LaboraTORiAH

LaboraTORiAH was a new-mysterial art project, the most important goal of which was to explore sacred Hebrew texts by means of theatre. Boris Yukhananov and Grigory Zeltser initiated the project in 2002 and developed it for over a decade in various spaces and formats. Participants of LaboraTORiAH were challenged with a large range of tasks, among which were the interpretation of the Torah and other Hebrew texts by theatrical means, and the formulation and development of a theatrical method under the influence of a “Jewish” manner of writing, thinking and living. Throughout the years of the project’s existence, a unique interdisciplinary artistic community emerged within the project, a whole series of books were published, and several video films were made. One of those publications was LaboraROTiAH. Golem. A Book of Reflections. It included all internet and media reviews about the performance, as well as all seven parts of the performance script, a "play that wrote itself.".

2002. Text. Direction. Performance

The project began its development with weekly meetings within the walls of the Jewish Cultural Center on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street. The impetus for the creation of the project was the desire to develop a theatrical method that would be adequate for engaging the Torah and the Tanakh. Western European theatre has its roots in antiquity; it boasts specific manners of dramatic construction and of an actor’s onstage presence stage. Sacred Jewish texts and Jewish philosophy are based on completely different principles. The creators of the LaboraTORiAH project made the assumption that an actor’s open and a priori unburdened vision of the Hebrew texts would lead to the creation of a new type of theatre.

As such, LaboraTORiAH began as a study. The meetings at the Jewish Cultural Center on Bolshaya Nikitskaya were open to interested participants of any nationality, religion and professional orientation.

Processualism in LaboraTORiAH

Most likely any outsider unfamiliar with the theory of new-processual art considered his or her first encounter with LaboraTORiAH and Boris Yukhananov a provocation. Accustomed to clearly formatted types of interaction (rehearsal, seminar, training, conversation, etc.), the participants, perhaps for the first time ever, found themselves facing a project that lacked distinct form and perspective, as well as clearly established rules for behavior and “the playing of the game.” Rules in LaboraTORiAH, as in other projects developed by Boris Yukhananov, came into being gradually, underwent modification, and were the consequence and continuation of the artistic development of the project, its images and meanings.

Only the two aspects reflected in the name – LaboraTORiAH – remained unchanged. I.e., “the work of the Torah,” in which “work” was essentially understood to mean “theatre.” Participants freely selected excerpts from the Torah and prepared theatrical scenes based on these passages. Performances were held once a week and were accompanied by discussions that went beyond narrowly crafted or even purely theatrical analysis. Discussions at the meetings concerned a variety of topics related to the Torah, the Tanakh, Judaism and the places where ancient texts and ancient consciousness intersect with contemporary art, contemporary culture, and the life of the contemporary individual.

At the same time, one did not have to be a theatre-maker in order to participate in LaboraTORiAH. The project stood on what was called "three circles." Participants in the First Circle worked on theatrical passages and assumed certain obligations to develop the artistic part of the project. The Second Circle consisted of all those who regularly took part in LaboraTORiAH’s discussions and activities, attended the shows as a spectator, but did not prepare the activities. The Third Circle was a completely open space in which anyone could come in to watch the process. Belonging to one or another circle, however, did not presuppose any restrictions – anyone attending a meeting was considered a full participant. 

This kind of freedom made LaboraTORiAH accessible to a very diverse group of people. Someone interested in Jewish philosophy, for example, might, through LaboraTORiAH, engage someone educated in the traditions of Russian theatre, or someone whose path of development lay in the territory of contemporary art. The Torah and other sacred Hebrew texts became a means of communication for individuals of the most diverse consciousnesses and approaches, and laid the groundwork for the birth of an artistic community.

Text-Gesture

When working on theatrical scenes, participants were absolutely free to choose the artistic method, style and even understanding of what theater is. After several months of the project's existence, they formulated a technique for working with sacred texts and called it "text-gesture."

The essence of this technique was an attempt to read the text of the Torah by means of the body through sound and combinations of sounds, while bypassing the interpretive impulses of consciousness. This approach is rooted in the Jewish tradition of interpreting the Torah, wherein, on one level, one perceives words and sentences not by their semantic properties, but rather by seeking deep meanings encoded in words and letters. "Text-gesture" emerged as the only stage technique that was employed by all participants of the project.

In other respects, the further the project developed, the more the participants increased the variety of forms and approaches to their work on the Torah and the Tanakh. As it evolved, this variety corresponded directly to the research project’s topic.

Philosophy Seminar and Theatrical Midrash

In keeping with LaboraTORiAH’s mission, participants were required to immerse themselves in the world of Jewish philosophy, and in the analysis of Jewish sacred texts. As such, one aspect of the group's activities was the Philosophical Seminar, where rabbis and specialists in the field of academic Judaica took part at various stages. While still in the early stages of its development, LaboraTORiAH received the blessing of Rabbi Meir Schlesinger, who subsequently was a regular participant in the group’s philosophical discussions.

