Verbatim without Words

Last Sunday I joined the revolution. Counting Sheep: A Guerrilla Folk Opera created by Mark Marczyk and Marichka Marczyk is presented by Lemon Bucket Orkestra (“Canada’s only balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk super band”). LBO1In February 2014, Mark and Marichka met and fell in love in Kyiv at the height of the Maidan Revolution. During the protests, they interviewed participants. They brought food and medical supplies to the protestors. Counting Sheep is based on their experiences. The performance is a fully immersive experience where I got to eat borscht and pirogies, dance at a wedding, be threatened by riot police, build a barricade with benches and tires, cower behind makeshift shields, throw bricks over the barricade, duck from bullets (a.k.a black paper airplanes which were actually quite scary), and follow the funeral procession of a deceased demonstrator. But more about that later in another post (maybe). (See reviews here, here, and here.)

Although based on the specific events of the Maidan protests and “our true story” first-hand witness of Mark and Marishka, Counting Sheep would not ordinarily be characterized as verbatim theatre. The performance is entirely sung–as it says in the subtitle–it is a guerrilla folk opera. The text of the songs seemingly drawn from Ukrainian hymns, folksongs and rhymes. The text then is not ‘verbatim’ in the usual understanding of the genre where text that is taken directly from witness testimony or transcribed documentation. img_0813_FotorAnd yet, the process of verbatim where something ‘real’ is captured/recorded in the world (‘in the wild’) and transported to the theatre for mimetic re-performance where we recognize it as real and pay homage to its ‘authenticity’ does apply.

The performance space of Counting Sheep features three large screens that dominate the upstage wall, extending to the left and right like wings. Throughout the performance these screens replay images from the Maidan protests, images acquired by official news outlets and by everyday people on their camera-phones. In the vocabulary of the verbatim genre, then, these images represent the document, the transcription, of the real. The video is the ‘first copy’ of the actual thing, equivalent to audio recordings made of interviewee testimony in work like The Laramie Project, for example.

(Although sometimes invisible, it is also not uncommon for this ‘first copy’ to be staged as itself physically present in verbatim performance. In Seeds, Annabel Soutar wheels the text of the actual Supreme Court proceedings onstage, manifest in binders transported by her in the underbasket of her daughter’s baby stroller. In Polyglotte, the actual 1960s LPs of The Polyglotte Method are carefully placed under the record player from which Henri’s voice issues.)

Using video of lived actions as the documentary text, the cast (and audience-performers) of Counting Sheep re-enact elements of the video in the performance hall. On the screens, people eat, so we eat. maidan tree euromaidanpressOn the screens, we bear witness to young protestors getting married in the square in Kyiv and so too two ‘sheep’ are married and we dance around them in a traditional circle dance. img_0823_Fotor At one end of the hall stood a strikingly large, somewhat cone- shaped, open scaffold, painted green, and covered with twinkle lights. Initially I was unsure of what it was or what its function might be. But for those conversant with the events of EuroMaidan, it is an instantly recognizable icon. In December 2013, Maidan protestors scaled the scaffold of the city’s main Christmas tree hanging banners, posters, Ukrainian and EU flags. This structure erected in our space is a replica (albeit on a smaller scale) and was similarly decorated in concert with the same actions depicted on the video screens. (IRL the tree was only dismantled in August 2014, months after the end of the demonstrations. The banners and other ‘decorations’ were transported to the Museum of the Maidan.)

img_0830_FotorLikewise in another iconic moment of the protests, some young men commandeered a bulldozer which they proceeded to drive towards the line of riot police. In the spirit of maintaining a peaceful demonstration, other protestors jumped in front of the bulldozer, climbing onto the shovel to persuade the drivers to stop. They did. In the performance hall, we watched the whole thing unfold in verbatim parallel. Once on the screens as document and again in lived re-enactment. Seven or so ‘sheep’ with their instruments and a large scoop-style snow shovel created the movement and sound-energy of the bulldozer, advancing across the table-stage toward another ‘sheep’ dressed in full riot gear.

maidan bulldozer dailymail.ukWhat I want to call ‘gestural verbatim’ in this context shares several characteristics with more conventional oral verbatim. It is still subject to the same essential contingent constructedness, being always a selectively-edited mimetic replica of something else– not the thing itself–and so is subject to the same vagaries of aesthetic interpretation. By the same token, it also taps into the visceral frisson of re-embodiment, the almost-presence, what Kelsey Jacobson is calling the ‘real-ish-ness’ that we find so attractive. (Love it!)

Another point worthy of noting is that Counting Sheep stages the ‘first copy’ simultaneously with the re-enactment. Like other verbatim documents it is certainly edited and selected. But in the staging , the effective binocular vision allows us to compare the document to its re-enactment. The document becomes somewhat transparent. (How transparent exactly is a point of consideration. Some of the footage is marked with the symbols of TV stations.) We are constantly reminded that the events that we are ‘playing at’ really happened. You can see it. I think this heightens the emotion. My pretend barricade is bombarded with unfurling falling red streamers. The actual barricade on the screens is on fire. I am transfixed. (This is something that I want to think about more deeply in the book, especially in connection with intermediality in Seeds. How the recorded ‘live’ supports authenticity and truth while at the same time bringing into question what is ‘liveness’ when these mediatized elements are integrated in the theatrical context.)

As usual, no conclusions yet, but unpacking these other ways the real is carried into theatre is productive as a first step toward thinking through how it means.












Title image by Eamon Mac Mahon: Toronto Life

Counting Sheep production photos by Christopher Johnson Globalite Media

Maidan banner tree image

Maidan bulldozer image





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