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'A necessary medicine for wounded souls': Ukrainians discover Ukrainian drama

Published on Dec 21, 2023

Ukrainian article of the week published in the 12th edition of the "What about Ukraine" newsletter on December 21st, 2023. The article was written by Anastasiia Bolshakova for Ukrainska Pravda and was translated for n-ost by Tetiana Evloeva.

Check out the complete edition of this week's newsletter

Read the original article here. Published 13 December 2023.

UAH 1.7 million [~EUR 41,774] raised for the Armed Forces of Ukraine after just one play, sold-out performances, dozens of millions of views of reels on social media and their profits calculated by Forbes — ‘The Witch of Konotop’ by 19th century Ukrainian writer Hryhorii Kvitka-Osnovianenko, adapted by Ivan Uryvskyi for the Ivan Franko Theatre in Kyiv became an indisputable hit of this theatrical season in Ukraine’s capital city.

Another Uryvskyi’s adaptation of writer Ivan Karpenko-Kary’s play ‘The Landlord’ staged at the Theatre on Podil, Kyiv, is drawing media attention due to alterations made to the original plot. This scandal has only increased ticket sales. Theatre-goers are also coming to the stage to see familiar faces from the movies and TV, as well as meet new names in the acting community.

The theatre rush is also observed beyond the capital city. Having modernised the Vasyl Vasylko Theatre in Odesa, director Maksym Holenko has now moved to Lviv to modernise the Maria Zankovetska Theatre, taking along another highly acclaimed director Davyd Petrosian. Tickets to their adaptation of ‘The Land’ are hard to come by. After just half a year of Holenko in charge, the Maria Zankovetska Theatre now presents over two dozen premieres.

Meanwhile, the Rivne Drama Theatre, in the namesake city, has been awarded this year’s ‘HRA’ [Ukr. ‘The Play’] award for its adaptation of ‘The Granary’ by contemporary playwright Natalka Vorozhbyt, and staged by Holenko. In Kyiv, ‘The Green Corridors’ by the same author are performed simultaneously at two theatres, the Theatre on Podil and the Theatre of Playwrights.

The Ivano-Frankivsk Drama Theatre has been performing to capacity with plays starring Oleksiy Hnatkovskyi, recently seen in historical drama movie ‘Dovbush’. Here, ‘The Aeneid’ by Ivan Kotlyarevsky is an undisputable hit, with Hnatkovskyi playing the main character. It is staged by Rostyslav Derzypilskyi, the theatre’s long-standing leader.

In Kharkiv, despite the municipal government’s ban on staging plays in municipal theatres, the privately-owned Nafta Theater continues its work. In cooperation with Austria’s Theater im Bahnhof, the Nafta Theatre staged ‘Nikhto Ne Pomer Siohodni’ (Ukr. ‘Nobody Died Today’) in the newly-opened Jam Factory Art Center in Lviv. The plot is based on real-life situations that the Ukrainian military and volunteers have experienced since the beginning of the full-scale war.

The theatre festival ‘Melpomene of Tavria’ returned to the liberated Kherson, brandishing their new motto #ми_вдома (Ukr. #we_are_home). Despite the looming danger, 68 theaters applied to participate in the festival, with a substantial portion of the programme represented by pieces by Ukrainian playwrights.

The Wild Theatre in Kyiv is back in operation, with new experimental initiatives like NASHі.etc. popping up.

For the first time, the Molodyi Theatre staged the legendary Broadway musical ‘Cabaret’, with new Broadway hits expected in the Operetta Theatre in Kyiv. Theatre life is in full swing, in the face of ongoing war and the continued bombings of Ukrainian cities.

Having enlisted the help of theatre critic Olha Stelmashevska and theatre blogger Serhiy Vynnychenko, UP.Culture embarked on an exploration of the phenomenon of this theatre upswing, and sums up the theatre life in 2023.

“Away from Moscow!”

This year — at long last — Ukrainian theatres finally dropped Russian plays, such as touring groups from Moscow and St. Petersburg or Russian and Soviet classics in the local adaptations.

Theatres all over Ukraine are updating their repertoires by discovering new playwrights or reinterpreting the classics. Some have even managed to de-colonise the works of Soviet-era Ukrainian-born writer Mikhail Bulgakov, like the Vasyl Vasylko Theatre in Odesa that, in cooperation with playwright Liena Liahushonkova, successfully rebooted his communist satire, ‘The Heart of a Dog’.

