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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Neda NEZHDANA: “We are interesting to the world primarily for our original face”

Open talk about why plays of our contemporaries can be so rarely seen on Ukrainian stage
19 June, 2012 - 00:00
Photo provided by Neda NEZHDANA

At the present time Neda Nezhdana is one of the most active playwrights: her plays were staged 65 times in various theaters of Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Belarus, Armenia, and the US. She actively supports her fellow playwrights and has a clear civic position, particularly, she criticizes the government for a policy of destroying modern theater and academic theaters – for absence of alternative. The Day spoke with Nezhdana about the challenges faced by modern theater at present time. The interview took place in the theater-studio “Mist” after the performance Suicide of Solitude (tragicomedy for 13 steps, one pause, and one fall).


In your opinion why ambitious, original contemporary drama in Ukraine is actually deprived of the professional stage and does not have mass audience?

“I would not say that modern drama is totally deprived of stage. Modern drama is staged in theaters, however, there are very few authors, whose plays are actively used for staging – it is too complicated and elitist profession.

“In other countries people understand that new drama a priori cannot compete with the classics, so there are different forms of support: education, grants for the creation, publication, theatrical readings, translations into foreign languages, staging, and also drama centers, theaters, festivals, contests, quotas for new drama, etc. For example, in France there is Beaumarchais Foundation that provides grants to create plays, staging, and translations. Germany provides funds for publication, readings, and staging not only in their country, but also abroad. The biggest festival ‘New Plays from Europe’ takes place in Wiesbaden. Modern theater gets support not only in developed Western countries, but also in neighboring countries like Russia, Poland, and Belarus. Thus, in Poland there is a system of grants provided for the theaters that stage their own modern plays and there is also the festival ‘Raport.’ In Belarus Theater of Belarusian Drama works productively and there is national quota for plays in other theaters. In Russia there are a couple of famous modern theaters that work on a high level, there is also a system of grants for contests, staging, and publications.

“We only had support in times of the Soviet Union and today there is no slightest hint of any government program. We, playwrights, developed and submitted such proposals to legislation on theater to both the Cabinet of Ministers and the Ministry of Culture. Once they issued grants for first reading staging of Ukrainian plays, gathered all the necessary documentation, received a great number of applications and then that financing was practically stolen from us. Once the government had changed, all the debts were written off on their predecessors. Until recently there were only public procurement of the new Ukrainian plays and translations of foreign plays staged in Ukrainian theaters – this was the only chance to receive fee for your work. However, after the government changed authors have been openly robbed. In 2010 Prime Minister Mykola Azarov with his order transferred the funds to a different article of expenditure of the state budget without any explanation, and in 2011 all the documents were prepared but the economic code was changes – this how playwrights were deceived. It is a totally absurd situation: all the other professionals involved in staging plays received their fees, while the authors and translators did not. In the same way, by the way, there were robbed composers and artists – the total sum of not paid money was over one million hryvnias.

“So, these are the main challenges of modern theater: on the one hand, it is the authority of the classics, and on the other hand – modern foreign playwrights who receive support both in their native countries and abroad.

“Today theater cannot fully develop without modern plays, classics and modernity are the two wings without which theater becomes cripple. The main issue of modern Ukrainian drama is how interesting, original, and relevant our theater is, how it feels its time and its audience. Otherwise, it will be a museum-theater or, quoting the accurate definition of Federico Garcia Lorca, ‘the theater where time is killed’ in every sense. A few years ago I invited Dominique Dolomieu, director of the Home of Europe and East in Paris, who studies Eastern European theater, to Kyiv. He was interested only in performances staged based on plays of Ukrainian authors, preferably, modern ones. We are interesting to the world primarily for our original face and not for the 156th variant of Hamlet, with all my respect for Shakespeare.

“However, despite this ‘crisis’ modern Ukrainian drama is staged in theaters. I can name about two dozens of interesting authors, whose plays have been staged in Ukraine and abroad: Anatolii Krym, Yaroslav Vereshchak, Oleh Mykolaichuk, Oleksandr Irvanets, Oleksandr Viter, Valentyn Tarasov, Serhii Shchuchenko, Oleksandra Pohrebinska, Oleksandr Havrosh, Anna Bahriana, Artem Vyshnevsky, Pavlo Arie, and also Russian speaking Oleksandr Mardan, Natalia Vorozhbyt, and Maksym Kurochkin. Recently in Kurbas Center the department of drama projects, which I chair, has formed an information collection of modern drama ‘Avanscena,’ which has about 50 authors – both mature ones and debutants, and all of them have implementations of their creative work – publications, performances, and awards.

“In my opinion, what we, playwrights, really lack is PR and mass media support. Our national inferiority complex – not noticing things of our own and wheedling before foreigners, is very destructive.”

Why do academic theaters with state funding are so reluctant to stage modern drama?

