Ukrainian Theater in Search of Reconciliation

June 2016
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It may sound paradoxical, but in the contemporary world, as saturated with conflict as it is, the field of art, without vast financial resources yet with the potential for deep emotional impact, can also play a key role in the global quest for mutual understanding and agreement. It might seem that this claim contradicts most events known from the history of art, which show that, since the beginning of time, art has been used as a powerful tool for the manipulation of mass consciousness. Architecture, painting, theater, music, literature and, of course, cinema have each been employed to fuel propaganda in the justification of certain viewpoints or goals.

In the mid-20th century, a time of manifest rebellion against dominant ideologies, the influence of art, followed by technology, reached its climax. Scepticism about the aggressive and militant application of the then emerging creative energy echoed through several social and artistic movements of the second half of the 20th century. Today, the presence of dominant political ideas in works of art is generally seen as bad taste. Very rarely do artists want to acknowledge the deliberate presence of politicised themes in their works. However, centuries of observation and even intuitive understanding of the core mission and function of art encourage creators to make social statements through their work, even in the 21st century.

In instances of the refusal to “serve” anything or anyone, or to answer to calls for pronounced glorification of an ideal, mutual non-commercial interests and non-profit, non-ideological values are increasingly becoming the new line of defense. This means that from the field of propaganda art is shifting into a new environment, and it is there that, by means of affording more open “discussion” on certain issues, the quest for humanitarian solutions takes place – solutions that can provide alternatives to problems that cannot be solved by other means, including traditional policy measures..

When talking about the “discussion” taking place on the territory of art, it is important to specify those types of creative activities where the communicative element is crucial, such as, for instance, the theater. The prevalence of the communicative principle in theatrical performance as an organizing trait has emerged as a trend over the past two decades: it is found in both formal and thematic experimentation. In particular, the development of a particular type of theater, such as the verbatim theater, encourages stage directors to completely abandon conventional principles of display and demonstration. Verbatim is designed to surface “uncomfortable” topics, sometimes even transforming theater into a place of active discussion.

In much of contemporary experimental theater, the audience is encouraged to actively participate in the performance: through direct dialogue, through expressions of individual opinion, by presenting questions for public discussion, or through participating in the scripting of the performance itself, such as choosing the finale. This so-called theater of witnesses has succeeded most prominently due to its documentary format and the active participation of the audience. The closed space of the theater becomes a common area of responsibility where it is impossible to hide, to avoid discussion, or to falsify identities. This highly personal, intimate form of theater has become an alternative to the distant public discussions on social media, where people do not always reveal their real names and views.

In today’s Ukraine, creators of such theaters of witnesses select for discussion the most acute and controversial topics, specifically those that lack coverage by politicians, public officials, and others who cannot find the words or stage the dialogue to resolve the issues on display. A related example of such creative work is the experiential quality afforded by the “theater of migrants,” a theatrical event created by Ukrainian playwright Natalia Vorozhbyt and German director Georg Genoux. The performances they organize together with migrants from the Donbas region are, at base, peculiar collective therapy sessions where people can express their individual problems and feel psychological catharsis through the support of the audience. Attempting to understand each other’s existential tragedies allows those who are on opposite sides to embark on a search for common solutions: if not in the material, then in the emotional sense.

A similar approach can be found in the works of one team of Crimean directors: Anton Romanov and Halyna Dzhykayeva create theater projects that explicitly speak about military actions in Ukraine. Their performances “Grey Zone” and “Militias” are based on real-life events, where the scripts are rooted in stories of ordinary people and presented on stage by professional actors. At the core of these performances stand the events experienced, suffused with individual thoughts and ideas that the mass media largely ignores. The humanization of the enemy in wartime becomes fundamental in this sense, since it allows the Other to express their own interpretation of events, while conveying their personal standpoint.

The severity of the antagonism between people with different views and beliefs makes such theater look like a boxing ring, while the tensions that arise bring the spectator to the epicenter of the real-life events depicted, provoking empathy. And so through dispute, the ancient Greek practice of agon, the theater environment transforms into a therapeutic space, where in a completely unique form, designed by the creators of the performance, something that is disturbing to say out loud is voiced and discussed.

The communicative trend in contemporary Ukrainian theater is happening not only on the territory of documentary theater, or through therapeutic techniques, but also to a certain degree in plays. In the theater, even conventional theatrical forms are now aimed at probing various possibilities for social consensus: such well-known forms include, among others, the creation of scenic images by means of psychological theater and the preservation of the fourth wall.

In communicative theater it is common to choose very specific painful problems related to national, ethnic, political, and social conflicts.. For a long period of time, the theme of division amongst segments of Ukrainian society that occurred after the First and Second World Wars was perceived by Ukrainian theater directors as taboo. During the Soviet era, the existence of the division of one nation, and in many cases of families, by battlefronts of world and civil wars in the Ukrainian theater was represented only through the antinomy of “traitor – hero,” and this is despite the fact that already back in 1918 Volodymyr Vynnychenko addressed the issue in his play “Between Two Forces,” where rival forces were comprised of members of one family: brother, sister and parents.

