EU funds sign language theatre performance in Kharkiv

Kharkiv’s Ariadne Mimics and Gesture Theatre has 25 volunteer actors with complete or partial hearing loss. A grant from the EU-funded “Upshift Ukraine” project helped them stage a contemporary adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “The Tamign of the Shrew”, buy costumes, curtains and lighting. The performance is adapted for all spectators – all the dialogues are voiced by announcers, there is music and dancing. The company is going on tour in Ukraine and dreams to make a movie in sign language  sometime in the future.

A unique theatre has been functioning in Kharkiv for more than a hundred years – its actors neither speak nor sing. To be more accurate, they do talk, and they do sing, feeling the music through the vibrations through the floor, dancing thanks to their feeling of rhythm and performing songs with the movements of their hands. The National Theatre of Mime and Gestures, ‘Ariadna’, puts on shows not just for spectators with hearing problems but also for those can hear. In order to do this, the gestures of the characters on stage is accompanied by a voice over, the actors perform musical numbers and even dance. It is for exactly this reason that this theatre is unique among others.

Other than this theatre in Kharkiv, there is also ‘Rainbow’ in Kyiv, a professional theatre of mime and gestures which has been putting on shows for 50 years in Kyiv. Theatres comparable to these are found only in two other places in the world – Moscow and New York.

This genre still remains relatively unknown, which is why the actors regularly have to fight for their theatre to continue to function. For the past few years, ‘Ariadna’ has had almost no funding, which is why the company have had to make use of Soviet-era costumes, outdated stage lighting and worn out scenery. All of this didn’t aid the staging of new productions and the company’s creative experiments.

So, three young actors decided to change the situation. Alexander Murashko, Volodymyr Huscha and Alexi Ponomarev came up with a new project and found funds for it. On the 1st of June, a modern production of Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ had its premier in Kharkiv. Today, the actors are getting ready to tour Ukraine with their show. They want to show their creativity to audiences across the country, to have their efforts recognised and to be inspired with new ideas.


The premier’s success and the media’s praise are encouraging them to keep going. The actors dream that one day they will be able to shoot a film for those who experience the world in the particular way that they do, and want to allow others to experience their worldview, too. They want to do this in order to listen and be heard, in order to understand and be understood, in order to inspire and be inspired themselves.

Alexander Murashko, one of the actors at the theatre, started to lose his hearing as a two-year old as a result of complications following an illness. Here, he tells his story:

-I am 21 years old and I almost can’t remember what it is like to be able to hear … I was educated at a special needs school and I can remember that even from when I was very young, my dream was to be a conductor on a train. This profession still appeals to me because it would give me the chance to travel, to talk to different people and to help them. But I always understood very clearly that no one would employ me in this line of work. I matriculated at the H.S. Skovoroda Kharkiv National Pedagogical University. This spring, I finished my second year there and as my summer internship, I worked as a teacher of Year 4 class at the No 89 Lycée. It was an incredible experience, I was so proud of the little kids I was teaching! I really loved my school and can remember it clearly. It was there that I found out about ‘Ariadna’. My classmates and friends said to me: ‘Go and try it out.’ And so that’s how I started acting here.

The theatre ‘Ariadna’ operates in connection with the Ukrainian Society of the Deaf. This is a big civilian organisation about which almost every member of society knows. The theatre currently has 25 members, who have partial or complete loss of hearing. They work as volunteers and receive no pay at all.

-We rehearse in the evenings, after our main working day is over. Volodya Huscha works as a cashier in the supermarket Ashan and Alexi Ponomarenko stocks the shelves there. They value their work because it is difficult to get. About a year ago, the chain supermarket Ashan was opened up in our city and that’s how my colleagues found their work. I myself am a student and have been acting at this theatre for four years. I started out acting as the Rooster in a children’s New Year show (he laughs), and then last year, I acted in a production based on Anton Chekhov’s work, ‘Colourful Stories.’

