Virlana Tkacz, an American theatre director with Ukrainian roots, talks about experimental and accessible theatre, culture on the edge, and the struggle to build an audience
“New York’s theatres revealed every aspect of our profession to us: you just have to work hard and learn a lot”, recalls Svitlana Oleshko, director of the Kharkiv-based Arabesques Theatre and studio. She recently worked in New York with Ukrainian-American theatre director Virlana Tkacz, founding director of the Yara Arts Group and a translator of poetry. During the group’s twenty years of activity, Tkacz has introduced American audiences to top contemporary Ukrainian poets Serhiy Zhadan, Oksana Zabuzhko, Oleh Lysheha, Natalka Bilotserkivets and Viktor Neborak; singers Nina Matvienko and Mariana Sadovska; even carolers from Kryvorivnia, a small village in the Carpathians. She creates something bigger than just Ukrainian theatre. Her plays involve actors of different races and nationalities speaking different languages. Past productions have featured Kyrgyz and Buryat rituals. Virlana Tkacz’s plays are a fusion of various media: music, video installations, photography, literature and theatre. The Yara Arts Group’s new play Captain John Smith is also multilayered, but with distinctly Ukrainian elements.
THEATRE FROM SCRATCH
Neither America nor Europe have theatre systems like Ukraine’s where state theatres have permanent premises, casts and directors. This is too costly. U.S. theatres today are either commercial Broadway ones staging one play seven days a week, or they’re non-commercial. Theatres are the biggest industry in New York. The city has realized that all other businesses can disappear but art will stay. Unlike Ukrainian artists, Americans do not wait for the government to support them. Art is supported by foundations and private sponsors.
The Yara Arts Group has to fight for every experimental play. But I think that’s exactly why I keep doing this. I used to work at a commercial theatre; I was second assistant to director in Amadeus, a beautiful play. But doing one play all week is a killer for the actors and director, it’s worse than working at a factory. With experimental theatre you start every project from scratch and use anything the world has to offer every time.
“Even a chair can become the text for your play – your imagination is all that matters,” says Watoku Ueno, a Japanese-American scenographer and co-founder of the Yara Arts Group. The play is being formed the entire time I’m working on it. All of the interesting people, things and discoveries I make while working on it end up in the play in some way or another. It is important to make the play easy to understand for all. The language is not a barrier in this because there is also the language of eyes, hands, shoulders and legs. People of all nationalities understand it.
The experimental theatre La MaMa where we stage our plays started in a roofless building in 1961. Broadway theatres did not want unconventional plays, so one Ukrainian-American gave his basement to Ellen Stuart, a director who wanted to create a theatre. This was the first home of La MaMa. New art always has to compete for new space – whether on Facebook or at an abandoned factory, like GogolFest in Kyiv.
As a director, I’m always interested in the way traditions and history are passed from generation to generation. Preserving traditions is extremely important for the Ukrainian, Buryat, Kyrgyz and African cultures that I find the most interesting. The more I dig into them, the better I understand Ukraine. These cultures are different in terms of religion and history, but their commonality lies in their efforts to not simply preserve what exists already, but to keep developing themselves further.
OPENING UP TO OTHERS
It is important to realize that traditional culture cannot be set in stone. I am most interested in how new culture evolves out of older traditions. I have photographs where my grandmother, mother and I are all wearing traditional Ukrainian clothes. The pictures show very well how ethnic fashion changed over the centuries. This reminds me that traditional art is not stable. Some directors read books before they start working on a play. I travel and talk to representatives of the culture I’m interested in.
Ukraine has to open up to other cultures. Ukrainian culture will develop if tradition and new artists enter into a dialogue. What are some ways to start and maintain this? I sometimes find an interesting poem or a carol, send it out to many artists and ask them to do something with it. It is important for me to not just direct a play but to take part in the creation of the atmosphere where Ukrainian culture is born. Ukrainian artists, too, advise me on what I can read or watch.
This time, I brought the story of 16th century British traveller Captain John Smith to Ukraine. It began when I found the first edition of Smith’s memoirs from 1630 in a library. People always read the last part of his memoirs about his arrival in America. I read the whole book and realized that the story he told was very similar to Ukrainian ballads of that time. John Smith was a poor young British guy who volunteered to fight in the Anglo-French War. Then, he went to Flanders, Transylvania, Wallachia, and the most interesting part for me – Ukraine! In his memoirs, he mentioned Drohobych, Ostroh, Lutsk, Halych and Kolomyia, and wrote that no other nation was as welcoming as the Ukrainian people. American poet Bob Holman plays John Smith in this production.
We published a big book, Modernism in Kyiv, at the University of Toronto. But one person alone cannot explain Ukrainian modernism and say, the discoveries of Les Kurbas abroad (Ukrainian film and theatre director, b. 1887; along with several other directors, he formed the Soviet avant-garde theatre in the 1920-30s – Ed.). I began researching his work thinking that it wouldn’t take me much time. I found just two books on Kurbas at the Columbia University Libraries, and my research is still in progress.
I worked with Gogol Bordello on Buryat plays. I met Eugene when he was sitting on the stairs in front of my home (Eugene Hütz, actor and lead singer of Gogol Bordello – Ed.). “I will work with you,” was his greeting. We started having gatherings called New Nomads, For We’re Not a Community at the Ukrainian sports club every Thursday. That’s how Gogol Bordello started as a band. Hütz has his own views on Ukrainian culture. He is most fascinated with the Hutsuls (Ukrainian ethno-cultural group inhabiting the Carpathians in Ivano-Frankivsk, Chernivtsi and Zakarpattia Oblasts – Ed.). Eugene really wanted to become who he is today. Every artist has a dream. When our dreams intertwine, we come together and make good projects.
There is no such thing as a unified Ukrainian diaspora. The U.S. is home to Ukrainians who moved in the 1940s. They are all around 80 now, and they mostly stay at home. Their children preserve Ukrainian traditions but are also part of mainstream American culture. Other Ukrainian immigrants have arrived recently. Each one of them creates a new Ukrainian-American culture. I recently worked with the “Shumka” Ukrainian dance troupe in Edmonton. They are the great-grandchildren of Ukrainians who moved to Canada in the early 19th century. They barely speak Ukrainian but the way they perform authentic dances is beautiful. It may be one of the biggest Ukrainian dance schools in the world. The group includes over 700 people.
Virlana Tkacz is an American theatre director of Ukrainian origin and the founding director of the Yara Arts Group at the off-Broadway La MaMa experimental theatre in New York. She was born in 1952. Her grandfather Kost Kysilewsky founded a chain of schools for Ukrainian studies in the U.S. Virlana holds a Masters of Fine Arts from Columbia University. She has produced 25 plays including A Light from the East, Blind Sight, Song Tree, Koliada: Twelve Dishes, Scythian Stones, Raven, Fire. Water. Night, and more. She translates Ukrainian poetry into English with poet Wanda Phipps. The translations have been published in A Hundred Years of Youth: A Bilingual Anthology of 20th Century Ukrainian Poetry. Virlana is the co-founder of the International Les Kurbas Society.