Violinist and composer Mark Marczyk moved from Canada to Ukraine to immerse himself in music and culture, not politics. But when, in 2014, a violent clash erupted between protesters and government forces in Kiev, Ukraine (the result of President Yanukovych signing a trade agreement with Russia rather than the European Union), Marczyk found himself drawn into the protests as a witness and a storyteller. He also found true love, meeting his future wife, Marichka, a Ukrainian singer and ethnomusicologist, amongst the tumult. The two have turned the experience into art, presenting "Counting Sheep," their "guerilla folk opera," at Stanford University Feb. 7-10.
"It was important for us to use our voices -- our literal voices and also our ideas, our perspectives -- to tell the story of how this whole conflict started. If that story is not told then there's a risk Ukraine can just disappear into the abyss," Mark Marczyk said.
"Counting Sheep" puts audiences right into the thick of things, witnessing and becoming involved in the protests, the action set to Ukrainian folk music performed by the Marczyks and Mark's Toronto-based band, The Lemon Bucket Orkestra, and including the traditional music Marichka and her colleagues have collected from all over Ukraine.
Ukraine has a rich musical tradition, involving polyphony, expansive harmony, occasional dissonance and ancient songs rooted in the Earth, season cycles and cultural rituals. The songs mirror "the collective experience of Ukrainians. It's a hard place to live. That sort of gets passed on from generation to generation. The harmonies, they reflect that," he said.
Audience members can participate alongside the 12-member cast by taking part in the simulated protest, whether it be by throwing bricks, sharing a meal or simply observing.
"No matter what you do as an audience member, you are reflecting humanity, something that happened in our experience," he said.
The show is presented entirely in Ukrainian, but that hasn't been a barrier for those who don't speak or understand it.
"Music and protest is kind of universal language. There's something about the experience of being together, sharing together and resisting together that, when coupled with music, you don't really need language to have a feeling of what's that like," he said. "If you don't know the language, you can feel it in the chords. When you hear it, you feel like you're walking on that soil."
They chose "Counting Sheep" as a title for multiple reasons.
"A big part of the feeling of being in the protest was you never knew what was going to happen, a sense that they could attack at any moment, so there was this kind of perpetual insomnia," he explained. "There's magic and mystery in numbers that either helps you to fall asleep or prevents you from falling asleep. At the same time, there's that idea that we are sheep in masks. We like playing with that idea: We are sheep when we move together. Humans tend to flock, we tend to want to be with people that are like us. How much of identity is individual and how much is collective, and how important is that to us?"
For the Marczyks, each performance of "Counting Sheep" takes an emotional toll, reminding them of their harrowing experiences being caught up in the turmoil.
"I think that's the the pact that we have with ourselves, myself and my wife. We're going to go through that because the story is important enough to tell. It's very difficult for us to go through that but certainly not as difficult as what soldiers and civilians in eastern Ukraine have to go through every single day," he said, noting that the bloody conflict is ongoing.
"Out of respect to the situation, we've decided to continue to do it, and if we're going to do it, we're going to do it full on."
What: "Counting Sheep."
Where: Bing Concert Hall Studio, 327 Lasuen St. Stanford.
When: Feb. 7-10 at 8 p.m.
Cost: $15 Stanford student; $18 youth; $37 Stanford employee; $46 general admission.
Info: Go to Stanford Live.