Interview: Members of AnomalousCo Talk "(beyond) Doomsday Scrolling," a Dramatic Cabaret Centering Stories of Women in Wartime, at HERE Feb. 16-26

Photo: Jarrett Robertson
Beginning next week, AnomalousCo, a predominantly queer woman-led, nearly all immigrant, feminist, transdisciplinary performance collective, will present (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling from February 16th to 26th at Manhattan's HERE Arts Center. The show is set in an imagined theater in which women from different periods and places come together for shelter from war. By means of this setting, (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling centers women in its consideration of war, displacement, and resistance. Described as a dramatic cabaret, the production is multilingual and multigenerational, performed by twelve women and one man. The cast members hail from Ukraine, Poland, Iceland, Georgia, Moldova, Russia, Scotland, Italy, Cuba, and the United States, and the show's live band is headed by Ukrainian musician and anti-war activist Lesya Verba.

(beyond) Doomsday Scrolling incorporates songs from different cultures, eras, and genres, as well as text from the long tradition of women's war writing. Its setting links to another long tradition: that of theaters as spaces of shelter, opposition, and meaning-making in time of war. Tracing a single day for twelve women sheltering in its imagined theater, (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling culminates with an action of resistance quoting the global legacy of feminist arts activism.

This production promotes three social justice aims: to bear witness, to raise humanitarian aid, and to stand in international solidarity with refugees and against the divisions being sown between peoples. To date, (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling has raised $13,000 in humanitarian aid, 100% of which was distributed among several organizations providing assistance to refugees fleeing Ukraine and refugees at the U.S.-Mexico border. The production at HERE will present freshly devised material as it continues to pursue these aims.

Members of AnomalousCo including Dr. Kathryn Mederos Syssoyeva and Jeremy Goren spoke to us about the upcoming run of (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling. Dr. Syssoyeva is a theatre director, teacher, and scholar, and founding Artistic Director of the company, and her directorial work, which encompasses both collectively-created, transdisciplinary performance and modern and contemporary drama, has been seen across the U.S., in Russia and Poland, and globally online. In addition to her teaching work and residencies, she has published books including A History of Collective Creation; Collective Creation in Contemporary Performance; and Women, Collective Creation, and Devised Theatre

Jeremy Goren is an interdisciplinary theatre artist with a focus in experimental, devised, and socially engaged performances who joined AnomalousCo as a Co-Artistic Director in 2022. His recent outside projects include directing the first showing of Saviana Stanescu's Zebra 2.0 and facilitating sessions of Target Margin Theater's Here & Now oral-storytelling project in Sunset Park. Formerly a longtime collaborator with both Terra Incognita Theater (P. Klimovitskaya) and the U.S. projects of The Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards, Goren co-created Wistaria Project and also works with youth, trains actors of all ages, and has published writing in English and Spanish, primarily about theatre, film, and immigration.

AnomalousCo's Co-Producing Artistic Director is Diana Zhdanova, a recent graduate (Summa Cum Laude) of the renowned Filshtinsky Acting Studio of the St. Petersburg Institute of Performing Arts who has held the position since 2019. She has performed, produced, and created in Russia, Poland, and the U.S., winning the Audience Choice and Special Jury prizes at Poland’s 2019 ITSelF Festival and St. Petersburg’s prestigious Golden Spotlight Award for "Most Impressive Production of the 2020 Season." 

Thinking Theater NYC: (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling is described as "dramatic cabaret" and "epic cabaret" - could you say more about this classification?

Kathryn Mederos Syssoyeva (founding Co-Artistic Director): There is a passage in Peter Brook's The Empty Space in which he speaks of the yearning to merge the wild passion of Artaud, the emotional truth of Stanislavski, and the cool flow of thought of Brecht. That is an inspiring notion. (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling is multilayered: one part theatre, one part protest. The base layer is the life of the shelter, naturalistic in the tradition of Stanislavsky and Gorki. Those scenes are ruptured by elements of political cabaret in the Brechtian epic theatre tradition, infused by feminism and a 21st-century aesthetic, in which music and "soliloquy" drawn from the body of (international) women's war writing serve to bolster the emotional line, to ironize and interrogate the action, and to disrupt the grip of naturalism.
 
