The Game of Life

“Our main goal is to humanise humanity,” says Nina Khodorivska, a participant in “Theatre for Dialogue”

Yuriy Kruchak interviewed Nina Khodorivska and Jana Salakhova

June 30, 2015
Melitopol, Ukraine


You can agree with the thesis that life is theatre, or you can dispute it, but it doesn’t hurt to rehearse some of your actions. This is proven by the experience of the “theatre of the oppressed.” Nina Khodorivska and Jana Salakhova are the “jokers” in Theatre for Dialogue, which operates according to this method. In Melitopol the activists held a theatre workshop for people without prior acting skills. The participants in the event, with the help of theatre games, learnt about memory and how it is constructed and destroyed. These “jokers”, i.e. coaches in the “theatre of the oppressed”, together with the participants, prepared sketches about memory, history and Melitopol, based on real-life events, and the thoughts and experiences of real people.

In an interview, Nina and Jana explained how, through theatrical games, they teach people to defend their rights, what their performances have in common with ancient Greek tragedies, and talked in detail about their work in Melitopol.

How life is rehearsed in theatre workshops

Nina Khodorivska: Our main goal is to humanise humanity. We are a humanist theatre with humans at the centre, not artistic traditions. We work with the views, problems, and interests of the people who come to us. We form our performances from these. Scenes are written and roles are handed out by the people themselves. At the same time they learn to listen to each other. We provide the space and carefully moderate the process so that the group remains together till the end, so that the people use aesthetically-pleasing techniques.

The workshop begins with a series of theatre sessions, which we call games. In an unobtrusive theatrical game people are willing to open up boundaries which they did not previously want to think about. We first analyse, and then we synthesise a performance. During a show, the audience become equal participants in the process. They watch the show, and then can challenge whatever was said, and say what they thought was lacking. Also, viewers can take the place of almost any character – except a sharply negative one – and try to play the role differently. To show how to behave differently in a given situation.

Jana Salakhova: We work with the “theatre of the oppressed” methodology, which was created by the Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal. There are two important points which, in his opinion, the method must implement. Firstly, making art, in this case theatre, accessible to all. Augusto Boal stated that everyone is theatre. The second aspect is that oppressed people are deprived of their right to vote. They know a lot about their lives, but they do not have a channel through which they can voice this knowledge. We can offer such a channel in the form of theatre. Here people can voice their questions and problems. One important aspect is this: we offer people a safe place to rehearse behaviour that they can carry out in life. Many games and exercises are aimed at the fact that a person does not speak but acts with the help of their body, which expresses his or her thoughts and feelings more naturally. We are trying to help people hear themselves, causing them to act via our productions. And we involve the audience in our performances.

Yuriy Kruchak: Why are you interested in this technique?

Jana Salakhova: Our performances cannot affect systemic problems, but on a personal level our workshop participants learn to change their lives. People learn to stand up for their rights. For example, we did a production with migrants and there was a scene of a conversation with a boss. It suggested a number of strategies of how to convince a person to change their position. Soon one participant in the performance got a job and was told that at first she would not be paid. After the performance she had the courage to say that that was wrong. And she persuaded her employer to pay her. That shows that in our theatre people can acquire useful skills.

"At the workshop we rehearse democracy, and at the show - revolution"

Yuriy Kruchak: To what extent have your expectations of Melitopol been met?

Jana Salakhova: It’s too early to talk about it. The complete process consists of two parts. The first is a workshop. In a few days we create a community of people who share stories about their lives. We act it all out through theatre, we grieve together, solve problems, and with this community formulate questions which are important to show in the performance. The second part is the show. The participants in the show are the writers and actors. They learn to make decisions collectively. During the workshop, we try to simulate a situation where the voice of each participant is involved in the process. We try to teach people to work together.

Nina Khodorivska: If in the workshop we rehearse democracy, in the show it’s revolution. At the workshop, through creative techniques, we show people how to hear each other. At a certain point we leave the room, there’s no moderation, all participants have equal rights, and they need to agree on a certain scenario. And they learn to find common ground without a leader. Democracy manifests itself in the fact that all opinions are taken into account, decisions are made together.

