April 26, ONE NIGHT ONLY – the Troika Collective presents “Voices from Chernobyl”

Voices From Chernobyl poster image

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!

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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.

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The Troika Collective presents “Olya the Child”

Olya the Child presented by the Troika Collective as a site-specific production in the Emily Carr Parkade as part of the 2015 Vancouver International Fringe Festival, now until September 20.

Poster design: Sonja Kresowaty

Poster design and illustration: Sonja Kresowaty

Shameless plug alert: obviously my promotion of this play is a little biased as I wrote the script and my friends are in the company. But you should see it!

From the press release (which I also wrote):

The company that created and performed Chernobyl: The Opera for sold-out audiences and brought Torsten Buchsteiner’s Nordost to Vancouver for its North American premiere presents Olya the Child, an original play that explores the meaning of family through the eyes of a Russian orphan.

Performed as a site-specific work in the Emily Carr parkade on Granville Island, Olya the Child draws parallels between tales of feral children (children raised without human contact) and the unique challenges of international adoption. Ten-year-old Russian orphan Olya Kadnikova (Jessica Hood) has been taught all her life to wish for a family, and for a home outside her state orphanage. She is surprised to be adopted by Canadian housewife Deborah Johnson (Jalen Saip), who hopes that a daughter will bring love into her failing marriage. When adjusting to their new relationship proves more difficult than expected, both child and adoptive parent must examine their illusions, motives, and emotional capacities to decide if the beauty of their old dreams can overcome the challenges of their current realities.

Featuring collaborative physical storytelling by an ensemble cast, by turns both whimsical and bleak, Olya the Child takes its audience from the concrete jungle of a state orphanage in Moscow, through the efficient metropolis of the Frankfurt Airport, to the sometimes claustrophobic comfort of suburban Vancouver as it questions the nature of love, family, and the fairy tales we tell about them.

I think I knew my life as a performer was never going to materialize the first time I saw a script I wrote onstage. Don’t get me wrong–performing was intoxicating, and every so often my heart longs for the feeling of being onstage, for the camaraderie of waiting in the wings, mouthing the words of the scenes as my fellow actors performed them, listening for the audience response. In the intensity of that kind of focus and stillness, one show could feel like a whole week of living. But when I saw this event from the other side, when I sat in the house and listened to the actors instead of the audience, speaking words I wrote, reacting to the situations I created, interpreting a story of my imagining, I knew there was no help for me. I didn’t want to be this character or that one every night for a couple of weeks–I wanted to be every character, and their circumstances, and their language, and their rhythms, and their world, always. So I pulled myself away from performing, gently but painfully, and I kept writing.

Luckily for me, when I was studying performance in my bachelors degree I managed to establish relationships with wonderful theatre artists that I am still happy to have as collaborators and friends and who, for whatever reason, are willing to stage my plays. Friends like Aliya Griffin, founder and Artistic Director of the Troika Collective and director of Olya the Child. It was Aliya who said to me one night over drinks, “I want to stage a play about feral children, but also about Eastern European orphans. Do you think you’d be interested in writing it?” and I said yeah. We discussed the issues with one another, watched the same documentary (as well as conducting our own research), and knew the piece would be staged in a parkade, but apart from that I had complete freedom to create the story as the cast of characters grew and shrank depending on the draft I was working on, and the amount of Russian I would require the cast to speak shrank considerably from the first draft to the current one (I don’t speak Russian myself, and it’s not an easy language).

Knowing that everything you write needs to be performed in a real physical space is a major restriction for a playwright, but I’m very familiar with Aliya’s work as a director and I know what she is capable of when she has the right cast, that is, a cast that is willing to play and explore and help create physically what the lines I wrote can only say verbally. I don’t usually get too involved in rehearsals for the pieces I write, but I had the opportunity to participate in the auditions this time and to catch a sneak peek at some of the orphanage and airport scenes in rehearsal and I am very excited, and very grateful.  I think it takes a certain leap of faith to write a script, and assume that other artists (directors, actors, even graphic designers) are going to be interested in putting as much of their energy and their talent into as you did, and it is the most humbling and gratifying experience to watch it happen.

Though I’m listed as the playwright on this piece, I don’t feel that I wrote it alone; Aliya was reading drafts and providing feedback every step of the way. One of the interesting things about writing plays as opposed to other kinds of creative texts is that the collaborative process (which occurs in almost all creative writing no matter who is listed as the actual author) becomes visible onstage–the words may be mine but the work of art is collective. And if I do say so myself, I think my collaborators and I have examined a complicated and sometimes thorny subject with gentleness and care, opening a conversation rather than closing a door, and I hope, of course, that you will come and see it.

