Boom Arts: puppets from Kiev

The Portland producing company brings Ukraine's Teatr-Pralnia to town for a 10-day dash of innovative song, theater, puppetry and culture

In the Paris Theatre in Portland, Oregon, voices break through the darkness in a traditional Ukrainian arrangement. The lights come up on the five members of Teatr-Pralnia, all dressed in mustardy overalls. Next to each of them is a small faceless puppet dressed in the same outfit. A kick drum thumps, the group grabs their instruments, and the stage becomes a whirling machine of music.

The song has the driving force of a dance number but the lyrics feel discordant. “Hello everybody,” shouts one of the performers. “Hello from Kiev. Breaking news, 17 people were killed by Hurricane Michael!” A string of unrelated tragic and benign news stories is presented with smiling faces. “Let’s dance!” she shouts. The constant terrors of the world we live in and the desire to go numb. Which is how it feels a lot of the time.

From left: Kateryna Petrashova, Nadiia Golubtsova, Marichka Shtyrbulova, Marusia Ionova of Teatr-Pralnia at the Paris Theatre. Photo: Friderike Heuer

This show, part of Boom Arts‘ 2018-2019 season of international performance themed “a festive revolution,” ran in Portland for two weekends in October. During the company’s 10 days here its members also presented an event at Multnomah County Central Library and did workshops in the community. A young company, Teatr-Pralnia (in English, “Laundry Theater”) was formed when five friends (Igor Mytalnykov, Kateryna Petrashova, Nadiia Golubtsova, Marusia Ionova, and Marichka Shtyrbulova) graduated from Kyiv Theatre University in 2015. Though they all came from different parts of Ukraine the group had become close through their schooling, where the studied puppetry. After graduation they saw two options: Go to grad school and try to do professional theater in the state-run theaters, or make their own art on their own terms. They chose the latter, much to the consternation of their parents.

This was just one year after the Euromaiden Revolution in Ukraine. When then-president Viktor Yanukovych made overtures to move the country away from the European Union and toward the Russian Federation, hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets of Kiev for five days. Counter-protests flared in other regions. More than 100 people, mostly protesters, died during the unrest. Yanukovych fled to Russia and a new government came to power. It seemed the country would be reborn again. Then Russia annexed Crimea.

In this new Ukraine the group wanted to make new theater. There was no one who could guide them in this. “Our work required a leap of faith,” said Shtyrbulova. “No Plan B.” Though they were not trained musicians they knew they wanted music to be part of their work. So they took up instruments, teaching themselves to play. For the first year of their existence they were mainly street performers.

“One of our first real shows was a street performance at International Theatre Day. We had a small repertoire, only four songs, but we went anyway and played those songs over and over.” Performing in public put them in front of lots of people and they slowly began to build an audience.

“Not just an audience, but our audience,” said Ionova. People interested in art that blurred the borders. The group also met a lot of people who helped them along the way, providing equipment, tech support, rehearsal space, and design. For their next step they set their sights on Gogol Fest, a huge festival of theater, music, film, literature, and art founded by famed director Vladislav Troitskyi.

Marichka Shtyrbulova and puppet. Photo: Friderike Heuer

Shtyrbulova went to Troitskyi’s theater, Center of Contemporary Art DAKH, and managed to find her way into a meeting with him. “I said I was an actress and I could sing a little. So he asked me to sing. Then he told me that we was rehearsing a show and asked me to be in it.” When the show was over Troitskyi asked her what was next for her and she told him she had a group. A man familiar with Teatr-Pralnia excitedly jumped in, showing Troitskyi a YouTube video of their performance. Troitskyi told her to bring the group in the next day. They told him what they were interested in and he told them he had an idea. A show combining their background with puppetry and interest in music. He would be traveling for a month and when he got back they could show him what they came up with.

“It was hard to start,” said Ionova. “We didn’t know what to do.” But they wrote two songs, one that is still in TseSho? and presented the work to Troitskyi. “Let’s start rehearsing,” he told them.

A lot of the devising process revolved around Troitskyi asking the members of group to talk about how they felt each day, what was worrying them, or what they were happy about. This dialogue helped create the ideas of the show, though not always. “Sometimes you can’t say what came first,” said Shtyrbulova. “Sometimes the music came first. Vlad would say that he wants to hear a cello and Marusia would start improvising. It’s like real life.” They worked individually and as a group, meeting occasionally with Troitskyi, who would give them suggestions. One of the first was the use of the group’s puppetry background to create miniature versions of themselves.

During the show the group often brings out the puppets or shows videos with the puppets interacting with the world. It gives them an in to the show. “People can project themselves onto the puppets,” said Shtyrbulova. It also allows the group to pose questions: “They look like children and children are never afraid to express their emotions or ask questions.”

This is used to great effect during the show when Shtyrbulova asks her puppet to recite the alphabet. The stage becomes very still and quiet as she uses the puppet to speak. “B. Banana. Berries. Bubble Gum. Baby. Boy. Bomb. Body Armor. Bottle. Blood. Bullet.” The cello plays mournfully underneath, creating an unsettling feeling.

From left: Kateryna Petrashova, Nadiia Golubtsova, Marichka Shtyrbulova, Marusia Ionova. Photo: Friderike Heuer

The group jokes that the show’s title, TseSho?, which translates to “What’s That?” refers to the genre of the art. Somewhere between theater and music. But it also succinctly captures the idea of the show: the questioning nature of a generation coming of age in uncertain times.

During the show there’s a sense of incredible energy but also uncertainty. A new generation finding its voice. Onstage the actors’ personas struggle with what is real. Is social media real? Is politics real? Is the news real? Ukraine has been dealing with the phenomenon of “fake news” since the Euromaiden Revolution.

“We don’t want to be political,” said Shtyrbulova. “The show is about being human. But being human in society means you’re connected to nationality, self-identity, with geography. All of these make you. Everything is connected. Including politics.” Except for mention of Oleg Sentsov, a Crimean artist arrested on false charges, no political figures, national or international, are named in the production. The show feels both specific to these performers on stage and relatable to American audiences: “It’s about our reactions to what’s happening around us.”

It definitely resonated with representatives of Center Stage, a public diplomacy initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, who happened to see them in Kiev on the opening night of TseSho?. The group felt even more nervous than normal knowing they were there, but the invitation to America came a month later. That connection with Center Stage brought them to the attention of Ruth Wikler, producer and curator at Boom Arts, and eventually brought them to Portland a year later: Teatr-Pralnia is one of five ensembles from Egypt and Ukraine being sponsored by Center Stage on American tours this year. “We never could have imagined anything like this happening when we started the group,” said Ionova.

When it came to the question of how to adapt the show for American audiences they didn’t change much. Most of the songs are the same, but some of the arrangements have changed during the year between learning they were accepted and the beginning of the tour. They had already been writing songs in English, so they created some projections to translate some of the Ukrainian. “People in America understand the English songs more obviously,” said Mytalnykov. “But they seem to like to puzzle the show together.”

Puppet power: Nadiia Golubtsova and Marichka Shtyrbulova, with Igor Mytalnykov in background. Photo: Friderike Heuer

For the group, experiencing American audiences has been the biggest change. “We have different theater culture,” said Mytalnykov. “Here people are very open and aren’t afraid to feel how they want. They’re interested. They give you energy. In Ukraine they tend to hide their emotions. If they like something they keep a straight face. After the show they’ll say they liked it, which surprises us, because it looks like they don’t like it.”

“We really appreciate Center Stage and Boom Arts for this opportunity,” said Ionova. “To be in dialogue with another country. I hope that people from America will come and share their art with our nation.”

This tour won’t be the end of TseSho?, or even the final version of the show. Getting feedback from an international audience has already sparked a lot of ideas for the group. There are already a few concerts lined up upon their return from the States. “The show is eternal,” says Shtyrbulova. “We’ll change it based on our mood, or what’s happening in the world. We’re always writing new songs. So we’ll keep working on this.”

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  • Boom Arts’ next show will be a presentation of previous and in-progress works by the legendary New York performance artist Penny Arcade, the weekend of November 29 at Imago Theatre.
  • This season also marks the tenure of a new interim executive director, Kamla Hurst, who previously sat on the board for Boom Arts.

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