‘Hitting Bedrock’ Documents Struggles of Refugees From Donetsk

Donetsk, Yara Arts Group shows “Hitting Bedrock,” a new work based on first-person testimonials of refugees from Donetsk and people stranded there. La MaMa E.T.C. will present the piece February 20 to March 8 in its First Floor Theater 74A East Fourth Street, Manhattan.

Military actions in eastern Ukraine are surging anew and almost 2,000 residents have fled in the last few days alone. Artistic Director Virlana Tkacz and the artists of Yara Arts Group felt impelled to respond to the situation by mounting a new theater piece about the difficult realities of young people in Donetsk. It is based on “then and now” interviews over the past two years with young adults who initially told of their dreams for a new life in Donetsk and now describe either the rigors of refugee life in communities they have fled to or the hardships of life in Donetsk if they have remained. The playscript combines their interviews with poetry and monologues by Serhiy Zhadan, the most popular writer of the post-independence generation in Ukraine. Everything is translated into English by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps.

Hitting Bedrock
Tania Hawrylyuk and Larysa Rusnak in an earlier version of the play in Kyiv, 2014. Photo by Volodymyr Klyuzko.

Yara Arts Group typically builds its theater productions on first-hand research and workshops in Ukraine. This play began in 2013, intended to be a new theater piece for the Izolyatsia Platform for Cultural Initiatives, which was led by Luba Mykhailova and housed in an old factory complex in Donetsk. Donetsk is historically a mining town. “Underground Dreams” began with Yara Arts Group posting a note on a Donetsk website inviting people to come to Izolyatsia and talk about their personal dreams and their dreams for the city. Over 20 people, mostly young, responded and they were overwhelmingly positive toward their future in the region. They were photographed by designer Volodymyr Klyuzko for a labyrinthine installation in which their photos were displayed on giant cubes where you could hear their stories. About 200 people attended a workshop in October, 2013 and a full production was planned for June, 2014. But war intervened.

That winter, Yara Arts Group watched on their computers as protests in Kyiv led to the fall of the government which had been led by a corrupt president from Donetsk. Hopefulness was soon dispelled by the uncertainties of the military crisis, as Russian-backed separatists began an offensive to separate the Donetsk region from the rest of Ukraine. Virlana Tkacz landed in Kyiv on June 8, 2014 to resume “Underground Dreams,” but terrorists captured the Izolyatsia factory complex the day after her arrival. The Izolyatsia staff were allowed to leave with some artwork, but the premises were mined. Tkacz rendezvoused with Luba Mykhailova in Kyiv and they decided to continue their project in exile.

Tkacz and Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan (a collaborator in prior Yara shows) re-interviewed many of the Donetsk interviewees by Skype. Some were refugees in other Ukrainian cities and others were still in Donetsk. They told of a new everyday reality amidst the conflict: up to six searches at checkpoints in their morning commutes, difficulties concentrating on work with armed men running past your window, the terror of walking through a totally abandoned downtown during lunch and cold sweats induced by loud noises after a bombing raid. The reality of war was described on very personal level and excerpts of these interviews became the basis of the show. It became a piece contrasting young people’s dreams with the difficult realities of their present lives. Kyiv audiences listened to the tapes as they walked through numerous corridors leading to the Les Kurbas National Theatre Center, passing through a metal detector, watching a woman try to pack all her belongings in two small suitcases and reading projected phone texts to realize that the “good job” promised to one of the characters is to fight for the other side. A young man from the Carpathians related building twelve large wooden buildings for a vacation complex near Donetsk and a YouTube video of the complex burning became part of the show. Serhiy Zhadan added to the playscript with poetry and monologues based on the stories.

The upcoming La MaMa production is in English with new Donetsk interviews and an entire new cycle of poetry written by Zhadan, all translated by Tkacz and Wanda Phipps. The play has been renamed “Hitting Bedrock” to suggest the situation of many citizens of that former mining town-getting back to essentials when there is nowhere else to go. Enroute to the playing area in La MaMa’s First Floor Theater at 74 East 4th Street, the audience will be guided through a basement passageway where photos of the Donetsk interviewees will be seen and their actual voices will be heard.

Poet Serhiy Zhadan calls himself a “postproletarian punk” and is the most popular writer of the post-independence generation in Ukraine. His work speaks to the disillusionment, difficulties and ironies following the collapse of the Soviet Union. His readings fill large auditoriums and he performs with rock groups. Zhadan was born in Luhansk Region, today scene of the crisis in Ukraine, and lives in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine. On March 1, 2014, he was beaten by pro-Russian protesters. His assault created an international reaction. (See: The New Yorker ). Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps received a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Translation Fellowship to translate his work and their translations have appeared in American literary journals and websites (see: www.brama.com/yara/trans-ukr.html), and are included in the anthology “New European Poets” published by Graywolf Press. He collaborated with Yara Arts Group on “Underground Dreams” and several winter projects at La MaMa.

Virlana Tkacz is the founding director of Yara and has created 27 original theater pieces with the company, all of which had their premieres at La MaMa. Writing about Yara’s “Scythian Stones,” Michael Bettencourt (Off-Off Online) declared, “the performance builds what good theatre should always build: an alternate world that allows us to re-learn and reflect upon the great questions at the core of our being human.” The music for the production is composed by Julian Kytasty and features the instrumental music of the bandura, a Ukrainian stringed instrument of the lute family. A third generation bandurist born in the US, his music combines a mastery of traditional styles with a distinctly contemporary sensibility. His collaborators have included artists as diverse as Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man, pioneering klezmer revivalist Michael Alpert and composer/saxophonist John Zorn. He has worked with Yara since 1998.

The cast includes Marina Celander, Andrew Colteaux, Sean Eden, Chris Ignacio and Maria Pleshkevich. The set and lights are by Watoku Ueno. Costumes are by Keiko Obremski. Projections are by Volodymyr Klyuzko from Kyiv, who was nominated for a New York Innovative Theatre Award for his work on Yara’s “Raven.”

Since 1990 Yara Arts Group has created thirty one international collaborative cultural projects with contemporary and traditional artists from Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Siberia. These include: “Blind Sight,” about a blind Ukrainian writer who became a Japanese writer in 1914, “Circle” with Buryat artists from Siberia and Gogol Bordello, “Swan” and “Raven” based on poetry by Oleh Lysheha, “Er Toshtuk” based on a Kyrgyz epic, “Scythian Stones” with Nina and Tonia Matvienko and “Winter Light” with artists from the Carpathians. “Yara at 25: Looking Back/Moving Forward” is an exhibition currently running through March 8 at the Ukrainian Museum 222 E 6th St in New York. (www.ukrainianmuseum.org)

Yara’s theatre projects are made possible with public funds from New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and by Self-Reliance (NY) FCU, the Coca-Cola Company and the friends of Yara Arts Group.

Performances are February 20 to March 8, 2015 at La MaMa Experimental Theater, 74a East Fourth Street, Manhattan. Shows are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2:00 PM. Tickets are $18 general admission and $13 for students and seniors. Ten $10 tickets will be available to every performance on a first-come, first-served basis. The box office number is (646)430-5374 and tickets can be purchased online at www.lamama.org.