The Regeneration of a Wasteland
By Alex Benjamin | Faculty Adviser: Paul Edwards | Humanities | NURJ Online 2014-15
What if the items and animals left behind in the Ukrainian city of Pripyat could tell us what happened when the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded on April 26, 1986? I want to use research on the nuclear accident paired with contemporary scientific studies of wildlife regeneration in the surrounding marshlands to tell a unique story about the endurance of life in the face of disaster. I will imbue objects, animals, and human characters with the unique stories of Chernobyl in a play to be workshopped and developed with fellow students. Through the research and adaptation of this play—activities with which I hope to build a professional career after graduation—I will explore the universality of life and the power of the survival instinct in an unpredictable world.
When the Chernobyl plant exploded after a faulty experiment, it released an amount of radiation “hundreds of times larger than the fallout from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” according to scientists Alexey Yablokov and Vassily Nesterenko. TIME’s Kelly Knauer states that citizens in the nearest city, Pripyat, were unaware of what had happened until they started experiencing headaches, nausea, coughing, and a metallic taste in their mouths. The Exclusion Zone that is still observed around Chernobyl has a nineteen-mile radius with checkpoints under military control (Marples). It locks away flora and fauna as well as the artifacts left behind by their human cohabitants, who suffered thyroid and lung failure, genetic mutations, and forced abortions (Yablokov).
Despite the nearly thirty-year human desertion of the area, life has begun to regenerate in the form of wolves, bison, horses, deer, lynx, and more, making Pripyat “the largest, if unintentional, wildlife sanctuary in Europe” (Helmuth). According to the PBS Chernobyl documentary Radioactive Wolves, it is possible that “mankind’s disaster gave nature a second chance,” cleaning out an invasive human population and allowing wildlife to return to its pre-human symbiosis. Sergey Gaschak, who has conducted catch-and-release studies on mice in the withered Red Forest nearby, says “they lived as long as animals in relatively clean areas,” defying an otherwise life-altering radiation presence by adapting just as animals in untainted areas would (Mulvey). The scope of the nuclear spill, paired with the growing number of species in the Zone, continues to baffle scientists. There is still no definitive answer as to how life can continue in the area, or whether this life is radioactive.
Besides the above scientific research, I will also consult dramatic works centering on Chernobyl. They will be jumping off points rather than direct inspiration, because while plays and movies have dealt with the disaster itself, no work thus far has put the event side-by-side with research on the current state of Pripyat as a developing habitat. Plays and movies included in my artistic research will be Sergei Kurginian’s austere nuclear labor expose Compensation: A Liturgy of Fact (2001); Bradley Parker’s horror film Chernobyl Diaries (2012); and the first mainstream play ever written about the event, Vladimir Gubaryev’s Sarcophagus (1986).
In the research and writing of my play, I will learn more about how life regenerates and reimagines itself in the face of catastrophe. By allowing animals, forgotten objects, and humans who witnessed or were affected by the event to reveal both real and imagined secrets of Pripyat then and now, I hope to give a contemporary audience the chance to hear the Chernobyl story as if for the first time. The theatrical medium will allow me to go beyond clinical hypotheses and data collection to creatively solve the seemingly unfathomable mystery of life’s persistence despite destruction, suffering, and abandonment.
Summary of Findings
During the summer of 2014, I set out to research the scientific, political, and cultural aftershocks caused by the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion in Pripyat, Ukraine, on April 26, 1986. The project was funded by the Northwestern Office of Undergraduate Research. My goal was to get as clear a picture as possible of the situation before the explosion (the workings of the plant, its importance to the Soviet Union, and the average citizen’s relationship to the nuclear city) in contrast to how history views the disaster today, particularly with regards to the wildlife regeneration in the surrounding marshlands and the continued radioactive emissions reported from the reactor itself. I wanted to write a play exposing the process of moving from decay to life, from desolation to re-population, as well as investigate the similarities Chernobyl shares with other disasters. Originally, I thought my idea would manifest in an avant-garde, non-linear exploration of themes led by personified animals and abandoned objects left behind by the Pripyat evacuees. I wanted to create an atmospheric event that would immerse audiences in a decrepit, overgrown building left behind by people.
Soon after I began my research, however, it became clear that no matter how interesting non-human storytellers would be in illuminating little-known environmental details of this story, the absence of humans in such an artistic work would mean the absence of that which I found most compelling in the research: the stories of regret, love, and loss. While I worked my way through each of my proposed research texts, the two sources that became the most inspirational in writing the play were Visit Sunny Chernobyl, Andrew Blackwell’s contemporary travelogue of Pripyat; and Voices from Chernobyl, a collection of firsthand survivor accounts compiled by Svetlana Alexievich. My adviser Paul Edwards encouraged me to follow my impulse and—rather than try to write the play as I had originally proposed—to allow it to change according to my findings. I could not ignore the feeling that, try as I might to tell the story of Chernobyl through a darkly humorous, Brechtian animal-and-object lens, the story was at heart about humans reacting in surprising ways to a mythically immense situation. The play turned into a naturalistic drama inspired by the melodramatic style of Anton Chekhov and other Russian writers. However, I was initially insecure because I could tell that the first draft was all about events, staging history, rather than staging people experiencing events.
