Counting Sheep: A Theatrical Revolution

In the running for the prestigious Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, Counting Sheep places Edinburgh audiences in the novel position of being potential revolutionaries. Evan Beswick speaks to creators Mark and Marichka Marczyk

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Counting Sheep
Published 21 August 2016

Have you ever had to choose between joining a revolution or standing by? Between hastening the fall of a state or protecting its institutions? Between throwing a brick or putting it down? Between tending those wounded in fires, or running from the blaze? Between standing up to the army's guns, or taking the path of law and order?

Probably not, right? 

For Mark and Marichka Marczyk, creators of immersive theatrical experience Counting Sheep, there's a moment when this choice became very real. It was 18 February 2014. Protestors had marched on the Ukranian Parliament in opposition to the president, Viktor Yanukovych. The Trade Unions Building in Kiev was on fire. Police had begun to fire live ammunition at protestors. The revolution that would depose the government and put in place an interim regime had begun.

Marichka recalls: "We went to my apartment above my dance academy when the shooting and fires started. We didn't know what we could do. It's my city! My music academy! And now the square is on fire! And the church bells started ringing, and in this moment, we decided what to do. My brother said, 'Okay, I must go. I must do something'. And he left. And then a couple of minutes later I said, 'Mark, you're Canadian; it's my city. You can stay here. I'm going. Bye'. And I grabbed an army vest and ran."

That left Mark: "The church bells were ringing, and everything was on fire." Mark was scheduled to give a news interview, after which, "I was standing there, and I didn't know what to do. I shut myself down for a minute. Then I grabbed my laptop, grabbed my bag, put a bunch of medical supplies in, and ran out."

Counting Sheep attempts to make sense of this upheaval – to place audiences in the position of potential protestors and, as immersively as possible, force them to act. 

"We wanted to make a story about people, about humanity," says Marichka.

Mark agrees: "We wanted to give people a sense of that, sort of, border-transcending, politics-transcending understanding of our humanity, of what happens when we're put under stress and come together."

It's this focus on humanity in the face of grand historical forces that has placed the production in strong contention for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award. The prize is awarded in partnership with Fest every year at the Fringe to an outstanding play with a human rights message. This year, Mark Thomas is in the mix with The Red Shed, which charts his political awakening. Angel by Henry Naylor, about the war in Syria, is also in consideration, with the winner to be announced at a ceremony on 25 August.

For Mark and Marichka, though, it's important not to see their nomination as a celebration: "It's very difficult for us, because we know we're being awarded for something that people have died for," says Mark.

"It's difficult to accept an award when we know what the cost is. It's not something in the past. It's still happening in people's lives. So on one hand, it's a sensitive point. On the other hand, the reason we're putting on the show is to share this experience and the culture and the humanity we felt.

"We know that Amnesty does such good work helping to spread the message of human rights, and if it helps get the message of the show into people's minds and hearts, then we're honoured. Ideally, this show would never exist."

That's not to say there's nothing celebratory about the piece. I'm interested in the use of Ukranian song, which pervades the production. Indeed, there's no dialogue, only singing.

"It's something that we don't often get to speak about when we're talking about the show, because people are so interested in how new it is in terms of space and audience interaction," says Mark, "But for us it's really important. When a person walks out, they've been given a very intimate portrait of the Ukrainian spirit. There's hundreds of years of Ukrainian history and culture and language in the songs, and that's something we're really proud of."

Marichka agrees that music, rather than drama, was their starting point: "We're not theatre people, we're not actors, either of us," she adds. "But I have some theatre experience because I played for six years in [Kiev's avant-garde] DAKh theatre."

Mark continues: "Marichka's background is as an ethnomusicologist. For the last 16 years she's been going on these research trips across Ukraine and singing with traditional folk choirs. So her mind is literally a Rolodex of central and eastern Ukranian traditional music; anything going back to 1,000 years ago. So when we started to think about how we might give a voice to the story of the revolution, it naturally came out that there's so many of these songs that express the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. There are a lot of individual experiences that speak to this mass experience that a lot of people share."

I'm reminded of the famed and feted Alan Lomax, whose recordings of American folk and blues form the now legendary archive of American folk music at the Library of Congress. Marichka agrees, adding that there's a similar unearthing process going on: "It's just not a popular part of culture in Ukraine. It's, like, underground now. Nobody knows these songs that we use in our show."

Mark adds: "They're not songs that somebody would hear and say, 'I know that song', and sing along. They're songs that are buried deep within the psyche and the spirit of Ukranian people. There's the language, and the harmonies that are embedded, which is why we've chosen them."

The result is a production that feels truly immersive. It feels close, terrifying, out of control. "It's really interesting to watch how people engage," says Mark. "Some people are really adamant: 'Yeah, we have to help', and they come and they grab a shield or start serving food. Other people, you hand them a brick and they go, 'NO! I'm not throwing a brick'. It's styrofoam. But they get so into the moment, and so into the idea that this might actually be a real revolution that they won't throw that brick because they don't want to be part of that violence. What's the point you will go to?"

So how fine a line is it between this intense dramatic experience and a real revolution, I wonder? How close are Edinburgh's Fringe revolutionaries to freedom fighters? Marichka responds bluntly, a reminder of the human cost of revolution: "Well, there's no shooting."

http://amnesty.org.uk