Olya the Child runs at the Emily Carr parkade on Granville Island September 10 – 20. Tickets are $14 (plus a $5 Fringe membership) and can be purchased online through the Vancouver Fringe website (ignore the note that says “Coarse Language”; the play is, in fact, family friendly).

P.S. Check it out! Olya the Child was recently featured in local paper The Source: Forum for Diversity [“Complicating the FairyTale: Play casts a spotlight on international adoption” by Simon Yee]

The Troika Collective presents “Nordost” (March 4 – 7)

Nord Ost_press kit_FINAL

Opening night is finally here.

We spent our tech weekend and dress rehearsals doing what we normally do on tech weekend and dress rehearsals–doing everything we can to make a good show great. We often talk about the “magic” of theatre, as if the nitty-gritty details of putting a show together are just unfortunate necessities (boring stuff like working out blocking, memorizing lines, and fine-tuning technical cues). But preparation is vital in the theatre. We prepare and prepare and prepare so that when we step out onto the stage (or into the booth, or take our seat in the audience, critical eye and notebook at the ready), we can lose ourselves just enough to take our audience with us.

Our phenomenal cast is prepared. When the lights came up on them at last night’s dress rehearsal, magic happened. They’d moved from knowing what they needed to do as actors, to understanding their characters’ motivations, to embodying three brave women trapped in horrific circumstances. It’s in them–in their faces, their voices, their bodies, and their hearts.

Obviously, as the production dramaturg for Nordost and co-artistic director of the Troika Collective, my opinion is extremely biased, but I could not be more proud of these actors, our director, or our designer. What these women gave of themselves to bring this show to life in Vancouver (a North American premiere, no less), is beyond my ability to thank them. I have no idea what good deed I must have done to deserve to add my name to the program alongside them but I could not feel more privileged. This is a damn good show.

And an important show. In the buzzing silent moment after the dress run and before the cast had taken their bows (it’s good to practice them, even with no audience), I couldn’t help but reflect on Nordost‘s story of trauma, terrorism, and desperation, and think, “And we’re doing it all again.” The world is not so different now than it was in 2002–except maybe we’ve become used to things we shouldn’t be used to, and maybe we haven’t learned as much as we should have. This play is serious, yes, but also necessary.

And it’s a great show.

Nordost will be playing at the Havana Theatre (1212 Commercial Drive) March 4 – 7. All shows are at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $20/$17 and can be purchased online at Brown Paper Tickets or at the door (cash only at door).

David Tushingham’s English translation of Torsten Buchsteiner’s Nordost was originally commissioned by Company of Angels, London, and first presented at the Salisbury Playhouse Studio in April 2013.

Dispatches from the Rehearsal Hall: Nordost 2

The online ticketing page is up, the press release has been sent out, and the Troika Collective continues rehearsing for our upcoming production of Torsten Buchsteiner’s Nordost (translated by David Tushingham).

Chelsea MacDonald, Elizabeth Kirkland, and Randi Edmundson. Photo: Liam Griffin.

Chelsea MacDonald, Elizabeth Kirkland, and Randi Edmundson. Photo: Liam Griffin.

After my last dispatch, I received an inquiry as to what a “dramaturg” does. “Is it like an editor?” people sometimes ask. The answer is sort of, and also, it depends. When the dramaturg is a script dramaturg or a new play dramaturg, they will often work with a playwright to bring the playwright’s vision to fruition and prepare the script for production, so yes, it could involve helping a playwright craft a script the way an editor may help an author craft a novel, but not always. So that’s the “sort of” part.

But it depends what kind of dramaturgy we’re talking about. When the dramaturg is a production dramaturg on an already-written play, as I am on Nordost, the dramaturg is there primarily to assist the director with the crafting of their vision. In this role the script is a constant and will not change. In some processes, the dramaturg will supply the director and cast with research materials about the play or the time period or the historical event, etc., but I find I’m not really that kind of dramaturg either. I like to be another set of eyes, generally. I like to attend rehearsals and take notes and occasionally have good-natured fights with directors for or against specific artistic choices. Until recently in this process, we were still blocking out the show (which is very very difficult in the round), so I was making a point of sitting on a different side than the one Aliya, our director, was on, and occasionally pronouncing that I was “seeing a lot of backs of heads”. It’s good to be useful.

Last week we gathered around Aliya’s laptop to watch a video of Nord-Ost, the Russian musical that was being performed in the Dubrovka Theatre when it was taken hostage (the siege itself becoming the premise for this play). Some funny stylistic choices aside (lots of jazz hands), it was rather chilling to think about an audience of nearly 800 watching this play, enjoying the dance numbers and getting involved in the story like any other show, with no idea that a real-life nightmare would begin in the second act. The unsuspecting audience were like passengers on the Titanic, laughing and having a good time while the ship sped towards an iceberg. Like the books the cast has been reading, this slightly sentimental musical will become part of each actor’s internal background, shaping and informing the text as they lift it from the page, bringing it into their voices and bodies.

