Virlana Tkacz about American theater, Ukrainian jazz and cultural diplomacy during the war Author: Alina Chernii

Virlana Tkacz is an American theater director with Ukrainian roots, poet, translator, theater expert. She creates a worthy artistic image of Ukraine “on the other side of the ocean”. Virlyana is known for her projects such as Yara’s Forest Song, Light from the East, Virtual Souls, 1917-2017: Tychyna, Zhadan and Dogs, etc. She is also the founder of student theater workshops at Harvard and led them at institutes in Kyiv and Kharkiv, at the University of New York, Toronto, Bucknell, Winnipeg, Penn State, Bishkek, Ulan Bator and Ulan Ude.

Thanks to her, a large part of Ukrainian culture has become “alive” for Americans, and the traditions of Les Kurbas and the Kharkiv theater “Berezil” continue in the modern New York experimental theater “La MaMa”. In the spring of 2023, motifs of Ukrainian jazz from the score to the performance “Berezol” by Yuliy Meitus will be heard on its stage, with an updated text by Serhiі Zhadan (Virlyana was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Literary Translation Fellowship for her translations of Serhiy Zhadan’s poems. In addition, she translated the poetry of Pavlo Tychyna, Oksana Zabuzhko, Attila Mogilny, Oleg Lyshega, Viktor Neborak, Andrii Sereda, Kateryna Babkina, etc.).

Virlana, your Ukrainian is wonderful! You were born in America and visited Ukraine only a few times already at a conscious age to implement your own artistic projects, right?

Thank you! Yes, that’s right. But I have been to Ukraine more than 30 times: since 1990, I have been coming there almost every year.

Your parents had Ukrainian roots and you went to the school of Ukrainian studies in America, started by your grandfather. What traditions and ideas of upbringing were in your family? Why did you choose the idea of promoting art, particularly Ukrainian art, for your future?

Virlana Tkacz: I grew up in Newark, which is like the Left Bank of Kyiv. We were part of the New York community to a certain extent, but we also formed our own. This was especially noticeable during the third wave of emigration, to which my mother and her parents belonged. Before that, the Ukrainian Catholic Church won the right to its property, and the third wave of immigration formed a whole system of various schools and organizations around its churches. That’s why I went to a Ukrainian Catholic school. But the most important thing for me is that she had Ukrainian studies and a layer не впевнена стосовно цього слова.

My family was interested in literature. Grandfather, for example, loved Tychyna very much and said: “Do you want a fairy tale, children? Or do you want Tychyna?” (smiles). We loved listening to these poems. Therefore, to be fair, what I am interested in now is entirely his merit.

Virlana Tkacz in Art Arsenal, Ukraine
Virlana Tkacz in Art Arsenal, Ukraine

When I was a teenager, my interests changed a bit: I was in an American environment, I wanted to be an American director – for me, the world was much bigger. Separation from home is a very important phase in growing up. I remember I specifically went to Bennington College, which was particularly focused on radical experimental stuff. And when she went to a master’s degree at Columbia University (Columbia University in the City of New York – A. Ch.), she had a huge production of O’Neill All God’s Children Have Wings.

One day the head of my course said: “You have to write about a certain director.” I said, “Oh, I’ll write about the O’Neill directors”. He answered: “And you will finish in 25 years! Maybe there was some Ukrainian director? Write about him.” And I went to the library and thought: “Grandfather told me about someone…”. That’s how I remembered Les Kurbas: I found two books there and decided to write a paper about him over the weekend. But I’m still writing about all of this. That’s why you have to be ready for all eventualities.

How do you identify yourself?

I am from New York.

And do you identify yourself as Ukrainian too?

I don’t think about it much. Despite the fact that I work a lot with Ukrainian material.

Actually, that’s why I ask: you do a lot of things in order to present a decent cultural image of Ukraine outside its borders.

Virlana Tkacz:But I really don’t think about it that way. My goal is a bit different: first of all, it is to share Ukrainian material with the employees in Yara (Yara Arts Group from La MaMa Experimental Theater in New York – A. Ch.).

1994. Yaras Forest Song. Photo by Watoku Ueno
1994. Yaras Forest Song. Photo by Watoku Ueno

I know that some of your productions are bilingual (English and Ukrainian). How do Americans perceive this phenomenon and, in particular, the Ukrainian language and culture?

Virlana Tkacz:To be honest, in the same way as productions with Japanese or Buryat themes are perceived. We have our own “built” audience that attends all of our performances – people who are interested in multiculturalism. However, the nicest compliment was written for Forest Song (based on the extravaganza drama by L. Ukrainka – A. Ch.).

I will repeat the feedback of our audience regarding the bilingualism of my productions: “After some time I forgot that I don’t understand what half of them are talking about.” And this is the whole meaning of theater: actors speak in a language, but they act with their bodies. They play with the audience’s reaction.

