"Wonderful, Wonderful Times": How Polish theatre critic and curator made a performance in Ukraine
Joanna Wichowska (Warsaw, Poland), a theatre critic and curator, performer and author for the stage, about how she came to Ukraine to implement the play "Wonderful, Wonderful Times", establish relations between Polish and Ukrainian theaters and about project planning.
How it all started?
The best way to fill the gap in cultural development between countries is to collaborate within concrete projects
During the past six years, I have been implementing projects involving Ukrainian artists and aimed at establishing long-term working relationships with them. The most important goal of my activity in this sphere was (and is) to fill the gap in the development of the culture of Ukraine and the EU. I believe that the best way to do this is to collaborate within specific projects.
"Wonderful, Wonderful Times" in Lviv
I chose the First Theater as the main destination (Lviv). The choice fell precisely on this theater because I had been able to cooperate with Rosa Sarkisian, who now holds the position of " lead director".
During the project, we, together with the theater team, prepared the production of "Wonderful, Wonderful Times", inspired by the novel by Elfriede Jelinek "Die Ausgesperrten".
In my opinion, the themes of post-war society, violence, the approach of young people to the perception of the "old world" of parents — all present in the Jelinek's novel — as well as actual in Ukraine.
In the process of shaping the performance we employed focus groups, lectures and meetings with Ukrainian and international historians, sociologists and cultural experts researching post-war society, violence, and methods of combating historical trauma. During the study I had the opportunity to interview and consult with researchers and theoreticians representing academic institutions including the Centre for Urban History of East Central Europe, Lviv Ivan Franko National University, the Terror Territory Museum and others.
The show premiered on 14-15 July, closing out First Theatre's season.
The state of theater culture in Ukraine
Lviv is often considered a traditional, even conservative place, but at the same time it's also a progressive city looking for new creative and communicative approaches
It's probably impossible to describe the state of the theatre in Ukraine as a whole; in a country this large there are so many regional and cultural differences. I watch people working in the field of theatrical arts and I can say that theirs is a constant struggle: outdated theatre management systems, lack of funding and obstacles created by national or local officials.
In Lviv, where we held the project, the situation is comparatively better than in other cities in Ukraine.
Lviv is often considered a traditional, even conservative place, but at the same time it's also a progressive city looking for new creative and communicative approaches. I admire the fact that the city is not hesitant to admit a new generation of actors and managers into its cultural milieu. Some are working in city theatres, particularly at the Lesia Ukrainka Theatre and the First Theatre. The Lesia Ukrainka is directed by Olga Puzhakovska and her youthful team, the majority of whom are women! She is working to introduce new management methods, similar to the changes that Rosa Sarkisyan – the 'lead director' — is doing at the First Theatre, changes of which our production if proof positive.
What's lacking, in my opinion, is unrestricted access to the educational system for young actors, artists and theorists. In my view there aren't enough young theater directors who could be teaching at Lviv universities — a change that would have an impact on the further development of local theatre.
Language is not a barrier
My working language for the project was Ukrainian, a language I know well enough, but only conversational Ukrainian. I don't even know the Cyrillic alphabet and this resulted in occasionally difficult and simultaneously very funny situations.
I wrote the script for the play in Ukrainian but using the Latinate alphabet and then Katja Sehed, my assistant, transliterated it into real Ukrainian. Then we tried out the text with the actors and that resulted in some changes they required and from that Katja edited the new script.
There were situations where Katja would have transcribed my audio recordings and then I would develop a working text from these in "my Ukrainian" after which Katja would transcribe them and then I would make some changes and it could go on like this for days.
Be skeptical toward the text — it shouldn't be poetry, but must be realistic above all, something that belongs to the actors and not to me.
I wrote several of the monologues in Polish and got help from my friend, the wonderful translator Liuba Ilnitska.
This was all a bit on the crazy side and I'm really grateful for the patience of the actors. Still, it was exactly what I wanted: to stop being so tied to the theatre space; to work out the text collectively rather than bringing a finished script; and also to be skeptical toward the text — it shouldn't be poetry, but must be realistic above all, something that belongs to the actors and not to me.
Working with the First Theater we also plan to establish a connection with the Korczak Festival — an international festival of children and youth theatre organized by the Polish ASSITEJ Centre (The International Association of Children and Youth Theatre). We're looking to invite representatives from the Centre to Lviv and pitch some First Theatre performances for the festival.
I also intend to organize a regular exchange between Ukrainian and Polish artists — playwrights and directors — working in youth theatre.
How to plan a grant mobility project
My advice is that you plan your mobility project in such a way that it creates a space for genuine artistic or academic exchanges with people in your destination city. Working together to create something specific together is the best way to learn something new from others.