Stress and Happiness, 24 Hours a Day - Vanessa Porteous Talks to the Creators of Counting Sheep

Vault festival 5

“It was easy and hard at the same time,” says Marichka Marczyk about the reboot of Counting Sheep: Staging A Revolution, a music theatre hybrid that plunges its audience into the 2014 ‘Revolution of Dignity’ in Kyiv, Ukraine. Co-creator Mark Marczyk, Marichka’s partner in life and work, agrees. “It was stress and happiness,” he says, “twenty-four hours a day.”

Since its premiere at the SummerWorks Festival in Toronto in 2015, Counting Sheep has garnered raves worldwide. This 2019 version is a full transformation, with new cast members, design, script, and staging. It’s the fruit of an unprecedented partnership between the Canadian creators and the co-artistic directors of Belarus Free Theatre, Natalia Khaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, a match supported by the National Arts Centre’s National Creation Fund.

At first, says Natalia Khaliada, “We said: your show is touring, getting great reviews. Why should you change it? And besides, we are dictators in the rehearsal hall. We are dictators as well, they said.” After a get-to-know-you dinner in New York City, the unique partnership of partners was launched.

The Marczyks fell in love on Independence Square in Kiyv 2014, amidst the joyous early days of revolution. When authorities started firing rubber bullets and then live ammunition into the crowd, they eventually ended up in Toronto where they decided to make a piece of theatre. They wanted to show their friends how fragile peace can be, and that what you do can have an effect on what happens. Counting Sheep was born.

The Marczyks describe the original production as an experiment, one they were happy with for a long time. Masked performer-musicians mingled with the audience, inviting them to demonstrate, dance, laugh, and grieve together, as footage from the streets of 2014 Ukraine played all around. In a show about revolution, no one’s individual story should predominate, so there were no central characters and the show was wordless. Instead there was live music: a combination of raucous tunes by Toronto’s Lemon Bucket Orkestra, and Ukrainian folk songs. Rooted in centuries of tradition, these haunting polyphonic vocals were meant to communicate the show’s themes of solidarity and struggle.

Still, Counting Sheep was unwieldy and after several years the Marczyks were ready to rethink its content. Could the show immerse the audience into the characters, as well as the atmosphere? Could it have more universal appeal? Encouraged by their producers, they invited the Belarussian artists to direct the next version, slated to headline London’s VAULT Festival in 2019.

“What happened was, we fell in love with this couple,” says Natalia Khalida. “We suddenly saw people from another part of the world who were as wild and crazy passionate as we were. We saw their huge commitment to the work, and to the message.”

The commitment of Natalia and Nicolai is, as Mark Marczyk puts it, “next level.” A husband and wife team who’ve lived as political refugees for eight years, they run the Belarus Free Theatre out of an office at the Young Vic in London. They work internationally but also, uniquely in the world, continue to make theatre from a distance, directing productions inside their home country where their ensemble faces harassment and arrest.

To restart the dramaturgical process, Mark and Marichka laid bare their own love story in reams of writing and old emails, which the new cast drew on to create physical ‘études.’ This untranslatable French term is used by the BFT artists for fragments of staging that bring an image from the text to life. Every day the ensemble made dozens of such études, which the directing team kept track of on an enormous chart. The next step was weaving the most compelling gestures and moments into a mise-en-scène with music and spoken text. In the new version, the love story of Mark and Marichka, played by actors, unfolds as the spine of the show.

Spending twelve to eighteen-hour days shuttling from laptop to rehearsal hall to recording studio, the Marczyks also overhauled the sound design, which moved from Ukrainian polyphony to what Mark calls, with pride, “a polyphony of genre.” Some folk songs remain, embedded in a multi-layered mix of live and sampled sounds including classical piano, pop, electronic dance music, and more – the real music of contemporary revolution.

Meanwhile, the directors and performers created a new physical language for the production, which has to work on several levels depending on where the audience experiences it. The wedding sequence, for example, no doubt feels purely joyful to those in the centre feasting and dancing with the characters. For those in the ‘Observer’ section however there’s another layer. They can see footage of Ukrainian riot police gathering silently around the festivities, foreshadowing the violence to come.

The staging mirrors the politics. “In every revolution,” Natalia Khalida says, “there are active participants (a small number) – and observers (the majority).” How to get observers to participate is a political question, and a theme of the piece.

“I wish this show to be a warning,” she explains. “Here in our second home [of London], we hope that something we lived in Belarus won’t happen again.” She cites Brexit and the global rise of authoritarian regimes: “People here don’t understand the danger. They sit and observe their rights being taken away. We want to bring an explosive mixture to shake the British audience. To show what might happen.”

Dance at a wedding. Watch troops mass on the periphery. Peace can be fragile, and, whether observer or participant, what we do has an effect on what happens. According to the artists of Counting Sheep, each of us has a role to play.

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