How do you usually get an idea for a play?

Virlana Tkacz: Initially, I staged ready-made plays, since I founded Yara in 1990. But now I’m more drawn to what I don’t know yet.

Very often everything starts with a poem: actually, that’s how I started translating from Ukrainian to English. However, we have a different goal: to make not just a translation but to make it sound as “natural” as possible from the mouths of young Americans. That is completely different from literal correctness. And the goal is accomplished when the audience listens, understands the meaning and really understands what is happening. The material should become “transparent” to the public. It is difficult, because you still need to make sure that the language does not become a barrier, or that the translation does not become just a retelling. And we constantly change translations during rehearsals. Perhaps that is why they are so good because they are perfected by speech.

The internationality of your projects is truly impressive! What methods do you use to find actors and theater group members?

Virlana Tkacz: First of all, we do not have permanent theater groups: we start each project from scratch (although we often collaborate with the same actors several times on their own initiative).

Radio 477. Photo by Pavlo Terekhov
Radio 477. Photo by Pavlo Terekhov

I remember when Ellen Stewart, who is the head of our theater, said: “Don’t look for the same thing. You’ll never find it. Be open to something really different.” And it’s very true. I’m just trying to keep an open mind. For example, in our original play Forest Song, Mavka was played by a Korean woman: she was very fragile, but with great strength inside. It made for a very interesting contrast in her role. But this actress got a role in a Korean film and went home (she became a huge star later, by the way). We were in despair: we did not know who to look for in her place. But out of the blue, one African-American woman who had a vocal range of about five octaves just appeared. That’s when Forest Song became a song. It was fantastic!

Totally agree! Being open to everything is what allows you to find incredible things in life.

 So how do you write a poem: it comes to you by itself. And when you start to write on purpose – that’s how it turns out (laughs).

Several years ago, you came to Ukraine together with Anthony Coleman (New York composer and jazzman – А. Сh.), who played the Ukrainian composer’s jazz and his own improvisations with young musicians from Kharkiv at the Art Arsenal. Tell us more about this project.

Virlana Tkacz: It all started with the fact that I found Meitus’s score (it is about the popular pop revue Hello on Wave 477 by Yulii Serhiyovych Meitus – a Ukrainian composer of Jewish origin; he was the leader of one of the first jazz bands of Ukraine – A. Ch.). But it was not well signed, so no one knew what it was. I remember the score was rough. However, I don’t understand notes at all, so I started asking everyone about them. I made a copy, came to New York, showed it to Anthony and asked: “What do you think it is?”. He said, “Oh, it’s a musical from the 20s! Did you get it somewhere?”. I replied that I had brought it from Kharkiv. He didn’t believe me right away. However, he immediately understood what it is.

Then we started thinking about what to do with it. After all, it is a completely different thing than from the 30-40s – it is a very interesting thing! The score was written for 18 instruments. And this is not surprising, because in those days most jazz groups were big. Actually, then we asked them to help us find musicians: they were “Zhadan and Dogs” (a Ukrainian rock band from Kharkiv, formed in 2000 – A. Ch.) and other orchestra players from Kharkiv. This is a performance about Kharkiv, which is why we wanted musicians from this city. We went to Kyiv and spent 2-3 days rehearsing with Anthony. That was amazing!

However, there was a problem. There were about 100 words left in the score. We didn’t find anything else, so Zhadan (Serhiy Zhadan – Ukrainian writer, translator, public figure, frontman of the bands Zhadan and Dogs and Liniya MannerheimA. Ch.) decided that he wanted to write something on his own before that – something new about Kharkiv.

To be more precise, there was a renewal of the work, right? Was it just an inspiration to create something new? Are there any musical motifs from the score used there?

Yes, many melodies are saved, and many are “inspired”, like samples (several phrases are used).

I saw the information about the production of this work on your theater’s website recently. Was it just part of it, or was the project finished?

Virlana Tkacz: Yes, it was a part with an improvised ending (laughs). But already in the last month, several new scenes have appeared. We are still thinking about how to finish the production. It’s a musical, so you can’t do it in a few days: you need certain stages to understand what it might be about. This is a completely different process from a play that you can sit down and write in its entirety.

Will this musical be staged in Ukraine?

No one knows. We were supposed to be in Kharkiv in March to work on the second stage. But history had different plans. It is difficult to say anything for sure.

Radio 477. Photo by Pavlo Terekhov

We cannot ignore today’s situation in Ukraine. There is a full-scale invasion of Russian troops on its territory. First of all, it is very significant that you responded to Russian aggression from the beginning of hostilities in Donbas. Your theatrical production 1917/2017: Tychyna, Zhadan and Dogs certainly makes sense in comparing the terrible events of the 20th century and the war in Ukraine, which began in 2014. Did you foresee a full-scale invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine this year?

