“Critical” theaters have been actively developing in Ukraine in recent years. During the performances poignant and sometimes tabooed topics are raised: domestic violence, LGBT rights, etc., and the viewers can discuss them. Actress Oksana Cherkashyna from Kharkiv learnt how Ukrainian independent theatre differs from the German one. Thanks to the EU Culture Bridges’ grant, she worked at the ArtiSchocken Theater in Nuremberg for one week and attended four theater and art festivals in Berlin. Oksana is currently planning a summer school in Germany for Ukrainian and German students from theater colleges and other joint projects.
Oksana is a participant of many independent theatrical projects, including the resonant stage play Bad Roads by Tamara Trunova. She is called one of the most charismatic and promising Ukrainian actresses. She had an interesting spell at Beautiful Flowers, a Kharkiv theater. Recently, Oksana was invited to Kyiv Drama and Comedy Theater. Mrs. Cherkashyna spent almost a month in German theatrical environment thanks to a grant from a Union des Théâtres de l’Europe project, and she has an own view and an own opinion regarding documentary theater both in Europe and in Ukraine.
A person who comes to a theater a couple of times a year to relax and “soak up some culture” imagines theater as a space where reality and truth are substituted with beauty and conditionality. There, lifeless Desdemona all of a sudden gets up on her feet with a smile and starts to bow, holding the Moor by hand; there, Romeo and Juliet run away behind the curtains after a tragic finale, and the spectators applaud them and go home, in the best case, after living through a spiritual catharsis and forgetting about their problems for an evening.
As we know, besides a classical theater there has long been “another” theater. It is called documentary, political, civil, social theater. The mission of this theater is to discuss contemporary problems of the society. The plot may be based on a newspaper article, a conversation overheard in the street or political posters. During or after the play, not only actors but also spectators have the chance to speak out, to participate in the discussion.
“Documentary theater” has appeared in Germany in the mid-1920s. Its beginnings are rooted in Erwin Piscator’s play In Spite of Everything, a collage of items, newspaper articles, leaflets and Communist manifestos read from the stage by actors of an amateur worker’s theater.
At approximately the same time, a newspaper theater was created in Russia called the Blue Blouse, in which Vladimir Mayakovsky participated. Vsevolod Meierhold also experimented in this area: the plays he staged from 1920 to 1930 (The Stars; Hallo, Moscow’s Here; Give Us Europe) were a reaction to the breaking news: for instance, The Stars mentioned the capture of Perekop already four days after the battle, with spectators cast as extras. However, the existence of experimental stage in the Soviet Union wasn’t long, ending with the arrest and execution of Meierhold in 1940.
The Brazilian stage director Augusto Boal and his Theater of the Oppressed became famous in the 1950s; the theatrical method created by Boal is still widespread today, used as a variant of psychodrama to resolve social conflicts.
And in the 1980s – 1990s, documentary theater became popular in Britain and the United States, addressing contemporary problems such as the Persian Gulf War, school shootings, racial hatred-fueled murders.
— Political or critical theater is directly related to contemporary events taking place in the country. The actor and the stage director commit themselves to voicing tabooed topics. Sometimes, even media do not talk about these topics.
Imagine two actresses on the stage telling spectators real stories of bribery, including their own stories. That, for instance, is how Ukraina Restaurant play by Dmytro Levytskyi begins, a play where resonant corruption cases of the past five years are intertwined with personal stories. My partner in the play is talking about her math teacher who had an aquarium at home, so to get good grades, a pupil had to buy and give her guppy fish. As for my story, it tells about how I came to a polyclinic one day to see a traumatologist, but instead of consultation I was ordered to undergo an obligatory examination by a gynecologist and a therapist, and an X-ray exam. On that day, I definitely could not see a traumatologist. A compassionate nurse suggested: give them ten hryvnias at every office and ask them to quickly sign off all papers.
In January and February, Ukraina Restaurant was shown in Odesa, Kharkiv and Poltava with the financial support from the EU’s Anticorruption Initiative. The play is also expected to be shown in Kyiv this spring.
Oksana Cherkashyna has also participated in other prominent plays of this format. One of them is the Ukrainian-Polish collaboration My Grandpa Was Digging, My Dad Was Digging, But I Won’t, reflecting upon the memory of the Ukrainian and Polish peoples through the prism of personal stories. Each of the five actors had an own topic: for instance, a Pole was talking about how reluctantly and even fearfully he went to Ukraine, believing that “Ukrainians and Russians are two peas in a pod” and that “they in Lviv don’t like Poles”, and how ashamed he was about his prejudice when he met real Ukrainians. The second play is PTY (pre-conscription training of youths) in which volunteers and ATO veterans are cast along with actors, telling about their life experience at the war and after.
Both plays were premiered at Gogol Fest in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
“An important part of political theater is the involvement of spectators in this process. That’s why an improvised discussion takes place after the play ends: the audience is invited to discuss the play’s topic, share their experience or point of view. This way, theater becomes a civil platform of sorts,” Oksana says.
— A boom of independent theatrical sector began after the Revolution of Dignity. People who for the first time have truly perceived themselves as citizens again had to give themselves answers to the fundamental questions: Who am I? What do I want? How do I imagine my future and the future of my country? The society needs self-determination, and independent critical theater, with its ability to ask painful questions, helps this process.
“It is a mistake to regard politics as the Verkhovna Rada’s business. I believe that anyone publicly expressing their opinion, participating in life of their city or street, signing a petition devoted to an important public issue becomes involved in political life. And when scattered activity areas consolidate, they give birth to civil society,” the actress says.
Thanks to the European Union’s Culture Bridges grant, the actress worked one week at ArtiSchocken Theater in Nuremberg and visited four theatrical and artistic festivals in Berlin. There, she met her idol, the famous actor and director Martin Wuttke. He was an important figure in the “new wave” of postwar German political theater of the 1960s, working as an actor with all “giants”: Frank Castorf, Christoph Schlingensief, René Pollesch and Heiner Müller.
“The most important difference between German independent theater and Ukrainian one is scale,” Mrs. Cherkashyna emphasizes. “In Berlin, so to speak, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a man of arts. State theaters are a sure thing, but the government supports independent stage as well.”
For instance, municipal galleries provide space for stage plays and various performances. Acute social topics are addressed by not only underground but also state theaters. Out of the approximately 35 plays I saw there, there was not a single one “simply about love”, “simply about war” or about some other universal notion. Everyone was talking to me, via the play, about contemporary world, about what it is and why it became the way it is today. Theater often comes to rescue where media do not dare to call things by their proper name, restrained by the confinements of political correctness, as it was the case during the European migrant crisis. Theater may reach out to feelings and urge to think. And it is especially important in our society, because there are many tabooed topics here: persecution of the Roma people, LGBT rights, domestic violence and the like.
After the trip to Germany, Oksana has in plans several joint projects with German actors and directors. In particular, this is ZeremonieRave project (a dramatized rethinking of rituals related to the memory of World War II, from party rallies of the Third Reich to Victory Day celebrations), in which Oksana will be the stage director; and also, a summer theater school in Germany for Ukrainian and German students of performing arts universities with participation of Martin Wuttke.
Author: Olha Pereverzeva