The weight of the subject matter is always a presence in rehearsals. Levity in the process and jovial interpersonal relations can only take you so far when the words being spoken are so serious and emotionally charged. As a more occasional observer (I don’t attend every rehearsal), it is my privilege to watch these incredible actresses develop this telling of the story, and return to this material again and again, finding nuance and subtlety in rather heavy-handed realities. Both the actors and their characters are finding their resilience, and I know I say the word “exciting” a lot when I talk about this process, but it really really is.

Mark your calendars! Nordost will be performed at the Havana Theatre on Commercial drive March 4 – 7. Tickets can be purchased online at nordost.brownpapertickets.com.

Dispatches from the Rehearsal Hall: Nordost

This spring I have the privilege of acting as production dramaturg for the play Nordost, by German playwright Torsten Buchsteiner (translated by David Tushingham). The director, Aliya Griffin, and I are good friends and co-artistic directors of Aliya’s performance society brainchild, The Troika Collective (which is to say these dispatches will be somewhat self-serving since obviously I want to spread the word about this amazing show).

This room is "the skinny", where the cast was rehearsing yesterday!

This room is “the skinny”, where the cast was rehearsing yesterday! (This photo is a few years old).

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been involved in a rehearsal process and I must confess my theatrical muscles have gotten a bit stiff lately. This makes me somewhat wistful, remembering a time when life was pretty much one long loop of rehearsing and performing and I got to move and shout and experiment and collaborate and create with my friends a few times a week (there really was something lost when I decided not to make performing a priority anymore). But it’s kind of invigorating too–waking up old sensibilities, watching the creative process unfold, and having it feel fresh again, rather than being the same old slog (which does happen, as much as I enjoyed performing). I think production dramaturgy is a good fit for me, and a fortunate one–not every director will work with a dramaturg (and some who have dramaturgs foisted on them don’t listen to them anyways). There’s something very attractive about dipping my toes in the process but not getting fully immersed. I get to see something different from what the director and cast are seeing (because they are seeing the everyday of it, and I am seeing more like time-lapses), and that’s kind of special.

But still very daunting. In the past, The Troika Collective has created the work we perform, and you’d think mounting a show that has already been written and performed successfully elsewhere would be easier for us, but it really isn’t. When the challenge of writing a new piece is removed, the challenge of working within textual constraints (and with expectations, if the play is well-known) replaces it. Our production will also be the North American premiere of Nordost, and that is a pretty big responsibility, especially when the subject Nordost tackles is so solemn.

Which brings me to the challenge of content. All plays, no matter their subject matter, should be rehearsed and performed with rigour and intention. That being said, some demand this rigour more than others and we are currently rehearsing a pretty rigourous play. From the perspectives of three different women (a Russian mother of two, a Latvian-born paramedic working in Moscow, and a Chechen widow-turned-militant), Nordost tells the story of the 2002 hostage taking of the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow by Chechen rebels/freedom fighters, and about the Russian government’s duplicitous and bungled response, which left all of the hostage takers and plus 129 Russian civilians dead by Russian actions. This is a heavy play.

So how do you tell this story in a theatrical space? How do you bring such a terrible event to life in a way that engages, rather than exhausts, your audience? How do theatre artists engage with this material for several hours several days a week without becoming nervous wrecks?

Thankfully, Buchsteiner has written a a great deal of strength and humanity into his characters. There is grief in this story, and anger, but also incredible resilience. In many ways, doing the play justice will mean getting out of the story’s way a bit and letting the audience experience it for themselves. As for the artists working on the show, I feel safety and camaraderie in the rehearsal room and that goes a long way. Rehearsals can still be incredibly pleasant, even fun, in spite of the seriousness of the play being worked on.

There are also formal challenges. Nordost will be performed in the round, which I think is one of the more difficult stage configurations. Unlike a proscenium stage, in which the scenes are really moving pictures in a frame, a round stage offers no place to hide and requires each stage picture to be dynamic and interesting from all angles. It’s a configuration not to be taken on lightly, but when it informs the work (as I think it will), it can be a rewarding artistic choice.

Challenges aside, I am getting pretty excited. Everyone involved directly in the show is an excellent person with commitment and vision and it’s sort of like going on a long road trip with your friends–you know you’re going to get tired sometimes but you know it’s going to be so much fun.

Mark your calendars! Nordost will be performed at the Havana Theatre on Commercial drive March 4 – 7.