According to Serhiy Vynnychenko, author at the Theatrical Fishing web portal, it took the Ukrainian theatres several dozen years to make that transition. In the 2010s, an entire constellation of new directors with no Soviet background whatsoever got to work. This was the so-called “generation of thirty-year-olds” (names such as Zhirkov, Trunova, Sarkisian, and Zahozhenko) and “generation of twenty-year-olds (with names such as Veselskyi, Petrosian, and Fedirko).

Vynnychenko believes Ivan Uryvskyi, a Ukrainian stage innovator and experimentalist, is one of the key playwrights. This year, Uryvskyi has been the one whose name was seen in both favourable reviews and critical comments.

Olha Stelmashevska, a theatre and music critic, also emphasises Ukrainian theatres’ distancing from Russian influences. Not all of the replacement content is of high quality, however. The theatrical companies did manage to drop the entire Russian repertoire and embarked on their active (and effective) creative pursuit of modern drama, both western European and Ukrainian. That pursuit played out quite well, bringing the surge of co-productions and cooperations with world theatres, and lifting barriers on the theatre world in many respects.

“There’s a lot of cool stuff going on in Ukraine, with high-profile premieres and interesting performances,” explains Stelmashevska. “A new team led by Maksym Holenko and Davyd Petrosian took over the Maria Zankovetska Theatre in Lviv, Serhiy Mazan and Anton Mezhenin took over the Dramikom Theatre in Dnipro, and in Sumy, they merged two companies (one from Luhansk and one from Sumy) under the tenure of Serhiy Dorofeiev and Oleksandr Hryshkov. In Chernivtsi, a lot of progress has been made over the past year under the direction of Ivan Butniak. Our luminaries, Volodymyr Petriv from the Rivne Drama Theatre and Yulia Pyvovarova from the Vasyl Vasylko Theatre in Odesa are constantly producing competitive performances and projects of high impact and quality. All those directors are quite young and open to experimenting, be it the main second, or alternative stage like bomb shelters, under the stage, or in the former theatre workshops. It won’t be long now until Dershypilskyi stages a play on a rooftop.’

Reinterpreting classics and searching for new meanings

“The classical theatre play is not about the costumes, it's about the problems depicted,” explains Serhiy Vynnychenko.

The new playwrights are bringing a fresh perspective to the classics. Take Shakespeare’s ‘Coriolanus’, adapted by Dmytro Bohomazov, which is highly acclaimed in the Franko Theatre — the play is staged in the classical tradition. While the Roman soldier does not get transferred to our present day and time, his story still resonates with theatregoers.

Ukrainian drama has experienced quite a surge in popularity through a variety of adaptations. Ivan Bahrianyi’s novel ‘Tyhrolovy’ (Ukr. ‘The Tiger Trappers’) was reinvented as a musical by the Kyiv Operetta Theatre, while Karpenko-Kary’s ‘The Landowner’ was set in a fancy modern office.

Vinnychenko notes that the directors are finally reimagining the theatre from a different perspective, inspired by European theatres.

He speaks of how adaptations remove the “gaud” from the works of Karpenko-Kary, and how turn-of-the-20th century Ukrainian writer Lesia Ukrainka, who is often viewed as someone who forced herself to write though she suffered from tuberculosis, can have the ‘martyr’s aura’ removed from her work.

The result is that “what is left is high-quality European dramaturgy”.

“That transition, that change in focus from something minor and ancillary to something of real importance is quite a powerful move,” says Vinnychenko.

Olha Stelmashevska believes that the directors’ approach to planning work and selecting the repertoire has undergone quite a change:

“The Ukrainian classics are stepping out of their tragic stage shoes (pantofle). They’re hanging up their zhupans [Ukrainian traditional short warm overcoats] and the idea that tumultuous pathos is something indispensable. Why not experiment a little, and show the modern theatregoers those still-relevant tropes, but in a new light, in a modern — although unorthodox — customised re-telling?”

Why people attend theatres

Ukrainian music, along with Ukrainian theatre, has also experienced the same upsurge. Specifically, that excitement was witnessed by the philharmonic, opera and operetta companies. Every show has been sold out, including children’s shows. This is most noticeable during the Christmas season when the theatres were flooded with families who wanted to see a wintry fairy tale.

