• contact @ aict-iatc.org
  • English
  • Français

Building Bridges in a Time of Trial

25 March 2022

By Jeffrey Eric Jenkins

One month ago, the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) joined with members of its Russia national section to denounce the aggression of the Russian government against the sovereign state of Ukraine. The IATC is an organization of critics and scholars dedicated to advocacy for freedom of expression, building cultural bridges through global discourse and the celebration of theatre, the most human of art forms.

Our IATC section in Russia courageously and publicly condemned the acts of war taken against Ukraine at no small cost to members’ personal safety. A prominent Russian theatre critic who published a petition opposing the invasion found her front door marked with the letter “Z” by vandals, reminding some observers of actions taken by Nazis against Jews during Kristallnacht in 1938.

Marina Davydova, editor of Teatr, has now fled her home and is safe in an undisclosed location in Europe. Last week, she told the Guardian, “Even a month ago I couldn’t have imagined” that protests would have led to government statements about “national traitors” and a “fifth column.” In Andrew Roth’s report on the situation, Davydova said, “Before, this rhetoric was used only by [radicals], but now it is being uttered by the president. It’s horrible!”

Over the past several weeks, the entire globe has witnessed the horrific carnage raining down on the heads of Ukrainians from all walks of life. We have had our hearts broken by the senseless deaths of innocent civilians, especially with images of children whose crumpled bodies lie in city streets as noncombatants scramble toward safety.

Bogdan Strutynskyi of the Ukrainian Union of Theatre Artists reported to IATC that Alexandr Kniga, art director of the Kherson Theatre, was abducted by the Russian military March 23, and that leaders of other theatres in Ukraine were being sought by the occupying forces. Following a great outcry from theatre leaders and humanitarians across the globe, Kniga was safely released from captivity less than a day later.

Even now, national governments are in the process of declaring Russia a rogue state engaging in war crimes, which will surely impair our ability to rebuild the ties that have bound us together in a universal common cause: to come to greater understanding of the nature of human experience through theatre. We wonder when we will again be able to sample the brilliant work of our colleagues in St. Petersburg; and how will theatre colleagues in Ukraine survive bombings, abductions and torture?

Who among us was not moved by the little girl in a makeshift Ukrainian bomb shelter singing “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen, but in her native tongue? Surrounded by the squalor that comes with dozens of people living in a cramped space for days on end, the child began singing tentatively as someone filmed it on a cell phone. The hubbub of dozens of conversations in the shelter gradually quieted as this child sang of the possibility for change, renewal and overcoming whatever challenges we face.

And we wonder: where is she now? Will she have her chance at transformation?

As it happens, seven-year-old Amelia Anisovych escaped to Poland where she received a hero’s welcome when she sang the Ukrainian national anthem at a charity event in a Polish stadium. This is one dramatic tale that ends happily. How many do not?

It is now the time of World Theatre Day, which is globally celebrated on March 27. As it does every year, IATC’s sibling organization the International Theatre Institute (ITI) issues a message from a prominent theatre artist or visionary. This year the renowned opera and theatre director Peter Sellars has shared a message that focuses on theatre as “the art form of experience.”

Sellars takes note of the ceaseless messaging we receive from various media, which keep us lodged not in time but “at the edge of time.” He writes, “So many people are on edge. So much violence is flaring, irrationally or unexpectedly. So many established systems have been revealed as structures of ongoing cruelty.”

If there is no “world,” if the global community is shattered, what need will there be for a World Theatre Day?

It is time for freedom-loving people, including governments throughout the planet to take action that can make our world safer for free expression, for artistic freedom, and to heed Peter Sellars’ warning and his clarion call, “This work cannot be done by isolated people working alone. This is work that we need to do together.”

On this World Theatre Day, let governments and people across the globe pull together and lift us to a higher plane of peace among sovereign nations, a place where we may again safely explore the nature of our humanity.

Jeffrey Eric Jenkins is President of the International Association of Theatre Critics (AICT-IATC), Professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Faculty Affiliate of Discovery Partners Institute in Chicago (Twitter: @crrritic; Email: jej@illinois.edu)