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Augian stables: Ukrainian theater

, 16:41, 05.02.2023
Estimated reading time: 18 minutes 246

About the theater as we see it in the light of the decolonial perspective of the development of Ukrainian society.

Augian stables
AliExpress WW

I will begin with a statement that was quoted to me, and now I will quote it to you: "In this new reality, where theaters have become shelters and volunteer stations, two things oppress me the most: internal strife and bad smell. But the smell will fade."

As long as my feet measured the landscapes of Lviv, this statement evolved and took on different shades. At first it resembled a joke. But when you think about who is making fun of whom, from a certain perspective, this joke begins to reflect arrogance towards people who needed shelter. Also, due to its ephemerality, the category of smell sometimes overshadowed another category - a quarrel, whose tails are lost in the misty past, and heads disappear in a cave with a thousand ways to get lost. At the same time, the author of the quote seems to be in a transcendental position towards the "discord" in the theater environment: not destroying anything, but not creating either. In the subtext, declaring support for the existing orders that have passed down to us as intangible artifacts of antiquity. What is this legacy that cannot be recorded or measured in any metric system, put on the scales of justice or anything?

It materializes itself only through actions, manners, way of communication and other manifestations of human existence and forming the architecture of our values. For example, like the statement above, which appears to be an ordinary joke, but at the same time does not notice delicate nuances, does not show empathy and expresses a desire to leave everything in its place. After all, that's how it's established. So less problems. So they decided before/for us, so do we have the right to change something?


I assume that some of the people who will read this text have the experience of staying in old huts, which are difficult to think about beyond props from the layering of several eras: candelabras, "Persian" carpets, authentic embroidered pillows, icons in the corners of rooms and candles near black and white photos from by deceased relatives, a sideboard with dishes, a porcelain Cossack Mamai with a bandura, plastic flowers, lamp TVs, etc. Many of you can say about such huts: "Everything is like my grandmother's." And if old owners still live in these apartments, there will be a high probability that one of the characteristic features of these houses or apartments will be the so-called "smell of old age". A smell that by itself will not fade away even after many years of the departure of their inhabitants. What do we feel, do we have anything to remember when our eyes slide over the interior details of these apartments? Can we read the syntax of this interior and tell something about the lives of the owners of these apartments?

For example, what can the apartment in which I found shelter after February 24 tell me. A large collection of books on Ukrainian history and literature (Shevchenko, Franko, Hrushevskyi, Lesya Ukrainka, Dovzhenko, etc.), published in Soviet times, speaks of "Ukrainian-centricity", but some conservatism in views: modern authors and literature of other directions are practically absent. The flags of the European Union and the Orange Revolution speak of the vision of Ukraine in the family of European countries. The kitschy porcelain statuette of a Cossack with a bandura is a reference to the era that shaped the image of Ukraine in harry making. At the same time, every detail brought to the apartment by its owners has its own unique history and its value in the lives of these people. Like paper origami birds, which lie inconspicuously on the piano and seem to me to be something insignificant, but in fact are the last hand-made thing made by the mother of the owner of the apartment.

We can arrange private spaces according to our taste. We can bring in them artifacts that are valuable to us. But if we are talking about the theater: semi-public space, state institution of culture, cultural property of the nation, property of the community, etc. Once again, if we are talking about the theater, do we have the right to pass off our small town culture as the cultural heritage of the nation?


Somehow, to the thesis that the judgment of the performance depends on taste, I was answered: "It is not necessary to reduce everything to taste." I have an assumption that my opponent in his answer appealed to the artistic taste, which works like the receptors that recognize salty, sweet, sour, bitter. But even if so, why do some prefer sweet and others - sour? Also, would it be good to use exclusively sweet or salty? If we translate this to the "receptors" of the recognition of aesthetic tastes, then watching "The Simpsons" and "Hamlet" will have different psychic textures for us: the question may be what experience we want to have according to the experience we already have. But living each time simpler and simpler stories, we atrophy the ability to reflect, imagine, and empathize, because we are a product of the culture we consume.

