02. Merak

The theater should be the way the children want it. I wanted to make a theater in which everyone gets pleasure already during rehearsals. We had no competition and no elite. The roles themselves arose or were given in close proximity to the topic. We didn't have the main actors and a clear distribution of roles. Therefore, "Merak" took the form of vessels. This is a sustainable model of theater.

Yulia Tsvetkova

April 2018
The youth activist theater Merak was launched in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Russia. Yuliya Tsvetkova was its founder and director. Her mother, Anna Khodyreva, was its administrator. The actors of the theater were children and teenagers from six to 17 years old. The plays were in Russian and in English.

  • The word “merak” can be translated from Serbian as “joy” or “pleasure in the little things of life”. It came to Serbian from Turkish, where “merak etmek” means “to care about” or “to be interested in”.
  • As Anna Khodyreva emphasizes, Merak had a horizontal structure without hierarchies. It means that actors participated in staging and organization along with the director. Topics for the performances were defined based on the problems that worried children and teens, that’s why Merak was, first of all, an activist theater. During rehearsals, the actors were looking for ways to solve social problems, and during performances, the audience was also involved in this quest.
  • In a year of its existence, the theater has released nine performances on various acute social topics, including gender stereotypes, bullying, criticism of aggression and military propaganda.
  • Among the performances of the theater there were the dance miniature “The Rite of Spring” about the “Prague Spring” of 1968, the performance about dangers of weapons “Bless-The-Lord-And-His-Ammunition” and the performance about bullying “The Untouchables”.

Text: Anna Laletina

Sources: Interviews with Anna Khodyreva, OVD-Info, Mediazona, Takie Dela


On April 7, 2018, the “Merak” theater was born, on June 30, 2019, “Merak” was closed.

Yulia cut the theater off from herself because it was very painful. This is her child, and therefore I write about the theater, not she. It’s like a stolen cat. When a cat was stolen from us after the arrest, we did not talk about it, did not think. As if it died. It’s easier this way, otherwise, too many thoughts are included.

Anna Khodyreva

The story of “Merak” as life

It began long before its official birthday. We always played scenes to remember or understand something. Children and adolescents in the group were of different ages, the composition changed all the time. The scenes were staged in different groups. Yulia and I only set the general direction, and what the children would do, they decided for themselves.

At first, there was theatrical English. Everyone played using things that were available. The sets and costumes were not made on purpose. Since this was English, and we all spoke it not so well, a lot of emotions were used. Verbal limitation forced everyone to turn to the body, hands, face. Kids drew a lot and used pictures in the process or in presentations. During the work, there were constant discussions.

We didn’t teach children “how to do it right and how it should be,” but let them believe in themselves and come to their own conclusions.

In theater English, many have removed the stigma “I can never speak English.” Theatrical English revealed a conflict between children and adults. The adults wanted to learn the language with homework, irregular verbs, a desk and textbooks, while the children wanted it to be fun, kind, and without cramming. We faced this, and some of our children were taken to classical English centers. Adults seemed unable to believe that learning could be easy, fun and interesting.

There were lessons on the street. We always used different spaces. We invited various interesting people, mostly relatives, to tell us something about their work or study.

They had many tutors and other classes. Drawing was considered unnecessary, and parents allowed adult children to visit us only on Sundays. We made the most of it: two hours of design, English and an hour of dancing, so as not to bump into parents who don’t want to pay for dancing that, from their point of view, teens don’t need. We have assigned a symbolic amount of 200 rubles. Our dances were based, rather, on contact improvisation. Children lack tactility: just lie on the carpet or each other, listen to your body, how the legs speak, how the knees feel. To work with the clamps, just dance to different music when your friends are dancing nearby. Most often, Yulia and I also joined and jumped around altogether.
«The Rite of Spring»
We staged all the performances silently and talked about things important for us
It all began with the Rite of Spring. Before that, we had been dancing one hour a week for almost a year. Yulia’s acquaintance invited us to her event since she did not have people, as before this event she had a conflict with her colleagues. It was very difficult for her psychologically, and Yulia decided to support her with our performance.

