A Theater Festival for the Brave
At first glance, the opening night of this year’s Kyiv Fringe Festival might have been taking place at any contemporary theater in the world. Theater people—some with bright orange hair, some with neon blue hair; sporting tee-shirts (often black) and baseball caps, well-loved Panama hats, and at least one Donegal flat cap; clad in shorts and jeans—gathered around a long table overflowing with wine, grapes, and cheese set out under florescent lights to celebrate the synergy of live performance. Only the organizer’s promise of a Ukrainian victory that would empower an even brighter future for other such festivals signaled that there was nothing commonplace about this year’s jubilee edition.
The 2023 Kyiv Fringe Festival, the fifth such program since its inception in 2018, has continued to connect the Ukrainian theater scene with a broader international theatrical community, despite a pandemic and war. Organized by the National Les Kurban Centre, the festival grew out of an initial proposal from Alex Borovenskiy, the artistic director of ProEnglish Theatre of Ukraine, and Steve Gove, founder of Prague Fringe. Their goal, from the beginning, has been to increase awareness of international creative movements in Ukraine, and to expand knowledge about the Ukrainian theater scene abroad. The festival has gained greater meaning since the 2022 Russian invasion which has sought to isolate Ukraine and Ukrainian culture.
This year’s festival—which ran between August 31 and September 3—included a dozen English-language performances featuring participants from Britain, the United States, France, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Ukraine. Performers rendered a variety of theatrical genres from Butoh to stand-up comedy, from experimental works to a traditional detective story. Workshops and master classes filled out the schedule, as did multiple opportunities for Ukrainian actors to showcase their talents in front of audiences and jurors. Stand Up Open Mic evenings performed in English augmented these events. Parallel online performances from Britain featured nearly two dozen additional works from England, Ireland, Italy, and Canada.
Organizers described this year’s edition as a “festival for the brave” featuring works already performed abroad, such as Neda Nejdana’s Pussycat in Memory of Darkness, and those unknown outside of the country, such as Borovenskiy’s Naïve Experiment, based on Norwegian novelist Erlend Loe’s bestseller Naïve. Super.
The Kyiv live performances exposed tensions between good and evil and cast fresh light on the challenges of living after intense trauma. For example, Naïve Experiment tells the story of a 20-something man who suddenly becomes confused by life. He leaves his parents, drops out of university, and moves in with his brother. He regains a sense of life by throwing a ball against the wall, riding a bicycle, and making lists. Be My Marguerite! (Or in the Strangeness of Loneliness), performed by Swiss actor Madeleine Bongard, follows the inner world of M, a character based on interviews given by French author Marguerite Duras. This play explores the connections between our bodies and our inner worlds. Tomas K. H. Tse from Hong Kong’s Theatre Aether draws on the Butoh tradition to tell the story of Lu-Ting, whose name is forbidden to be spoken, in To-To: A Fairy Tale of Lu-Ting. These and other festival works highlight the importance of courage and resilience in the face of human calamity and tragedy.
The performances and audience reactions to this year’s festival demonstrate Ukrainian resolve to sustain and further nurture a distinct society and culture. If previous Kyiv fringe festivals revealed a world of alternative theater beyond Ukraine to local audiences, this year’s gathering showcased Ukrainian creativity to the international participants. Russian drone and missile attacks on Kyiv continued throughout the festival. Audience members and actors—both from down the block and from as far away as Hong Kong and the U.S.—carried on despite air raid sirens and lethal rocket attacks. This year’s festival was a gathering of the brave for sure.
In reflecting on this year’s festival, organizer Borovenskiy observed: “As for the first time, Ukraine Fringe gathered a tremendous response. Within 4 days in Kyiv we had 19 performances from 8 artistic teams from different countries. The audience attended each and every show. It feels that Ukraine needs Ukraine Fringe especially these days. This festival represents Ukraine of the future, Ukraine that wins the war, Ukraine that is open to Europe and the whole world. Ukraine that is free. Next year we are definitely going to continue with Ukraine Fringe. We’d love to conduct it in liberated Mariupol or Crimea.”
A few days before the festival’s opening, on Ukraine’s Independence Day (August 24), festival organizers posted a statement on Facebook: “We stand with each and every Ukrainian shoulder to shoulder in our desire to keep and nourish our independent country. The Ukraine Fringe Festival was specifically meant to be built around Ukraine’s Independence Day. This is exactly how we see our country: free, diverse, strong, funny, and international.”
Those who attended and performed this year, both in person and online, understand that the Kyiv Fringe Festival has a future, especially after the Ukrainian victory promised by Borovenskiy on opening night. This year’s festival suggests that all will be likely to stare down any brutal enemy.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
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About the Author
Blair A. Ruble
Former Wilson Center Vice President for Programs (2014-2017); Director of the Comparative Urban Studies Program/Urban Sustainability Laboratory (1992-2017); Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (1989-2012) and Director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience (2012-2014)
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more