Exodus and the Autobiography of War at Tbilisi International Festival
From the first day of Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre, which ran in Georgia between 27 September and 2 October 2022, I realized that Georgia has an intense relationship with the past. One of the festival’s venues, an old factory called Open Space, produced a unique experience for its guests with its dilapidated walls, broken windows, and the things stored in the rooms. Open Space lives with its past: it was once glorious, but it does not hide its fragility now.
Exodus, which was staged at Open Space, researched new ways of performing by bringing together autobiographical narratives shaped by themes of war and migration. It intrigued me, as I often think about the relationship between autobiography and place in my work as a writer and dramaturg. I thought about the concept of microhistory a lot while watching Exodus. The performance told how the heavy experience of war affected people’s lives using a microhistorical approach that tells stories in a fragmented way. A history benefits from subjective experiences and enables audiences to find the counterparts of grand narratives that seem to be uncontrollable or outside of “us.” The historical narrative in Exodus did not include heroism, revolutions, or familiar war images. The performance placed each narrator’s story in a different part of the stage on the third floor of Open Space. It felt more human and realistic. That’s why I wanted to talk to director Mikheil Charkviani as soon as the performance ended. Below, you will find our conversation about both Open Space and Exodus.
Yaşam Özlem Gülseven: Open Space was one of the spaces that impressed me the most during the festival. It was both an exhibition and performance space. When was it founded, and how long you have been a part of it?
Mikheil Charkviani: Open Space was founded by Davit Khorbaladze, Anna Gurgenidze, and me in 2016. Our aim was to create space for experimental artists who are trying to find new ways of making art, and we wanted to connect artists from different fields of art to each other and create new collaborative processes. In the very beginning, we had no space, and different art spaces such as theatres, nightclubs, and art galleries shared their spaces for our performances and rehearsals. We even had our performance Parents Meeting in different flats in Tbilisi. Also, we toured many performances abroad.
After two years we found an abandoned Soviet factory building out of the city center and decided to make our home space there. It was absolutely destroyed, full of garbage, with no windows, floor, or anything. So we started to recreate the space and spent two years on the work, as we were not supported by the government but had the huge support of friends and people who often visited our performances. After a huge work and help from friends, local businesses, and international funds, we have managed to have our own space, and we already try to share it with others.
Because I had no power in me to create the fiction of war while the real war kills so many people. I could not find my function as a theatre artist.
Yaşam: The relation between space and performance always intrigues me. Did Open Space’s venue inspire you as you crafted autobiographical narratives in Exodus?
Mikheil: The building is a huge inspiration—not only for Exodus but for any performance by me—because it is Soviet inheritance. It is an old Soviet factory building, and mostly we research our social and political environment, which is influenced by Soviet inheritance. So yes, the building is often the inspiration for me and it often gives me different directions for my works.
Yaşam: Can you describe the process for Exodus a little bit? How was working with personal stories for you?
Mikheil: Before deciding to make Exodus I used to work on Persians by Aeschylus, which is the oldest surviving of all Greek plays. It is about war. Later the war started in Ukraine, and I could not continue working on this play because I had no power in me to create the fiction of war while the real war kills so many people. I could not find my function as a theatre artist. I could not talk about war because I felt it was wrong. So I decided to share my platform with those who have experienced war and let them share their personal stories.
Later in the process, I found out that those four wars—the Georgian Civil War (1991-1993), War in Abkhazia (1992-1993), South Ossetia War (1991-1992), Russo-Georgian War (2008)—which happened after my birth, affected literally everyone—even those who were not warring migrants or who never faced battle. It is the greatest cruelty in the world; it has ruined everyone’s life. So I invited people of different ages and professions to share their stories, and we worked a lot with the speakers. I nearly lived with these people for two months. I often visited their homes, working places, schools, hospitals, etc., and we all together created different structures for each speaker. Some of them have presented different objects, sounds, videos, photos, and body positions from their stories. So in general, I tried to create a new, personal perspective of the history of independent Georgia.
Yaşam: You talk about reconstructing recent history with personal stories. For example, when a performer shows some videos from her childhood as she is talking about political events, it gives us a chance to relate the political to the personal.
When we spoke after the performance, you said that you were not “directing” here. What role did you have in the performance?
Mikheil: Mostly I tried to assist these people. I tried to help them use this platform and share their stories. I worked to create a safe, sterile space for them, to prevent their stories from being victimized or stigmatized. I was a reminder, a person who recalls old memories and feelings and finds theatrical material in each story.
My point was to show how the environment affects one’s life. During COVID and the war, I found a website www.worldometers.info, which is live statistics of people being born or dying. I felt that everything went to numbers and behind those numbers were real people with real feelings and personalities, so I tried to translate those statistics into human stories. We even used those live statistics in the performance.
Yaşam: On the stage children played with headphones in the sandbox while vital statistics were reflected on the screen. This design impressed me a lot. It was a very delicate approach, especially for children to stay out of the stories told and have their own space. What kind of a relationship did you establish between this design and autobiographical narratives?
There is no hierarchy between these stories; they all make room for each other.
Mikheil: On my birthday, 4 April, photos and videos from Bucha, Ukraine broke me as a person. I was destroyed to see people killed on the streets of Bucha, a man killed on his bicycle, and people in sewage. I imagined that children who survived death saw all these, and I felt this is unfair. So I decided to create a playground on the stage–a safe space for children. They wear headphones, listen to their favorite music, and have fun, reminding us that we as a society are responsible and they are not. So they must not listen to those heartbreaking stories all the time. I was scared that one of them takes the headphone off and hears all these, but that never happened. They couldn’t hear us, but we could hear their noise, sounds, laughter, etc.
Yaşam: Many performers tell their life stories using different parts of the stage with an object. There is no hierarchy between these stories; they all make room for each other. Are there any dramaturgical choices made when choosing these stories for the showcase? I mean, how do you decide which performance to show? Do you take into account how the stories relate to each other?
Mikheil: For the eleventh chapter of Exodus, I decided to show three different women of different ages and citizenship with the same experience. Three of them were war refugees and had very different stories but very similar feelings and emotions. Lorri Ferro is ninety-seven-year-old lady who ran to the United States after World War II, and she still can not feel herself at home in America. Nana Anaria fled from Abkhazia in 1992; she lives in Tbilisi and hopes to go back to her hometown Sokhumi. She still can not be unchained from her roots. Danna Kysla is also a war refugee from Kyiv, Ukraine, and she goes the same way.
Also, I had two students showing how wars affected their life though they have never faced any of them. I tried to use this platform to talk about the war to international society and remind them that wars kill thousands of people every day. It is the biggest cruelty that humans ever created.
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