Today is World Theatre Day, created in 1961 as an annual celebration on March 27. This year I dedicate it to the theaters, performers, and theater lovers of Ukraine.
To the more than 400 legitimate theaters in Ukraine, including the Drama Theater in Mariupol, purposefully destroyed by Russian bombs, which had served as a center for cultural activity in the city since it was built in 1960, and as a shelter for hundreds of civilians during the Russian invasion, many of whom are believed to have been killed.
To Ukrainian theater artists like director Golenko Maxim Georgievich, actor Oleg Karpenko and playwright Olga Braga who continue to create theater — in the streets, in their homes, or as refugees.
To cellist Denys Karachevtsev, who played Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in the ruins of Kharkiv, his hometown — and Kharkiv Music Fest, an international classical music festival, which took place in Kharkiv’s subway;
the Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater orchestra, which performed an open-air concert in Odessa under the title “Free Sky,” to support President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s call for a no-fly zone over Ukraine;
the Lviv Philharmonic, composed of refugees from across the country, performed to an audience online, since there was no room in the city’s concert hall itself for an audience: It is filled with medical supplies.
To seven-year-old Amellia Anisovych who sang “Let It Go” from Frozen in Ukrainian in a bomb shelter in Kyiv, and then sang Ukraine’s national anthem as a refugee at a fundraiser for her home country at a stadium in Lodz , Poland.
To the Ukrainians working to protect the nation’s cultural heritage from the systematic destruction by the Russian military.
At the Ukraine telethon yesterday, David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee, was asked how anyone watching what is happening in Ukraine can keep from feeling helpless. He mentioned the concert in Lviv. “It’s humanity versus barbarity and we’ve got to stand up for humanity. Those hundred people on the stage are what keep the human spirit going. The people in Ukraine are courageous and tenacious and committed and keeping their lives together. What right do we have to be depressed?”
In most of the world, and certainly in New York, this is the first World Theater Day in three years that theatergoers can celebrate by attending a theater in person. Director Peter Sellars marks the occasion In this year’s World Theatre Day Message (complete essay below): “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….The theater of epic vision, purpose, recovery, repair, and care needs new rituals. We don’t need to be entertained. We need to gather…”
World Theatre Day Message 2022 by Peter Sellars, opera, theatre and festival director
As the world hangs by the hour and by the minute on a daily drip feed of news reportage, may I invite all of us, as creators, to enter our proper scope and sphere and perspective of epic time, epic change, epic awareness, epic reflection, and epic vision? We are living in an epic period in human history and the deep and consequential changes we are experiencing in human beings’ relations to themselves, to each other, and to nonhuman worlds are nearly beyond our abilities to grasp, to articulate, to speak of, and to express.
We are not living in the 24-hour news cycle, we are living at the edge of time. Newspapers and media are completely unequipped and unable to deal with what we are experiencing.
Where is the language, what are the moves, and what are the images that might allow us to comprehend the deep shifts and ruptures that we are experiencing? And how can we convey the content of our lives right now not as reportage but experience?
Theater is the artform of experience.
In a world overwhelmed by vast press campaigns, simulated experiences, ghastly prognostications, how can we reach beyond the endless repeating of numbers to experience the sanctity and infinity of a single life, a single ecosystem, a friendship, or the quality of light in a strange sky? Two years of COVID-19 have dimmed people’s senses, narrowed people’s lives, broken connections, and put us at a strange ground zero of human habitation.
What seeds need to be planted and replanted in these years, and what are the overgrown, invasive species that need to be fully and finally removed? 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.
Where are our ceremonies of remembrance? What do we need to remember? What are the rituals that allow us at last to reimagine and begin to rehearse steps that we have never taken before?
The theater of epic vision, purpose, recovery, repair, and care needs new rituals. We don’t need to be entertained. We need to gather. We need to share space, and we need to cultivate shared space. We need protected spaces of deep listening and equality.
Theater is the creation on earth of the space of equality between humans, gods, plants, animals, raindrops, tears, and regeneration. The space of equality and deep listening is illuminated by hidden beauty, kept alive in a deep interaction of danger, equanimity, wisdom, action, and patience.
In The Flower Ornament Sutra, Buddha lists ten kinds of great patience in human life. One of the most powerful is called Patience in Perceiving All as Mirages. Theater has always presented the life of this world as resembling a mirage, enabling us to see through human illusion, delusion, blindness, and denial with liberating clarity and force.
We are so certain of what we are looking at and the way we are looking at it that we are unable to see and feel alternative realities, new possibilities, different approaches, invisible relationships, and timeless connections.
This is a time for deep refreshment of our minds, of our senses, of our imaginations, of our histories, and of our futures. This work cannot be done by isolated people working alone. This is work that we need to do together. Theater is the invitation to do this work together.
Thank you deeply for your work.
U.S. World Theatre Day Message 2022
Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and Steven Sapp, co-founders of Universes Theater Company.
There is a beauty about us… those of us who have committed ourselves to this… this global family who uses theatre to unearth the best and worst of ourselves; the tragedy of our deepest fears and the comedy of our truest joy.
Here, is where it happens, should happen; with folks that look like us, who don’t look like us, who believe what we believe, who oppose what we stand for; where we share the experience and the responsibility. We all have our own individual point of entry, we all accepted the call.
