Andrew Kushnir – 2019 REACH Mentorship recepient

    Andrew Kushnir

    Daria Bajus for New Pathway – Ukrainian News.

    Andrew Kushnir was the inaugural recipient of the 2019 REACH Mentorship program, receiving $21,000 of the maximum $25,000.

    The REACH program is a project of the Shevchenko Foundation in partnership with the Ihnatowycz Family Foundation. It aims to help and develop projects of artists from the Ukrainian-Canadian community that promote the Ukrainian-Canadian heritage with a goal of artistic growth and professional development.

    Applicants must be connected to Ukrainian heritage and working actively within the Ukrainian art community in Canada and/or worldwide. In addition to this, they must practise at a peer-recognized advanced career level for a minimum of 2 years in visual arts, literary arts, performing arts, new media, or arts management.

    An actor, director and playwright, among many other things, Kushnir is always reminded that his first plays were those of Ukrainian Christmas pageants as a kid. “There was always space to pursue drama and theatrical storytelling in my Ukrainian upbringing,” he said.

    While attending high school in Winnipeg, he received The Loran Scholarship Award, which allowed him to pursue his passions with no financial restrictions. As a graduate of the University of Alberta’s BFA Acting Conservatory, he had some early success as an actor in Toronto.

    It was when he experienced his first bout of unemployment that he decided to turn to writing as his daily practice.

    “There’s a lot of joy in being an actor,” he explained. “But I recognized a lack of agency. So, I started to think about what stories I was not seeing in the world and what stories I wanted to tell and lean into.”

    Kushnir recalls wanting to write into his queer experience at the time. Coming out at the age of 19, he describes it as being the early days of his identity and community.

    “My early writing focused and intersected my Ukrainian heritage with what I would call my queer heritage, which is a bit of a recurring theme in my career,” he explained.

    Kushnir emphasizes documentary theatre as an important aspect of his career, which acts as a bridge for his teaching and directing.

    “Documentary theatre was a new way of creating for me. It was really about engaging with the community and listening to people as the experts of their own experiences and populating a script with their voices,” he said. He continued to explain that, for him, “documentary theatre created some harmony around this desire to have a positive social impact with his art and also this incredible opportunity to learn”.

    Kushnir saw the birth of his first documentary play at Project: Humanity, where he is the Artistic Director.

    Project: Humanity is a theatre company that prides themselves on Verbatim theatre; the transformation of original interview transcripts into “live documentaries.”

    “The company was originally accepted as a way for artists to give back, as a way for artists to overtly move their talents into social work on some level and raise funds for organizations,” he said. “It was a bunch of young artists going, ‘okay, you know, it’s all good that we have these skills, but, you know, are there ways to address inequities around us?’”

    Currently, the company is working on a program called CAPP: The COVID-19 Artist Partnership Program. CAPP pairs youth in the shelter system with artists across Canada, one on one online. Young people have an opportunity to get a weekly session with an artist to learn about a practice that excites them the most.

    “We’re finding the right artist for them and giving them a weekly outlet to connect with that artist and sort of travel through this pandemic with a kind of artistic companion,” said Kushnir.

    All of Kushnir’s successes have set him up as the perfect candidate for the REACH Mentorship program, which attracted 26 applicants in the first year. Kushnir received the funding for a residency with Tarragon Theatre in support of his proposed new play, “The Time Piece,” which may now be re-named to “The Division”.

    He first heard about the program from Leah-Simone Bowen, who, at the time, was the officer at the Toronto Arts Council and concurrently from Richard Rose, the artistic director at the Tarragon Theatre. This happened to coincide with the time of Kushnir’s dido passing away.

    His dido, Peter Kushnir, a 1st Division member of the Ukrainian National Army, was also a prominent watchmaker in Canada. He invented the Zenith Extra RR 56, the last Swiss-made railway-standard pocket watch for North America built in 1956.

    “By virtue of living to 91, he had many years with him and was a bombastic storyteller,” he said. “My dido was a huge personality in my family’s dynamic, the rhythm of the family.”

