April 26, 2016 (this Tuesday) marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Pripyat, Ukraine. To commemorate this event, and in support of the Veronika Children Leukemia Foundation, the Troika Collective will be presenting a one-night-only concert performance of their bewitchingly tragic song cycle, Voices from Chernobyl (previously staged as Chernobyl: the Opera).
From their website:
Set to the haunting yet beautiful contemporary music of composer Elliot Vaughan, Voices from Chernobyl tells the stories of survivors of the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor as well as of those who have chosen to resettle in the region despite the dangers to their health. Using verbatim text taken from interviews and sung by an ensemble of seven, Voices from Chernobyl uses music and projection to explore the horrifying and heartbreaking yet compelling history of a nuclear disaster.
I first encountered this project several years ago when I performed in a short, four-song, four-voice version of Chernobyl as part of a larger event. Since then, the show has evolved into a stand-alone cycle for seven voices and remains one of the Troika Collective’s most popular productions. I reached out to Aliya Griffin, Artistic Director of the Troika Collective and co-creator and director of Voices from Chernobyl to ask her a few questions about this show and its journey.
A question we were asked in theatre school was, “Why this play, why now?” Obviously, you are mounting Voices from Chernobyl right now to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, but why is this subject important to you?
I think Chernobyl captured the imaginations of a lot of people when it happened and for years after. It was the first time since WWII and the first time in peace-time that we saw the horrifying possibility of nuclear power when it goes wrong. I of course personally have a connection to Ukraine, so that is part of my interest, but really the fascination came in reading the verbatim text of interviews taken by Svetlana Alexievich in Voices from Chernobyl, the book. I have a passion for non-fiction and verbatim text and these stories were so compelling. The stories are at the same time alienating, in that these people were dealing with a situation that was unprecedented, and also heart-breakingly relatable in their humanity and honesty. I think I also have a profound desire to understand the “other”, to know why people do the things they do and to help share stories that I think other people far away from the storytellers need to hear. I am not a politician, or a writer, but I use my theatre, and in this case the music of Elliot Vaughan, to help share these stories. The 30th anniversary of Chernobyl is of course the specific reason for this remount, but this music and this show have stayed with me and these stories still beg to be told.
This show has had a long journey since it was originally conceived several years ago. Could you talk about the process of creating the song-cycle, and about what continues to hold your artistic interest after all this time with it? What makes Voices from Chernobyl so unique?
I think initially it felt like a really big undertaking. I tend to create shows from beginning to end in short creative time periods. This project seemed like a big endeavor and we weren’t sure how it would be received. The short four-song version [we premiered] as part of Hive: The Newbees 2 was a chance to try out our aesthetic and see how it worked. It ended up being really successful and people seemed to be into what we were doing, so it gave us the confidence to move forward with more stories and a longer stand-alone show. Along with everything I mentioned above in terms of content, I’m also really interested in playing with form when it comes to verbatim text. In all my pieces, I tend to have a bit of a choreographic quality. I like playing with rhythm and accented movement (everyone who works with me will tell you about my obsession with sharp head turns). I find with verbatim text the honesty and humanity of the stories is built right in and you don’t need to over-play that with naturalistic acting. Voices from Chernobyl of course lets me really play with this choreographic aesthetic because it is entirely music. (For this concert version however, we are really letting the music speak for itself and the blocking and choreography will be minimal).
In your interview with Emelia Symington-Fedy on her Roundhouse Radio show, Trying to Be Good, you talked about visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on a recent vacation with your mother. How has visiting the actual site of this disaster affected your relationship with this piece?
To be perfectly honest, I was expecting something really profound to happen when I visited the site, especially considering how intimately we got to know these personal stories. I was struck by how beautiful the region is, but also by how mundane it all is. I didn’t feel a lot of fear going into the zone. It might be in part because we entered the zone with two bus loads of mostly British soccer fans who were visiting Ukraine for a big match. Since being opened for tourism, the site has definitely lost some of its sense of isolation and mystery. Also, there are dozens of workers in the zone, not just tour guides, but also those helping build the third sarcophagus that is meant to cover reactor number 4 and contain the radiation for up to 100 years. The tour was of course fascinating and visiting the iconic, abandoned town of Pripyat and the famous amusement park that was never opened was really interesting, but overall it felt more touristy than I would have liked.
On the website for the Troika Collective, it says that proceeds from the event will benefit the Veronika Children Leukemia Foundation. Could you talk about their work and about how the Troika Collective became connected with the Foundation?
While creating the full length version of the show, I stumbled across an article in the Georgia Straight about the Veronika Foundation and its founder Svetlana Khashkin. I always knew I wanted the show to have a charitable component, but I thought we would likely go with a more internationally-known charity. To meet people in the lower mainland who do work directly related to the legacy of Chernobyl was exciting. My mom and I met with Svetlana and her husband Grigori at the Eastern European food store they own in Coquitlam and they were very excited about the project. We also discovered that Grigori had been a Chernobyl liquidator and he eventually ended up being a guest speaker for a post-show Q&A after one of our shows. The Veronika Foundation does all sorts of work in supporting children living with cancer in Eastern Europe (and I highly encourage [readers] to check out their website at veronikafoundation.org) but the most interesting to me is their work towards establishing a bone marrow registry in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Lastly, is there anything else you want to mention about Voices from Chernobyl or about the event in general?
I guess I would just like to encourage people to come out and support this event. It will be a great night of music, not just with Voices from Chernobyl, but also with a set from Eastern European and Balkan a cappella group Vostok. I really think it’s going to be an engaging and enjoyable evening. And of course it supports a great cause!
Voices from Chernobyl will be performed ONE NIGHT ONLY Tuesday, April 26, 8:00 p.m. at the Ukrainian Cultural Centre, 805 East Pender, Vancouver. Tickets can be purchased online through Brown Paper Tickets. Tickets will also be available at the door (cash only for the box office and bar).
Disclosure: In addition to being a friend of several people involved in the show, including Aliya Griffin, I sit on the board of the Troika Collective and am a member of Tuesday’s opening musical act, Vostok.