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Freedom and Theatre: An International Meditation

In the fall of 2020, bubbled in the Poconos in northeastern Pennsylvania, nineteen theatremakers from the Wilma Theater, including director, stage manager, actors, designers, a skeleton crew, and myself (serving as the project’s producer/company manager), came together to make a filmed version of Heroes of the Fourth Turning by Will Arbery. Heroes is a play about alumni from an isolated conservative Catholic college in Wyoming composed of smart, troubled, young people who speak the rhetoric of the right alongside Platonic philosophy—a collection of tortured souls verbally sparring as they finish their whiskies and deny their demons. We had been planning to produce a live production of Heroes, but the pandemic thwarted those plans. However, it still felt important to share a portrait of some people in America at the start of Trump’s presidency explored as it neared its end. (Or, at least, that was our hope; we worked through the final month of the election season, surrounded by houses with Trump signs on their front lawn.)

Little did we know that our filmed production would resonate with producers in Estonia, where they were curating their first International Freedom Theatre Festival in August 2021. The festival curators, drawing primarily from the work of their former Soviet Bloc neighbors, were interested in bringing an American perspective into the conversation, and Heroes explores some of the same forces impeding the freedoms of citizens of Russia, Belarus, and other countries. So, we packed our bags, took our COVID tests and KN95 masks, and boarded a cab, a bus, two planes, and another bus to Narva, Estonia.

With a population of fifty thousand, Narva is the fourth largest city in Estonia. It’s largest city Tallinn, comparable in size to Baltimore, feels more Scandinavian than Soviet Bloc: with its blend of old and new architecture, conspicuously absent police presence, and incredible civic services, it’s a liberal American city-dweller’s fantasy come true. Narva is situated on a river, which also acts as a border with Russia. Unlike other Estonian cities, the majority of Narva’s citizens speak Russian, watch Russian news, and want only the Russian vaccine. It is an interesting location for a freedom festival: a democratic city in a progressive country whose citizens’ language, culture, and information come from the dictator across the river.

Overseen by Vaba Lava director Mȁrt Meos and curated by European artists and producers, the festival had a three-part structure: Mornings were panels focused on the state of theatre in a given country or set of countries, including Russia, Central Asia, Ukraine, and Belarus, and Poland and Hungary. Panelists discussed the sociopolitical climate and how that climate affected their ability to make artistic work. Then, during the day, there were usually two-to-three plays, either in the Vaba Lava building or in several satellite locations. In the evening, Russian critics would speak about the work from that day in conversation with artists from those productions. These conversations were notably frank, unsparing, passionate, and thrilling—criticism as contact sport. Critiques about a production would spark a debate around big questions about the nature of our chosen art form. Audience members spoke up to defend a piece or offer their perspective on the question. The stakes felt high, but less personal than one might expect. All seemed devoted to the form and import of making great work. And then, we drank and danced all together.

Our first day at the festival, we watched our digital production on a big screen with an audience for the first time. Heroes is Chekhovian in construction: characters speak politics and philosophy to mask their longing and disintegration. They are a bunch of brilliant messes, unable to square the dogma of the Catholic church with the election of Donald Trump. Our company was able to explore these characters’ unraveling on a much more intimate scale than we normally do in our three-hundred-seat theatre in which epic sagas soar. We didn’t know how the festival audience would react to this piece—so American, so text-driven, in English with Russian subtitles. As the final credits appeared and everyone stood to leave, one young man remained seated, weeping and overcome. It struck a chord after all.

Actors on stage wearing large white cutouts of heads and boats.

Mein Kampf by Powszenchny Theater as performed at the Vaba Lava Narva Theatre Centre’s International Freedom Theatre Festival. Photo by Iija Smirnov.

There was one other film featured in the festival, also a play that was reimagined for the screen in this pandemic time: Bad Roads by Ukrainian playwright Natalya Vorozhbit. In a series of loosely, cleverly connected scenes, Vorozhbit explores the experience of living through the opaque pseudo-war between Russia and the Ukraine. Through long shots and close-ups on darkened vistas, characters surrounded by violence walk the line between human and animal; between victim and torturer.

The film focuses its lens on women in particular—or at least, with more regularity than one might expect in a war film where the soldiers are predominantly men. A teenager waits for her soldier lover to pick her up near a convenience store while her grandmother tries to talk her into coming home. A traumatized medic infuriates her colleague as they drive the body of her dead boyfriend through the desert. A woman with signs of wealth runs over a farmer’s chicken with her car and her offer to pay for it puts her in a precarious position. The performances were subtle and taut and the subject matter haunting and wrenching—an exemplary accomplishment, if difficult viewing.

The narrative style of both Bad Roads and Heroes was more exception than rule. More common were documentary-style theatre pieces derived from research, interviews, or, in one case, statistics and the living spaces of locals. People and Numbers, produced by our festival hosts Vaba Lava, was a promenade-style piece that went into different apartments around town exploring class inequality in Narva, pairing tours with statistics that illuminated the city’s high level of poverty. This piece offered a kind of intimate view of the city that we otherwise wouldn’t have had as tourists and inspired one of the more heated and compelling debates in the evening critic’s discussion about whether the piece was theatre—and what exactly theatre is in a broader sense.