At the show, we put on a pessimistic performance in the style of an ancient Greek tragedy – where the hero dies at the end. Our hero does not necessarily die, but the situation is very bad. He or she has certain goals, interests, and desires, but circumstances – often in the form of people – take him or her further away from them. During the show we ask the audience to take the place of the actors and understand how the hero can behave so as not to be intimidated by the vicissitudes of fate, like Greek characters, and get what they want. On stage we cannot make a revolution, save all the oppressed, but we can rehearse it. Either way it’s better than discussing things in a kitchen.

Yuriy Kruchak: What are your expectations from the In the Heart of the Community project?

Jana Salakhova: When we were talking with the actors, many of them pointed out that all the problems that we touch upon are relatable and important to them. But usually inhabitants of a town just talk about these problems. They complain, but there is no critical mass, a community of active people who can take responsibility and begin to do something. A performance may become an attempt to create such public discourse. When people see that some of the problems have been stated out loud, in the theatre, it can affect their attitude towards the issue. They understand that some things can and must be aired for public discussion, for example, at an open meeting of the town council.

We want to show how it is possible to raise problematic issues. Perhaps in the hall there will be viewers who recognise the situation. And a sense of unity can sometimes be the impetus for the creation of a community of people, for their self-organisation.

"We were told that the 'theatre of the oppressed' sounds sad"

Yuriy Kruchak: In Ukraine, are there other collectives like yours?

Nina Khodorivska: There are people who in their human rights activism, or other activism, use the forum-theatre method. But the “theatre of the oppressed” is something much broader, it has its own philosophy. You know, in many countries there are departments or faculties of anthropology. And in Ukraine an anthropology course consists of six lectures at university. Can we say that in this university they are engaged in anthropology? Various organisations use a bit of this technique to reveal something of their own, but our “Theatre for Dialogue” totally focuses on this technique and utilises it for different groups of people.

Jana Salakhova: There are public organisations and human rights activists who use forum-theatre as a tool to achieve their goals, without the ideological component which we try to save. If we say that the “theatre of the oppressed” is theatre made by simple people for people, we expect that following this there will be direct action. When we started to conduct the workshops, psychologists and social activists came to us, people who saw it as just an interesting methodology for working with people. But the “theatre of the oppressed” was thought up so as to free people from oppression, so they understood what they wanted and acted independently. We do not always notice these things when the procedure is used by different organisations.

Nina Khodorivska: Working with a group of people to put on a performance regarding a certain, relevant, topic – that’s something different from the actual “theatre of the oppressed”. In Africa, for example, they use a group of people to stage a play on a “necessary” topic. People are fighting the spread of HIV and AIDS, they want to show as much as possible the problem that worries them, so they make of play about it. Yes, the play is based on true stories, but it has no connection to the people who are involved in it.

Yuriy Kruchak: You have conducted workshops in various cities in Ukraine, for example, in Kremenchug. How is Melitopol different?

Jana Salakhova: I was in Kremenchug for one day, so some things cannot be compared, but some aspects are similar. In Kremenchug we staged a play about a young female artist who dreams of organising performances, of ennobling the town, and she comes up against the outdated notions of her fellow citizens about how the city should look. Her work is not understood by her family, or among her peers. And in this aspect, the project in Kremenchug is similar to that in Melitopol. In general, our protagonist often has an idea that does not fit with what is acceptable in their town. Certain established values interfere with what the hero wants to achieve.

Nina Khodorivska: It all depends on who comes to the workshop. In Kremenchug, Yana had a group made up solely of women as, in general, we have in Melitopol. I worked with young people in Zhytomyr, half the group were not even 20 years old, and there there was a different vision of the key challenges. We worked with the concept of a certain structure – school, university, or college – where there is a tyrannical head, tyrannical teachers, and schoolchildren and students who do not seem completely human, you can scream at them and all that. There’s hopelessness, lawlessness, and so on. For the participants in the workshop that’s where the oppression was. The words “hierarchy”, “power”, and “abuse” cropped up in the scenes. In Kremenchug and Melitopol they spoke mainly about finding employment and opportunities. Here there is a view that if you are oppressed – join another social group.

Jana Salakhova: By the way, it’s mostly women who come to our workshops.

Nina Khodorivska: I think it has something to do with the fact that the name of the method is the “theatre of the oppressed.” We were told that it sounds sad, that there’s no need to mention this concept. But those who comes to our workshops really understand it. They feel the oppression and want to work with it. Now we’ve rejected the idea of removing the phrase “theatre of the oppressed” from our posters. We try to attract an audience that needs to work with oppression, and there is such an audience. Most of the workshop participants really are women. I won’t bang on about it, but it seems that there are more women than men who feel oppressed and hence wish to change something. Maybe men think theatre an unworthy activity.

Finding yourself in a museum

Yuriy Kruchak: In the In the Heart of the Community project we are working in the Melitopol Regional Museum. What proposals do you have for reforming such museums – small ones not in a capital city.

Nina Khodorivska: I was surprised, but half the rooms in the Melitopol museum are very modern. The palaeontology room and some other rooms with stuffed animals are obviously Soviet. But one of the rooms has a ceiling that glows with a blue light and it creates a sense of adventure. Another thing is that the museum should work not only with those who will come to look at exhibits. The museum needs to work with people in general. Each museum employee can conduct a small popular-science course. Employees can organise creative excursions for different categories of people. The National Art Museum of Ukraine carries out such events. There are lectures for people of all ages, and it’s fantastic. Yes, the museum deals in the past, but it is not only objects, but also customs, that their experts know something interesting about. I would like to work together on a human level.

Jana Salakhova: I think the At the Heart of the Community project is moving in the right direction. In smaller towns there are plenty of spaces where people could do something, but these spaces were built in a certain period and for certain purposes. Many of these spaces, including museums, should take into account the interests and needs that exist among their citizens today. In one of our workshops someone was talking about working people who have a need to develop. And a museum can be a space that responds to this need: it is possible to hold lectures, workshops and master classes. A certain discourse may be formed. But this place should be free, so that people from different walks of life can come and feel comfortable. In some ways our workshop is about that. About a model of space where everyone can find themselves. Museums can become such a space, the staff can develop them in this way, in particular through conducting various activities.

Yuriy Kruchak: In Melitopol you have had the idea of putting on a festival. Tell us more.

Jana Salakhova: We were inspired by the local Palace of Culture for railway workers. The acoustics are good, the very design of the building is cool. At the workshop it was mentioned that Melitopol has ceased to be the gateway to the Crimea, and now the city has a problem with jobs. I thought that it would be cool to hold an art festival in this Palace. The main room lies empty, it is not in very good condition, but one could get money for a festival and some of it could go towards renovating the hall and maintaining the building. You could attract an art crowd to Melitopol. But a simple arts festival will attract a closed group of people. So the idea has been expanded to include a festival of culture and business.

In Melitopol, as in any other town, there are resources that can lift the economy of the region. Now is the time to do it. But we need to know how to build everything, so as not to crash and burn. We need an impetus, inspiration and knowledge. A festival of culture and business could become an impetus for creating an active part of the city, one which has a physical or social and intellectual capital. So that Melitopolites could talk with people from out of town there, people who excel in the arts or business. I am talking about business that develops something around itself, about social entrepreneurship. Maybe a businessperson would invest some of their profits in cultural education, in a space for art. For example, a symbiosis of a club and art centre, factory, and exhibition area.

Yuriy Kruchak: Are you ready to become part of a group that would launch such a process?

Nina Khodorivska: I’m curious to try. I have read a little about how to organise such things. Perhaps I could get together with people who carry out such activities, I would study foreign experience – in order to understand how to make the project succeed.