Team interviews are back! This time we have creator and author of Voice From Chornobyl, Cindy Marie Jenkins.
Jane Whitty: As we are fast approaching the 25th Anniversary events what is your top priority right now?
Cindy Marie Jenkins: Getting the business side set up while continuing the artistic work and outreach; I can’t really narrow it down more. We’ve set reachable but ambitious goals, and have a lot of great people basically waiting for us to say “Go.” We have to keep thinking and exploring new ways to reach new people, get them interested and to our fund-raising and April Awareness events. In order to make any of this possible, we are increasing our infrastructure and really professionalizing the events more than they have ever been. A great part of these priorities actually happening has been due to the Awareness Team (you, Rachel, Carolyn, Karen Jean and Caroline) handling a lot of research and organizational work. I’m really excited at the prospects of moving this piece beyond a theatre reading. It’s not really about the play, it’s about the stories within the play, and however we can express that so that any audience feels invited, the more awareness of the 25th anniversary we can spread. The ensemble has also been incredibly supportive and honestly keep me going on the project, since 2006. Their willingness to jump into whatever situation will work, whether it be a library conference room, an empty movie theatre, a comedy theatre (don’t get me started), or wherever this year leads them, truly allows the project to move into new areas and possibilities.
JW: What unexpected obstacles have you run into while working on this project?
CMJ: Since the beginning of the project it’s been difficult to explain my interest in the topic, or even why I wanted to do it. Is your family from there? I am often asked as people squint to see how they missed the Ukrainian in my face before that. No, no I’m not from Eastern Europe, just the East Coast.
Even more than that, though, is telling the stories in a compelling way without succumbing to guilting the audience, or taking a stance on nuclear power. The woman who started Kiva delivered a great speech at the Mashable Social Media for Social Good Conference (not sure that is the exact name). She made it clear that guilt is not how to sustain lasting and meaningful contributions. Giving people a way to actually help is a better model for social good.
The other obstacle is always time. Everyone over the years volunteers to bring awareness to the Chornobyl disaster, and as such we are all doing it on our own time because we believe in it. There is never enough time to explore every aspect of the topic or all of the different ways we can reach out and include people. So I’ve surrounded myself with great people who bring completely new and revised ideas. When you’ve worked on a project like this for five years, new blood reminds you of the purpose behind telling these stories. I am shocked at how much the team takes on and amazed at everyone’s intelligence and creativity. It’s a great group.
JW: As the creator of the Voices From Chornobyl project how has your vision for this project changed over time?
CMJ: At first it was really more of an exploration so I can learn. I knew nothing about the accident until reading the book in 2005 and then it was a way for me and other interested artists to learn about everything through the genre/method we know best: theatre. If I were a filmmaker, then I probably would have written a screenplay, but I process stories through live performance, in whatever form it takes. I learned more about history and Japanese culture through dramaturging Pacific Overtures than in any history class.
After the first 2006 workshop, the goal became for people to walk out of the show and pick up the book. I even had books in the lobby to test the goal, and it worked. I had to buy Los Angeles (and some surrounding areas) out of their copy of the book of interviews because people wanted to take it home with them.
After the first workshop, I connected with the Chernobyl children’s charities, and that’s when the entire vision changed. I realized there were so many ways in to the stories, because they are all just human stories, humans dealing with ideas beyond their imagination. Knowing exactly how the conditions in the area affected and still are affecting children, and that they have only known this kind of life, spurred the project to bring much more awareness to the ongoing struggle the charities face. Many have trouble raising money because people don’t know about the accident or don’t realize it’s still a large problem. If we can break that wall down for them, and give their potential supporters and volunteers a need to help, that’s the ultimate goal.
JW: There is a new kids script in the works. Can you talk a little about the decision to create an adaptation for a younger audience?
CMJ: On the same vein as above, I felt a kids accessible script could be an excellent learning tool, and making it interactive allows us to involve the kids’ imagination as well, which I firmly believe will keep their interest. We are basically just asking, “What is radiation? which is what everyone in the play needs to know. By taking an audience of children on that journey, I hope they’ll learn about the accident and the needs, of course, but more importantly I want to open their minds to critical thinking. I want them to ask questions of their environment and their leaders, and even more importantly in this adaptation, to talk to their parents. Children need to know they are in a dialogue with the world; it’s not just something they should let pass them by or something they need to fight.
JW: Voices From Chornobyl is a multifaceted project. What is the one element you are most excited to see realized?
CMJ: Bringing the stories in all their different forms to audiences outside of Los Angeles theatre. The play has been heard around LA, and I look forward to sharing it with more theatre artists and patrons, but it’s even more important to deliver the stories to everyone. We have a show lined up with students and professors at Cal Tech, with children’s storytimes at the Atwater Village Public Library, and more in the works. Live performance draws a connection with its audience that few other mediums can. Audiences can talk with artists and vice versa, sharing ideas and hearing their questions. Then we as a project stay in touch with the charities regarding the responses and questions our audiences had, which may help their outreach efforts.