The democ­racy of the­atre

Is there a place for plu­ral­ism and tol­er­ance on Ukrainian stages?

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Anas­ta­sia Holov­nenko

Is there a place for plu­ral­ism and tol­er­ance on Ukrainian stages?

At the end of May, the Pa­rade Fest the­atre and ur­ban de­sign fes­ti­val was held in Kharkiv. The theme of the five-day artis­tic gath­er­ing was tol­er­ance in the the­atre's work with its au­di­ence and ac­tors. It seems that the pub­lic re­sponse drawn from the pro­fes­sional com­mu­nity by this event sur­passed even the most dar­ing ex­pec­ta­tions of its or­gan­is­ers.

In the Pa­rade Fest pro­gramme, at­ten­tion was evenly dis­trib­uted be­tween the the­atre "in prac­tice" and in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary lec­tures on re­lated topics. It is dif­fi­cult to even say which of these parts the or­gan­is­ers de­voted more con­sid­er­a­tion and re­spon­si­bil­ity to. It was per­haps the first time in re­cent years that all the events at a Ukrainian the­atre fes­ti­val were in­ter­de­pen­dent and clearly con­structed from a con­cep­tual point of view. Var­i­ous as­pects of the rel­a­tively new the­atri­cal theme of democ­racy ap­peared in lec­tures and talks on in­clu­sive­ness in this sanc­tu­ary of art, his­tor­i­cal mem­ory and col­lec­tive trauma as a sub­ject for per­for­ma­tive prac­tices to in­ves­ti­gate, post-mem­ory and self-cen­sor­ship in stage art. Nev­er­the­less, the demo­cratic for­mat for dis­cussing per­for­mances be­came the event's orig­i­nal trade­mark, which struck a chord with both crit­ics and the Kharkiv au­di­ence. As the or­gan­is­ers say, it was fun­da­men­tal "not to talk di­dac­ti­cally about what not to do, but to crit­i­cally in­ter­pret the process".


On the one hand, the most awk­ward is­sue in Ukrainian the­atre to­day per­haps re­mains that of its ac­ces­si­bil­ity, which the cult di­rec­tors of the last cen­tury in­sisted on so much. As far as ticket prices are con­cerned, the state is still able to sub­sidise "The­atre plc", but is at a loss as soon as it comes down to in­clu­sion, i.e. the in­volve­ment of all pop­u­la­tion seg­ments in cul­tural life (above all, phys­i­cal ac­ces­si­bil­ity). At the sim­plest level, the idea of in­clu­sive­ness is to elim­i­nate ob­sta­cles that pre­vent some or all peo­ple from get­ting some­where or en­gag­ing in some­thing. Un­for­tu­nately, the­atres in Kyiv that are ac­ces­si­ble to peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, where it is pos­si­ble to get into the au­di­to­rium, toi­lets and other fa­cil­i­ties from the same level, are still few and far be­tween. How­ever, the the­atre re­mains

in­ac­ces­si­ble even for peo­ple that can move freely but have vis­ual or hear­ing im­pair­ments: for ex­am­ple, there are al­most no spe­cialised pro­duc­tions with a sig­nif­i­cant part of the per­for­mance that is ki­netic (the ac­tion lit­er­ally takes place in the spec­ta­tor's hands) or any­thing sim­i­lar.

On the other hand, in­clu­sion in such a cul­tural in­sti­tu­tion should be un­der­stood as equally in­volv­ing cre­ators with and with­out dis­abil­i­ties. In dif­fer­ent re­gions of Ukraine – Odesa, Ch­erni­hiv, Kyiv and Lviv – there are small semi-pro groups that are try­ing to work in this di­rec­tion. But as yet, there is un­for­tu­nately no sin­gle pow­er­ful move­ment or fes­ti­val to unite around this idea and pop­u­larise it. This is un­for­tu­nate be­cause the­atre can be dif­fer­ent and a won­der­ful ex­am­ple of this is the Can­doco Dance Com­pany from the UK that has per­formed on Ukrainian stages sev­eral times.

The per­form­ers in their small shows are peo­ple both with and with­out phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties. The main goal is to show the beauty of re­la­tion­ships and their equal­ity. To re­veal the value of hu­man­ity through the man­i­fes­ta­tion of oth­er­ness. Ac­cord­ing to the­atre critic and man­ager Nadiya Sokolenko, the oth­er­ness in this case can take on dif­fer­ent forms. The artist in­sists that in­clu­sive­ness is gen­er­ally aimed at re­mov­ing ob­sta­cles to ac­cess for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties and other marginalised groups – par­ents with young chil­dren, the el­derly, etc.

Sokolenko thinks that two things hin­der the Ukrainian the­atre on its path to in­clu­sive­ness. The first, in her opin­ion, lies in the fact that a so­cial model of dis­abil­ity has not yet taken root in Ukraine – there is not the un­der­stand­ing that some­one with a dis­abil­ity is, above all, a per­son who also has the right to ac­cess art and that our task is to elim­i­nate ob­sta­cles and make the the­atre and per­for­mances more ac­ces­si­ble to this cat­e­gory of peo­ple. The same ap­plies to in­clu­sive art: a dis­abled per­son can be the cre­ator or co-au­thor of an artis­tic work. The sec­ond thing Nadiya talks about is that changes like the re­con­struc­tion of the­atre spa­ces, the ad­di­tion of ramps, the in­stal­la­tion of ac­ces­si­ble toi­lets, the pro­vi­sion of equip­ment and the in­tro­duc­tion of au­dio de­scrip­tion and sign-lan­guage trans­la­tion for per­for­mances all prag­mat­i­cally re­quire con­sid­er­able ex­penses. It is a good thing when there are grants or ad­di­tional fund­ing for these needs, she states. How­ever, in Ukrainian cir­cum­stances, when pub­lic the­atres re­ceive fund­ing that only cov­ers salaries and util­ity bills, it is only pos­si­ble to dream of such ser­vices.

There are in­di­vid­ual projects that peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties can visit in Ukraine, but very few of them. As crit­ics point out, closed events for such in­di­vid­u­als only fur­ther marginalise these pop­u­la­tion groups. Ide­ally, in­clu­sive­ness should en­rich the the­atre as a process and the­atre as a prod­uct. Thanks to the im­ple­men­ta­tion of this prin­ci­ple, peo­ple with and with­out dis­abil­i­ties can get into the same space equally eas­ily, all types of spec­ta­tors can sit next to each other at the same show with­out feel­ing un­com­fort­able and ev­ery­one can per­ceive the work in ac­cor­dance with their own ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Not to men­tion that oth­er­wise the the­atre loses a cer­tain part of its po­ten­tial au­di­ence, as well as its hu­man­is­tic di­men­sion. And ev­ery­one misses out on the won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence of dis­cov­er­ing some­thing new for them­selves.


The or­gan­is­ers came across the idea of hold­ing a rigidly con­cep­tual Pa­rade Fest in Kharkiv to unite the whole city un­der the in­flu­ence of Di­vadelna Ni­tra in Slo­vakia. This is a fes­ti­val with 25 years of ex­pe­ri­ence where all ac­tiv­i­ties are sub­or­di­nate to a sin­gle theme that is dif­fer­ent each year. The idea to de­vote the first at­tempt at a new Ukrainian fes­ti­val to demo­cratic val­ues and tol­er­ance arose long be­fore the project was launched, says Pro­gramme Di­rec­tor Veronika Skl­yarova. The events of March 2014 in the city (the cap­ture of the Kharkiv Re­gional State Ad­min­is­tra­tion by pro-Rus­sian forces with pub­lic beat­ings and the hu­mil­i­a­tion of eye­wit­nesses) and the his­tory of Kharkiv as the "first cap­i­tal of Ukraine" al­most em­broiled lo­cal res­i­dents in the war. Veron­ica is con­vinced that this city, with its "un­der­es­ti­mated po­ten­tial", should be­come the cap­i­tal of a new "Don­bas re­gion". Per­haps only be­cause of the fact that the worst did not hap­pen, we are still able to re­sist the en­emy and keep hope alive.

