Contemporary theatre is helping the Ukrainian people find answers to difficult questions.
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KIEV – Anton Romanov is standing naked in a spotlight in the centre of the stage, while spectators use markers to write their names on his skin. The director and actor of the PostPlay Theatre identifies himself an “artist” above all else, but many in Ukraine wouldn’t agree that what he is doing is art.
“This is not a play that you sit and watch,” Anton warns the audience when presenting his project Identity Map/Hate Speech. In this performance in a former factory building, now a cultural hotspot in the historic neighbourhood of Podol, the audience is playing the main part, not the actor. Anton asks spectators to identify themselves with one word, and write it on the director’s body.
Stepping out of comfort zones
For 25 years, Ukrainian society has been asking the question: “Who are we?” This long search for self-identity has brought the country to conflict, both in Crimea and Donbass. But many more contradictions and fears exist – and Anton brings them all to light on stage.
“I was born and raised in Crimea,” he says. “If you are Crimean, you have to choose to identify as either Ukrainian or Russian.” Anton explains that his family is of Russian origin, but that he chose to be Ukrainian. “In my case, whatever I chose I would be a traitor.”
The 31-year-old director of Simferopol’s Contemporary art centre was forced to leave his home and move to Kiev after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. He continues to be socially and politically active, and supports the Russian-occupied Crimea. He’s often present at street protests supporting film director Oleg Sentsov and left activist Alexander Kolchenko, both convicted on terror charges by the Russian courts.
Anton calls himself a “murderer,” and sees himself as partly responsible for the war that broke out in Ukraine in 2014; a war has taken the lives of as many as 10,000 Ukrainian people, including 2,000 civilians. “We justify murders by claiming to defend the motherland, its language and its culture,” he admits.
But Anton’s identity is even more complicated in the context of Ukrainian society. He’s both homosexual and Orthodox, and therefore not accepted by Church.
“They also say gays are not real men,” Anton says calmly.
Later in the performance, Anton offers his slightly shocked audience the chance to use a scalpel to carve words of hate onto his body. Only a few people agree to do this. When the performance is finished, Anton looks into each spectator’s eyes. He explains that the human body “renews itself” constantly – except for the lenses of our eyes. “Maybe that’s why we identify with each other by looking each other in the eyes,” Anton says.
This was the sixth time Anton staged Identity Map. The initial idea was for him to step out of his comfort zone, but after undressing on stage time after time, Anton says his fears are diminishing. Now it’s not a performance, but an attempt to find new forms of “existing with the audience.”
“This is not a play that you sit and watch.”
“You very quickly come to think you’re some sort of messiah”
PostPlay Theatre was born in the wake of the Maidan revolution of 2014, a protest that gave way to an armed conflict in Crimea and Donbass. It’s made up of a team of directors, playwrights and actors from different corners of the country, living and working in Kiev. They first came together to put on a performance of documentary play Grey Zone, which tackled the subject of displaced people.
From the very start, the team decided to work within the genre of political theatre, putting on plays in a former factory building in Podil. When they staged “Opolchenets” (“Rebel”), a monologue by a Donbass resident fighting on the side of the separatists, it became a scandal – some venues refused to show it.
From the start, the theatre received recognition from the Ukrainian intelligensia. Dan Gumenniy (29), a playwright himself but now involved more in managing the theatre, says the theatre has as many as 200 regular spectators: “people who care,” as he calls them. They even helped to renovate the theatre from scratch.
The PostPlay team raises difficult questions, not least for themselves: how, for instance, do you remain a political theatre troupe, and use ideas to reach a less educated audience?
“When you stick to your regular audience, you begin to serve them. You very quickly come to think that you are doing something very important, that you are some sort of messiah, and you lose this very critical view on what you are doing. That’s the end,” suggests Dan.
To that end, the theatre has tried to expand the narrow framework of their chosen genre by successfully staging documentary plays, modern dramas, and plays for young adults. However, their goal remains to provide an intellectual “provocation” and a critical view of current events.