The starting point for the philosophical seminar was the question: "Why do Jews need theatre if they have the Torah?" A year before LaboraTORiAH began, Anatoly Vasilyev rhetorically asked this question of Grigory Zeltser. As a result, for Boris Yukhananov and other participants of LaboraTORiAH, this question became the topic of practical, philosophical and artistic research into a new type of theatre built on the Jewish tradition.

In the Jewish way of life, where nearly every moment of existence is subject to one of the 613 commandments of the Torah and thousands of their Talmudic interpretations, is not the existence of humankind a game, a piece of theatre? And who, then, is the spectator of this game? Who is the author and director? The Creator who creates its rules? According to Exodus, the Creator, through Moses, gave the Torah to the Jews - a book that simultaneously describes both the narrative of Jewish and world history, and the law by which Jews should live. Does this mean that the Creator is the absolute and only author in a theatre that can be considered Jewish?   

In fact, unlike many other religious systems, Judaism lacks a single dogmatic system of interpreting a sacred text. The Talmud, second only to the Tanakh among sacred Jewish books, is an intertextual collection of often contradictory interpretations of the Torah and its laws. A distinguishing feature of classical European texts - both dramatic and philosophical - is that a composition aspires to a finale. In this finale we discover an answer of some kind, a conclusion that is connected with the theme of the work. Jewish texts are arranged in the opposite way. Their main technique is that of escape, of avoiding a single utterance. This makes the texts of the Talmud and Torah, written thousands of years ago, kit and kin to the postmodern literary and philosophical experiments of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The thinking of an individual participating in a Talmudic discussion is very close to the playful thinking of a modern intellectual. The only difference is that the Talmudist, in his reflections, seeks to engage the Creator as a certain locus of truth, and the source of our existence. But the Creator is fundamentally unknowable and infinite. All we can know about Him is encrypted in His text - the Torah. Therefore, our attempts to know Him are expressed precisely in the constant generation of new interpretations of this text. Throughout the centuries, Jewish sages have allowed themselves to compose stories that, as it were, supplement the Torah and reveal "hitherto unknown" aspects of the events described in it. These stories were called "Midrash," and their meaning might be instructive, absurd or even obscene.

Discussion of these topics within the framework of the Philosophical Seminar allowed anyone to see participants’ artistic work for LaboraTORiAH as an extension of the age-old Jewish tradition of Midrash, in this case, using theatrical means.

"For, when we meditate with the help of a beth-midrash, when we respond to the Sacred text, we seek in this reflection, and in a real response, to embrace all of its properties, but we do not seek to devalue it. When we respond with commentary, even if it is a nuance, at this moment we create nuances in relation to the Sacred text, and we know that these are nuances. One cannot embrace the unembraceable, but one can meet, and aspire to a meeting with fullness; this is the whole paradox of the Creator, who then appears inside of us." (Fragment of the play, LaboraTORiAH. Golem).

Golem and Dybbuk

The founders of LaboraTORiAH were not the only artists in history who sought to unite theatre and the semantic sources of Judaism. Alongside the LaboraTORiAH project, Grigory Zeltser worked on the Jewish Book Houses publishing project, and the Joint – Half a Century of Jewish Theatre distribution group. For this project, Boris Entin edited a collection of plays that had never been translated into Russian from Yiddish. It included H. Leivick’s Golem and S. Ansky’s Dybbuk.

Both of these plays were not only based on world-famous Jewish legends, but in their structure and meanings were related to the Torah, the Tanakh, and various themes relevant to Jewish consciousness. As such, along with the sacred texts, they were offered to LaboraTORiAH participants for the creation of theatrical works.

The Diasporic Symphony and Heavenly Jerusalem

Images and meanings connected with the concept of "Diaspora" were included in the work along with other new materials. From the very beginning, the Diaspora in the Jewish tradition has meant the dispersion of Jews around the world following the destruction of the Third Temple. One usually speaks in this context about the loss of the Shekhinah – the dwelling place of the Creator on earth. The Shepherd's house was once a Temple, but now there is no Temple; God's presence has dissolved into the world and dissipated among the people. Everything that is created by people from the moment of dispersion bears the imprint of dissolution in the world, the imprint of the Diaspora.

The concept of "Diaspora" acquired a wider metaphorical meaning in the work of LaboraTORiAH. You may experience the signs of the "diasporic" in the existence of any urban dweller, in the chaotic world of the beginning of the second millennium, in art in general and in theatre, especially. The "diasporic" is sensed as a loss, as isolation from the source and, at the same time, as an openness, a readiness to perceive a multitude of influences and to develop them, seeing a reflection of this very source in any manifestation of life. The "diasporic" began to be used as a characteristic of LaboraTORiAH’s artistic style, wherein the variety of forms and utterances was combined with the unity of the intentions of the participants.