Yulia showed Diaghilev’s old ballet “The Rite of Spring” to the children and simply turned on the music, saying “Try it.” There were three rehearsals in total, that is, very little time. We tried, looked what they could and wanted to do, looked for what could be done, taking into account different ages and heights, looked for how to rely on real ballet, how to take into account the Russian that children understood. An image with shirts immediately appeared. Time was short, so I went and bought cloth and dressed all the children in a day and a half.

It was a success. There were many spectators who did not understand it, you need to know the context and learn to observe. The children were very inspired that we were able to do something all together, that we did something complicated, that their voice was heard. After the dance, for example, S.’s mother said: “Why did you put S. in the first line, she is fat and looked bad.” So all the performances were also therapy. In the theater, we saw that almost all children have complexes about their bodies.

Our “Spring ” is also a historical production based on the Prague Spring of 1968, when reforms began in Czechoslovakia and freedom of speech was introduced. The Soviets did not like this, they sent tanks into Czechoslovakia, which shamelessly drove over ordinary, free people. “The Rite of Spring” is our liberalization, this is our statement on this topic.
Children know that if bullying and ridicule and violence are removed by law, children’s development will go faster and more actively.
Activism is like human law
Adults say to children and adolescents: “This is so, and nothing can be done, rejoice in what is there.” And then they see something completely different in life. The teachers at school say: “Study and everything will be fine.” And then children see that teachers themselves have nothing good in life.

An activist theater is a theater that has a position. Three years ago, Yulia became a feminist, she began to talk about women in theater. I saw specific women, mothers, and I was impressed by how badly our children think about mothers, so we began to shoot videos about mothers, draw pictures of mothers, began to talk with mothers so that they would tell the children about themselves. This is how the project “Moms are needed” was born. This is an activist statement.

Children need activist art, theater and performance. Otherwise, they don’t learn to think and react.
Yulia gave the children a tool for speaking up. Theater is a tool for speaking up. The most political performance we have is “Fairy Tales - Real Tales”. The heroes of the play were characters from Russian fairy tales: Koschey Bessmertny, Baba Yaga, Bogatyrs, etc. Fairy tale characters worry that children nowadays do not know Russian fairy tales and remind them of themselves. These are “fairy tales”. And the heroes also have their own lives: everyday life, family, school, exams, mortgages, work, elections - everything that remains “behind the scenes” of the stories we are used to. These are already “real tales”. The play was in English. FSB officers came to see it. However, bad English did not give the officers the opportunity to understand the political side of it.

The performance “The Director’s Arrest” is also a political statement and a civil position of the children. I asked them to do something for Yulia when she was arrested. The children knew about the arrest, all the press was talking about it, but they did not know the details. But, preparing the performance, they felt it. And I, knowing the details, laughed a lot, how much like life it turned out. The closing of the theater is an open wound for them. They staged this performance themselves and also in English.
For me "Merak" was a comfort and discomfort zone at the same time.

Why was it a comfort zone?
It has always been the place where I can be me, where I can discuss issues that really bother me, ask and do things that I’m interested in. I was a person in the theater, just as everyone else there. We had rules that positively influenced our communication among the actors and the director of
"Merak". One of the rules was: no bullying. Due to a created comfort zone, we could show our true selves and speak about things that really matter.

Why was it a discomfort zone?
I always tried new roles and new characters in the theatre. It usually was a hard task. It is always easier to sit down and say “This is hard for me”. But theatre is work. The kind of work that lets you try out something new, something unexpected, that requires you to leave your comfort zone. This happened to me. Due to leaving the comfort zone, I was always improving my skills.
There was a lot of fun at our rehearsals. Sometimes a 3-hour rehearsal seemed to last one minute. Thanks to "Merak", I became more self-confident, I accepted myself and my body and discovered a talent for performances. I was always impressed and proud of how important and urgent the topics of our performances were, and we were not ashamed of that. In our town, we were the only children’s theatre that actually dealt with the kind of issues that were really important to us - young people, the actors of the theatre. We often faced a lack of understanding, for example: "How could such young people make performances about these hard topics?", or "Why do young actors talk about this stuff at all, these problems should only be discussed by adults!". I don’t think so. Problems such as bullying, gender stereotypes, the culture of violence, adulthood, self-acceptance and personality affect young people directly, so discussing these things helps us to understand ourselves properly.
Sofia Savina, 17 years old
Performer of Merak Activist Youth Theater
Closing of the theater is death
And everyone experiences it differently. From a bright, eventful life, children and adolescents found themselves in a void, and everyone, including us, feels bad about it.