Olha Stelmashevska explains that people can’t live in constant stress, so they turn to art in hopes of experiencing some sort of catharsis through laughter, tears and empathy. A two-hour performance is seen as an opportunity to remind themselves what they were like in times of peace.

“Despite all the horrible things that have occurred, one needs a place to loosen one’s feelings,” says Stelmashevska. “While we are used to war as the ‘new normal’ and have learned how to live with it, our mental health still depends on whether we can nourish our ‘inmost self’, preserving its resilience and orientation to victory. Basically, theatre, philharmonic, opera, classical music — i.e. eternal things — are a necessary medicine for wounded souls.”

Experts have also noticed many new faces among the regular theatre-going crowd.

Everybody has their own story of how they ended up becoming a theatre-goer. Some are willing to read the original play and compare it with the modern interpretation, discovering new meanings in the process, while others are attracted by famous actors starring in comedies, or by popular directors who are known for producing hits.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) make up a considerable part of theatre-goers. Olha shares a story of her team visiting the Dnipro Theatre of Opera and Ballet during the HRA National Theatre Awards Festival, and being surprised to see ‘Forest Song’, a ballet by early 20th century composer Mykhailo Skorulskyi, totally sold out, followed by Ivan Nebesnyi’s modern opera ‘Lys Mykyta’ (Ukr. ‘Mykyta the fox’) right after. Later the theatre employees spoke about their ongoing work with the IDPs, with some of the displaced coming from remote neighbourhoods with their entire families. The same situation can be observed in Kyiv, Lviv and other cities.

According to Stelmashevska, a certain proportion of theatre-goers are military personnel. For them, the theatre is also a means of recovery.

TikTok gives theatre a boost

Last but not least, the current excitement in many theatres is due to them mastering new promotional skills, specifically via social media. Still, some are yet to catch up. Serhiy Vynnychenko believes that while the theatre folk have come to realise their independence and worth, their next step must be to communicate that worth to a potential audience. The expert has often witnessed how people around him opted for going to a movie or other forms of entertainment instead of going to a theatre because they didn’t understand its value. The theatre blogger took it upon himself to share his experience and offer some advice, and the viewers ended up being stunned by the performance.

“This is how entire groups of theatre connoisseurs emerge,” says Vynnychenko. “They are drawn to the circle of theatre-goers and start writing their own reviews. However, the theatres have to also support that movement, at least through communication on social media, providing some media coverage of the play, the cast, and the theatre itself. They have to familiarise themselves with the complexities of branding, naming, communication strategies, and presenting their product at the right time.”

This year, ‘The Witch of Konotop’ was trending due to the efforts of forward-thinking play-goers, who have made theatre-going fashionable. TikTok snippets of the play generated over 32 million views, which is unprecedented coverage for any Ukrainian stage. That experience was successfully implemented by Ivan Butniak, head of the Chernivtsi Olha Kobylianska Theatre and organiser of the comedy festival ‘Zoloti Oplesky Bokovyny’ (Ukr. ‘Bukovyna Region’s Golden Applause’). Ivan invited the Franko Theatre company to stage the play at his festival, which resulted in two shows instead of one. Such was the impact of the play, that the audience didn’t even bat an eye to the significant difference in ticket prices, despite one ticket costing over UAH 1,000 [~EUR 25]. Serhiy Vynnychenko went on to explain that for Chernivtsi, that price was ridiculously high. However, the tickets actually sold out.

Ticket prices are yet another thing the theatres are currently experimenting with. The play-goers are given the choice between UAH 100 [~EUR 2.5] tickets and those priced considerably (but justifiably) higher. For the premiere of ‘Z Tsiieiu Vystavoiu Shchos Ne Tak’ (Ukr. ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’), Kyiv Left Bank Theatre charged UAH 700 [~EUR 17] and higher prices per ticket in the stalls. While the Molodyi Theatre, when staging an adaptation of the legendary Broadway musical ‘Cabaret’, charged UAH 1,000 [~EUR 25] and higher per one ticket in the dress circle. Still, the audience wasn’t warned off.

As for ‘The Landlord’ by Uryvskyi, Vynnychenko believes that the play gained media coverage due to the current political agenda, so the tickets have sold out until February next year.

