Thursday, July 19, 2012

First-Person: Yana Kesala of The Ukrainian Dentist's Daughter (Winnipeg Fringe)

Winnipeg: Coming Home to a Place I've Never Been
by Yana Kesela
The moment I touched down in Winnipeg, I felt at home. Which was unexpected, considering that I've never been here before.
The saying goes, "Home is where the heart is." Home has been a lot of different places for me over the years: suburban Chicago, northern California, London UK, Seattle. Plus lots of tours travelling the world in between. It was a shocking moment when I realized that there was nowhere I could move where all my people would be. Home, and the hearts that make it, are all around the planet. A blessing and a curse, home being everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. 
I wear my heart on my sleeve. Usually it translates to making friends easily, but it means getting hurt easily, too. Thankfully a career as an actress, where you hear, "No," so much more than you hear, "Yes," has toughened me up, and the hurts don't ache as long as they used to. Winnipeg also wears its heart on its sleeve. It is home to a lot of people who spent a long time hearing, "No," and decided to go somewhere they would hear, "Yes."
My play, "The Ukrainian Dentist's Daughter," is based on my mother's life: her immigration to the States at age 6, falling in love with my father, molding an identity, and striving for her dreams. What I don't address is my grandmother's story: a 20-year-old Ukrainian woman with a 2-year-old baby during the Second World War who persuades her older, established dentist husband to leave it all behind to immigrate to North America. She was sick of the Communists telling her, "No." She was tired of the Nazis telling her, "No." She was going to find her place of "Yes."
Winnipeg is home to the largest population of Ukrainians in Canada. I walk around here and feel like I'm at a family reunion: it seems like everyone could be my cousin or my uncle. My technician at my venue is Ukrainian, complete with two z's and a y in his last name. Heck, the Winnipeg flag even looks Ukrainian! 
It's the Ukrainian flag cut on a diagonal!
I am in endless awe of the courage and sheer determination possessed by my grandmother and all the people who made that journey across a continent, an ocean, a language, an economic class structure. I'd like to think that some of that courage also runs in my veins. Though my grandmother would shudder to wear her heart on her sleeve, perhaps she would be proud of my tour across Canada. I certainly can't compare my journey to hers, mine being temporary and for artistic realization while hers was permanent for the survival of her family. But I very much can relate to the impetus for the journey's initiation: we both wanted to find a place that would say, "Yes."
I think a lot of Fringe artists feel this way. As an actor, you mostly spend your time saying other people's words in a strictly directed way. Many times those words and stories are unimportant to you, and the real acting challenge is keeping up the veneer that you actually care. That's assuming that you get the chance to say those words in the first place. Auditions have to be successful for that to happen, and most actors hear a lot of rejection for every positive result. I have been lucky, earning great roles in companies that took me across the US, Canada, and Australia. I've become a bit spoiled, only wanting to perform pieces I care about.
On the Fringe, if you don't really care, then you would not be here. Many of us are performing our own work and doing all aspects of production and marketing. We are living out of suitcases for months at a time, hauling sets and costumes across the country. At each Fringe we circle our wagons, cross our fingers, and go out and tell our stories. Sometimes we take for granted how lucky we are, that such a circuit exists, that we won the lotteries that said, "Yes." But most of the time, treasured in our heart of hearts, is the knowledge that we have found a place we can do the work that we care about.
Why am I so happy? Because I LOVE performing my show! Photo by Charlie Ainslie
That caring energy permeates Winnipeg. You can see it in the lineups outside the venues, in the marking-up of the Fringe programs, in the packed houses (even on opening night!). You could say it's because Winnipeg is boring the rest of the year, or that it's the Prairies, or that Ukrainians love art and beer. Those things might be part of it. But I think the real reason that this city embraces Fringe is simple: people here know what home means. Many are descendants of those who travelled very far and worked very hard to establish homes and lives very distant from where they began. They are opening up their hearts, their houses, their wallets, their schedules. Winnipeg is looking at Fringe and saying, "Yes. You are welcome here. We are so happy you came."
Thank you, Winnipeg. This Ukrainian dentist's granddaughter will do you proud. (cont'd)

The Ukrainian dentist's daughter and granddaughter, 1990.
"The Ukrainian Dentist's Daughter" performs at the Winnipeg Fringe July 19-28. Venue 5, Son of Warehouse, 140 Rupert Ave. For tickets click here.

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