“The problem lays in the existence of the old theater system. In fact, we haven’t had a real theater reform. We still have the Soviet extremely conservative system, with ideology removed from it and without proper assistance for modern drama and, in general, for everything new and aimed at research. ‘Law on Theater’ was profitable only for tedious directors, so that they could fix the lack of control. Everything without distinguishing between various types of drama can receive the support. How could an entertainment tabloid comedy and new search problem play of an unknown author be put on the same level? It is the ‘risk zones’ – modern national drama, young directors, and experimental drama – that critically need support. Today there is the situation where not only there is no system for supporting small theaters, but there are no mechanisms for their operation. ‘Mist,’ ‘Vidkryty Pohliad,’ ‘Abrakadabra,’ ‘Abetka,’ ‘Svobodny,’ ‘Chorny Kvadrat,’ etc. can only rely on themselves. However, the studio theater movement will not cease to exist in Ukraine. The fact that these theaters are more open to the young directors and new drama shows that tomorrow is with them. I believe that it is absolutely real to implement the necessary reform on the state level and create favorable conditions for theaters of various forms. But if you would ask managers of the existing public theaters about what should be changed today, you would most likely hear as an answer: ‘raise wages.’ They would not support ‘the reset’ idea.”


Could you explain the differences in work of Ukrainian and European theaters?

“They have different forms of theater. The majority of theaters are the premises with administration and a building where a few theater troops or troops on non-repertory principle can work in parallel. As a rule, the financing is provided not to the theater in general but for some certain projects, where national drama, presence of a problem, and search are the priority. In public theaters managers are usually chosen on a competitive basis and only for a specified period of time, and actors only get contracts signed for a season and for specific performances. An exception is author’s theaters founded by directors. Neither in public, nor in author’s theaters do they have the luxury of three casts of actors, dozens of attending personal and shops the way it is in Ukraine. There is also an extensive system of education: university level, studious or schools with many theaters, plus a great number of master classes. On the one hand, it produces tough competition for everyone, but on the other hand, there are much more opportunities for different artists. For example, in France if any artistic formation managed to operate for two years without any support, it has every chance to get it in its third year. In Ukraine there is no such thing and even if you managed to work for 10 years with a bunch of awards and festivals there would be no reaction! I think that the greater number of theaters means a greater variety of forms, more institutions to support them, and better chances for development. This also means a variety of choices for the audience. For example, in Moscow there are over 250 theaters, in Paris – nearly 400, and in the whole Ukraine there are only a little over 100!

“Unfortunately, nowadays our public theaters are often closed to anything that is new – both in directing and in dramaturgy. Such system promotes conservativeness: it is much easier to get rid of a ‘scandalous,’ ‘wrong type’ director, while any ‘dull’ director can clutch to the position for something like 30 years and ‘cherish traditions,’ but, in fact, stage secondary and dull plays and by doing so destroy everything new and different around him with his museumness. Of course, there are progressive managers of public theaters, who actively stage modern drama, invite young directors to work. Among such theaters there are: ‘Suziria,’ ‘Molody,’ Vasyl Vasylko Odesa Theater, Cherkasy Theater, Les Kurbas National Center of Theater Art, and some others. However, these are rather exceptions than a tendency. By the way, some ten years ago in the Ivan Franko National Theater there was no Ukrainian modern drama. Later, there came out performances and plays about outstanding people. For example, I got an order to write a play based on the novel On Sunday Morning She Gathered Herbs by Olha Kobylianska. Recently there was staged a play Hymn of Democratic Youth based on the novel of Serhii Zhadan and it has been a great success. Modern drama can totally be successful, but you probably can’t tell this until you try to stage it.”


Managers and directors of theaters accuse playwrights that they write literary plays for reading and do not understand the rules of stage life that is why such plays do not get to be staged.

“Of course, there are such pieces that are difficult to stage, authors do not understand the whole idea of staging. You can know technique and theory from books, but without practice you will not understand the principles of staging plays. However, there is a great number of authors who know stage matters really well. They are playwrights who came from theaters: for example, Oleksandra Pohrebinska used to be a director, Valentyn Tarasov – actor, Oleksandr Viter – director, Volodymyr Snihurchenko – actor and director, Oksana Taniuk and Lesia Voloshyn – theater critics, etc. There are those who become a director and created their own theaters like Artem Vyshnevsky and Yurii Paskar.

“For example, I write each new play as if it was for a new theater – I use different principles of composition, style, themes, etc. Of course, you can’t jump over your own head and every playwright has his own style. However, I think that it is extremely important to try using different styles, approaches. We should not focus on the past of our theater, but instead we should be guided by the tendencies of the international theater process. You know, I am a pessimist in my writing but an optimist in real life!

“By the way, competitiveness and stage skills of Ukrainian authors have been proven by success in other countries too. In particular, in Chisinau at the youth forum of CIS countries, Georgia, and Baltic countries Ukraine will be represented by Artem Vyshnevsky, Yurii Paskar, Pavlo Artie, and Anna Yablonska – she teaches foreign drama in translation at the Home of Europe and East in Paris. Oleksandr Viter and I will go to Lublin for the Drama Festival of the Commonwealth of Poland. Together with Volodymyr Serdiuk we will also present Ukraine in the Catalog of the Best Plays of Europe. I was invited as a patron to the largest festival of modern drama in Wiesbaden and Oleksandr Havrosh was invited with his play Romeo and Jasmine. As one of the winners I hope to go to the world forum of women playwrights in Stockholm in August.”

By Vadym LUBCHAK, The Day