Thus, the surfacing in contemporary Ukrainian theater of such a sensitive social issue as equality between all WWII veterans – both those who fought in the Soviet Army and the soldiers of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army – can be considered a successful public discussion of a painful problem for which a universal solution has not been yet found. Pavlo Arye wrote his reconciliatory play “Glory to the Heroes” (about Ukrainians who fought on opposite sides of the military front – in the Soviet Army and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army) several years ago but it languished in a drawer for quite a while. Arye intended for his work to challenge audiences to reconsider their values, to demolish stereotypes and to oppose majority opinion – yet the play  scared many Ukrainian theater directors away. By the same token, successful instances of altering public views using the principles of theater in post-Soviet countries did exist, as the play “Grandpa” by Latvian Alvis Hermanis demonstrates.

“Grandpa“ belongs to the practice of documentary theater. It is an exemplary play about reconciliation in which a young man (performed by Vilis Daudziņš) begins to search for his grandfather who disappeared during WWII. From the vast array of documentary sources about the war, the authors of the play selected three of the most notable reconciliation stories that allowed them to reconstruct the fate of their homeland, and the fate of the whole of post-war Europe, through the fate of ordinary people. The first person was a namesake of Vilis Daudziņš, a guerrilla fighter who stood against the Nazis and later fought in the Soviet Army. The second – the one that took Germans for saviors – fought on the side of the Third Reich, and later immigrated to the United States. The third was the one who was in a German military school in the beginning of the war, was captured, became a Soviet tank driver and later made it to Berlin with the army of liberators.

The play may seem simplistic at first glance, as it is saturated with mundane details and conversations where there is no deliberate theatricality and where everything is happening as if it were a snapshot of real life. Yet this approach created a very emotional and sincere performance that encouraged audiences to reflect on the ‘heroes’ and ‘traitors’ of the war. The main, oppressive image of the play was the graveyard, conveyed by the abundance of artificial flowers and dirt scattered all over the floor of the stage. And although in the story told by Vilis all veterans remained unrelenting enemies, the theater took upon itself the task of reconciliation, reminding the audience of the need to mourn and honor the dead.

In Pavlo Arye’s play, two veterans of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and the Soviet Army find themselves side-by-side in the hospital room on the verge of death. While doctors are preparing them for complex surgeries, veterans look back at their youth and argue in support of their political views. Director Stanislav Zhyrkov was the first to set this play in the “Golden Gate Theater" in Kyiv (the script was later adapted in theaters in Lviv and Mariupol). While reading the text of the play and viewing the performance, a common communicative field emerges for most viewers, because the individual experience of each spectator in a situation familiar to many – an illness of elderly parents and their unavoidable death – is transformed into collective empathy. Great sorrow associated with the loss of family members alleviates the antagonism of the political views of the two grandpas and as if reconciles them and their relatives with each other.

Thus it is precisely the space of theater where one can find emotional resources that help people to establish contact and find common ground, especially where this was almost impossible before. The emotionally charged character of the theater, its collectivity of perception and its synthetic nature of influence help this particular form of art to build unique mini-fora for debating contentious social issues and, eventually, for the correction of certain views or perceptions. Theater not only upsets zones of silence, it deconstructs stereotypes, forcing the viewer, and ultimately society, to re-assess various social contexts. Employing theater to discuss problematic areas of society leads to the playwrights’ ability to provoke the viewer to perceive seemingly abstract situations on the emotional level as if they were their own, lending those situations personal significance. Thus theater becomes the art of a direct, truthful conversation. In one way or another, all directors attempt to position the audience very close to the performance, by using frontal staging and, in larger theaters, video projection. All this leads to the fact that theater, with its ability to visually project fates, is now becoming the main means of communication across all art forms and seemingly even topples the activity of reading written texts, which once served as the primary conduit for public debate and discussion.

The question of post-traumatic stress disorder is one example of the social impact of theater. In the play produced by Ana Yablonska, “Family Scenes,” this issue was introduced through the story of someone who returned from war. The play was staged in several theaters across Ukraine: the Ukrainian Music and Drama Theater in Odesa (directed by Ihor Ravitskyi), the Theater of Drama and Comedy on the Left Bank of the Dnieper in Kyiv (Dmytro Veselskyi), and the “Golden Gate” Theater, also in Kyiv (Stanislav Zhyrkov). As PTSD finds its physical representation on the theater stage, an issue that is highly important yet that is still a taboo in contemporary Ukraine enters the public realm and becomes available for discussion and, in such a way, it can find a solution using theater as a mediator.

For all the seeming pathos of the statement, of all the art forms it is the contemporary theater that offers the most immediate and authentic means of communication, through which the viewer can absorb a certain emotional experience that reveals itself as familiar and relevant. Receiving this emotional experience from the theater, and exploring oneself through it, the viewer becomes ready to embark on the path of revelation, and to openly discuss topics that he or she would never have been inclined to discuss before. For theater-as-interlocutor, the aesthetic form itself becomes a supple, pliable material for enticing the audience to participate in a meaningful exchange, and perhaps even make them doubt the rightness of their own convictions. 

Translated by Bogdana Storozuk, edited by Jessica Zychowicz and Oleh Kotsyuba.

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka