DARIA IVANOVA-HOLOLOBOVA: “Obraztsov, Cossack and Life in a Backpack”

16 06 2023

Daria Ivanova-Hololobova, photo: Private album

Katarina Kolega

Last year in Čakovec, I met Daria Ivanova Hololobova, Ph.D., a university professor from Ukraine. She visited the 25th meeting of professional theaters for children and youth HC Assitej. Between the plays, she was often hurrying to Zoom classes and meetings because, since she moved to Germany, she has had online lessons with her students. Right until January 2023, she worked at the Kyiv Academic Puppet Theater as the Head of the Literature and Drama Department, she was one of the initiators of the international puppet festival called “PUPPET.UP!”, which also hosted many of our puppeteers, and from 2015 to 2019 she was the General Secretary of the UNIMA Ukrainian Center.

She currently works as an assistant at the Puppet Theater Department within the Kyiv National I.K. Karpenko-Kary University OF Theater, Cinema and Television University in Kyiv, and she remotely teaches classes to her students since she lives in Düsseldorf. In addition, she works as a researcher at the Institute of Art History of Heinrich-Heine University and is often torn between many jobs. Despite all the adversities she has been going through for the past year, she is full of positive energy and enthusiasm, and even though she has little free time, by organizing well she manages to travel, write, create and talk to journalists.

Bring us closer to the Ukrainian theater. How would you describe it?

In Ukraine, as in Russia, Sergej Obraztsov’s puppet theater is still dominant. We are under the pressure of the Soviet books and the Russian language and we miss the insights into the puppet creativity of the Western European countries. Although I respect the tradition, I also believed that it is time to turn to modernity, to see what is being done in other countries. That is why we initiated the “PUPPET.UP!” festival in order to broaden horizons and refresh our theater with new ideas and approaches. At the first festival in 2017, the winner was your Ninth Sheep,  and Ivica Lučić received the award for the best actor-animator of the festival. From then until today, the Croatian puppet theater is a real discovery for me. In the following years, we hosted theaters from Karlovac, Zadar and Virovitica, and I have to say that all the plays received the main award, and we changed the members of the selection board every year. Those were truly excellent plays. Your director Tamara Kučinović left a great impression on me because she is very special and her every play is different. The Ljubljana Puppet Theater also has brilliant plays. I was particularly impressed by the play The Duck, Death and the Tulip which I watched several times and it made me cry every time. Director Tin Grabnar makes fantastic plays and, when the war is over, I would gladly invite him to Ukraine. However, we still maintain the tradition that one director works at the theater and that no one from the outside is invited. That director has the power and doesn’t want to share it with anyone. He doesn’t want anyone to steal his crown and throne. I would like for that to finally change so we can watch different aesthetics. That would also change our spectators who are not used to watching anything else besides traditional puppetry, so when we bring something new and different they unhappily comment: “But where are the puppets? Is this what puppet theater is?” I would like to offer them more diverse artistic content, to show them and get them used to different approaches in puppet plays.

Daria Ivanova-Hololobova, foto: Privatni album

How do your puppeteers react to those different approaches?

I remember our first play for the youngest, the babies, called Kalaki Malaki. It was directed by Maryna Bohomaz.

In the beginning, the younger actors were very curious, unlike the older ones who were really reserved and gave fierce resistance. They told us that they are not nannies nor kindergarten teachers, they were asking for written text, their role, dramatic situations and conflicts, they wanted to work in a classic way, write monologues for their characters and create personalities. But in the theater for the youngest, none of that exists. Therefore, it was truly hard to persuade certain actors to cooperate. We were telling them how this theater is created, how picturesque and interactive it is and that they have to communicate with the audience, be close to them, give them a snowflake or a little fish to touch... That was unacceptable to them. However, when they started performing the plays and saw, on the children’s and their parents’ faces, the feelings they are evoking, they completely melted. They realized that they are a part of something sweet and nice. So, we do not have to persuade them anymore. They happily approach every new play and they accepted the rules of the theater game. But winning them over to it was extremely difficult and the process was really lengthy. I remember our first meeting, for the first play. The director was presenting her concept and content and they were watching her in disbelief, and at the end, one of our main actors condescendingly jabbed: “Aren’t you afraid that this won’t be interesting to anyone?” She honestly responded that she is, but that we cannot know how it is going to be until we try. And so we tried. The artist Olha Filonchuk was amazing and the play achieved great success. In it, we depicted The Cloud, The Sun and The River. The Cloud and The Sun have a minor dispute over who is more important in the sky, but in the end, they make up and create a rainbow together.

The second play was called The Drop. In it, we depicted all kinds of drops – those coming from the rivers, seas and oceans, streams. In the play, the children could dive with us to the bottom of the sea, meet the fish and jellyfish. That is why we made a play called At My Grandma’s Dusia because we wanted the children from the city, who have never been to a village, to get to know the domestic animals such as horses, cows, goats, sheep, to hear what sounds those animals make. During the Christmas holidays, we created a play The Snow intended for children experiencing their first snow, seeing the snowflakes, the snowman, for the first time in their life, having their first encounter with winter.

All these plays were interactive. The children were sitting on a large carpet, and at the start of the play, we explained to their parents that, even though they are in a theater, they don’t have to calm them down. During those plays, the children can walk, jump, touch our props, materials, and when the performance is finished, they can also take pictures with them. We instructed the parents to pay attention to the emotions of their children, which were always very expressive and honest. That was really interesting.

