The Belarusian Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS)
Location: Ashmiany, Hrodna Region, Belarus
Implementation period: April – September 2016
Project coordinator: Hanna Vyhonnaya
Context. Problem. Purpose
Ashmiany is a town in western Belarus, one of many settlements that survived several state formations, wars, fluxes and refluxes of cross-cultural dialogues, bad urbanization, and many other things. Recently, the town center has been modernized – this “reconstruction” has covered the historical shape of the town with a thick plaster coat and hidden it from townspeople’s eyes. The absence of a restoration school, which would help to preserve the best and to qualitatively present it, instead of simple “repairing”, is a system problem in the heritage field not only in Ashmiany, but all over the country – it is mentioned very often in the mass media as probably the main threat to monuments in Belarus. However, another aspect – the history of a site in people’s individual memory – is often not paid attention to. Therefore, in Ashmiany, our team aimed at returning the living history of the town center – its shape in the memory of local residents, their personal memoirs, local legends, and everything that is able to generate an integral image of Ashmiany, its rich history and national importance. Besides its uniqueness, we were also interested in the signs of typical Belarusian cultural paradoxes, e.g. Orthodox churches, Catholic churches, and Jewish synagogues standing together with the Soviet-style Town Administration. Thus, our actions were aimed at forming mythical-poetical perceptions of the historical center of Ashmiany in the local population’s consciousness. For this purpose, we chose the format of a theatrical play as synthetic narrative art.
The basic practical tasks of the project were to work out a scenario of and to carry out the theatricalized event called “The Mirages and Miracles of Ashmiany”.
In order to create the future scenario, it was offered to try to take memories of the town out of “memory storerooms”, but not the habitual memoirs, with which our official press works, – we had another goal: it was necessary to remember your own perception of the town space, people who live(d) in it, and insignificant, but important for a person town events. The local newspaper “Ashmianski Viesnik” joined the project – it specially opened the column “From Memory Storerooms” and updated it weekly. There were some amusing incidents – individual memory has its specificity and readers even started to struggle for its objectivity: in their comments they refuted these or those described stories. Together with the newspaper, we had to prepare an article about features of human memory. People of Ashmiany faced the unusual for them ambiguousness of treating events in the regional mass media; for them, it was a new experience of analyzing memory of a town community.
On the basis of the collected materials, the first variant of the scenario was written; a process of choosing actors from local residents was begun. It was initially supposed that there would be about six persons, but there were many more interested people, and we, having corrected the scenario, increased the number of actors up to twenty five. The youngest participant of the play was seven; the most senior one – seventy nine.
It is difficult to say what caused such an unusual desire of townspeople to participate during all summer and the beginning of autumn in rehearsals that lasted for many hours. Probably, it was because of the topic; maybe, thanks to the talent of the director; or due to the unusual experience of rehearsals on the streets in the town center in front of their fellow countrymen. It is unequivocally possible to say that all this time the town was filled with talks about the unusual event. Possibly, therefore, the performance was attended not only by the actors’ friends and relatives and the inhabitants who shared their memories, – there were much more people than we had expected. The whole town came to see this event.
As a conclusion of the performance, there was a flashmob – the inhabitants and actors sang the Ashmiany Waltz that had been restored during the project. This waltz was once loved by the townspeople; it was written by a local composer; a teacher wrote its lyrics in the 1980s, but later it got lost. We managed to find its words and music.
Thus, the preparation of the scenario on the basis of inhabitants’ memoirs, the training of amateur actors, and the carrying-out of the pilot performance were aimed at making the local population understand the historical center as a value, at forming “imaginative-figurative” perceptions of the element of heritage in the local population’s consciousness.
The project is over; all events/actions have taken place; actual indicators correspond to the pre-planned ones; but actually for us it is this rare project that has surpassed our expectations as for the quality of the happened events.
Yes, we wanted to restore, to update the Ashmiany inhabitants’ perceptions of the town and its center and to make together with them a quality play with the help of experts: directors, script writers, and painters. Still, our previous experience told us that the local community usually has complexes about its provinciality and rejects professionals from the capital as something alien and foreign. Also, considering a huge list of formal actions/events, which should be “digested” by our Belarusian regions, we did not hope much to inspire Ashmiany residents at all.
Why has this event taken place? – Probably because each inhabitant of Ashmiany, who participated in our project, “was put on buskins” where he/she became significant and interesting for him/herself and other people.
As a result of the project, we have gathered good techniques that can be reproduced in other places. Sometimes, not only WHAT, but also WHO is very important. We were lucky in Ashmiany as in this town there is a considerable layer of creative intelligentzia. Although these people are substantially separated as they work in different establishments, they are ready to interact. A considerable role was also played by the fact that we had experiences of fruitful teamwork with the local community during our previous projects – the restoration of the Halshany Castle; the creation of the exposition of the Ashmiany Museum; – and for this very reason it was possible to implement what we planned during such a short period of time. Without it, it would be impossible to carry this project out.
At last, the most positive thing is that after the project was over, the contacts that appeared during the performance in the local community have not vanished. Ashmiany residents have already played this performance on a school scene, having adapted the scenario, actors, and the play itself to suit new circumstances. Also, the local newspaper “Ashmianski Viesnik” continues its column “From Memory Storerooms”.