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29 July, 2018  ▪  

The Democracy of Theatre

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".


Care, Not Indifference


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.

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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.

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.


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.


Old Habits Die Hard


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 post-Soviet 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.

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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.


Too Many Cooks


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".


As a counterweight to aesthetic and authoritarian struggles in the world of stage art, another approach to the hierarchy of creative relations was formed – a democratic one. In such a theatre, the distribution of roles is determined proportionally and all its members are involved in creating the concept for a work. The director, actors, curators, lightning technicians, artists and more are all the authors. In other words, such a theatre does away with authority figures as such and there is simply no one "in charge" in the usual sense.


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 semi-professional 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.

By Anastasia Holovnenko


Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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