My guests are Virlana Tkacz, who heads the Yara Arts Group in New York City creating original theatre productions in Yara’s signature style of multilingual dialogue and songs supported by evocative visuals, music, and movement. And award-winning, writer-director, Amy Grappell, whose documentary LIGHT FROM THE EAST is about an extraordinary Ukrainian American stage production taking place during a coup in August 1991, in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Virlana had a dream and started the Yara Arts Group in 1990 with a show about the dreams of young people– what they wanted to do in the theater. The show became A LIGHT FROM THE EAST, experimental theater interpreting excerpts from the diary of an early Ukrainian theater director, Les Kurbas, in Kyiv in 1919, whose ideas challenged the repressive authority coming into power after the Russian Revolution by giving voice to the people. His work evoked thought that would educate the masses, unite the community, and liberate the human spirit.
Amy Grappell was one of those young stage players working in New York. She auditioned and was part of a very successful show. An unexpected opportunity and invitation to become the first Ukrainian American theatre production in a seminal cultural exchange was too good to pass up and Amy eagerly went along. The troupe traveled to Kyiv in August 1991, where they immersed in Ukrainian culture, lived with host families, survived the often inedible food, limited in stock and obtainability. They suddenly found themselves in the middle of political upheaval, a coup was announced. Mr. Gorbachev was missing. The following days, they witnessed a revolution and Independence Day for Ukraine. They were told very little except to keep working, after all, the show must go on and it did.
The stage play, written by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps became the subject of Amy Grappell’s film, LIGHT FROM THE EAST, a documentary, following a dream that crossed decades, transcending time, for young people of two countries, United States and Ukraine, finding a common ground, a common language in the Arts.
Unbelievably in 2022, Ukraine is under attack by a Russian dictator determined to destroy a sovereign nation and kill the dream of freedom-loving people who want a better life for themselves and their children. Some dreams of young people in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol are of cluster bombs and war around them. But just as the dangers of arrest and destruction occurred in Kyiv in 1919, the dream remains stronger than death, and Artists’ voices are always relevant. Les Kurbas’ murder was ordered by Stalin in 1937 but his work lives on to this day.
In the final scene in LIGHT FROM THE EAST, we see the theater troupe in a circle holding onto one another. Virlana says (in Ukrainian): We all learned something about ourselves, about each other during the time we’ve worked with each other. I want to remind us to give this art to someone else so that this circle becomes much bigger, much richer. So the next time we stand in the circle and embrace, we’ll embrace the whole city.
Finally, a quote from Les Kurbas’ diary 1921. Art is where the unity of humanity is manifest… where our true selves converse with one another.
“Oblivion” music by Astor Piazsolla, violin by Yuri Turchyn YURI TURCHYN
VIRLANA TKACZ heads the Yara Arts Group and has directed almost forty original shows at La MaMa Theatre in New York, as well as in Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv, Bishkek, Ulaanbaatar, and Ulan Ude. The first show she created with Yara was A LIGHT FROM THE EAST, which traveled to Kyiv in the summer of 1990 to become the first Ukrainian American theatre production and the subject of Amy Grappell’s film.
Amy Grappell’s short documentary KINDERLAND, about the history of progressive Jewish summer camps, won Best Documentary Short at Santa Fe Ind. Film Festival and screened at DOC NYC (2021). Her documentary QUADRANGLE, about her experience growing up in a group marriage, premiered at Sundance in 2010, where it won a Jury Prize. It went on to win Best Short Film at SXSW, AFI, and Dallas International Film Festival, and had its New York premiere at New Directors/New Filmmakers before being broadcast on HBO. Her feature documentary LIGHT FROM THE EAST, shot in Ukraine during the fall of Communism, premiered at SXSW, aired on PBS, and is part of the collection at the Library of Congress. Grappell is the recipient of grants from, Austin Film Society, National Endowment for the Arts, Texas Council for the Humanities, the Trull Foundation, and Puffin Foundation.