A matter of taste is little more than a preference for color in the cultural industry palette. It is often about professional "impression" and not only that. French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu introduced the term cultural capital to outline the concept of taste. Bourdieu wrote: "Cultural needs are a product of upbringing and education: surveys show that all cultural practices (visiting museums, going to concerts, reading, etc.) and preferences in literature, painting or music are closely related to the level of education (measured by qualifications or duration education) and with social origin".

I see the Soviet heritage as one of the main reasons for the defective tastes of the Ukrainian audience. Take for example the interior of post-Soviet apartments with "Eurorenovation": burgundy stretch plastic ceilings with reflections, expensive wallpaper with embossing and glossy spraying, small cheap plastic in the kitchen and an oak cabinet in the bedroom, a glass table with a forged base, popular in its time and not a practical mixer in the shower, a plasma TV of an American manufacturer, but above it Russian nesting dolls (I personally witnessed the presence of nesting dolls above the plasma TV in a family of sincere Galicians), etc. Everything should create a feeling that people live here "not from such a family as the others, but from a rich one." But as for aesthetics, we would need a separate conversation here.

Also, the post-Soviet heritage is associated with formalism, when the quantitative indicator is perceived as qualitative, when we get a collection of artifacts "without a soul", because more weight is given to statistical data, which should explain where public money goes. The problem of determining the quality of a work of art is similar to the description of "intonation", on which the message will depend during oral speech. And if we consider a theatrical performance as a performative statement, then what it can tell us is a question that goes beyond just aesthetics.


In connection with the colonial legacy, the generational approach in Ukraine can be seen through changes in the sense of freedom as a value for which Ukrainian society is now fighting against the military expansion of the Russian Empire. Polish literary critic, researcher of postcolonial studies Agnieszka Matusiak in the book "Get out of silence", describing the Revolution of Dignity, says the following: "The "good twenties" of Maidan 3.0, which is extremely important, is the Soviet generation that does not identify itself through a relationship (whether positive , whether negative) to the Soviet Union. It has not been directly influenced by Soviet propaganda and Soviet mentality, and therefore does not feel a genetic connection with the Soviet era. These are citizens of the world, cosmopolitans (virtual and real), for whom fluency in the English language, studying at two or three faculties, trips to foreign scholarships, daily use of the latest digital technologies is the norm and even something natural..."

Each succeeding generation comes with its props to our common residence and complements it with its narratives and its meanings, forming a new Ukrainian identity. Thus, in contrast to the inert state theater, an independent theater sector emerged after the Revolution of Dignity, but individual projects existed even before the 2014 revolution. Also, in the pre-revolutionary period, a solid foundation was formed for the development of the independent sector, which began to form into a phenomenon in 2014-18. It is worth mentioning such theaters as Teatr Defacto (2014, Kharkiv), Stage of Modern Drama "Drama.UA" (2014 -2017, Lviv), PostPlay Theater (2015 - 2021, Kyiv), Immigrant Theater (2015 - 2019, various cities of Ukraine), Modern Dialogue Theater (2015 - 2017, Poltava), Pic Pic theater group (2016 - until today, Kyiv), Zaporizhia New Drama (2017 - 2018, Zaporizhia), Wild Theater (2016 - until today, Kyiv), Neft Theater (2018 - until today, Kharkiv), Playwrights Theater (2021 - until today, Kyiv) and others. It should also be noted that since 2018, the independent sector began to take positions in the public sector or to cooperate with state institutions. For me, two plays are indicative in this situation: "Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful times" directed by Roza Sarkisian at the First Theater and "Horizon 200" directed by Elena Apchel at the Lesi Theater. Both plays were staged in 2018 in Lviv. Today, the independent sector still has an influence on the development of Ukrainian theater, but needs a different definition, as it has undergone many changes.