To remedy my stalemate, Paul and I further discussed how I could make my research work for the play I began imagining rather than the play I set out to write. To this end, I began gathering additional research materials in the realm of theatrical explorations of tragedy/catastrophe. These texts were The Amish Project, a play about the aftermath of Amish school shootings in Pennsylvania; Eastland, a musical about the capsizing of a ship in the Chicago River; and With Their Eyes, a collection of monologues written by New York City high school students regarding September 11, 2001. I was originally struck by these texts because of their ability to cover events and their aftermaths without feeling over-dramatic or soap opera-esque. I began trying to inject this sense of reality into my play, and to check each character for a grounded objective, something concrete by which the reader can trace their journey from beginning to end. Paul also encouraged me not to edit myself in the writing process, allowing the research in which I was engaged to go straight into the play without a filter.
This advice gave me the freedom to absorb everything I could from my readings, continue to focus my research more specifically on the human element in the catastrophe, and then write freely for the human characters that I had created in the first draft. The second draft I turned in at the end of the summer felt more like I was dealing with real characters who could have been there, and with Paul’s continued advisement, I feel confident in the direction it is moving. I have identified a central character (Natalka) and a central conflict—her wish to stay in the irradiated building she lived in in Chernobyl rather than enjoy a “normal” life elsewhere with her friends and family. I have also imposed a structure of monologues delivered to the audience interposed between realistic scenes. These monologues and the central conflict are drawn directly from first-person accounts that I unearthed in my research process. I hope that by shifting between direct address and naturalism, the constant alienation from any assumed reality in the characters’ situations will keep the reader aware that it is a fictional exploration of a factual event, and in so doing allow me to take liberties with historical accounts of the explosion, as there are many discrepancies depending on which source is consulted.
With this new structure, and a stronger knowledge of my characters and their stories, I am interested in continuing to rewrite. I want to use the human-focused research I did this summer in conjunction with that original impulse I had to create a visceral, non-linear theatrical event, and try to combine them within the framework I have created. By reconnecting with my original impulse for something more avant-garde, I hope to reinvigorate my writing process and discover something new and exciting about the characters I have created, even if the third draft continues in the naturalistic realm. Looking forward, I am interested in doing a longer period of research with my play in mind. I want to dig deeper into Soviet government accounts (those that still exist) regarding the days following the explosion, and search harder for first-person accounts of survival to incorporate into my characters. I am also interested in analyzing Chekhov’s major plays with a focus on the vocal palette of his characters. Finally, I want to research further on artistic representation of high-toll human catastrophes, and make sure that every line of my play is respectful and plausible despite artistic extrapolations that keep it engaging and exciting for a reader or audience.
Alex Benjamin is a theatre director, playwright, musician, and teaching artist with a focus on adaptations of epic/classic texts and the creation of immersive, audience-driven experiences for specific communities. Most recently, he created and directed The Great and Terrible Doctor Faustus, which updated the Faust legend to center around a 1940’s magic show and inhabited over a dozen rooms in Evanston’s historic Cahn Auditorium. He currently works in the Performance Programs Department at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and will graduate in June of 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre, a certificate in musical theatre, and a certificate in integrated marketing communications.
Alexievich, Svetlana. Voices From Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. New York: Picador, 2006. Print.
Blackwell, Andrew. Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places. Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2012. Print.
Dickey, Jessica. The Amish Project. New York: Samuel French, 2010. Print.
Gubaryev, Vladimir. Sarcophagus. New York: Vintage, 1987. Print.
Helmuth. Laura. “Chernobyl’s Wildlife Survivors.” Slate. The Slate Group, 21 Jan. 2013. Web. 4 March 2014.
Knauer, Kelly. TIME: Disasters That Shook the World. New York: Time Books, 2012. Print.
Marples, David R. The Social Impact of the Chernobyl Disaster. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Print.
Mulvey, Stephen. “Wildlife Defies Chernobyl Radiation.” BBC News. BBC, 2009. Web. 7 March 2014.
Radioactive Wolves. Dir. Klaus Feichtenberger. Perf. Harry Smith. 2013. DVD.
Thoms, Annie. With Their Eyes. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. Print.
Yablokov, Alexey V., Vassily B. Nesterenko, and Alexey V. Nesterenko. Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 2009. Print.
This project and resulting play could not have happened without generous financial support from the Office of Undergraduate Research and proposal advisement from Peter Civetta. The project adviser Paul Edwards continues to give invaluable artistic input to the project, and Laura Schellhardt’s classroom instruction on the art of playwriting greatly enriched the script. Through the completion of a two-phase research project (the first phase of which is being funded by an academic-year URG in New York in March 2015) on the study of immersive/interactive theatre, I hope to expand the dimensions of the play through an increased understanding of non-traditional storytelling techniques in the U.S. and U.K.