Woven through, too, with brief fragments of individual stories of war and migration - the entire show builds to punctuating moments of protest action, quoting contemporary feminist arts activism, including iconic work by FEMEN and Pussy Riot. It's a wild ride.

Thinking Theater NYC: How is the cabaret format suitable for the subject and process of your work? What challenges did it create?

Kathryn Mederos Syssoyeva: It has been very important to us to evoke reality without attempting naturalistic representation. Of course several of our actors are directly impacted by the war being waged against Ukraine - in particular our lead singer/musician, Lesya Verba, who emigrated from Odesa less than two years ago, and whose sister and nieces fled Odesa several months after the start of the war - and in a different way, actress/co-director Diana Zhdanova, a dissident Russian, who left Russia for reasons both personal and political several months before the war began and subsequently found herself a refugee, both unwilling and unable to return to her homeland and family. And nearly all are directly impacted by the realities of immigrant life and family histories of war. But none of us are at present in a war. We do not feel we have the ethical right to claim that we are recreating this lived reality on the stage. So the cabaret elements allow us to place the theatrical action of the shelter in quotations - intermittently distancing both ourselves and the audience, leaving space for both thought and for contrasting emotions, signaling the primacy of metaphor over representation.

At the same time, the inclusion of music foregrounds culture: this is essential to this show. Speaking for myself, I hold the position that Russia's invasion of Ukraine is an action of genocide. A dual attempt to both destroy human beings and to deny and erase their culture. Obviously, the genocidal campaign being waged by Russia in Ukraine is just one of many attempts at ethnic cleansing in our violent human story. And clearly, we can begin by thinking of the European-American genocidal wars against, and systemic oppression of, the native peoples of this conquered land, and the intertwined violence, economic exploitation, and cultural destruction that was the slave trade and is its continued aftermath. And we can continue backwards and forwards in time, and around the globe.

This play takes on a small piece of that - principally in a European context, due to the fact that the performers who have been drawn to its creation initially gathered together (in March 2022) in response to the invasion of Ukraine - and frames music, poetry, and excerpts from the body of women's war writing as an action of resistance. The play is a passionate cry against the erasure of culture and memory.

At the same time, the inherent fragmentation of political cabaret holds a space for history. Time is collapsed in (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling. The entire show is held together by a simple dream logic: a group of women from multiple wars and eras find themselves together in a bomb shelter that was once a theatre. The cabaret structure, above all the use of music, allows us to emphasize this collapse of time, to glide back and forth across a span of over two hundred years, and in so doing to speak of the circularity of war, the endless play of resemblance, the ghosts of past wars that infuse the present.

What are the challenges? Hahahaha. It's hard. It's been a demanding process - one that is still evolving.

Jeremy Goren (Co-Artistic Director): It is important for some of us that we not try to portray “realistically” the experiences of people in extreme situations when those are not our experiences. (I question whether theatre would even be the place for it – since performance is an artifice, a simulation, and should not be confused with reality – even if it can point at reality and create possibilities for real encounter.) To me, there’s a limit, at least in this work, to the usefulness of naturalistic acting and conventional narrative (which would, ironically, give the lie to a performance that proclaims it’s conveying something about reality). So, in this piece, continually rupturing any kind of naturalistic portrayal of our invented characters in invented situations proves fundamental in the experience we’re making, in particular through abrupt changes in performance styles. The cabaret influence specifically makes sense for us in several ways. There’s clearly a connection in our materials and internal associations with interwar German cabaret; Brecht’s spirit certainly wafts through the show. (Though don’t necessarily expect to see something that looks like cabaret.) When we made the first version of this performance very quickly almost a year ago, a cabaret-influenced format proved a practical tool to help us create quickly and modularly, relying in large part on the capacities of individual performers to drive the quality of the work on such a short timeline. More interestingly at this point, I think, our cabaret elements, references, and attitude embrace cabaret’s theatricality and constantly point at cabaret as form and at the performance event as artifice (rather than reality), which hopefully can serve to remind those present (including us) that we are all implicated in the types of events alluded to on stage: The issues of violent displacement, the oppression and exclusion of women, and the brilliance, strength, and power of women’s resistance are all our circumstances and should be all our concern, not just those of people long ago and/or far away. Among other intents, the cabaret influence aims to bring us into productive and positive artistic confrontation.

