By Iryna Chuzhynova

17 August 2015 - 08:47

Scene from Ukrainian festival GogolFest, whose programmers are trying to instil a multidisciplinary and contemporary spirit into Ukrainian theatre.
Ukrainian festival GogolFest, whose programmers are trying to instil a multidisciplinary and contemporary spirit into Ukrainian theatre. Photo ©

Valdemar Kliuzko, used with permission.

Long after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ukrainian theatre still exists in something of an international ghetto, argues deputy editor of 'Ukrainian Theatre' magazine, Iryna Chuzhynova.

The problem with Ukrainian theatre today

Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian theatre went through an unprecedented boom period. Like mushrooms after a summer rain, different studios and theatre labs began to pop up. Groups of drama enthusiasts were putting on basement shows of plays by Joyce, Kafka, Li Bo, Sophocles and contemporary authors. They worshipped Jerzy Grotowski, admired Anatoly Vasiliev, Michael Chekhov. In short, Ukrainians tried in every way to make up for years of opportunities missed under socialism. And they succeeded in parts: in the early 1990s, Vitaly Malakhov's production of Othello at a swimming pool for the Edinburgh Festival was much talked about at the time.

Today, such projects are extremely difficult to keep alive, the reason always being the same: the funding system needs to change. Ukraine still has not established a mechanism by which independent theatre makers can apply for funding. A system of grants or sponsorship is virtually absent.

Ukrainian theatre today is largely state-run, with funding from three sources: the Ministry of Culture, regional authorities and municipalities. According to this model, theatres are split into three levels, with rigidly exclusive streams of funding reserved for each. There are the national theatres, eight in total. There are regional theatres – each of the 24 regional capitals is bound to have one. Some of these cities have puppet and youth theatres in addition to drama proper. And there are the municipal theatres.

More often than not, these state-run theatres see their exclusive task as pleasing their audiences, which leaves little room for creativity, experimentation or even political daring. There's an abundance of comedy, sentimental melodrama, and traditional drama, during which the audience sits safely in plush chairs and yawns at Ukrainian actors posing, often in crinolines, as heroes from Shakespeare, Moliere, Gogol or Karpenko-Kary. Project theatre is extremely rare, and non-state or private theatre projects survive only with great difficulty.

My dream is that Ukrainian artists start developing new forms, experiment with cabaret, new circus, one-man-shows, performances that combine different kinds of art, styles and techniques. As it stands, we are simply not set up to conquer the world stage.

There is hope, and excellence

There is, however, reason to look up: the democratic reforms in the last five years have coincided with a generational shift in Ukrainian theatre. People in the business were clear that theatre could not do without fair competition for leadership positions. Younger directors, playwrights, actors, critics, and other professionals have consequently been asserting themselves. There have been new festivals, such as GogolFest, Drama.UA and Week of Contemporary Drama, which I was involved in. There's also Theatre Platform, NGO, which I head up and which tries to change the theatre landscape in Ukraine. It's organised and overseen by young theatre critics.

Young directors are not necessarily positioning themselves as staunch opponents of the current theatre system. They co-operate with state theatres, but under their terms, insisting on putting on new Ukrainian and foreign authors, using new techniques and forms. They try to stretch what state theatres and their audiences can take, introducing socially and politically uncomfortable topics, even with an international outlook. This is what, in my view, brings Ukrainian theatre closer to European theatre.

Younger playwrights are also learning to write in a new way. In recent years, some have participated in residencies and readings at London's Royal Court through the British Council. One of the most famous alumni of those workshops, Natalia Vorozhbit, now writes for Ivan Franko National Academic Drama Theatre and has had two recent premiers, Kvitka Budyak and Maidan Diaries. Another alumna, Oksana Savchenko, who read from her piece And I Don't Care How You're Doing Anymore for the first time at the Royal Court, staged it at the Kiev Academic Youth Theatre in a production by UK director Caroline Steinbeis in 2013.

There's more such collaboration. Three examples are worth mentioning: Tamara Trunova directed Closer by Patrick Marber and is set to travel to Manchester to work with Rory Mullarkey on a play about modern Ukraine. Then, Maxim Golenko directed Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Thanks to a British Council competition for emerging Ukrainian directors, David Harrower's Knives in Hens is now set to be staged at the Ivan Franko.

These exchanges are, in the first place, motivated by a need to develop professionally and discover new theatre, something which these emerging professionals could only do in a limited way through YouTube and file-sharing – the only reliable links with the rest of the world. I pay no false compliments when I say that it is difficult to overestimate the help of such organisations as the British Council in running large-scale competitions for Ukrainian theatre professionals.

It also gives us an opportunity to experience how things can be done differently. The UK gives a platform to many plays, authors and actors with disabilities. In our country, if you have a disability, it is sometimes difficult to join a theatre audience, because the venue won't have thought about such things as wheelchair access, subtitles or audio guides, and so on.

We are keen to reach European audiences. We all used to complain about external factors preventing us – lack of money, producers, contacts. There was hardly anyone who you could ask to record a basic video performance with subtitles in English to send to festivals for consideration. But showing your work outside Ukraine is possible, if you want it. For example, a young playwright and performer, Lviv Sashko Brama, composed and staged R&J, a modern take on Romeo and Juliet about Euromaidan and the war, in the format of a rock concert. He has already visited Germany and Poland with his play, and is about to take it to Nitra, a prestigious festival in Slovakia.

There are some really positive examples of more established, older directors, as well. Andrew Zholdak is known in the best theatres in Germany, Finland, Russia, Romania. Or producer and director Vlad Troitsky, who has been trying to instil a multidisciplinary and contemporary spirit into Ukrainian theatre through GogolFest, has worked on co-productions with European theatres, and whose other projects are in extraordinary demand around the world. In July this year, his 'Dakh Daughters Band' was one of the sensations at the Avignon Festival.

Ukrainian theatre needs to be internationally open

Ukrainian theatre needs to develop a healthy ambition and have faith in its own strength. There is much to be hopeful about, despite the fact that risk, including financial, seems to be feared more than international obscurity. We need to develop our own identity in theatre, and paradoxically, this can only happen if we open up. Otherwise, we'll keep rehashing other nation's plays without putting our own, new stamp on them. And even though this will need support and, of course, time, Ukrainian theatre has to show itself while Europe and the rest of the world are curious about us.

Iryna is part of a delegation of Ukrainian theatre professionals who are currently in Edinburgh to meet and network with their UK peers. Their aim is to establish contacts and build relationships for further collaborative work such as that described above. The delegates were invited to visit the UK after winning a competition held by the British Council in Ukraine.

Iryna will also be attending the Edinburgh Showcase, a series of performance events that allows UK companies to introduce their work to international promoters.

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