Plays that are ab­so­lutely dif­fer­ent in terms of their level and gen­res were lined up in the pro­gramme from the ab­stract to very con­crete and even pro­found ex­pe­ri­ences. "It was pre­cisely this level of prob­lem, ur­gency and con­cept that I wanted to work with – with­out di­dac­tics and nar­ra­tive, but with crit­i­cal re­flec­tion and eco­log­i­cal talk about what is im­por­tant," says Sk­liarova. Of course, the con­ver­sa­tion about the city of Kharkiv with all of its postSoviet trauma and legacy was sup­posed to move on to con­scious­ness and re­spon­si­bil­ity. The ed­u­ca­tional pro­gramme was built on this idea. Some of its ac­tiv­i­ties were de­voted to break­ing down these com­plex topics, while the other was purely ed­u­ca­tional and seemed to an­swer the ques­tion of what to do next.

A spe­cial item in the Pa­rade Fest pro­gramme was the theme of post-mem­ory, his­tor­i­cal trauma and col­lec­tive his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence. It re­lates to how per­for­ma­tive prac­tices can and should work with the trau­mas in­flicted on con­tem­po­rary Ukraini­ans by dis­tant events that they were not party to them­selves. Such as, say, the Holodomor, as well as the First and Sec­ond World Wars. Stig­ma­ti­sa­tion of trauma, the or­gan­is­ers be­lieve, leads to even more ter­ri­ble con­se­quences, be­cause post-mem­ory ex­ists and works sub­con­sciously even gen­er­a­tions later. The main el­e­ment in over­com­ing this trauma is dia­logue, es­pe­cially through art, the­atre, mu­sic and cul­ture in gen­eral.

An­other orig­i­nal event in the pro­gramme was the lec­ture by cul­tural re­searcher and di­rec­tor Vik­to­ria Mironyuk, who brought her par­tic­i­pa­tive per­for­mance Red Wed­ding to Pa­rade Fest. She be­lieves that the un­con­scious im­i­ta­tion of canons and tra­di­tions with­out com­pre­hen­sion of col­lec­tive his­tor­i­cal trau­mas will con­tinue to crip­ple so­ci­ety. Only dis­cus­sion, let­ting go and the trans­for­ma­tion of trauma


into a strong ex­pe­ri­ence can over­come its neg­a­tive im­pact on the daily life of so­ci­ety. Vik­to­ria gave many ex­am­ples of how per­for­ma­tive prac­tices can work with col­lec­tive trauma and give mean­ing to it, and the most elo­quent was the demon­sta­tion of her col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Pub­li­cist the­atre.

In the first years af­ter the Oc­to­ber Rev­o­lu­tion, the "red wed­ding" be­came one of the main sec­u­lar rit­u­als – a joint cre­ation of party ide­o­logues, artists and the peo­ple. In­spired by the then avant-garde ideas of women's eman­ci­pa­tion and col­lec­tivism, as well as the new ways of life at the time, this wed­ding was in­tended to re­place the tra­di­tional reli­gious for­mat for cel­e­brat­ing a mar­riage and re­in­force the sym­bolic unity of the new­ly­weds with each other and the col­lec­tive. A par­tic­i­pa­tive per­for­mance based on this rite of pas­sage, mixed with grotesque So­cial­ist Re­al­ism con­cert acts per­formed by Pub­li­cist ac­tors dressed in trans­par­ent cloth­ing, turned into a satire on blindly fol­low­ing post-Soviet stan­dards and pat­terns of think­ing. By play­ing out a wed­ding, it in­vites view­ers to im­merse them­selves in the ideas and aes­thet­ics of early Soviet rit­u­al­ism and to think about what is left of this his­tory that was marked by avant-garde con­cepts about love and sex­u­al­ity, as well as col­lec­tive work and life. Vik­to­ria Mironyuk urges us to think about the in­flu­ence of col­lec­tive mem­ory on our in­di­vid­ual per­cep­tion of the his­tor­i­cal past.


