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Playwright Andrew Kushnir

What inspired you to write Wormwood?

In 2004, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the Maidan Square in Kyiv, in peaceful protest against an election stolen by regime and Russian-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych, my cultural heritage suddenly became hyper-visible. I think it became visible to a lot of people in an affirming, inspiring and unprecedented way – perhaps even to Ukrainians themselves. I certainly felt like I was seeing a manifestation of all those ideals – of that Ukrainian dignity – that I had been taught as a kid. A few months earlier, we had been shocked by images of presidential (and pro-West) candidate Victor Yushchenko’s pockmarked face, the survivor of a dioxin poison assassination attempt. The Orange clad protestors in late November 2004 were telling the story of a different Ukraine, the story of a people and a movement for change. I wanted to write a play that located a Ukrainian-Canadian in this pivotal moment, and have him and his “inherited” love of Ukraine undergo a meaningful transformation.

Andrew in Zaporizhia (2011)

Tell us about your relationship to Ukraine.

Both my parents are first generation Ukrainian-Canadians, my grandparents on both sides hailed from Western Ukraine, from the Ternopil region. I had a thoroughly Ukrainian Diaspora upbringing – the language was my mother tongue – and from an early age I was encountering the songs, history, fables, customs, religion, morality from the Old Country. I sometimes think of it as a kind of arranged marriage – I was forced to learn all of this stuff (often at the expense of my Saturday and Sunday mornings, as a kid who had to attend Ukrainian school and then Ukrainian mass). But this initially begrudging (at times torturous) arranged marriage has turned into a real love. I was taught to love Ukraine (which in my childhood was still part of the U.S.S.R.) and in my adulthood have grown to connect deeply with narratives around the Ukrainian people’s long-standing subjugation and their struggle for dignity. In the Euromaidan demonstrations in the winter of 2013, there was a placard in the Maidan Square that read “Ukraine is my child.” This really resonates for me when I think back to my early years – I felt I had been entrusted with containing, protecting, and passing on the Ukrainian Idea.

What is the central question of Wormwood?

I think central to the piece is what it means for reality and mythology to confront one another. The story of Wormwood has a Canadian going to Ukraine to observe elections following the Orange Revolution in 2004. He inserts himself with a certain kind of love, a love that predates his stepping foot on Ukrainian soil, a taught love, an inherited love, an imaginary love. When that love encounters the one he loves, he is forced to reconcile differences, he’s forced to change. The political realities of Ukraine and its people complicate his journey. I liken it to my own wrestling match – the one between my perception of the world and how it may be for others. It requires a different kind of listening, a letting go of your own story to make space for another’s. It’s a recurring theme in my plays.

How does this piece relate to your body of work so far?

I’m interested in questions of justice, and I think a figure I keep coming back to in my work is the insider-outsider. The well-meaning “insertionist.” What does it mean to insert yourself in a community not your own, with the best intentions, only to discover that you don’t understand as much as you thought and you may be imperiling the very thing (idea, person, community) you’d like to help. How do you deal with new-found ignorance or discovering a blindness? How does it change your perception of a place, a community, and even more startlingly, yourself and your place in the world.

'The Andriyivski Uzviz (Descent) in the Podil neighbourhood of Kyiv

The Andriyivski Uzviz (Descent) in the Podil neighbourhood of Kyiv

The play is multilingual. Why?

The play is trilingual: English, Ukrainian and Russian. It’s set in Zaporizhia, a city in Ukraine I visited in 2011. This is south-eastern Ukraine (not terribly far from the current conflict zone in Eastern Ukraine). It was a heavily Russified part of the U.S.S.R. – which is to say great efforts were made to convert the region into a more culturally Russian part of the union. When I traveled there, my Western “Diaspora” Ukrainian language was often misunderstood. In many cases, I engaged with Ukrainians who could only speak Russian – which I expected, but nonetheless found destabilizing. It made me wonder the extent to which language defines a nationality. As is said in the play “In this country, language is not the full story.” Surely the person who was born and has lived their whole life in Ukraine, no matter their language, is more Ukrainian than I am. As a dramatist, I wanted to plant a protagonist in this complex environment – I wanted him to feel more Ukrainian at times (or a different version of Ukrainian) than the locals. I wanted him to be out of the loop when people spoke Russian (a language I have difficulty understanding though it sounds similar to Ukrainian). I wanted to plunge the audience in a comparably disorienting place. I think the multi-lingual aspect of the play also points up how much we can infer from intonation. And at times, how little we can infer from tones that may be unfamiliar to us here in the West. What are Ukrainian or Russian “tones”? I don’t think the multilingualism will at all frustrate the audience. I think it will evoke the feeling of traveling to some other part of the world and rolling with its un-Canadian feel. There is pleasurable mystery in it.