This production celebrated Ariadne’s centenary. Now, the theatre wants to expand and develop even more. All the components, including willingness, actors with various levels of experience, directors and the audience’s support, are there at our disposal. But unfortunately, we are hindered by our poor financial situation, which in turn weakens the theatre materially and technically.

‘I found out about the ‘Upshift’ project from the Kharkiv Organisation for Disabled People, ‘Creative’,’ Alexander tells me. ‘I asked one of the directors at our theatre, Natalia Mihun, if she wanted to take part in the competition – the prize was a grant. This would give us a chance to spread our wings. So, both the actors and audience members alike are waiting for new productions and shows.’

Upshift is one of UNICEF’s programmes linked to their ‘Increasing vitality and social activity among teenagers and young people in Eastern Ukraine’ project, financed by the European Union. It is being run from August 2018 till May 2019 by the ‘Kharkiv Professional Development’ fund. In the time it has been active, 30 teams of young people, aged from 14 to 21, have received grants and curatorial help with their social projects. Kharkiv has become a pioneering city in the project’s realisation. Today, there are talks going on to give the green light to the project’s implementation in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

For the competition at Upshift, Alexander prepared an emotional speech about theatre. Thanks to this, the troupe received a grant of around 80, 000 hryvna. Olena Zinenko is acting as a mentor to ‘Ariadne’, to help them realise their project successfully.

‘After we received the grant, we decided that we wanted to put on Shakespeare’s play, ‘The Taming of the Shrew.’ I’m playing Lucentio and I’m performing the songs in sign language. In our production, we tried to combine the classical elements of the play with the contemporary, and so we have changed the original work a little. In our version, a modern, young audience ends up in Shakespeare’s past, still clutching their iPhones, and then travel back to the present. We showed sections of our production on the 1st of June. We are planning a full premier of the play for the International Day of the Deaf on the 29th of September in Kharkiv. Thanks to the grant, we now have new costumes, curtains for the stage and stage lighting equipment. We were also able to work with a professional choreographer for the dancing scenes – we are going to be performing the famous Italian tarantella!

‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is a comedy by William Shakespeare, which was first published in 1623. In the outline of the plot, a rich Italian noble by the name of Baptista Minola wants his two daughters to marry. However, whilst the older daughter, Katherina has a sharp tongue and a difficult temper, several young men immediately begin to court the younger daughter, Bianca.

According to Olena Zinenko, mentor to ‘Ariadna’ and a media-communication specialist, Shakespeare’s original text was difficult to convey using solely sign language. So, for this production, the text was not only translated into sign language but also shortened. The actors made up for the replicated moments of emotion with pantomime and the language of their bodies. Because of this, their movements whilst acting on stage are much more expressive than those of average actors.

‘We really want to tour Ukraine with this production’, says Alexander. ‘Our team is flexible and wherever we’re invited – we’ll go’, he continues, with a laugh. ‘For example, last year with the production based on Chekhov’s work, we performed in Lviv, Kyiv, Sumy and Poltava. Our audience members were mostly made up of people who had problems with their hearing, as well as their families. But we want everyone to come and watch our shows, because they are completely adapted to the needs of the audience: the actors’ speech which is replicated has a voiceover, there is music in the production. All the things which make up an average theatre are also found in our one.

But the most ambitious aim of the ‘Ariadne’ troupe is to shoot a film in sign language. This sort of film has been made widely across the world. It is interesting for audiences with an alternative view of classic cinematography. For example, in 2014, the Ukrainian director Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy shot the film ‘The Tribe’. In line with his idea, the sign language used in the film wasn’t translated with subtitles or a voice-over on purpose. The director made it clear that he thinks that these sorts of universal emotions, like love or hate, don’t need translation.

Alexander says that making a film is the company’s dream project:

‘We already have actors who studied to be camera men and who are ready to take on the project. I understand that this sort of thing is pretty expensive, but we want to stretch the boundaries of what we can achieve. Our creativity inspires us and motivates others to dream too, to never give up and to stubbornly strive for their goals.’


By Samira Abbasova