Contrasting the generation of "good twenty-year-olds" from the time of the Revolution of Dignity with the generation of "good twenty-year-olds" who created the "young theater" described by theater critic Hanna Lypkivska (the studio movement of the late 80-90s of the last century, "young theater" is the term of Lesya Kurbas), it is worth paying attention on the similarities and differences of these phenomena. Similar will be "undergroundness" and opposition to "dead" and irrelevant forms of theatrical art: "...in the 80s and 90s, young artists condemn the "official theater" and established forms of surrounding life to live out their age and die a natural death, and at the same time go into internal emigration," writes Lypkivska. She then gives an interesting comparison that twenty years before the studio movement, a similar protest was caused by "disagreement with the 'double morality' that prevailed in a society separated from the world by an 'iron curtain' with ideological pressure." The "young director" herself struggled "with a total crisis of trust in real, everyday life as such and individual resistance to it with the help of the theater, which becomes in such a "coordinate system" not at all a "mirror for society", not a "chair" [.. .], and a kind of means for the artist to defend his own sovereignty".

It is somewhat surprising how the formulations describing the processes of thirty years ago fit the description of the processes of today. After all, we understand that changes have taken place, but describing them we repeat seemingly the same ideas. I think the difference will lie in the way of communication, networking of people of the profession and institutions, management, artistic language and in the possibilities with which the artist defends his own, and today also state sovereignty.


Unlike the "young theater", which worked more with classical works, millennials have the opportunity to express their thoughts more accurately, because playwrights become active participants in the theatrical process. Today, cooperation with playwrights makes it possible to shift the focus of work from texts to work with themes, because there is an opportunity to describe processes and phenomena, and not to select an existing story for them, which is far from always correct. These and other structural changes in the theater and the environment in which it developed led to greater social and political involvement of artists. Today, Ukrainian theater without a clear political position has no right to exist. After all, on the other side of the scale is the absence of Ukrainian society.

The opinions of theater actors with whom I had the opportunity to communicate about the present are roughly similar. I will voice them through a quote from the playwright and director Dmytro Levytskyi: "If we take the nineties, the beginning of the 2000s, then it was a time when Ukrainian artists worked with various bodily practices, through which they changed their consciousness. After 2014, I observed artists' attempts to work with the topic of Ukraine's place on the map of Europe, with the understanding of identity. The creators of the theater made attempts to influence geopolitics through a cultural product. In a sense, the artists became political or cultural ambassadors and tried to resist the Russian aggression that began in 2014. And it was the right way, because the February 24 invasion only confirmed the danger that existed."

Work with the topic of Ukrainian identity will probably remain relevant for a long time, because this identity has been mutilated beyond recognition in some regions of Ukraine. What it is, or what it should be, is a question that depends entirely on the Ukrainian elites. The only thing that can be said now is that it will definitely oppose the "Russian measure" as much as possible. Therefore, Russian literature, post-colonial kitsch (sharovarshchyna), "quiet bureaucracy", etc. - these are all the remnants of the Soviet interior, which are being replaced by new ways of organizing and articulating reality.

In my opinion, emancipatory values play an important role here. So, for example, in May 2022, the International Institute of Sociology published the following data: "In Ukraine, over the past six years, the number of those who have a negative attitude towards LGBT people has decreased by one and a half times, from 60.4% to 38.2%, and four times the number of those who have a positive attitude towards LGBT has increased, from 3.3% to 12.8%, and one and a half times the number of those who are indifferent, from 30.7% to 44.8%." As for feminist practices, today the history of Ukrainian culture cannot be written without mentioning Yulia Fediv (Director of the UKF from 2018-2021), Olga Puzhakovska (Director of the Lviv Theater named after Lesya Ukrainka since 2017), Iryna Podolyak (author of changes to legislative acts regarding "introduction of the contractual form of work in the field of culture and the competitive procedure for the appointment of managers of state and communal cultural institutions", 2016), Oksana Cherkashina (theater and film actress), Olesya Ostrovska-Lyuta (director of the "Mystetsky Arsenal" complex - since 2016 ), Oksana Dudko (historian who created the theater festivals "Ladder" - 2004 and "Drama.UA" - 2010) and many others. (Although feminism is not an attempt to turn the patriarchal world inside out, that is what it sometimes looks like in practice). Rather, it is about empathy and respect for what is not in our individual experience. And it is precisely in reliving the experience of another that I see one of the tasks of theatrical (as well as any other) art.

