Saturday, January 25, 2014

When the government closes your theatre

In September 2013, I visited Festival of the Wandering Hanger in Lutsk, Ukraine. The theatre is now being shut down.

What I saw there changed me as a theatre artist. For the first time, I was present at a festival that did not seem to be just there for the benefit of profit-raising and CV building. I saw something very simple, but that seems to be kind of lost now - an authentic collective energy around art.

What stunned me the most was that this festival seemed to have the full support of the local council - to the extent that they had co-operated with the organisers, local amateur theatre group GaRmYdEr, to stage the visiting plays in various locations in the city. So Garmyder took theatre to a local hardware superstore, the underground ruins of a church within the walls of Lutsk Castle, and an abandoned ex-Soviet nightclub.

Like the rest of Ukraine, Garmyder have been busy lately. On the 21st of November 2013, the Euromaidan Protests began. The protests began in response to President Viktor Yanukovych suddenly withdrawing from Free Trade discussions between Ukraine and the EU. This looked rightly suspicious to many Ukrainians, as just two months earlier Russia had responded with extreme rhetoric to the advancement of Ukraine's participation in the talks, and the history of Ukraine is one littered with exploitation at the hands of its big neighbour to the East and, more recently, European invitations which carry optimism and hope.

Garmyder acted as artists should in that scenario. They produced a two-night performance 'AU!, said to millions' in response to November 30's early morning police raid, which took as its source material the social media messages of the protestors, just eleven days after the protests began.

Two months later, the response from the local government of Lutsk was to call in the head of Garmyder, Ruslana Porytska, and tell her that her position was no longer tenable as of March 16th, 2014. When asked about the future of the theatre, the council gave the response that the theatre could not continue and would be forced out of its current home in the House of Culture. When asked the reason for this, she was told that the theatre had failed to tour to local towns of the surrounding region.

To the many volunteers, workers, and artists at Garmyder, it is very clear that this is not the reason.