How can Ukrainian theatre be interesting to the rest of the world?
“I wanted to write a play. I moved my desk to the window, sat there and worked for two days with great pleasure. I had no idea what would be in the end of my story and the premier was six months later. So, my dear, leave the Internet, turn off your TV, sit and create whatever you like,” says Vira Makoviy, the author of Buna.
Progress of the modern Ukrainian theatre on the international arena is impossible without the progress of dramaturgy. Western society is clearly focused on modern times, which is the essence of social theatre, and is still in great demand. Also, the audience is interested in the political theatre that responds quickly to all hot socio-political developments: “If we had a play about how Yulia Tymoshenko was put in prison, for instance, it could break through in Europe and be popular in political theatre,” says Alla Rybikova, director and collector of ‘SHAG’ (The Step), a compilation of German plays.
To get to the main theatre forums of the world today a country needs either a firmly established national dramaturgy, or some powerful work from a director that could surprise a Western audience. Plays often take their first steps on international stages through drama festivals. Germany has two big drama forums in Mulheim and a biennial in Wiesbaden. “Every two years, I hear a question: What does Ukrainian drama have to show? And every time there is a lack of material. I think there are scripts out there because young people write at least something. But this is not the sort of quality to be presented as a national asset,” Ms. Rybikova claims.
National dramaturgy develops when the reality of a country is portrayed and comprehended systemically. That was how modern German drama evolved with its sensitive issues, including neo-Nazism, the coexistence of different ethnic groups and cultures and the division and unification of the modern state, as well as the dramaturgy of Great Britain where the protest against the established life cycle is growing particularly violent. In Russia, similar processes occurred in the 1990s when Nikolai Koliada began writing about the reality he saw when Aleksei Kazantsev and Viktor Slavkin founded the ‘Liubimovka’ festival. In the early 2000s, the workshops of the London Royal Court gave a strong impulse to new theatre styles, including Russian documentary theatre.
Today, the Royal Court is working in Ukraine on a joint Ukrainian-Georgian project of young dramatic art. Elyse Dodgson, Director of the Royal Court’s international program, says she has great expectations from young Ukrainian playwrights but any conclusions would be pre-term now. The project is almost over and the winning play will be staged at the Royal Court, which has already had earlier experience of Ukrainian playwrights, having staged plays including Maksim Kurochkin’s The Eye (Glaz), Natalia Vorozhbyt’s Granary (Zernoskhovyshche) and the late Hanna Yablonska’s Pagans (Yazycnhyky).
UP HILL AND DOWN DALE
The Ukrainian Week has talked to experts in Russia and Poland, two countries with impressive theatre history, to find out how Ukrainian theatre is seen abroad. “Young playwrights inspire high expectations,” says Mikhail Ugarov, a Moscow-based playwright, theatre director and one of the ideologues of the New Drama movement. “I’ll mention a few names that have become recognizable over the past few years: Artur Mloyan, Vira Makoviy, Marysia Nikitiuk, Yevhen Markovsky, Sashko Brama, Den Humennyi, Mariam Agamian, Oksana Savchenko and of course, Natalia Vorozhbyt, as well as the Kyiv-born and Moscow-based Maksim Kurochkin”. Mr. Ugarov’s small ‘Theatre.doc’ gives an extensive platform to documentary theatre. He is looking forward to seeing Ukraine’s own ungarnished reality on the Ukrainian stage that both Ukrainians and the whole world would find interesting. “I hope people will stop pretending that art is one thing and life is another. I believe they will realize that a personality on stage is much more interesting than just an actor,” he says.
Roman Pawlowski, a Polish theatre critic at Gazeta Wyborcza, hardly knows Ukrainian dramatic art at all. Andriy Zholdak is the first person he thinks about whenever Ukrainian theatre is mentioned. “For Western audiences, he remains a Ukrainian director, although he does not stage Ukrainian plays, nor could he be called a representative of Ukrainian theatre tradition since Zholdak is the product (excuse me) of Western culture,” Mr. Pawlowski says. “In the first place, though, he is a first rate director who works with German, Russian and Hungarian theatres and lives in Berlin.” Mr. Pawlowski looks surprised. “Sorry, I really don’t get why Andriy Zholdak lives in Berlin. Let’s take Krzysztof Warlikowski, the most well-known Polish director today, for instance. He works abroad a lot but has his group in the Warsaw-based Nowy Teatr (The New Theatre). Without this theatre, he would lose his source of inspiration and his identity, I believe.”
In addition to Zholdak, Mr. Pawlowski calls Klim (Ukrainian playwright and director Volodymyr Klymenko – ed.) an exiled artist and wonders why the talented director has no laboratory in Kyiv and works in Moscow instead. This is typical for Ukraine, though, as independent theatres, even those that represent Ukraine abroad successfully, are of zero interest to the government. Meanwhile, virtually every European country provides financial support to their experimental theatres. All experts realize that experiments launch new processes that lead to great results eventually, even if they don’t always have an immediate specific impact. “Without funding, theatre groups like Dakh (The Roof) will sooner or later be forced to stage purely commercial plays to survive,” Mr. Pawlowski claims.
Recently, Dakh gave an acclaimed performance of King Lear. The Prologue at the Golden Mask festival in Moscow. The play was set eight years ago as the Orange Revolution unfolded. Political allusions in Shakespeare’s text are close to the current revolutionary attitudes in Russia and the Russian audience has grasped them, observer Roman Dolzhanski wrote in his review. In fact, the previous year was a good one for Dakh: the group performed at festivals in France and was invited to Theatre Vidy Lausanne where Peter Brook, Pina Bausch and Eimund Niakroshus had all once worked. In Lausanne, Dakh will stage the play called Viy by Natalia Vorozhbyt based on the piece by Mykola Hohol (Nikolai Gogol in Russian – ed). The play will portray a modern village in the Poltava Oblast of Ukraine in the light of Hohol’s phantasmagoria where two French tourists find themselves by accident. It looks like the story will be interesting for both Ukrainian and European audiences.
THE SOFTENING EFFECT
Some wonder, why we break through to Europe if we sometimes fail to please our audience at home. This is where Israel could serve as a role model. Troupe 209, a small theatre in Tel-Aviv that inherited its number from a bomb shelter next to which the local authority granted the theatre its premises, is welcoming dozens of curators and festival managers from all over the world to present its works and find new prospects of cooperation, such as participation in festivals, co-productions and so on. For 25 years now, the theatre has been almost entirely supported by the local budget and the forum for international guests will also be arranged using state funds. The government realizes that in a situation where international attitudes towards their country grow more and more radical, only arts can soften this. As for Ukraine, better quality art can improve its negative image in the world. Telling the world about Ukraine would be a first – and perfectly expected – step in that direction.
According to Alla Rybikova, the attempts to lure international theatre community should follow the understanding of what is important for Ukrainians in life. When they finally realize this, and do so in a talented way, Ukraine will become interesting to the world.