Wormwood's First Rehearsal at Tarragon

Wormwood’s First Rehearsal at Tarragon

Tell us about the first week of rehearsal at Tarragon.

Apart from myself and our bandurist Victor Mishalow (a bandura is an outsized guitar that will underscore the play), the rehearsal hall is populated by non-Ukrainian artists. There has been something deeply satisfying about this – I’m thinking back to when Victor started teaching these actors the Ukrainian national anthem. I’ve caught myself a few times, sitting back and thinking “I may not have kids with whom to share this rich cultural inheritance. But here I am, passing it on in a different way. My language. My songs. My history.” It has underlined for me the extent to which theatre, the practice of theatre, is taking a caring walk in other people’s words, other people’s stories. There is an empathetic leap in this work and Wormwood is allowing me to initiate these artists (and eventually audiences) in some Ukrainian ideas and questions?

How did the script change between your first draft and beginning rehearsal?

The plot of the play is loosely inspired by a short story called “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Set in Renaissance Italy, Hawthorne’s piece has a certain kind of harsh morality to it – one that felt somewhat “Ukrainian” to me – and I proceeded to marry this cautionary coming-of-age fable with my own trajectory as a gay Ukrainian-Canadian artist. What has happened over the years of writing, is that I have made Wormwood more and more my story, a navigating of my own obsessions, working on my own kind of healing, trying to understand the world and my being in it. The play has been tightened (it was once an epic 3-act structure, now it unfolds – still quite epically, I think – over two). Richard, as a director, has asked strong and compelling questions of the work and I’m very pleased with the ensuing and ongoing evolution. I’ve always thought of the play as a kind of hydra – a many headed mythological beast. Early drafts were overwhelming. I think what we’re navigating now has much more clarity, without sacrificing complexity.

The world has also changed, alongside this play. The early drafts of the play predate the most recent revolution in Ukraine and yet it’s been interesting to discover how so many of the play’s ideas and questions and metaphors are only deepened by what has been happening. I’m grateful the play is happening now in 2015. The events and conflicts we’re seeing now in Ukraine are tethered to long histories, old stories, recurring narratives in the region. In that way, the play hasn’t changed radically on the other side of the Euromaidan demonstrations, the annexation of Crimea, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The play is in conversation with these developments.

How did it change once rehearsals began?

Plays make sense in space. A colleague recently called scripts “a treasure map” to be taken into the world. The text, the words have to be taken into the world. It’s been very rewarding to share space with people trying to follow the treasure map in pursuit of insight, meaning, a version of Ukraine. I’m going along with them on this journey, trying to better listen to and understand my own play, its resonances, its voices. This has been the first time that I’ve been able to fully engage with the Ukrainian and Russian languages in the text and I’ve been very excited by how it’s evoking another part of the world.

What is it like hearing your script read in rehearsal for the first time?

David Jansen (interim literary manager at Tarragon) said to me the other day “Actors finish the writing of a play.” The collaboration, the meaning-making that is happening between Richard and the ensemble is the best part of writing a play. I’ve been taking in a lot of this interpretive work quietly, sitting in the corner. I relish my time with the actor’s practice, the problems and solutions that come from gifted interpretive artists tackling the puzzles of the characters, relationships, conflicts. Already there have been all kinds of interpretations that have surpassed my imagination. My play is teaching me what it is through these phenomenal artists, what it can be. Not unlike Artemisia, a character in the play, the piece feels “full of possibility.”