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Cindy Marie Jenkins discusses VOICES FROM CHORNOBYL

April 7, 2011

VOICES FROM CHORNOBYL 

A magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck near the cost of Japan at about 7:32 a.m. Pacific time today, Thursday, April 7, 2011, or 11:32 pm Japan time. You can imagine the raw strain this put on residents along the country’s northeastern seaboard, particularly when word came of yet another tsunami warning, only a few weeks after a devastating magnitude 9.0 quake killed tens of thousands and crippled a nuclear power plant. 

A project that commemorates the 25th anniversary of the meltdown of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in Russia is garnering a lot of attention in southern California. You’ll see it at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. But playwright Cindy Marie Jenkins says much more attention is needed. Here’s my conversation with her. 

Why is VFC important to Southern California?

The mission of Voices for Chornobyl (VFC) was always to create awareness about Chornobyl, radiation and nuclear power. We encourage our audience to learn more about the world around them

Awareness Team asks people at The Grove "What do you know about Chornobyl?"

while highlighting the children’s charities who work in the region and still need our help twenty-five years later. We just want people to have more of a context for this topic which has become all too relevant to Southern California in the past month. Understanding nuclear power is complicated, to say the least, and by hearing how these people across the world did or did not comprehend it, we can see more about our own experience.

What role does theatre play in the 25th anniversary of Chornobyl?

It just felt like a natural progression to me. A journalist publishes interviews of people who historically have no voice and theatre artists expand the audience with their creative reactions, spreading these people’s stories. I didn’t really have a long-term plan when I started adapting it, but once we added an audience, I saw how powerful these people’s words were. Audience members left the theater and immediately wanted a copy of the book.

Theatre allows you to experience stories you otherwise may not find in your daily life, in the same room. With Chornobyl’s recent resurgence in the media the ensemble is creating a more immediate presence and relationship with the audience, as opposed to other presentations we’ve made when it was more of a museum piece. Residents were interviewed in 1996, and the play is updated now to address Fukushima and the Ukraine’s recent decision to open Chornobyl to tourism.

What will we see at Hollywood Fringe?

The further away we get from the accident, the less likely people will know about it. I always thought there should be a script that speaks to children so they can understand more about the Ukrainian culture, gain some understanding of the event historically as well as today. When Rachel Stoll came onto the project as Producer, she also thought a children’s version was in order for the 25th anniversary.

We’re work-shopping an interactive children’s script to premiere at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, while presenting the adult version in April. Voices Jr. has the same mission as the ‘adult’ play, but focuses on the character of Katya, nine years-old at the time of the accident. She grows up trying to understand her changing world. I hope to give some sort of context for understanding how radiation works, and so we created some parts of the play that are interactive, and more often than not the actors are asking the children in the audience questions so they can learn together. With the onslaught of comparisons to Chornobyl recently, children should have a context and even cursory understanding of what happened there. The project is careful not to take a stand on nuclear power or the politics involved; it is just the story of one family trying to hold it together as they realize the extent of the accident.

Why will you hold talkbacks and what will be discussed?

I usually dislike talkbacks, but I received so many texts, phone calls, and emails after Fukushima that they became necessary. I would feel irresponsible presenting this piece which is meant to encourage people to investigate their world, and not address the differences/similarities between our current situation and Chornobyl twenty-five years ago. The Ukrainian people – and the rest of the world – only learned that the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant had an accident because Sweden detected radiation in their air and traced it back. That was three days after the accident. Now we have a plethora of information and no idea how to process the units of measurement people throw out, or even what the word radiation means, and that is really the main conflict of the play as well. Three friends familiar with the project (one plays Sergei, the filmmaker) will be on hand to demonstrate how to contextualize some of this information, which questions to ask as more articles and findings are published, and basically create a situation where you have enough of your own information to think critically.

We really hope that people will take the time to attend. It’s an important discussion to have, and if you leave with even a better basic understanding, or stay and have a more in-depth talk, we will all be armed with better decision making tools. In the near future we also hope to combine efforts with Japanese charities and raise money for that region.

How much money do you hope to raise and how will it be used?

We’ve always kept the presentations to staged readings so the majority of donations and ticket sales can go to Chernobyl Children’s International, a charity based in Washington DC who sends volunteer surgeons, nurses and humanitarian workers to help children in Chornobyl and arranges holidays for the children who are well enough to travel. Even a short amount of time away from the region gives their immune system time to recuperate in healthier air.

The head of that organization always says that awareness and spreading the word of the children who still need our help is the most important part. In the past, our budget was limited to a self-produced shoestring which greatly limited our audience outreach. Any money we raise now goes directly to hard costs associated with production, and specifically to increase our accessibility and audience reach. Since our 2009 co-production with Deaf West Theatre we have employed an ASL interpreter at all of our events.

By registering for the Hollywood Fringe Festival, and their new Fringe Family programming, we are looking to expand our audience base to all ages. Taking advantage of a condensed period of time within which you can find a great number of people eager for art, the Fringe was an obvious choice to premiere the interactive childrens’ script. To maximize our outreach, an ad in the Fringe brochure is a priority. We have a number of people volunteering for months – and in most cases years – and we want to pay for their parking, their time and talent.  Right now we have some basic hard costs covered; every new donation brings in a new audience member, either by creating the situation where they can experience the play at all, or by gaining access through targeted marketing.

CINDY MARIE JENKINS is a Storyteller and Coach based in Los Angeles. In March Cindy returned to The Indy Convergence, where she workshopped MYTHistory Part .5 (the mythology of history), a multi-platform piece on perception. Her adaptation of VOICES FROM CHORNOBYL raises awareness worldwide for children in Chernobyl.  In 2008, Cindy gave a Key Note Speech at “Remember Chernobyl,” an Annual Conference for UK & Irish Chernobyl Charities.  April 2011 presentations include Stockton England, Los Angeles, Massachusetts and Washington.

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