val. 

“I’m very grateful,” said Sinno in an interview with The Varsity. “Hart House Theatre is a very big theatre, and I’m probably going to see a lot of my friends there, feel like I’m part of something bigger. A bigger community of theatre folks. So I finally feel a little bit included… I’m very blessed and it’s so rewarding being here.”

This isn’t Sinno’s first time working with Hart House Theatre, either: the year after graduating, he was part of their production of Hair. “I was assistant director to Julie Tomaino, who I really admire,” said Sinno. 

He explained how this experience complemented his U of T education: “The [Centre for Drama, Theatre & Performance Studies] gives you a more analytical, rational, and text-based [education]… whereas other kinds of BFA programs, they’re more technical… In Hair, for example, they had a very particular approach to the technical elements of theatre… That’s why me and Julie worked very well together. Because I come from that background, and Julie has a more BFA kind of experience… so we meshed very well together.”

Three Sisters also marks the beginning of Hart House Theatre’s first ever educational partnership with a theatre company. They will be partnering with Howland to offer mentorship opportunities within the show — there are student assistants, and there will be students working backstage — but also beyond the show. Over the course of the year, the companies will collaborate on things like panels and one-on-one mentorships. 

And Howland’s signature reading group may even come to campus. “[The reading group] has been our key community initiative this whole time,” said Seline. “We did it online for a long time, which was incredible during the pandemic. And we’re hoping to bring it back in-person at Hart House this year… [It’s] a free, open community event where anyone who’s interested can join in and cold read a play… It’s really fun, very low pressure… an opportunity that is open for anyone interested to get together and engage with theatre together in a very fun and casual way.”

But before any other plays can be read, it’s time for some Chekhov. “Chekhov is so beautiful and why I’m so excited for us to share it right now is because that line between joy and heartbreak is so aligned,” said Seline. “It feels so present and active in our collective lives… and I feel that the reason for people to get back together again, right now, is to collectively… feel these big things, laugh big laughs, and leave having shared something immense and beautiful.”

Three Sisters starts previews October 26 and opens November 2. Student tickets start at $15.