Did you have enough resources for a young audience?

When our directors want to make plays for the youth, they depend on theater directors who have money and power. And they are not very open to such plays because they are afraid that they won’t sell, that they won’t fill every single seat in the auditorium, which is why they won’t be profitable. That is why they usually opt for safe titles such as Cinderella. With that kind of thinking, we have a safe audience until the age of six or seven, but we lose the youth and then wonder why less and less people want to go to the theater. How can they go when they are not used to it? That particularly concerns puppet plays which lose their spectators entirely from the age of 10 onwards. However, I have to say that we also tried making plays for those who are a bit older. For example, we made a play based on a novel by Erich Emmanuel Schmitt called Oscar and the Lady in Pink, intended for a young audience from the age of 14 and adults. Furthermore, we portrayed a Ukrainian classic, The Kaidash Family, which is read in school, but it was also a really good play for children, aged 12, as well as Gogol’s Christmas Eve, which is suitable for that age.

Since the war in Ukraine started, the Kyiv Academic Puppet Theater is closed. Do actors and puppeteers think about artistic creation in these circumstances?

Certainly. At the start of the war, we suggested that plays be made in the subway, in basements, but our theater director didn’t even want to hear it. That is why we launched an online project called The Guardians of Fairy Tales. We wanted our actors to read fairy tales to children in a professional way, and because they lacked a stage, they recorded short paragraphs of certain stories. In them, we present old Ukrainian fairy tales which were forgotten by most, narrated by our main actor, the puppet Cossack, who is our national hero from the Christmas theater. We realized that the puppet is more powerful than the actor and that is why we chose it. We very much wanted the theater to open again and everyone volunteered on the project. However, our actors are currently fighting for their bare survival. Many of them are renting apartments in Kyiv, they haven’t received their paycheck for over a year and they are barely surviving. One of our actresses started an organization for helping artists in critical situations and she brings them food every day, but that is not enough to sustain them. A number of actors who stayed in Ukraine are on the front, some of them work as taxi drivers, and some work in a few cafes that are still open. That is why I am immensely happy that, despite everything, they joined The Guardians of Fairy Tales project, and they are also happy because that way they can still stay in their line of work. I am currently looking for ideas and projects that can help them stay within their profession. I had a meeting with the presidents of the UNIMA International Puppetry Association. I talked to my colleagues from Sweden, Denmark and Norway and we were thinking about organizing online seminars and workshops led by Ukrainian puppeteers. That way we would present our traditional puppetry and provide them with a part-time job. We would often run such workshops at various festivals and they would always be very successful. I suggested to them that we invite the Ukrainian puppeteers who lost their job and thus allow them to stay within their profession and earn money.

Last year at the beginning of May, I organized a European tour for our actors because I didn’t want them to be in the country on 9 May. On that day, the Russians celebrate their victory over Nazism during World War II and I was afraid that that is when the strongest attacks on our country will occur. So I wanted to take them away. Unfortunately, I could not bring all the actors. We organized the participation at a festival in Budapest together with the president of UNIMA from Hungary Kata Csato, and after that, we traveled to Brussels to visit the General Secretary of UNIMA, Dimitri Jageneau, who organized the performances at the Belgian festival. I am really grateful to all the puppeteers and theater workers doing everything they can to help us – they invite us to festivals, support us by offering projects, they are very open and helpful and this human factor means a lot to us.

Daria Ivanova-Hololobova, foto: Privatni album

Have war-themed plays or dramas started appearing in Ukraine?

In Kyiv, they started organizing meetings where they read texts written after the war started. Many people started writing dramas for children, youth and adults on that subject. Some of them are truly excellent and certain writers handed them to students for free. On the other hand, a lot of professors in our Academy don’t want to do it. They say that they had enough of the real war and that we do not need to reflect it in the theater. Here I think they are wrong because theater is the reflection of our reality. There are two opposing opinions on the matter – some would want to offer the audience a better, nicer world, at least in the theater, and they think it is not fair to show the war to children. Others think that we should not turn a blind eye to it.

Did one of those dramas stick with you?

I remember a very moving monodrama about a woman in an occupied territory. Although she is scared, she doesn’t want to show it, and she suffers the most because she won’t have a harvest of tomatoes and watermelons. Namely, the monodrama refers to two Ukrainian stories: Tomatoes and Watermelons, while the red juice of the tomatoes symbolizes blood. The text is multi-layered and has deep meanings since it is not only about this year’s harvest but also the seed that yielded generations of ancestors who worked the land. I also read a children’s drama named Refugee Cats by Maryna Smilianets, and I am considering making a play on that subject myself. Last year in August, I participated in the workshops organized by the German UNIMA and its president Ruth Brockhausen in Nordheim. One evening was dedicated to author projects and I presented mine, called Life in a Backpack. I remember, when I was crossing the border, that I was carrying only one suitcase which contained my whole life.  Once, that would be completely unimaginable to me. Before the war started, I used to go on vacations with at least two or three suitcases. I observed a lot of women around me, mothers and grandmothers, holding a baby in one arm, a pet in the other, and carrying a backpack on their back. And that image is truly tragic. That is why I would love to make a play about it and I hope I will succeed – I need to find money and other possibilities, but I really want to make it.

Dear Daria, I sincerely wish that for you as well. Thank you for the conversation.