Stanislavsky would say "I don't be­lieve it!" on hear­ing that an an­swer has fi­nally been found to the eter­nal ques­tion – who is in charge in the the­atre. The most im­por­tant thing is that this "leader" is not the di­rec­tor. Text-cen­tric the­atres have long ex­isted around the world, such as the Royal Court The­atre in Lon­don. Noth­ing needs to be said about ac­tor-cen­tred the­atres – we just need to re­mem­ber that the pro­fes­sion of di­rec­tor grew out of act­ing. There­fore, an ac­tor that is at the same time the di­rec­tor is a clas­sic com­bi­na­tion. Back in the day, Czech the­atre La­terna magika, which put the pos­si­bil­i­ties of stage light­ing at the cen­tre of its stud­ies, won renown through­out Europe. The same can be said about the an­cient Asian shadow the­atres that emerged by the 6th cen­tury at the lat­est. Con­versely, mod­ern sanc­tu­ar­ies of art use aug­mented and vir­tual re­al­ity to grad­u­ally trans­form the­atre from a "story" into an "ex­pe­ri­ence".

In Ukraine, the ex­pe­ri­ence of democ­racy has al­ready been tested many times in this field of art. In the last cen­tury, plays have been cre­ated by stu­dios and semipro­fes­sional the­atre groups us­ing the prin­ci­ples of col­lec­tive di­rec­tion and com­mu­nity author­ity. Now, the eman­ci­pated the­atre wants to get rid of the di­rec­tor as a phe­nom­e­non not only be­cause of his/her au­thor­i­tar­ian will, but also be­cause of the nat­u­ral de­sire to com­bine sev­eral world­views into one. As they say, two, three or ten heads are bet­ter than one.

An ex­am­ple of such the­atre could be given as the in­de­pen­dent per­for­mance of play­wright Dmytro Levyt­skiy, per­form­ers Nina Khyzhna and Ok­sana Cherkashyna, and artist Yevheny Yak­shin, which was recog­nised with the pro­fes­sional Kyiv Ac­count award. The Restau­rant Ukraine project was the sec­ond play with the par­tic­i­pa­tion of Levyt­skiy, Khyzhna and Cherkashyna that was barely taken se­ri­ously by crit­ics. Fol­low­ing up on the project "My grand­fa­ther dug, my dad dug, but I will not", the per­for­mance was crit­i­cised pri­mar­ily be­cause of its lack of di­rect­ing in a tra­di­tional sense. How­ever, in the con­text of study­ing democ­racy in Ukrainian stage art, the his­tory of this project is in­ter­est­ing from some­thing other than a the­atri­cal point of view.

The thing is that Restau­rant Ukraine was faced with the prob­lem of po­si­tion­ing its democ­racy. On the poster for the pre­miere last au­tumn, all the au­thors were listed along­side their roles – play­wright, per­form­ers, artist, etc. How­ever, the col­lec­tive had to re­act for a year be­fore the texts of pro­fes­sional crit­ics and jour­nal­ists, as well as posters for fes­ti­val shows and the Ukrainian show­case, fi­nally stopped writ­ing about a "Dmytro Levyt­skyi project" and started to men­tion all of its cre­ators. It seems that in this sit­u­a­tion the team en­coun­tered not only the ig­no­rance of their col­leagues that write about Ukrainian the­atre, but also their prej­u­dices about the au­thors' gen­der. Given that the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of di­rec­tors in Ukraine are men and by de­fault it is cus­tom­ary to at­tribute any the­atri­cal work to one per­son – one man – Restau­rant Ukraine was sim­ply a lit­mus test for un­der­stand­ing this sit­u­a­tion.

