Special View Forum Festival of Socially-Oriented Theatre: A Personal Note

Audio description: a coloured photo. A spacious sunlit room with white columns and picture windows. Irina Povolotskaya is standing in its centre hugging herself. She is wearing a long dark hooded dress and white jogging shoes. Her fair hair is short. Chairs are arranged haphazardly around Irina, and behind her there is a whiteboard. A white Special View forum festival banner is stretched in the background.

The Second Special View Forum Festival of Socially-Oriented Theatre was held on May 19 through 22 in St. Petersburg. Irina Povolotskaya, a deaf blind actress, author and artist, took part in the forum festival with her Everyone In The City performance. We asked her to share her thoughts about the event.

The much-anticipated Special View Forum Festival has come to an end. It took place at the New Stage of Aleksandrinsky theatre in St. Petersburg and left us very warm memories. The forum festival has always been a valuable emotional resource (and especially now, with the current situation).

Initially, we were scheduled to come to St. Petersburg in 2020 for St. Petersburg International Economic Forum and to present one of our most popular plays, This Is More Than Just Herring by The Inclusion Centre for Creative Projects. It was inspired by Pieter Brueghel’s The World Upside Down, a painting with symbolic meaning and title. But the event was canceled due to COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, I applied for the Special View bracket contest on my own, with Everyone In The City performance by Cosmoopera Performing Arts. It was the first time I organized a large theatre company tour to another city. It turned out to be not that easy, given my deafness and blindness, canceled rehearsals, sudden substitution of actors and railway tickets... I didn’t want to let everyone down, so I checked and double checked everything.

Many thanks to the organizers for believing in us. Our performance was approved for the Inter-disciplinary program. This part of the festival comprised works touching upon social topics and created at the junction of different media and spheres adjacent to art. Such works as performances, video art, and documentaries from different regions of Russia.

One can never overestimate the importance of such festivals for social art practices and socially-oriented theatre development, for inclusion in general and for drawing public attention to the problems of socially disadvantaged groups.

Audio description: a coloured photo. Special View forum festival handouts are arranged on a table. There is a participant’s badge, a handbill in English with Ms. Povolotskaya’s portrait, two brochures with the program of the festival. One of them is open at the page where Everyone In The City performance is described.

Leaving Moscow by Sapsan express train, we left behind the gloomy rainy weather. On the day of our arrival to St. Petersburg, the weather grew warmer by the hour. We felt the same warmth from kindred spirits that surrounded us for all the duration of the festival.

I liked the way the whole process was organized, and I have been to similar events, so I’m speaking from my experience. The pickup and transfer, checking in a hotel in the city centre, catering, communicating with volunteers. Our theatre company was even given a separate dressing room, brightly lit and cozy. For us, people with special needs, such mundane details are of utmost importance, because they create an accessible environment we need to live a productive life. This is even more crucial when one is far from home. From the first day our group was provided with a virtually individual coordinator, Irina, my namesake, a very considerate and warm woman.

The New Stage of Aleksandrinsky theatre and the foyer where we performed were familiar to me. In 2015, it was on this stage that we presented the premiere of The Touchables play featuring such prominent Russian actors as Anatoliy Beliy and Anna Kovalchuk. Even then the New Stage management was heading towards creating its own inclusive space in most broad sense of the word. Now as well as then, the theatre stays true to the course it has chosen. This fact fills me with optimism, because in 2015, our company with this play was a pioneer of inclusion theatre for a large audience. And it took quite an effort to explain to big theatres who we were, what we were doing and what this was all about.

Audio description: a coloured photo. A sunny spring afternoon in St. Petersburg. Irina Povolotskaya is standing at the quay of Fontanka river, lightly touching the metal fencing. The actress is wearing a dark long dress, white jogging shoes and a bright magenta hooded jacket. Low residential buildings are lining the opposite bank. Turquoise cupolas of the Trinity Cathedral can be seen in the distance.

In 2015, in the inner yard of the New Stage building, we planted the apple tree that had served as a prop in our premiere of The Touchables. We couldn’t take along with us, so we had to promptly decide what to do with it. Our curator Victoria Avdeyeva negotiated the question with the theatre administration, and we were allowed to plant the sapling on a flowerbed in the inner yard. It was the perfect solution. All the members of our big company were digging the hole by turns, and we solemnly put the roots in it, filled the hole with earth and watered the tree. Then we tied ribbons onto its branches, and from then on it became a good local tradition.