Virlana Tkacz: No. And in 2014, I couldn’t even think about it. We even worked in Donetsk in 2013 October – we made a big production about the history of this city in Isolation (an art center in Donetsk until 2014 – A. Ch.). It was a strong and dark performance of Deep Dreams. In the spring, we wanted to stage it again in Donetsk, but we moved the project to Kyiv, it is clear why. At the same time, we kept in touch with the “original” participants of the play and were horrified by all the things they told us about the war in Eastern Ukraine.

“My position is to create and spread serious criticism about the ‘high culture’ of Russian art. Ukrainians should not just behave like offended and stubborn children, but be able to explain why it is necessary to put Russian culture on hold”.

Instead, “Tychyna, Zhadan and Dogs” is more about poetry. In general, many of the most important artistic things that “talk” about the war are not immediate responses. Art sometimes rethinks such things for a long time. However, the result in such cases often turns out to be much deeper, more deliberate: you are no longer guided only by emotions, and the contours of the situation are more visible.

In your opinion, is the language of the art powerful in the dialogue between Ukraine and the world in today’s war? What artistic practice really makes sense in this context?

Yes, definitely. I think it is very important to simply continue to create this “dialogue”. It is necessary to continue to speak in any way. But every time do it more qualitatively and thoughtfully.

Now I observe that the world is slowly starting to adapt to the situation in Ukraine. Because Russian artists are returning to the big stages, collaborationism with Russia is gaining new momentum, and for some international cultural communities, it is still a shock that the image of Russia as a “strong state” with a “strong culture” is so fragile. What is your position regarding Russian culture at this time?

Virlana Tkacz: Nowadays, we are beginning to see that Ukrainian art is perceived through the prism of defending one’s name against the empire. Accordingly, now more than ever, in Russian culture, their imperialism is becoming more and more obvious. And my position is to create and spread serious criticism about the “high culture” of Russian art. Ukrainians should not just behave like offended and stubborn children, but be able to explain why it is necessary to put Russian culture on hold. Because, unfortunately, most people don’t know how to do that.

What are your artistic plans for the future?

Right now, all I can think about is our show Radio 477, which is coming up very soon on August 20th at Performance Space 21, Chatman, New York (the premiere is planned for spring 2023).

True, we still have a presentation of a new book. Recently, we created several virtual events about Ukrainian-American poets, which lasted as long as two evenings. We did not expect this at all, because there were many new artists. And now we have published a book with their poems.

Virlana Tkacz. "Three Wooden Trunks" Cover
Virlana Tkacz. “Three Wooden Trunks” Cover

By the way, my own collection of poems about my relatives when they first moved to America has also been published. This process started at home during covid. I had a lot of time, completely different demands of the day, and sometimes it seemed that things even started talking to me (laughs). But we should not panic at such times. That’s how I started to deal with the past and remember all the stories told by my relatives. The book was symbolically called Three Wooden Trunks. These are the three trunks my mother’s family brought here. They’re still in my room.

Read also:

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• Timothy Hoft and Virko Baley: pre-concert talk on Ukrainian contemporary piano music

About the Author

The Claquers is a Ukrainian online magazine devoted to classical music that unites a group of music critics with the mission to foster a critical conversation about art music in Ukraine and beyond. The Claquers organization was founded in June 2020 by musicologist Stas Nevmerzhytskyi and three colleagues: musicologist Dzvenyslava Safian, music theorist Liza Sirenko, and cultural critic Oleksandr Ostrovskyi.

The publication’s provocative name suggests the context in which The Claquers was conceived. After two previous generations of proactive critics who had careers in education and cultural promotion, classical music criticism was limited to either positive reviews or no reviews at all. A fresh and uncensored eye on events in classical music life in Ukraine was needed to shake up the musical community and complete the country’s classical music ecosystem.

Unlike in western Europe and North America, art music audiences in Ukraine are much younger. The collective of writers with The Claquers is also young, and has taken on the task of explaining to these new listeners why a long tradition of classical music in Ukraine exists, and how it became a part of today’s cultural life. As a group The Claquers considers its main goals: to educate about contemporary classical Ukrainian music, to build bridges with popular culture by publishing about diverse musical genres and other arts (such as music in literature or in film), to expand the critical tools of music criticism with audio podcasts, and to cultivate audiences abroad via an English version of the website.

The Claquers was made possible by generous funding that enabled its establishment and is sustained by the generosity of donors on Patreon. This singular and engaged Ukrainian online hub devoted to classical music continues to engage people in this music and invite new authors.

Stas Nevmerzhytskyi (ФОП Станіслав Невмержицький), individual proprietor

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Location of a individual proprietor:
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