Thinking Theater NYC: What about the theater/theater space shaped the choice to make the space of sanctuary a theater in (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling?

Kathryn Mederos Syssoyeva: From the theatrical cabarets of the Jewish Ghettos in WWII to the theatre-shelters of Ukraine in 2022, theatres around the world have played a critical role in wartime - as shelters, as sites of opposition, and as spaces in which to construct sense from nightmare.

In the current war in Ukraine, theatres have played an enormous role in sheltering civilians. This is true not only in Ukraine proper, but also in Poland, particularly in the early weeks of the war. Two theater shelters in Ukraine have been particularly influential to our thinking: the ProEnglish Theatre of Kyiv, and the Theater of Mariupol. The ProEnglish Theatre was the first Ukrainian theater to restart theatrical activity after the beginning of the war - literally within days of the commencement of bombings. Simultaneously, the theater served as a shelter for civilians, and a shelter/home for company members. Actors from the ProEnglish Theatre were doing volunteer war work by day - tasks like serving as fixers for journalists and gathering eyewitness accounts of atrocity in towns such as Bucha - returning to the theater at night, and rehearsing.

ProEnglish has been extremely active in foregrounding the work of Ukrainian playwrights and getting it out into the world by working collaboratively, often via Zoom, with theaters in Europe and the U.S. They call this the work of the Culture Front. I had the extraordinary opportunity to work with ProEnglish twice, on online staged readings of new Ukrainian works written since the start of the war.

But in the very first days of the war, ProEnglish staged Harold Pinter's The New World Order, live streaming the show during bombardments, to a theater audience in Germany. Air raid sirens were going off and the actors kept going. I cannot get that image out of my head.

And then: Mariupol. Over 1000 people sheltering in the theatre of Mariupol, many of them children - and Russia bombed the theatre. Since that time, the Russian military have razed the remains of the theatre to the ground. Genocide and erasure.

Thinking Theater NYC: Why was it important that the show be multilingual? And why is the musical element important?

Jeremy Goren: Multilinguality is a basic reality for most of the world. We developed the play’s basic setting as a bomb shelter inside a theatre for women from different times and places through a lot of research and certain types of improvisation, a process through which the stage emerged as multilingual almost on its own. Since, both artistically and in terms of a kind of experience of truth, actors moving between their native tongue and a common, foreign one provokes fascinating changes in their acting and can add a useful layer of complexity in the audience’s experience, we decided to keep and refine how multiple languages live on the stage together. Ultimately, since our cast comprises a largely immigrant group from places that primarily speak languages other than English – and for some of us who count English as our principal tongue but can function in others – and because we’re against presenting an English-language- or USA-dominant stage environment, having multilingual speech wasn’t something we really had to discuss: It makes sense for this play on both artistic and ethical levels.
Photo: Jarrett Robertson
Thinking Theater NYC: Could you say something about the collective's creative process and how being a collective has affected how the show has developed? What has the rehearsal process been like?

Kathryn Mederos Syssoyeva: Our process is a complex one, but I will try to put it as simply as I can.

The initial concept for the show emerged in the early days of the war (Diana proposed that we create a response to the invasion), and the show went through two early drafts as a fundraiser, raising humanitarian aid for Ukrainian refugees, and subsequently also for refugees at the U.S.-Mexican border. The conceptual evolution of the show across three iterations to the present premiere was the work of the directing team: myself, Diana Zhdanova, and Jeremy Goren.

I typically lead rehearsals, with Diana and Jeremy stepping back and forth between directing and performing - they work directorially on specific scenes or segments and give me feedback on what is and isn't working. Generally speaking, I focus particularly on structure; Diana focuses on the inner world of the actors; and Jeremy on how physicality and mise en scène are playing (some moments he's crafted, some suggested, some I've reworked based on his feedback), on the direction of particular scenes (such as our UN satires), and on ethical questions of representation.