    Kushnir wanted to figure out how to delve into his dido’s life experience and figure out how to carry his life and stories.

    “I was reflecting on how, I don’t want to say make peace because I don’t think we make peace with those we lose, but on some level, I wanted to keep my dido present in my day-to-day,” he explained.

    Kushnir pitched to the foundation that he would take his dido’s invention and that he was going to retrace his dido’s journey from his village of Bozhykiv to Canada.

    13 flights, 12 train rides, two car rentals, 184.4 kms by foot, 17 cities and towns visited, 19,056 km traversed in total (by all forms of travel), 225 field recordings (audio and video), 33 major interviews conducted. All in 29 days.

    Starting his journey in Switzerland, Kushnir wanted to learn more about the timepiece. He then moved to the birthplace of his dido and from there trekked through Ukraine interviewing people about the Second World War, The Division and the political climate in Ukraine today. He then made his way to Poland and Italy, where he wanted to figure out how his dido got out of the prisoner-of-war camps to Canada. Kushnir eventually ended up in England, which was his dido’s last European home.

    “I did a lot of work to try to solve the mysteries of my dido’s life,” he said. “The deep irony being that if I had just probably half-an-hour of his time I could probably save myself 13 flights, and just about as many train rides,” he joked.

    He interviewed everyone from the priest in Bozhykiv, to a 93- year-old Division member in Lviv, to historians, World War Two experts, museum creators and activists among many others.

    “To me, it felt like a real intergenerational undertaking where time is running out to speak to people who can speak firsthand about that era,” he said. “And I think I discovered more and more that not only does that era speak so much to Ukraine’s journey and its nationhood, but I reflect on how much that era informs my own family and my sort of lineage. Who I come from and what I come from.”

    Kushnir acknowledges that The REACH Mentorship allowed him to pursue this impossible journey.

    “I’m sitting here now mid-pandemic, and this was what I call an impossible gift. Because now, I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. It just wouldn’t have been possible — even the idea of handing that timepiece to people to hold. I can’t imagine closing that distance now and somebody feeling safe handling an object that dozens and dozens of other people have held. It’s this beautiful time capsule or some little relic from life before this watershed pandemic.”

    In Residency at Tarragon Theatre, Kushnir has decided to transform his “treasure trove” into a play. However, contingent on the pandemic, he is also considering a radio drama, a podcast, among other possibilities.

    “You know, this actually feels like my inheritance from dido. Weirdly, I mean the timepiece of course, but that journey is my true inheritance from him,” he said.

    Kushnir references a quote from Tony Kushner in Angels in America: Millenium Approaches, which was the anchor point for his application.

    A rabbi, who speaks at the top of the play, is commemorating an old woman that has died and says, “You can never make that crossing that she made, for such great voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives, the miles – that voyage from that place to this one – you cross. Every day! You understand me? In you, that journey… is.”

    Kushnir explores this idea of “great voyages” like his dido’s from a village in Ukraine to what he would describe as “quite a comfortable life in Canada.”

    “I wondered – do those great voyages not happen anymore because of the Internet?” he said. “It’s probably quite blind of me to consider that as there are war-torn parts of this world from which people make extraordinary voyages, and the refugee experience remains a harrowing one, but I did wonder about my dido’s great voyage. It doesn’t mean I get to feel it in the same way of course because we’re talking about a 17-year-old who entered the war in a German uniform and somehow managed to survive and get to Canada.”

    Kushnir classifies his dido’s journey as a “mess of contradictions” and compares him to the theatre, which is also about contradictions. “The theatre is about putting ideas into conflict with one another. It’s about the impossible.”

    The artist reflects on the opportunity that the REACH grant has provided him with.

    “I feel enriched by the new relationships that this has afforded me. I recognize that both the grant and the literal pocket watch have shifted my understanding of the world,” he said. “It made me more curious. More curious about like I said, who I am, where I come from and what I come from.”