The first public display of the LaboraTORiAH project took place in the summer of 2005 at the Jewish Cultural Center on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street in Moscow. Presented to a narrow circle of spectators, the work was called The Diasporic Symphony, and it consisted of scenes based on fragments of the Torah and the Tanakh, as well as on the plays Golem and Dybbuk. Each scene was a complete, "rehearsed" work, however The Diasporic Symphony as a whole came together only during the actual performance. Boris Yukhananov took on the role of a "conductor," who on the spot determined the order of the appearance of scenes on stage. Completely different passages were often performed simultaneously and were forced to enter into dialogue with each other without losing their own structure and form.  

By means of this structure, a second image appeared in the performance, along with the metaphor of the "Diaspora" – that of Heavenly Jerusalem. This was an image of the coming world, in which various creatures, phenomena, concepts, artistic styles and personalities would coexist peacefully according to the laws of the Torah. The space of theatre emerged as a territory in which anyone from the Diaspora could enter into a relationship with Heavenly Jerusalem and feel its presence in dialogue and coexistence on stage. How does the Diaspora see Heavenly Jerusalem? Does it reveal to us its beauty, or does our consciousness perceive it as something horrible, frightening, and disgusting that brings ruin upon the familiar "diasporic" order of things?

International Seminars and the LaboraTORiAH Movement

The mission of LaboraTORiAH always presupposed a dialogue with the Jewish world and Jewish culture. One of the consequences of the project was the development of approaches to theatre, which, on one hand, were rooted in sacred Jewish texts, and on the other, were not connected with the usual cultural traditions, i.e., were directed toward the future. LaboraTORiAH decided to expand its circle of participants in 2004 and invited Jewish theatres from all over the world to join in dialogue. Thus arose the International LaboraTORiAH Movement. Between 2004 and 2006, two international seminars were held in Moscow. Theatres and theatre makers from Israel, Austria, Poland, Great Britain and the U.S., as well as Rabbis Meir Schlesinger, Mordechai Vardi, Seymour Epstein, Menachem Froman, and Adin Steinsaltz, took part in the festival. The first seminar was devoted to the question "Why do Jews have theatre if they have the Torah?" The topic of the second was a very important one for Jewish consciousness, “The Mystery of the Brain and the Mystery of the Heart," which led to a dialogue about the rational tradition and mystical practices of Judaism. The third seminar was devoted to the theme "Faith and Art."

A quote from Rabbi Meir Schlesinger: “Is art an alternative to faith? Or does it feed faith? Or does it enrich the world of faith? Or are all our assumptions wrong, and do faith and art have neither a common source, nor a common goal? Are faith and art moving in one direction or in opposite directions? Or is their movement not connected in any way? Art serves the expression of the depths of the soul of humankind, while religion concerns the essence of each individual person. If so, then religion is still the main source of art, and sacred texts pave the way for its development. Perhaps with the help of art that grows out of faith, faith itself will find the opportunity for deeper and holistic self-expression.”

The seminars emerged from the LaboraTORiAH format, with rehearsals and theatre performances tying into philosophical discussions involving the participation of rabbis. For foreign participants of the movement, the seminars were the first experience of interacting with representatives of "official" Judaism in the territory of theatre. One of the results was the blurring of the line between philosophical discussion and performance, between spectator and participant, and even between prayer and performance.

LaboraTORiAH at the School of Dramatic Art on Povarskaya Street

LaboraTORiAH began its transition into an actual theatre project in the autumn of 2006. Boris Yukhananov is a former student of Anatoly Vasiliev. His method of a "new-mysterial theatre" had always existed in dialogue with the Vasilyev theatre school. In October 2005, the LaboraTORiAH project continued to unfold at Vasilyev’s School of Dramatic Art, in the Studio on Povarskaya Street. Within the walls of the Studio, the group began working on a future performance by means of intensive rehearsals. Moreover, the principle of the Three Circles survived, so that, aside from those who were engaged in rehearsals, individuals with interests in other aspects of the project were involved as well. Some filmed or photographed the process, some merely observed the experiment in the theatre space, while still others might engage in dialogue with rabbis on the themes of art and creativity. 

The activities of the project participants at this time took place on three levels – the creative level, which involved rehearsals and work on the play; the process of creative exploration, which involved organizing the processes necessary for the development of the project; and the process of execution where participants applied the meanings and images associated with the project’s theme to their own lives. By the beginning of 2005, most participants were drawing these meanings from H. Leivick’s play, Golem.

Text by Yelena Lyubarskaya.

[This is a translation-in-progress. Eleven more segments will appear in this space soon.]