The next important innovation is the networking and communication of artists. In the post-Soviet structure, which failed with every revolution, networking took place through corruption schemes: you could connect to the network through "your own". In 2004, when Oksana Dudko approached a reputable theater manager with a proposal to hold a theater festival, she heard the answer: "You don't understand anything about theater. You have to be able to even set up a chair for an actor." Iryna Podolyak, who was a representative of the city government, commented on her motivation for cooperation with the "Drama.UA" festival as follows: "When there is a person who has an idea that does not need to be motivated, unlike budget workers, then why not help them?!" The main change in networking is the principle of meritocracy, which today is still a new development rather than a principle for the majority.

Regarding innovations in aesthetics, no matter what the theater is in its artistic direction, I would like to express only a wish in the words of the Polish theater actress Joanna Wichowska: "It is worth problematizing aesthetics, and not aestheticizing problematics." After all, aesthetics is a tool for revealing the design of the production, not an end in itself.

Work in progress

"In this new reality, where theaters have become shelters and volunteer centers, two things oppress me the most: internal strife and an unpleasant smell. But the smell will evaporate"... I think that the author of this quote was wrong. Do you know the myth about King Augius? He had stables that had not been cleaned for years. The king's cattle did not die or get sick, because he had such a special blessing from Apollo (we follow the vertical connections in the construction of the social network). But this did not apply to the surrounding areas, where all living things died from ammonia and stench. If it weren't for Hercules, who directed the river in the stables (it's also interesting where the new river channel took all this manure), then Augius would have poisoned the kingdom of Elis with stench for a long time. There was also not without quarrels, because the king refused to fulfill the promise to Hercules: to give a tenth of the cattle. After which there was a war. Then there were many more wars. And so, today we have our Augians, and our war (or our wars?).

You should not waste time trying to identify specific people in the image of Augius. Of course, in your version of the interpretation of the myth, it will not be you, just as in the version of the author of the article, it is not him: we mostly want to recognize ourselves in the storylines of positive charismatic heroes. Nevertheless, I suggest you take a closer look at your desktop, your news feed in social networks, the interior of your home, the results of your actions: all our everyday life and professional realization are the result of the manifestation of our imaginary world and invisible artifacts that can be conventionally called values. They create the reality around us and at the same time are its measure. Just as before the existence of the metric system, people measured the sizes of physical objects with their bodies: finger, cream, foot, cubit, fathom - so today we measure the world with our own values and our experience. It is not certain that this system always indicates the correct number. And I doubt that an ideal measurement system exists at all. After all, the world of semantic constructions is a dynamic substance that is difficult to measure.

Continuing this logic and adding a bit of so-called "art" to it (after all, what do we call art and why?), it is worth asking: does my personal taste have the right to determine the level of theatrical life of the community to which I belong? But this is more of a rhetorical question. Rhetorical for various reasons. Even among like-minded people, there are differences in tastes, values, in the vision of what the theater should be, what stories people of the same community want to hear in the theater and what stories they want to tell. Today, my story is about how Ukrainian society was transformed from post-Soviet to civil society. Well, it was transformed: society is in a state of work in progress, but while something is changing for the better, in other places we observe stagnation. You can see how in the theater environment they talk about the responsibility of the artist, talk about active citizenship both in life and on the stage, talk about the importance of the document in the theater, about emancipatory values and everything else that was described in the "new formation" section. But in ten years, a new generation will come and tell their own stories, different from this one. Perhaps they will deny everything that is written here. They will say: "You, grandfather, have confused something. What you call democracy is not really democracy." Maybe it will be like that someday. What about today? I remembered: the smell will not dissipate by itself.

P.S. Drafts of the publication appeared as a result of discussions during the course of lectures by theater history researcher Maigil Fowler "Money and Muse: An Introduction to Cultural History" and "Postcolonial Studies" and "Contemporary Theater Contexts" by theater scholar, professor Maya Garbuzyuk.


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