Ukrainian Theaters Address Identity Issues – With German Help

Culture & Science
23 December 2011, 16:14

Ukrainian theaters are visibly taking more interest in modern drama. A recent festival, The Topical Play Week, stimulated several young playwrights and granted financial support to three of them. Directors are increasingly adopting works of modern literature works for their productions. Foreign cultural institutions are also contributing by organizing tours and working directly with theaters and authors. In 2011, the British Royal Court theater included Ukraine in its program for promoting the development of modern drama. Goethe-Institut in Ukraine recently increased its presence in theater by supporting German-language drama productions in Kyiv. The Ukrainian Week was a media partner of this theater project which offered a series of plays on, among other things, issues of identity. This is something that is extremely important to Ukraine’s theater, just like the opportunity to stage the works of trending European playwrights.


Performances of modern German-language drama within the framework of SCHAG-3 project, continue in the "New Theater in Pechersk", theater "Koleso" and on the stage of the Center of Modern Art "Dakh".

Seeds of conflict in stable and trouble-free society, depicted in German drama, germinate abundantly both within the system and outside it. Designed by one of the most famous German playwrights Roland Schimmelpfennig in the play "Push Up 1-3", the world of a great international concern presents the system in the psychological view of its details. Their lives pass in efforts to shift from lower floors of this sinful office world to the top, where the power is concentrated, though in the hands of the same weak and confidence-lacking people. Meanwhile outside the system life flourishes in the same way – though in the case of characters in "Protection", a play by Anya Gilling, this is more akin to dying a slow and inexorable death from which there is no salvation even in love. Stories of the "not meetings" in "Protection" are not always tragic, but instead of dialogue we hear an exchange of monologues. Characters could have reached understanding, if they spoke their thoughts out loudly to one another, but they dare not.

German playwrights appear on the stage of "Dakh" theater within the framework of repertoire policy of the theater. Besides "Disgusting" – an absurd play about the loss of a "self" under the knife of a plastic surgeon – and "Protection", "Dakh" also staged other works of famous German playwrights, in particular "Our Parents' Sexual Neuroses" by the Swiss Lukas Berfus and also another play present in the repertoire: "Spinelessness. An Evening for People with Defective Posture" by the German Indrid Lausund. 

Only "Dakh" used Ukrainian translations of the plays proposed by Goethe-Institut for staging in Kyiv.  Cooperation with the cultural institution allows receiving the copyright for the show as well as the translation. "This is rather expensive", theater director Vlad Troyitskyy tells us about the copyright purchase. "The amount depends on the quantity of seats, tickets price, author and publishing house. On the one hand, indeed, everything has to be paid for. On the other hand, understanding the financial situation in which theaters find themselves, especially those that are into modern drama, shows it is not likely they will have the resources for this. It is much easier for them to stage Shakespeare or Chekhov than a modern drama."

Art director of the "New Theater in Pechersk" Oleksandr Kryzhanivskyy saw that his theater’s audience was not prepared for social drama in the example of "Protection".

"When there are problems in society, and blackness comes each day in great amounts from TV, people don't want to see any more of it", Kryzhanivskyy said. Meanwhile, "Push Up 1-3" collects full houses in theaters. "I asked Goethe-Institut to secure the copyright for us for another 10-15 performances", Kryzhanivskyy continued, "This play is staged all over the world".

So far, his theater cannot afford to pay for the copyright of modern foreign plays. The manager complains that other cultural institutions are in no hurry to support theater performances, even though there are many interesting plays, particularly British, American and Swiss.


The project "Stranger Among Strangers. Emigration and Extremism in the Modern World" in the Lesia Ukrainka National Academic Theater of Russian Drama also focuses on German drama that addresses today's burning issues. The project consists of three plays — “Black Maidens,” “Point of Honor” and “Nord-Ost.”

This project makes it particularly evident that the topic of "others", expressed through the characters of Muslim women and their views on sexuality, religion and terrorism, is one of Europe’s primary concerns. The play "Black Maids" by Feridun Zaymoglu and Gunther Zenkel is composed of 10 monologues of young – sometimes very young and even less critical and more radical – Muslim women of Turkish, Bosnian and German background. If a traditional family moves from a Muslim culture to Western society, a whole palette of options arises to which the identity of a young Muslim woman may bend. So "Black Maidens" is not only 10 philosophies, they are also summarized in a single denominator of radical views and loyalty towards terrorism.

The crisis of teenage identity caused by the coexistence of cultures is embodied most accurately in the dialogue of the boy-murderer and policeman-psychologist from the play by Luts Gubner "Point of Honor".

"One has to respect women (…) Elena was a slut."

"Is she not worth the respect? … I can just grasp the difference between women and sluts."

"Nord-Ost" is the story of three women skilfully crafted by the German playwright Torsten Buchsteiner. Zura is a kamikadze terrorist; Tamara is a doctor working her shift in the ambulance on the night the terrorist strikes; Olga is in the audience and finds herself among the hostages. The play certainly won't leave any spectator indifferent. The author does not divide his female characters into good and bad like a cheap action movie. On the contrary, he essentially weaves their lives into one life destroyed by war and the loss of relatives.

Understandably, these plays fare much better in multicultural societies if only because audience members can react to life after leaving the theater with a good dose of the playwright’s candidness. This makes room for wide-ranging responses in society, something objectively far less likely to occur in Ukraine. However, Ukraine can relate to the problem of understanding others, particularly a person of a different nationality, culture or other foundation for self-justification. This is what identity rests on. We have a myth that Ukrainians are a tolerant nation with tolerance sometimes perceived as helplessness. This and a constant search for a unifying national idea are issues that are relevant to us but which have yet to be adequately articulated via theater. In other words, the problem of identity is still a challenge which has not essentially been accepted by Ukrainian playwrights. For now, the gaps have to be filled with the help of Western Europeans.


SCHAG-3 Project

Dakh Center of Modern Art


December 6 and 7, 7p.m.

Protection, December 22 and 23, 7p.m.

Koleso Theater

Push Up 1-3, December 14, 7p.m.

New Theater on Pechersk

Push Up 1-3, December 20 and 21, 7p.m.

The Alien Among Aliens Project

Lesia Ukrainka National Academic Theater of Russian Drama

Black Maidens

December 7, 8p.m.

A Matter of Honor, December 21, 8p.m.

Nord-Ost. The Future Will Tell

December 25, 6p.m.

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