Of course, during the first years we were worrying the apple tree wouldn’t make it. Now when we come to St. Petersburg, we make sure to visit our tree. This time was no exception. Together with The Inclusion Centre director, Tatyana Medyukh, we took time to look at our tree. It has grown sturdier, and although it is not that tall yet, it is nevertheless full of vigor! The sapling festooned with coloured ribbons has a good aura, and we hope that its future fruit will be equally good.

But let’s go back to the forum festival. All the plays and performances were interesting, unusual and spot-on.

A fairy-tale tightly knit with the reality in The Steadfast Tin Soldier. Music themes in Pity You Are Not Here and Tuning Fork Formula. Topics of highest social importance were raised: A Plastic Bag that Longed To Be Useful dwelt upon ecology, Inside Out talked about the attitude towards those who are different, Opportunities For Oneness touched upon the relationship between “the two worlds”, The Orphanage and The Youth described problems of psychoneurological orphanages and the elderly, troubled adolescents rehabilitation was represented in The Dudes.

What is more, I liked live broadcast of plays with audio description — it has become a kind of tradition. Sometimes this opportunity is more convenient for me (and my assistant) than attending the performance in person. Especially when there are so many events, one following the other.

The inter-disciplinary program included several performances of equal interest. I came to the festival with my most popular, good old Everyone In The City performance which celebrates the value and uniqueness of different types of experiences and ways to perceive the city.

It fitted perfectly into the brightly lit foyer of the New Stage with large windows. The performance is a mixture of movement, dance, live music and recorded music, sounds, painting, prose, poetry and singing. The participants of the performance are both actors and viewers, both with no impairments and sightless or deaf.

The idea of the performance is constantly developing in time and space: from the concept and first test shows to a full-scale piece. We have already presented seven different variations of the show. We performed in Moscow museums and in Netherlands in Kentalis, King’s Institute Of The Deaf.

The performance took its basic shape in June 2021 in the New Manege (Moscow). We once again reworked it and included one more of my poems which was recited, in an artistic sign language, by tactile interpreter Sergey and chanted by vocals teacher Yelena. And this experiment was successful, judging by the reaction of the audience. Of course, I would never be able to do all of this without the support of true friends, our big Cosmoopera Performing Arts team. I’d like to thank everyone for their trust and help, because we are doing all this virtually by mere enthusiasm, for the sake of our mission and for creating art together.

After the show I was interviewed by Marina. Before me, she had never met a deaf blind person, and she was a bit nervous, but we soon engaged in a good and sincere conversation. Frankly speaking, I wasn’t expecting any questions that would interest me personally. But it was quite a surprise when she came up with right kinds of helpful questions, so I answered them with pleasure, not just for the interviewer, but for myself.

The last question sounded something like this: “What is it that your company actors give to you, and you to them? What do you want the public to acquire?”

We give each other the warmth of our hearts, the support, positive communication and kindness. And the public gets all this from us, too. I will never stop repeating this everywhere: kindness is the fundamental principle of life, without it everything degrades and dies.

Audio description: a coloured photo. Irina Povolotskaya in a dark long dress is standing in front of a wall with the program of the Special View forum festival fixed on it. The program includes the complete list of theatrical, inter-disciplinary and educational forum events from May 19 through May 22.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the final gathering of all the festival participants. But my heart and my mind went to them. Moreover, I was texting some of the participants, learning from them what was going on, reading short summaries of speeches. Such events as this forum festival are the only chance to meet our old friends and acquaintances, the people who care. Thus I was able to see Marietta Tsygal-Polishchuk, an actress who once played in The Touchables. She came to St. Petersburg with her Finist, The Brave Falcon piece based on the complicated play by Svetlana Petriychuk.

As St. Petersburg welcomed us with sunny weather, I couldn’t help but take long walks. We walked many kilometers along classic routes: quays, the Fontanka river banks and Nevsky Prospect. We wandered around, taking time to pop into coffee shops for a cup of coffee and some pastry. Although I’ve been to St. Petersburg a great number of times since childhood, every time I come here I never grow tired of walking down its streets. My Mom loved this city and she used to bring me here, take me to museums and exhibitions...

In the evening of the final day of my stay at the festival (directly after our show) my friend Julia, a tour guide and sign language interpreter, invited me to the Museum of the History of Religion, and she came to me to take me there by taxi. It was growing dark, and by that time I was quite exhausted. But all this was so kind, unexpected and pleasant. Knowing about my fascination with the Chinese culture, she asked a research employee at the Chinese section to give us a little guided tour around this exposition. And then she herself gave me another tour around different historic halls, using tactile interpretation and tactile models. It was exciting, but it is a different story...