“People aren’t interested in hearing the same things over and over again,” says Vynnychenko. “There’s only so much of reporting on [ex-presidential advisor] Oleksiy Arestovych and [statements by politician] Maryana Bezuhla that one can handle on the news. So the journalists are always looking for something new.”

This came when the director of ‘The Landlord’ changed the name of one of the characters in the early 20th century play from Zelenskyi to Zaluskyi. This caused a minor scandal.

“[The press] couldn’t miss an opportunity to cover how a theatre changed one of the character’s name,” adds Vynnychenko. “Even Honcharenko [Oleksiy Honcharenko, a Ukrainian MP, — Ed.] whose history of posting about theatre plays is… probably non-existent, shared his thoughts about the play he never even saw.”.

In fact, two adaptations of ‘The Landlord’ hit the Ukrainian stage simultaneously: one in Kyiv and another in Sumy, where the Luhansk Musical Drama Theater is now hosted. While staging the same play, one of those theatres changed the character’s name, and the other didn’t.

“Yet nobody knows about the Luhansk Theatre’s adaptation, because they failed to even understand how they could jump on the ‘hate wagon’ linked to the Kyiv theatre’s adaptation. The situation was discussed at the Festival [‘Bukovyna Region’s Golden Applause’, — Ed.], and it took an hour to explain to a whole bunch of theatre functionaries why media presence was important, regardless if the press was good or bad. Should theatres fail to ride the wave, it’s only a matter of several months (up to half a year) until they are forgotten and utterly irrelevant for the media, as it has always been before.”

What the future holds for the stage

As of now, Ukrainian theatres have plenty of space to expand. Theatre-goers are also seizing new opportunities to fill the void by discovering Ukrainian music and drama, along with high-quality translations of modern western European productions.

Olha Stelmashevska believes the world is now more open to Ukrainian drama. Abroad, plays have been translated and staged by Ukrainian playwrights like Liena Liahushonkova, Pavlo Arie, Maryna Smilianets, Liudmyla Tymoshenko, Oksana Savchenko, Nataliia Vorozhbyt and Andriy Bondarenko, all the while inviting Ukrainian directors (Maksym Holenko, Stas Zhyrkov and Tamara Trunova) to stage their plays personally. Ivan Uryvskyi staged Olha Kobylianska’s ‘Zemlia’ (Ukr. ‘Land’ or ‘Earth’) at the Kaunas Drama Theater in Lithuania. Back then, the play was translated into Lithuanian, with a team of writers carefully adapting every literary expression in close cooperation with the playwright and the cast. Ukrainian theatrical and musical institutions are often offered free (or costing next to nothing) rights for staging certain pieces or offered free licenses for adaptations of sensational Broadway musicals (such as ‘Fame Jr’) to help encourage the youth to stay in Ukraine during the times of full-scale invasion.

Olha is convinced that after the war is over, Ukrainian theatres will experience a theatre boom, with more opportunities to host touring artists, stage creative co-productions, hold joint workshops, and network through exchanging directors with world theatres, music and opera halls. That process has already begun, and it will only gain momentum.

Serhiy Vynnychenko looks at the future from a slightly different perspective. He believes that theatres will know how to navigate research about themselves and their audience, and stand for the theatres’ interests.

“The people of the theatre know nothing about the theatre, yet they are quick to start talking about quality. However, we aren’t getting anywhere until we have some quantifiable data,” Serhiy insists.

There has been some debate over theatres in Kharkiv, on whether they should resume their performances, and how. Should they bring their company to digital platforms, or should they be allowed to perform onstage, even if their theatres are not equipped with bomb shelters? However, it isn’t clear how many theatres are actually in Kharkiv. According to Vynnychenko, there were about 60 of them before the full-scale invasion.

However, the theatre blogger believes there is a risk that Ukranian theatres could lose the popularity they are enjoying now.

“Theatres should define the tasks they are performing, but most artists struggle when it comes to defining their purpose,” says Vynnychenko “Holding strategic sessions, capacity building in theatre management and strong involvement with marketing can significantly improve the current situation, and help the theatres better ‘package’ and promote the plays that are currently being staged. Today, only a small fraction of those plays have caught the attention of the media. Only by working together, the companies, the theatre management, and (of course) the media can fix this situation. Should any of those links fail to do their part, the entire structure will, sadly, fall.”