An­other ex­pe­ri­ence in cre­at­ing a demo­cratic per­for­mance is the pro­duc­tion of Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psy­chosis by di­rec­tor Roza Sark­isyan. It was a fi­nal­ist of Bri­tish Coun­cil pro­gramme Tak­ing the Stage, win­ning a prize as a spe­cial project from Kyiv the­atre Ak­tor. "Psy­chosis" was cre­ated by six women – com­poser Olek­san­dra Malatskovska, per­form­ers Nina Khyzhna and Ok­sana Cherkashyna, artist Diana Khody­achykh and cu­ra­tor Nas­tia Dzhumla worked along­side the di­rec­tor. Since the au­thor of this text is in­volved with cre­at­ing the pro­duc­tion, I must say that along­side the tra­di­tional (and not so tra­di­tional) study of the Bri­tish play­wright's text, the project par­tic­i­pants have de­voted con­sid­er­able ef­forts to study­ing not only the themes it touches on and all of the dis­course around them, but also bi­ogra­phies and other texts by Sarah Kane. In this way, the multi-lay­ered play about a woman and her psy­chosis turned into an eman­ci­pated per­for­ma­tive act on the sit­u­a­tion in Ukrainian so­ci­ety and its the­atre in par­tic­u­lar.

Roza Sark­isyan is deeply con­vinced as an artist and now the prin­ci­pal di­rec­tor of the First The­atre in Lviv that the­atre can­not take a neu­tral po­si­tion and be in­dif­fer­ent to the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal trends that per­me­ate through so­ci­ety. In her per­for­mances, she tries to re­sist cen­sor­ship, and above all the self-cen­sor­ship of artists. Roza is con­vinced that if trauma is not dealt with, it is passed onto our de­scen­dants with all the en­su­ing con­se­quences and they will ex­pe­ri­ence it as if it were their own. In an in­ter­view for the lat­est is­sue of Ukrainian The­atre mag­a­zine, the artist stated that "war is al­ways a noise that paral­y­ses, dis­torts and dis­cred­its in­di­vid­ual voices, re­pro­duc­ing new black holes of si­lence". There­fore, Sark­isian calls for the mod­ern the­atre "to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for giv­ing a voice to those who are afraid to speak". The pro­duc­tions that she has in mind should firmly pro­tect so­ci­ety against build­ing up more and more col­lec­tive trau­mas. In a sit­u­a­tion where the en­tire Ukrainian the­atre scene is a con­tin­u­ous "red wed­ding", this be­comes an im­por­tant ges­ture in the so­cial space.

The topics that Pa­rade Fest brought to the fore of its five-day the­atri­cal and ur­ban­is­tic marathon are new and com­plex. It must be said that the per­for­mances shown at the fes­ti­val met cer­tain re­sis­tance. If not from the au­di­ence, then at least from the con­ser­va­tive cul­tural com­mu­nity. Nev­er­the­less, if the tech­ni­cal staff of Kharkiv the­atres con­tinue to ex­er­cise au­thor­i­tar­ian con­trol over their sub­or­di­nate ter­ri­to­ries at a fes­ti­val on tol­er­ance and democ­racy, we are sure that ev­ery­thing is go­ing as it should. But se­ri­ously, Pa­rade Fest is needed in ev­ery city– about his­tor­i­cal mem­ory, tol­er­ance and any­thing else, as long as its goal is hon­estly re­alised by all of the par­tic­i­pants in the process, which can fi­nally be joined by as much of so­ci­ety as pos­si­ble.

In­clu­sion in the the­atre. The free ac­cess of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties to the­atres as spec­ta­tors, and also as di­rec­tors and ac­tors, is a well-es­tab­lished Euro­pean prac­tice

Over­come your own pain. Per­for­ma­tive prac­tices can and should work with the trau­mas in­flicted on con­tem­po­rary Ukraini­ans by dis­tant events that they were not party to them­selves.The play 4:48 Psy­chosis by Sarah Kane di­rected by Roza Sark­isyan

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