From the start, the PostPlay theatre received recognition from the Ukrainian intelligensia.
Establishing a dialogue
The Theatre of Displaced People, another theatre established in Ukraine in recent years, recently staged a production called At Full Volume; involving children and military servicemen. From the stage of the communist-era palace of culture in the small town of Popasna, they share their stories with the audience.
“That summer was very rainy and cold,” a teenage girl starts in a quiet voice. “I remember my parents sitting at our kitchen table and trying to decide whether to leave. A strong rain was drumming on the roof and windows. As we drove out of the city, dozens of other cars were leaving too. People were afraid. It rained heavily. It seemed to me as if the sky was crying.”
Then one of the soldiers continues: “There are sounds of destruction, as if of breaking glass or a traffic accident or a falling artillery shell. But there are good sounds too – the sound of creation. In my case it was the sound of construction.” He used to be a construction supervisor, before the war.
All the stories are connected with war that broke out here in 2014. In the spring of that year, Russian-backed rebels from the self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic” occupied Popasna, a regional centre with important rail links. That same summer, Ukraine retook the town after heavy fighting. Many local residents had to leave, so intense was the artillery fire. It still has not stopped, but it has been relatively quiet and safe in the town for the last half a year.
Popasna is a typical frontline town. Despite the close proximity of the front, life goes on: schools, kindergartens, shops, cafes and even a disco are all open for business. There are also Ukrainian servicemen deployed here, mostly from western Ukraine, who often have strained relations with the locals; a problem that the Theatre of Displaced People decided to tackle in Popasna and three other Donbass cities.
The participants in the Popasna project are students of the local high school and soldiers from the Kulchinsky Battalion – previously a volunteer unit and now under National Guard leadership.
“Take off the uniforms and they’re ordinary people, just like us,” Ira, a pupil, says of the servicemen.
“The problem is that children have seen all that. We have seen all that too. And I know that I am not going to be psychologically healthy, and for the children it’s all the worse,” sighs a serviceman, nicknamed Reddick, from the Ivano-Frankivsk region. Before the war, he worked as a scaffolder.
At early rehearsals they all sat, withdrawn. Pupils asked the servicemen what the point of the war was, and accused them of doing nothing. One of the servicemen, Volodya, admitted that he felt ashamed. But in the end, it was their shared taste in blonde women that brought the young men and soldiers together.
The team is managed by playwright Natalya Vorozhbit, director Georg Genoux and military psychologist Aleksei Karachinsky. They believe that the lack of dialogue between country’s East and West is one of the main reasons why the conflict started by Russia spread in Ukraine so fast.
“Partly, of course, this situation is a result of the Kremlin’s propaganda,” Genoux says. “That is why it is so important to establish a dialogue now. This is best of guarantee of peace.”
The Theatre of Displaced people is working on documentary plays, based on true stories.
Theatre as therapy
The projects that the Theatre of Displaced people are working on are documentary plays, based on true stories.
Vorozhbit thinks there is an urgent need to document everything that’s happening in Ukraine and react to rapidly developing events. But the Theatre of Displaced People serves another purpose – providing psychological help to people fleeing from war. There are about 2 million displaced people in Ukraine, both from Donbas and Crimea.
In some ways, the plays serve as psychotherapy sessions. Nobody not taking part is allowed to attend rehearsals: as Genoux explains, people share their most personal moments – like the death of a loved one – and it is important to have an atmosphere of full trust.
“I see much more beauty in this process, when people benefit from doing drama, than in theatrical distractions,” Genoux says. After 17 years staging plays in Moscow and Kiev, he now spends most of his time with the Theatre of Displaced People.
Karachinsky says that so far the team has managed to help some three dozen displaced people. Apart from plays, they also offer lessons for displaced children – all for free.
Three years after the start of the war, Vorozhbit thinks there is still plenty to do for “displaced people.” But she also believes it is necessary to talk about different topics as well – the PostPlay is working on a project about divorced fathers and their families, which is set to premiere soon.