Many of us have heard about the concept of an almighty artist who turns their works into a testing ground for their fantasies and ideas. It is especially relevant when it comes to performing arts and theatre. It would not be wrong to say that this is generally one of the most prevalent notions among common people who are not a part of the small circle of art process participants. It is quite self-explanatory, though. Someone who isn’t a researcher or an artist, but a mere “guest in the art world”, does not percieve culture as something complex, built on specific and non-specific reasons, motives and floating ideas, but rather as a list of great names. (As they say, "It looks so amazing and inexplicable, only a great director is capable of that”).

But there is something we shouldn’t forget: even if we consider the history of art to be a “Book of Names”, this history had but a few periods when artists posessed certain special status and/or were completely unrestricted in their creative activity. For instance, modernists acquired individualism as a special instrument that would free them from realism dogma, from the illusion of knowing what reality is and how to portray it correctly. All of the darkest, most irrational, and therefore, the most “real” movements were cosidered so important they were basically allowed anything. A similar practice came to the theater world between the 19th and the 20th centuries and became the “directorial” practice. It changed the concept of the show completely, meaning that instead of a form or a piece of life on stage, there appeared sketches from an artist’s mind.

a horizontal hierarchy in theatre
«Playthings». Photo: Erich Goldmann

Needless to say that such practice requires for the performer to suffer, humiliate themselves, give up their freedom and expand their boundaries immensely for the sake of director’s vague schemes. It is worth noting that most of these concepts remained in use and were even popular in their own way up until the 90s (for example, in Zholdak Theatre). But here’s the question: do these sacrifices, offered from above, really matter anymore, in a world where discussions are being held on participatory art and its ethical and social aspects?

Let me jump ahead a little here and say in advance that we are not talking about kindness and compassion which suddenly became more relevant than ever. The idea of ​​a director-demiurge, a kind of an eccentric wizard, the Creator of the Worlds and the Weaver of Time, came to a head when the idea of centering a world on something in general was rejected. Modern theater with all its diversity including opera, dance, painting, politics, journalism, and performance is an obvious sign that the time of hierarchies is gone and no one is interested in past-century individual self-research anymore. In Ukraine, where the issue of vertical and horizontal theatre hierarchy is always relevant, the gap between the adherents of the old and the researchers of the new artistic language is obvious as never before. It is clear that even Facebook scandals over controversies, like the one with Oksana Cherkashina, are a result of nothing other than misunderstanding between the two groups. Group A simply could not fit anything like an “actor-performer” into their view of the world; they think in terms of private versus public, low versus high, personal versus artistic (and in such concept, personal issues end where artistic process starts, so how can you disagree?). And group B could no longer seriously imagine any director-demiurge, no "different", magical or forgiving area of art and justly defended the status of a performer-actor (no real art can be built on diminished personality, because if there is nothing personal, a performer becomes a political or a social tool). Such variety of "theater ethics" gives us a chance to see how different theatre languages are: some represent the directorial theatre, the modern metaphorical one, and others remind us of what became of art after Nicolas Bourriaud, Arthur Danto, Bruno Latour.

One notable example of horizontal theatre, acknowledged in Europe, was Ukrainian project "My grandfather dug. My father digged. And I will not", which emerged thanks to the project "Maps of fear / Maps of identity". When it all started back in 2016, the production team of people from Poland and Ukraine got together for a collaboration work with no intention to have a leading director. The group consisted of two playwrights, two directors and five performers. The direction concept provided plenty of room for the performers’ freedom; the existence of a script was basically a formality (you can see dirt getting scattered around the stage, actors eating biscuits, dancing, tearing down Lenin here, and it will be different every time), and the performers perfectly used their chance to speak freely from the point of their personalities. It is their stories about life in Kiev/Odessa/Warsaw/Donetsk, memories of the broken “Ukraine” bicycle or the fear of “writing loudly” that became the core of the play. Their work turned out to be a perfect example of how meaningless is the overrated director's role in Ukrainian theatre. All the same, it is important to understand that improvisation theatre isn’t necessarily a theatre with horizontal organization.

a horizontal hierarchy in theatre
«My grandfather dug. My father digged. And I will not». Photo: Maciej Czerski

Another, non-Ukrainian, example would be a play about the precariat called "Caries of Capitalism", produced at the Meyerhold Theatre Centre in 2019. Olga Tarakanova wrote a very detailed and refreshing article about it at a platform called Sigma. There, among other things, she mentioned the working process: how to fix and finalize the result if you are a team of five equal participants passing on power to each other. Most importantly, the article mentions how it all affects the language: for example, Tarakanova notes that the concept of horizontal theatre is an effective medium for being personal, in other words, the problems of a group or a community can be expressed by a member of this community. On the other hand, being objective and analytical, finding even-handed solutions becomes problematic, and the same goes for attempts and ways to build a unique and individually relatable world. Even so, this practice is significantly beneficial: "eventually, we create something none of us would ever come up with single-handedly”.

a horizontal hierarchy in theatre
«Caries of Capitalism». Photo:

Talking about similar projects in Europe, I would like to note Stefan Kaegi with Rimini Protokoll and Signa Köstler with SIGNA company. Actually, Rimini, the pioneers of contemporary documentary theatre and post-documentary theatre, and SIGNA, an evident representative of participatory theatre, formed the basis of alternative methods of working with a team and an actor. Many representatives of documentary and immersive theatre nowadays (like Rimini) came from Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen, where they had been studying the theoretical and practical basis of Lehmann and Goebbels. Both companies have extensive biographies, but let us pay special attention to one of SIGNA’s recent works. In 2019, they released a collaboration project together with Festival NET called “Playthings”. The show is an immersive project that brings participating spectators to a dark totalitarian utopia and challenges their empathy. Köstler starts in the show herself as an odious, rich Austrian lady on her deathbed. Her girls- protégés, the Playthings, gather around her, aiming to please the dying Mother and earn “inheritance points”. The audience are invited to join different teams and interact with the girls, choosing between losing by saving them from the pressure or winning by encouraging injustice and violence. There are a total of 28 performers who come from all over Europe and are specialize in different areas: actors, art critics, psychologists. Considering the hardcore rehearsals held in Street Art Museum, one could think this project is even more exploiting than the one Abramovich pulled off. However, – and this is important – all the performers worked on their characters individually and created their interactive storylines themselves. On this account, Köstler’s “Playthings” can indeed be considered an imposing and almost canonical example of participatory art. Still, if we’re talking about theatre in Ukraine, participatory concept is uncharted waters, and it has even more potential than directorial theatre.

Thus, we have established that horizontal theatre organization provides equal rights of expression and intervention for everyone involved in the process: the audience (in immersive and documentary theatre), the writers, and the performers, who surrender their main roles to the guests.

This trend has quite a substantial origin: democratic structures with no central authority tend to prevail nowadays in various fields, like business, science, and obviously, art. When it comes to horizontal organization in theatre (be it musical theatre, dance theatre or anything else), we should keep in mind that it’s not just the internal affairs of the company or the work ethics that have changed, but the understanding of motives, which affects the language. As for the changes in structures of horizontal theatre plays: they acquire certain performance features; the script is simplified and flexible; more freedom is given to both the audience and the performers; the shows explore ideas instead of offering a message and so on. May I add that such approach is exactly the reason we can call this organization contemporary.