I was going to write about the Drama UA festival in Lviv and the role of the theatre critic, but events in Ukraine have rather overtaken me. So I’ll begin with the demonstrations: a theatre of democracy? Ten days ago, protests started in many cities when Ukraine’s President made it clear that the Association Agreement with the EU wasn’t going to be signed. 100,000 people marched in the streets of the capital on Sunday 24 Nov, and protests have been maintained in the main squares – EuroMaidan and Maidan Nezelezhnosti (Independence Square) – ever since, with appeals for non-violent direct action from opposition parties and assorted political groups. Do watch this video:
The violent break up of the peaceful sit-in protest on Saturday (30th Nov) with people forcibly removed by police, and a number of casualties, led to the government making it illegal to gather in the squares. And that was the touch paper for people to come out last Sunday (Dec 1st) in their hundreds of thousands.
My friend Jan was visiting for the weekend and we had walked to Maidan on Friday to see for ourselves what was happening. When we set out for the day on Sunday, we knew there was going to be a demonstration, and when the first 2 underground trains that came by were so packed there was absolutely no way we could get on, we realised that it was going to be big. I’ve never seen such crowds – and I’ve seen Man Utd’s Old Trafford ground which holds 78,000 emptying as I live nearby. In the course of 2 hours, I’d say at least 6 football matches of people flowed past us – with singing, chanting and flags. And people of all ages were there…children, young people, adults and senior citizens. Below is a scene from within the City Hall, occupied by the protestors – for more photos from this journalist check photographs of Ukraine’s protests
Behind this willingness to stand up and be counted is a desperate desire to be part of a democratic country that is not controlled behind the scenes by Russia/Putin, or riven by corruption. Europe represents both different values, and (relative) economic prosperity – and the free market and mass consumerism as we have it in Western Europe holds huge appeal here: Ukraine – be careful what you wish for.
Ukraine needs investment and its chances of attracting foreign investment are higher if it’s seen to be on a path to combating corruption. It needs to strengthen its regional development, as the gap between the capital city and the rest of the country is huge; it needs to grow its technical, agricultural and creative capacity; and hold onto its talent – at the moment too many of the bright, educated young people that I speak to at the British Council want to leave rather than stay to play an active part of their country’s future.
There’s little independent media here, so the role of social media, the Kyiv Post (written in English) and other internet reporting, along with foreign press like the Guardian with correspondents on the ground here, has been crucial. I’m sure you’ve all been following the reports on BBC, and for anyone on Twitter #euromaidan or #Kyiv or #Ukraine have been the hashtags du jour. Do read this on the use of social media if you’re interested.
Drama UA Festival. I met some energetic and exciting theatre makers, artists and dramaturgs at the Drama UA Festival in Lviv, which offers a workshop programme and debate alongside new performances.
The East European Performing Arts Platform were meeting there, which ensured representatives from Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia and Romania could join colleagues from Ukraine in discussing how to ensure theatre remains urgent, vital, relevant, and valued.
It was especially interesting for me to hear the voice of central and eastern European cultural commentators; and to listen to debate around the crisis in theatre criticism, which has been part of the formal academic training in theatre here, and which is still taught in 3 universities… the decline of the written word in print, the rejection of the ‘expert’ voice in favour of immediate personal comment on social media, and saturation levels of entertainment where articles around celebrity lifestyle have replaced the academically informed theorist’s commentary, described interestingly as “acting as a controller” to maintain “the purity of theatre”. This made me realise that in the UK little remains of the tradition of theatre criticism a la Kenneth Tynan, and less and less space is given to reviews in papers. Now there is far more written about cultural policy than about the art itself. Perhaps the traditional theatre critic has been replaced in the UK by those who write about the value of theatre …not its cost, nor even its meaning, but its value to us, the audience or the consumer? So I asked a UK writer, Richard Hector Jones, to comment:
“The modern critic needs to grasp socio-political context: they write about not what the art means, but what it means to us. The critic needs to use the art to discuss the now. Given that anyone can technically be a critic, insight becomes the commodity, not opinion…or someone pontificating on whether something is stamped ‘good’ or ”bad’. Richard HJ, Creative Concern, Manchester, UK.
UK theatre director Jan Willem van den Bosch’s Master Class was supported by the British Council, as part of its Behind the Scenes intitiative; and after a discussion between us over dinner in one of Lviv’s amazing restaurants – we had to knock on a door at the top of some rickety stairs and convince an old man to let us into candlelit rooms where piano & violin were playing; and the exorbitant prices on the bill were not the price you paid, you had to haggle– Jan invited me to talk to his group the next day.
So I ended up speaking about the role of the Producer, and the need for creativity to extend beyond the rehearsal space and into all aspects of making work, which prompted an interesting discussion with the drama students & professional theatre directors/choreographers/artists in his group.
Being in another country reminds me of the importance of being clear in the vocabulary we use when talking about the Arts.
When we work in another language – and most people at the Eastern European Platform meeting had to use English as their common language, though there were no native speakers – we have to check the assumptions behind the jargon.
And I think this checking of exactly what we mean is good practice for all of us – an understanding of the role of a Producer, for example, can vary hugely from person to person. I noticed that many people referred to the dramaturg as having responsibilities beyond that of a bridge between writer and director and audience in terms of work with text. In eastern Europe, so I’m told, the dramaturg might also come up with the idea/concept behind the performance, raise the money and find the partners, and then work with the team throughout…something which I would see as the work of a Producer. It’s worth checking our mutual understanding of the vocabulary when we begin to use arts jargon, as well as when we collaborate across borders, across languages, and across other potential cultural divides.