Theater vanished piece by piece.
The first wave of exits was before the festival when the police came to the children at schools. For the first time I saw how the boys sobbed, they were scared from all sides. The story with Yulia had been going on for more than a month, many children hid it from their parents, not everything was told. And then they began to interrogate the children, and it became impossible to hide. Immediately after the interrogations, the parents took 7 boys away. Almost everyone who left on the eve of the premiere honestly reported this. This was the day of the show, but at least we understood what was happening.

The three departures in the first group were emotionally very difficult. The first to leave was the guy who just came to our theater. He didn’t communicate much, but we realized that he had some kind of difficult story. After the administration took the second room away from us, and we had to tell everything to his mother, she promised to send him to the psychiatric hospital if he did not leave. Even his things he collected with his mother. We wrote to him that we understand and accept that he is forced to leave, and we sympathize with the whole situation.

Our photos appeared on local social media pages very often, they wrote about us and talked a lot. Parents forbade one boy to participate in the performances. But he could not tell us that he was leaving, and we did not understand whether he left or not until his mother arrived. She said that she had no complaints about the theater and that we were doing a good job, but the boy had to have a career. Parents wanted their son to become an FSB officer, and bad PR would have prevented him from becoming one. The third case was the worst. It was a boy who spent a lot of time in the theater, participated in all events and was an excellent actor. We did not know how it really was. According to his parents, FSB officers came to them the evening before the premiere and threatened to persecute the whole family if the boy remained in the theater. On the day of the show, they called them every half an hour and asked if the boy was at home.

When the police called this boy for questioning again six months later and tried to give him the status of a victim, he stood up as an adult, did not give the testimony that the police were seeking from him, and immediately informed us about it. I think for him the disappearance of "Merak" was like a bomb in Hiroshima. He blamed himself, and parents, and us, and those who remained, and the administration, and the police. He wanted to do activism and dance. Everything collapsed in an instant. He had to put his life back together.

The next wave of departures happened in September when we still wanted the theater to live. The FSB came to the workplaces of some of the adults and offered to take the children out of the theater not to spoil their careers. Some of the parents lost their jobs. In Komsomolsk, there are terrible layoffs, there is nothing to eat, there is nothing to live on, and it was really not a time for a theater. When adults are preoccupied with survival, they have no time for children.

The last children left when they realized that the press and the police did not get away from Yulia.

Someone began to hate the police and the administration. There was also a feeling of guilt that they could not protect Yulia, whom all children loved, almost everyone decided to leave the country, which so easily destroys other people’s destinies.

We closed the theater ourselves.
Installation by Anna Yudina "Theater vanished piece by piece"
Photo: Katya Romanova
After the closure of the theater, a vacuum appeared suddenly, as if air was sucked out. Yesterday there were plans. Yesterday we were preparing a new English play and a play about the environment, and today there was emptiness. A lot of time, and you don’t know what to do with it. There is no substitute for theatrical time. There the children were important, strong and necessary. At school they are just boys and girls. The children had thoughts about the future, and when the theater disappeared, it was as if the future had disappeared with it.

When all of this is over, and I believe in it and many children and adolescents believe too, Yulia wants to make “Merak-2”. We hope that someday there will be a new “Merak” and some of the children will be able to play in a new performance. We also thought it would be cool to invite different kids in different countries to stage "Blue and Pink". These would be different performances about different problems faced by children and adolescents.
Works by Yulia Tsvetkova