‘When the revolution started, I was not political. Then people started to die’
Counting Sheep began life at the heart of the revolution on Ukraine’s Maidan. Is it more than radical tourism?
Counting Sheep is an immersive folk opera using traditional songs performed by the Lemon Bucket Orchestra. Photograph: Dahlia Katz
Before January 2014, the composer and musician Mark Marczyk used to wave the word “revolution” around liberally, but usually after the words “folk music”.
A young Canadian with Ukrainian heritage, Marczyk’s politics were expressly musical. In 2009 he founded the Lemon Bucket Orchestra, a “guerrilla folk” outfit in Toronto with an expansive and rolling membership: a “Balkan-Klezmer-Gypsy-Party-Punk Superband”. Popular at home with its energetic live shows, and making inroads touring eastern Europe, the project was never meant to be a cash cow.
“For me, it was about fighting the mainstream,” says Marczyk, “and bringing a deeper connection to our roots through music, through culture and shared experience. That was always something at the heart of my own personal protest.”
These days, Marczyk chooses his terms more carefully.
“I was so completely blown away, visually, emotionally, sonically,”
Invited to work on a film score in Kiev, in 2014, Marczyk was curious to visit Maidan Nezalezhonosti, the central square of Kiev, a short walk from his hotel, where peaceful protests had been held against then president Viktor Yanukovych’s government for some weeks. Yanukovych refused to sign an expected political association and free trade agreement with the European Union, pursuing closer ties to Russia instead, which had mostly seen Ukrainian independence as a grievous separation.
“I was so completely blown away, visually, emotionally, sonically,” Marczyk recalls of his first experience in the square. “The sight, the smells, all the details of how people come together, were so tragic and inspiring and dynamic. What I’d seen on the news wasn’t even close to expressing how these people had come from all across the country to create this incredible ad hoc village in Kiev.”
Somewhere among its thousands of protesters was Marichka Kudriavtseva, a Ukrainian singer and ethnomusicologist, whose plans to perform a string of gigs in the city had also abruptly changed. As the Ukrainian parliament sought to suppress the protest, confrontation with riot police turned violent, and four young men died from their injuries. Marczyk first saw Kudriavtseva on a makeshift stage, from which announcements, speeches and performances were delivered, as her folk choir sang an impromptu requiem for the fallen.
A few weeks later, protesters were being shot, Molotov cocktails were hurled over the barricades, and Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity was unavoidable. The dominoes of its consequence are still falling: 780 people died, Yanukovych was ousted, Russia infamously annexed Crimea, and a war between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists is still ongoing.
Immersive folk opera
The flashpoint for these events, in Maidan Square, is the inspiration behind Counting Sheep, an immersive folk opera by Mark and Marichka Marczyk, who married a year after meeting. Using traditional songs sourced by Marichka and performed by the Lemon Bucket Orchestra, the immersive performance documents a revolution on the ground level, attentive, above all things, to the myriad voices that make up a movement.
“When the revolution started, I was not a political person,” says Marichka at their home in Toronto. “I am an artist – I didn’t want to be part of that game. Then, of course, the situation changed. Young people started to die for nothing. With my group, we decided to be part of the revolution as musicians. I can see now I’m a revolutionary for sure. Because I started to help the building barricades and volunteering.”
Mark, who initially trained as a writer, quickly became involved with online reportage, detailing his encounters with protesters for newspapers and Facebook posts. Traditional journalism often portrays political protest as a single coherent movement, united in aims or slogans, but the truth is usually more subjective. “The heart of the issue is that people are all coming for their own reasons,” says Mark.
“All revolutions have the same face,” agrees Marichka, “but people’s stories are always different.”
They spoke to teachers, doctors, cab drivers, families, friends, building up a tapestry of experiences of contemporary Ukraine. Keen to honour the diversity of those voices, but partly working through the trauma of seeing people beaten and shot, they struggled to find a form to honour the Revolution of Dignity.
Even the title, Counting Sheep, is not a lightly chosen, available to a multiplicity of meanings. You join the protesters onstage, wearing discreet masks and hoisting their instruments, to see them as an undifferentiated flock or as individual contributors. “Every person’s experience is slightly different,” says Mark. “So you also question the nature of your own relationship to the revolution.”
Initially, the couple constructed a huge, unwieldy script, told by 20 characters in three languages, which included the perspectives of protesters, riot police, politicians, journalists and thugs. “We’re not actors,” Marichka says laughing at the memory.
This never stopped makers of political theatre before. “We were definitely not excited about being part of that tradition,” replies Mark. “We realised that if that kind of show was put on, we wouldn’t go to see it.” Junking the script, they decided to tell the stories exclusively through traditional songs, sourced by Marichka from the Ukrainian plains and mostly forgotten: songs of the seasons, wars and weddings.
Revolution is polyphonic
When Mark introduced Marichka to the Lemon Bucket Orchestra, she was not immediately enraptured. “I just thought, oh, my god, this is terrible. Why is this group so popular?” Her opinion has since become much warmer as the band has become better versed in the nuances of Ukrainian folk.
“For a lot of Lemon Bucket Members, seeing the video around you,” – the performance incorporates the phone footage of protesters – “sharing the stories, eating the food and being a part of Ukrainian culture, helped them understand the sound. And also why it’s polyphonic. We didn’t want a singular, lead-oriented Western style musical. Because the nature of revolution is polyphonic.”
Since its 2015 debut in Toronto, and a feverishly attended run at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Counting Sheep has received rave reviews and several awards. And still there’s something faintly troubling about the proposition made to audiences far removed from Maidan Square. One review quote, used prominently in the marketing for Kilkenny Arts Festival, where it makes its Irish debut, is striking. “As close as one could get to experiencing a revolution without putting your life on the line,” it approves, making vicariousness seem like the selling point – the revolution experience from the safety of your own arts festival.
Martin and Marichka are sensitive to the charge of radical tourism: “That’s something that we’ve definitely see-sawed on,” says Mark, who prefers to ignore the marketing. Counting Sheep, he says, is theatre, not revolution. “We make very theatrical aesthetic choices. Rather than bringing in machine guns, we use black paper aeroplanes taped together. Obviously, you know there’s no threat, but when it’s presented with the songs, and all your senses are being stimulated, you can start to empathise with that situation.
“The aim for us was never to say, this is what it feels like to be part of a revolution, to lose people you love, and to have physical wounds.” Nor is it, as some have suggested, to provide a primer for resistance movements (“No more than a history book”) or a feel-good encomium to people power: the consequence of the Revolution of Dignity, they point out, has been a war with Russia and the displacement of more than 1.4 million people.
Its consequences for Mark and Marichka Marczyk have been much more heartening: they are now married, living in Toronto and expecting a baby, one of the early children of the revolution. “We saw the ultrasound and the baby’s got its fist pumping.”
But it’s hard to leave the intensity, the trauma and the camaraderie of the folk of Maidan Square behind. “We continue to revisit it, over and over,” says Mark. “Every time we do Counting Sheep it’s a fresh wound. But it’s not as difficult as what people are doing in Ukraine on a daily basis. We owe something to those people. In that sense it’s difficult to let go. Because it doesn’t let go of you at all.”
Counting Sheep runs from August 13th-19th in The Hub at Cillín Hill, Kilkenny, as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival