Have you ever heard of Ustica? If not, that is no surprise. It is a 9 kilometer-wide Italian island located in the Tyrrhenian Sea with a population of 1,300. It is also home to the Sicily Web Fest, which will have a new and distinct Pittsburgh factor this year, as ’burgh-based Sisters Sorella will be a featured web series at the event.
“I wish they would stop sending me pictures of the island,” says Tressa Glover, creator and actor in Sorella who is disappointed that she probably won’t be able to attend the festival, August 26 to 28. “But it is really exciting. This was the first web fest* we ever submitted to. We have been getting more Italian followers on Facebook and Twitter, and it’s so cool to be getting exposure over there and to be recognized globally.”
What is Sisters Sorella? In short, it is a sitcom about three Italian-American sisters living in Pittsburgh. It began as a live-action theatrical series before it evolved into a web series, and now it is being filmed as a pilot episode, and could potentially be picked up by a television network.
NoName Players originally produced the theater version of the sitcom in January 2015 at Arcade Comedy Theater. Glover’s husband, Don DiGiulio, founded NoName Players in 2000 while he was an acting and directing student at Marshall University. Also an actor, Glover and DiGiulio met while working on Meagher for Pittsburgh Playwrights in 2004, and Glover’s debut with NoName was the same year, with Big Love. They were married in 2007 and moved into their home on Mabrick Avenue. These days, DiGiulio is Artistic Director and Glover is the Producing Artistic Director of NoName.
Sorella’s theatrical live-sitcom model took over as NoName’s season of plays in 2015 because it was an immediate hit. The first “episode” premiered in January, and from the beginning, it had sell-out performances and an audience retention rate of around 75 percent from episode to episode.
Glover acknowledges that despite its success, it was a risky move for the company because of its uniqueness in the theater scene. “I said ‘Can we just try something? I have no idea what’s going to happen, but you don’t know until you try.’ I had two different ideas rolling around in my head,” says Glover, “First, I was thinking about a live-sitcom in a three-act structure. Each act would be 10 minutes with breaks in between, and we would do it on a monthly basis. Then, I had this other idea about doing a play somehow inspired by my Italian family—especially the women in my family.”
The result is an entertaining story about three Italian-American sisters who are living together after many years of estrangement. Concetta is neurotic, Raffaella is narcissistic and Ernestine is just plain strange, but after Concetta’s separation from her husband, they are forced to start dealing with the absurdities of life as a team. The stage version was the perfect recipe for an Italian delight—with no second takes, live incidental music and commercials performed by artists in real-time—making for about an hour of entertainment.
“It’s a story about three women, written by three women,” says Glover, who plays Concetta and writes each episode with the help of her co-stars Julianne Avolio (Ernestine) and Maggie Carr (Raffaela). “It’s not about women dating or getting married or having babies. With most of the episodes, it could really be about three brothers and it doesn’t matter.
“We like to include Pittsburgh connections, too. In the play version, we would often give the audience something, usually food. One time it was Mancini’s. But you will see that there are references to Pittsburgh-specific stores and restaurants. In one episode, we had a big Italian wedding and the centerpiece was the cookie table … All three of us are Pittsburghers and of Italian descent, so this was important to us.”
Emboldened by the success of Sorella’s original 10-episode theatrical season in 2015, they decided to apply for a Steeltown Entertainment Project Grant to take the sitcom to the next level. Glover found out in December that they received the grant, which allows them to make the stage sitcom into a web series and sitcom pilot.
“The web series is a completely different animal,” says Glover. “We started shooting back in January 2016 and we release them around the second week of every month. The web series episodes are much shorter, which was a definite challenge for us. We had to take 25- to 30-page scripts and condense them down to about four pages.
“I was also worried about the audience reacting to it on screen versus live. Steeltown hosted a screening for us, and I stuck around just to hear the reaction and listen to the audience, and I was so happy to hear audible laughter and people in the audience actually responding to the screen. The live, interactive, communal experience still seemed to be there.”
With backgrounds primarily in theater, DiGiulio and Glover are very grateful for the help they have received from Steeltown Entertainment, Pittsburgh filmmaker Bailey Donovan (who is the director of the Sorella web series) and a set of Hollywood-based consultants to help get the series off the ground. Episode 6, entitled Catfish, was just released online. Click below to watch the episode. Warning: adult language.
The webisodes range from around one to three minutes, but the fall brings the promise of at least one full-length Sorella episode. Right now, they are preparing to film a television pilot, which will probably be around the same length as a live episode, minus the live commercials. Then, with the help of their various film consultants, they will pitch the pilot to television networks to see if it gets picked up.
At the end of the day, though, Glover and DiGiulio are partial to presenting theater, which is why they hope to stage another live episode at Arcade Comedy Theater after they finish filming the pilot. “Theater is my first love, and there is nothing like that live audience,” says Glover. “It’s called a ‘play’ for a reason—entertainment should be fun. I believe in the transformative power of laughter. We aren’t trying to change the world; we are just hoping to change your night for the better.”