Point of entry: I was born of the Hip Hop Generation. A young street dancer, lit by the glowing lights of 42nd Street; and I wanted the world to see where I came from, witness the skills we had homegrown, challenge everyone to stop and witness us. An Usher, a black man, came out of the big Broadway theatre behind us one day and said, “yall wanna come in and see the show?”… He snuck us into the back row and told us to be quiet, and we were, because what do you do at that point of entry? I was a boy witnessing the beauty and power of my people on the grand stage. That black man whose name I’ll never know gave me the musical “Dreamgirls”… and I accepted the call.
Point of entry: Spanish Boleros and church choir were all I knew I loved. They said that my voice “tenía un gemir”, a sorrow about it, something guttural, tender and at the same time furious. But what to do with that? I was a girl from the project of New York City, possibilities were limited but every now and then, you get a teacher who braves her students on a school trip to a place unknown to them… a theatre. We didn’t know what would happen or if we even wanted to be there, but when the lights went out, we paused. The lights come up and we were no longer us, we were no longer together, yet we were. The musical was called “Mama I wanna Sing”. And as the girl on stage sang, her voice cried and said everything I wanted to say. And it was guttural and tender and furious, there was deep sorrow, but there was joy in it all. I heard a call, and I accepted.
When we see ourselves, our communities on stage, we are unstoppable, the possibilities endless, there are no borders, ponds or boundaries we dare not cross. We come from The South Bronx and The Lower East Side’s Alphabet City, but theatre invited us to the World… and we accepted.
In Valparaiso, Chile… we performed in a recently closed prison that was being converted to a performance cultural space. The space still had sections that weren’t touched. Our guide in the facility was an ex-inmate who still slept in his old cell and in the evening had to maintain the site and be a tour guide there.
He took us to his cell to show us his view of the world. It was his safe space, the place he knew for most of his life. How he would look to the moon to quiet his spirit at night. How it kept him… human. And he wanted to share that with us.
And how special and sacred the conversation felt. Later on that night, 10 minutes into our performance, the power went out in Valparaiso, as it often did in the projects of New York City, and we accepted the call to proceed in the dark.
And since we were unaware of the full extent of the blackout, we kept performing, until people began to bring candles to the front of the stage, a glow that helped enhance the mood, and we kept performing. And most of the audience, non-English speaking, took an artistic spiritual journey with us. We were all there alone and together…
having this moment that only the people in the room could explain. We were there, in a space that held pain and despair. In this makeshift theatre, we connected in our light, in that way that transcends, in the way that we as human beings, art practitioners look for.
We have had the privilege to teach and learn, give and receive from our theatre family across the world. And if and when we question the call, we look to those shared moments; from Poland to Chile, Colombia, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Romania, and the U.K., where we visited schools, where the eyes of the kids looked like eyes we have seen before.
Where we sat with women and their children who hosted us in secret to share their writing, lest their husbands find them out. Something as simple as sharing poetry and monologues and food and song, was dangerous but worth the risk. This is where theatre plays the part… it teaches us and continuously reminds us that we are as different as we are the same, and it’s as dangerous as it is simple.
In Khartoum, Sudan, during the Al-Bugga International Theatre Festival, after each performance, critics, artists, audience and community exit the theatre and enter a tent just outside the wall; where they come together to immediately discuss the work they just witnessed. An exciting exchange of ideas and investment to say the least. Imagine if after every American Theatre performance we all moved to the next room to discuss, debate, explain, challenge, provoke and uplift what we just saw, with the artist and the critic in the midst of it all. Wouldn’t that be something? There, in The Sudan, under a simple tent, it was.
Our company, UNIVERSES, went there representing the United States, at the core… we went there representing the block. There, we dined with Egypt and Nigeria. Sounds fancy, doesn’t it? But we were all from poor communities and moved in comfort.
We found a small quaint cafe by the side of The Nile River, and we sat and stumbled through words and laughed and danced and sang and shared stories the way people who feel comfortable with each other do; as if we’d know each other forever. We sat by the Nile River, simply counting to ten in native tongues from Nigeria, The Philippines, North Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas.
And even the numbers sounded guttural and tender and furious, with moments of deep sorrow, but there was joy most of all. All of us theatre folks, and even the van drivers, brought together by theatre. And something so simple, so basic as counting from one to ten, this simple act, brought deep smiles and tears to folks who felt a kinship, an honor to share it with other like-minded folks.
We do this… because there is work to be done; because our worlds are threatened and in despair.
Because time and time again, artists have stood and stand at the frontlines, fighting for truth and justice immovable by any threat of war.
There are stories needing to be told, stories looking to be understood. They are as local as they are global…
as complicated and as simple as counting from one to ten in any language.
The revolution is Live and OnStage,
and we answer the call.
1. Theatre as we know it began in ancient Greece with a religious ceremony called ‘dithyramb’ in which a chorus of men dressed in goat skins.
2. The word ‘tragedy’ comes from a Greek expression meaning ‘goat song’…
3. …and ‘theatre’ comes from a Greek verb meaning ‘to behold’.
4. Ancient Greek audiences stamped their feet rather than clapping their hands to applaud.
5. World Theatre Day has been held on March 27 every year since 1962 when it was the opening day of the “Theatre of Nations” season in Paris.
6. The longest continuous dramatic performance was 23 hr 33 min 54 sec achieved by the 27 O’Clock Players in New Jersey, USA, on July 27, 2010.
7. They performed The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionescu, a play written in a continuous loop and said to be totally pointless and plotless.
8. According to Aristotle, the plot is the most important feature of a dramatic performance.
9. Walt Disney World, Florida, has a record 1.2 million costumes in its theatrical wardrobes.
10. The oldest play still in existence is The Persians by Aeschylus, written in 472 BC.