Although the structure of the show and most - but not all - of the blocking is crafted directorially, the creative contribution of the actors is everywhere. A great deal of our work emerged from a series of improvisations conducted with individual actors during an intensive rehearsal residency in summer, given to us by Chashama. Co-director Diana Zhdanova took the lead on that, leading the actors through a method of deep, layered, building improvisation derived from the Stanislavski tradition: the etude method. While etudes are typically used in text-based work to delve into the realm of the actor's imagination, we find it to be a very valuable methodology in creating original work. We used the etude method for some group work as well. A great deal of what you will see on the stage derives from the best of our discoveries during that period of our work. This is the work of individual actors woven into the fabric of the show, like threads in a collective tapestry.

The actors are also directly involved in the selection of many of the excerpts and texts we speak from the stage, as well as in the choice of music. This roots the material in the collective work of mining our individual cultural histories.

And then there is dialogue. While most of the excerpts and texts are spoken in translation (English), dialogue plays a strange role in the show as it is multilingual. As the work has evolved, it has become clear to us that what is interesting in the life of our imagined shelter is precisely this multilingualism, the struggle to comprehend one another, and the behaviors that emerge as a result. What reads from the stage, what makes meaning in these passages is behavior, rather than language - like a strange silent film overlaid with a score recorded at the tower of Babel. What this means of course is that while all the scenes have structure, are crafted and carefully rehearsed, the dialogue is continually improvised by the actors. Somewhat like the tradition of commedia dell'arte, in which the actors knew all the specifics of their scenarios but worked the individual moments improvisationally.

Why does this matter? Because the world is multilingual. Because living in the tower of Babel is our tragedy and our glory. Because the world's stories come to us in fragments, in shards, through the murmur or cries of crowds, and it is the work of witnessing to attend to those shards. (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling holds up a magnifying glass to that process.

Thinking Theater NYC: Are women's stories in relation to war often either overlooked or stereotyped? How does (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling perhaps address this?

Kathryn Mederos Syssoyeva: Simply put, the work of excavating women's war writings is ongoing. And certainly attention to women's war writings has somewhat increased, although I would argue that this work tends to remain rather "ghettoized" in the cultural ghetto of women's writings generally. (Why do we still have "women's sections" in many bookstores? We are slightly more than half the human population.)

However, far more important to me personally is the notion that there is an entire body of literature, by international women writers, investigating the experience and legacy of wars. Some of this writing is intellectual, philosophical, some is journalistic, some is literary, some is personal testimony. And I do not think enough attention is paid to these writings as a body of work. Obviously there are scholars who do investigate this field. But outside of scholarship there is a tendency to remember individual women war writers - in the West, frequently European ones – in a decontextualized fashion. Hannah Arendt. Simone Weil. Marguerite Duras. We speak of them almost as freaks, outliers, and decontextualize them not only from their own European context but from a broader global tradition.

Lu Li (dramaturg of (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling): In past wars (WWI, WWII), women were rarely on the frontlines fighting. They were either left behind at home or nurses. Stories about the horror of war were often told from the frontline by the soldiers. At least the materials about those times rarely document women as active agents during war. Perhaps that has become the stereotypes in our minds that are outdated in the current wars, and our ideas about what women can be need to be refreshed - during our research period, we found various documentaries, TV interviews, and fiction films that expanded our knowledge. Together with the creatives and the cast, we learned about incredible women's stories, such as women fighters on the frontlines fighting against ISIS; a Ukrainian teacher who has decided to stay in her hometown holding down at her local school shows a journalist a shelter they have prepared for their students; an Estonian women's active endeavor to survive the mass deportation to Siberia (during war with Russia) in shelters. Stories like these visualize for our actors what can be in their character's memories, what kind of things they are capable of doing, the nuances of the kinds of actions available to them, and quite incredibly, the nuances of those women's personalities, their femininity, their strengths and vulnerabilities, all mashed up, and show up in their decision to be brave.

Thinking Theater NYC: (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling "aims include to bear witness, to raise humanitarian aid, and to stand in international solidarity with refugees, and against the divisions being sown between peoples." Thinking about these aims, how well do you believe that contemporary theater is living up to its social justice potential? Are there ways that it could increase its impact as an agent of change?