The Hungarian piece Sacra Hungarica by Teater Studio K took aggressive language from Hungary’s political right as their source text. For over an hour, six people sat in chairs spewing xenophobic, racist, sexist, homophobic bile—as if embodying a Facebook comment thread. As the aggression grew, performers rose from their chairs rolling around in dirt and spam, tearing off their clothes and channeling their aggression into song and dance; a punk piece, a primal scream, an unveiling of the rage that fuels their country’s right. At times repulsive, boring, and scary, it was one of the more unrelenting pieces in the festival.

There is something very powerful about bringing people together to contemplate humanity in this way. Theatre as an embodied art form, with live experience at its center, feels more radical than ever in this time of quarantines and Twitter battles and extreme political polarization.

Error 403, produced by Belarus Free Theatre, was another exception to the non-narrative rule: it told a story with a beginning, middle, and end. What was remarkable about the piece was the fact that the story was based on an event that had occurred only one year prior: the murder of a protester in August of 2020. It was a theatrically compelling, complex, and nuanced piece to boot. The play focused on the daily life and inner turmoil of a man who may have been responsible for the protestor’s death. Said turmoil was embodied by another actor who spoke his inner thoughts while the protagonist sat stone-faced across the table from his wife or leaned into his son while they watched a soccer match. There were also moments of compelling physical staging, including a memorable dance with a punching bag. This is a company exiled from Belarus due to the politics in their productions, thought of as enemies of the state for making vital work in response to injustice in their country. They tour their theatre pieces around the world but can’t share it with their fellow citizens.

Invisible Families, another Russian piece produced by Teater Filomela, is notable in that it comes from an independent, community-based Russian theatre company—part of a relatively new movement in Russia. The artists haven’t gone through traditional Russian theatre training but come together with a shared passion for the form and the subject they’re exploring. In this case, the subject is the lives of LGBTQ+ parents in Russia and the limited rights and high level of anxiety they live with on a daily basis.

This piece was pure docudrama, a series of monologues pulled directly from interviews with LGBTQ+ parents and woven together through staging, costuming, and imagery that recalled Russian prisons. Most effective were moments where parents recounted regular challenges in parenting (the chaos of leaving the house, for example), relatable tales that highlighted the everyday humanity of people thought to be less than human by their government. Their performances were not the strongest of the festival, but they were earnest and in the evening’s conversation, the artists recounted the impact the work had on the communities who formed the subject of the work—namely LGBTQ+ parents in Russia. That is the power of being seen; of making the invisible visible.

Rovegod, a piece by Romanian company Arena & Replika Kaasprouktsioon, also sought to make the invisible visible, focusing its lens on Romanian immigrants in Italy serving as caregivers. Told as a fable or fairy tale, three women played multiple characters—primarily animals. The Romanian caregivers who were forced to leave their homes and find work in wealthier countries like Italy, were goats in this tale. Actors jumped from telling the story to embodying it. The tone was primarily playful, though it dropped into moments of real pathos and loss as these women cared for other peoples’ children and elders while their own loved ones longed for them back at home. It was gratifying in both Rovegod and Invisible Families to see a stage populated primarily by women. In contrast to representation in other Eastern European festivals I’ve attended, this festival seemed to actively seek diversity in terms of gender in its curation

An audience sits in a dark red theatre, watching actors in costume perform.

Mein Kampf by Powszechny Theater as performed at the Vaba Lava Narva Theatre Centre’s International Freedom Theatre Festival. Photo by Iija Smirnov.

By far the most exciting piece in the festival was Mein Kampf by Powszechny Theater in Poland. As a group, we were admittedly apprehensive about this piece. After several days of heavy, dark, angry work. it seemed inevitable that a staging of Hitler’s vile biography would be more of the same. But we couldn’t have been more wrong. Mein Kampf was playful, inventive, epic, and (most surprisingly of all) funny! Using a host of theatrical tools and modes (everything from the tropes of a dinner scene in an American drama to a Wagner opera to Ubu-style grotesquery), the production regurgitated the text through lenses which highlighted its absurdity and eerie familiarity. We’ve heard these words in the mouths of today’s world leaders. From the first moment when two charming young actors delivered the initial text as if it was coming out of their butts (literally dropping their pants and puppeteering their cheeks to speak), we understood we were in good hands. There was something so exciting about how exuberantly theatrical, deeply political, and still somehow more provocative than propagandistic, the piece managed to be. We didn’t want it to end. Which, given the text, was more than a little unsettling to consider.

One of the more striking images in Mein Kampf occurred during the aforementioned Wagnerian opera. Actors wore oversized cartoon drawing heads resembling Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Alexander Lukashenko, and other world leaders all along the political spectrum. They were in boats—refugees, perhaps, who sunk into the ocean one by one. It was provocative imagery, seemingly equating Democrats and demagogues. I couldn’t help but reflect on the various meditations on freedom we witnessed at Vaba Lava, the differences and similarities between our American struggles and the embattled artists from countries like Belarus, Russia​, and Ukraine (I can't stop thinking about Bad Roads these days). ​It's clear that nationalism continues to be pervasive at home and abroad; the rhetoric in Mein Kampf resonates still​.

This festival offered the opportunity to participate in conversation through and around theatre about the state of society on a global scale. There is something very powerful about bringing people together to contemplate humanity in this way. Theatre as an embodied art form, with live experience at its center, feels more radical than ever in this time of quarantines and Twitter battles and extreme political polarization. And a festival such as this, at a moment like this, could have a profound impact were its scope expanded. What would happen if American theatre artists more regularly participated in the European theatre festival system? What sorts of cross-cultural conversations and collaborations might occur? What might we learn from one another’s dramas and traumas and failings and resilience? Perhaps now is the time to find out.

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