Jeremy Goren: Opinions vary widely on this, and we don’t have space here to address it fully, but, in the theatre spaces that ask such questions we tend to ask how directly theatre should address concerns about social justice, if at all, and, if so, how directly and immediately we think such performance should have an effect on the world around it – and how all this should guide what and how we create. But, I think it’s more complex. Assuming we do care about this, for me personally, especially as someone who sometimes works in what gets called community-engaged theatre, in education, and in some exclusively social-justice spaces and projects, I believe that the conventions of confining to the stage our ideas about creating a more just society is a failing. Broadly, whether we’re talking about social justice or not, I believe live performance must open the potential to do something and not just illustrate ideas or talk about issues. For instance it could be that we present a performance with no social justice content but we’re instead creating an experience where strangers have to work together – and thereby create a liminal space in which performer and spectators can engage in a model of a more just society. Or it might be simple storytelling – that in some cases is itself a transgressive act and does something, when the voices or stories we hear are among those not often heard in such spaces. It’s not strictly about form. It’s fundamental to me that – especially if we tout ourselves as being concerned with social justice – that it permeate all facets of the creation and production process, like how we fund our work, how we treat each other in the creation process, how we make decisions. We can also create possibilities for what we make to spill off the stage – like we did with the first iteration of (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling, when we included a pysanky workshop, a reflection wall, and a panel discussion in the evening’s events – as well as providing opportunities for people to take direction action to support people experiencing displacement due to violence. All that said, I think there’s a large focus on social justice in theatre right now – at least in the public discourse. There are people out there, largely folks from historically marginalized demographics, making important impacts on and off the stage in this regard. But how substantially are our institutions making changes? Simply programming a few more Black playwrights is not enough. How are we at all levels reevaluating and changing the ways we create and consume theatre? And how does this connect with how we operate in our society at large?

Ultimately I don’t believe that any art form’s primary goal should be the enactment of societal change on the tangible level. There are others more expert on that and other fields built for it. Ours is largely the realm of inspiration, experience, practice, productive transgression, and, maybe, transformation. Art can impact us in ways that move us to change how we live, from the individual level to the universal. And, sometimes, a work of art does change the world. To paraphrase Rabbi Tarfon: artists do not have to be the primary drivers of social change, but neither are we free to desist from the struggle.

Thinking Theater NYC: As a creative collective dedicated to issues of equity and foregrounding historically underrepresented voices, what suggestions might you have for emerging creators and actors hoping to create socially relevant work?

Jeremy Goren: We are still far from where we want to be with this, even in this show, which, stemming as it did from Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine – and largely because of our group’s preexisting ties to Eastern Europe, including that some of the team are from there – has not reached where we’d like to be in foregrounding voices further afield from Europe. As I mentioned above, this justice-minded intent needs to extend into how we make the work and not just what we say with it or about it. We’re working towards that. If there’s any kind of suggestion I might offer to myself, to us, to you, it’s that we keep asking ourselves these questions and interrogating how we make decisions, examining where we are willing to compromise in the pursuit of justice and for what. One of the most essential teachings I received about theatre was that we can create huge pitfalls for ourselves if we make work with the intent of instructing an audience on the knowledge that we have that we assume they don’t. Rather I could ask: What can I lay on the table for both performers and guests to engage together? What kinds of questions can I pose for myself and the others who accept my invitation to engage? The pursuit of justice can, I think, take many forms. A meditation workshop might do more than a strident play about, I don’t know, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Self-righteousness seems to me the largest trap. Humility, self-examination, and compassion seem to me, now, like viable pathways, if we can stick to them.
__________

We thank the creative team of AnomalousCo for sharing with us these fascinating insights into and thoughtful reflections on the development and wider contexts of what promises to be a powerful piece of theater. Our anticipation for (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling has only increased; and watch for Thinking Theater NYC's review of the show, coming soon.

You can purchase tickets for (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling at https://here.org. Tickets are $20 for general admission, with the first ten tickets of each performance available at $10 on a first-come, first-served basis. The production is a part of SubletSeries: Co-op, HERE’s curated rental program, which provides artists with subsidized space and equipment, as well as a technical liaison. (beyond) Doomsday Scrolling will be performed on February 16th, 17th, and 18th at 8:30 pm; February 19th at 4 pm; February 22nd, 23rd, 24th, and 25th at 8:30 pm; and February 26th at 4 pm.

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