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Four years ago, Mark and Marichka Marczyk were undertaking military training so they could volunteer in Ukraine’s battle against Russian interference; this month, the Canadian-Ukrainian musical-theatre duo are unveiling a work in progress about that war at Toronto’s 2018 Luminato Festival.

“We decided instead of taking up arms to go and share the stories through music and through theatre, where our talents lie,” said Mark Marczyk, a Canadian of Ukrainian extraction who met his Ukrainian wife and creative partner during protests in Kiev.

After the international success of Counting Sheep, their 2015 work mixing stories from the conflict with traditional Ukrainian song, the Marczyks hunkered down in Toronto and kept making music. Luminato is giving them the opportunity to test drive a new piece, Balaklava Blues, that combines live performance, recorded folk songs, contemporary film and Soviet-era cartoons, before the work makes a full premiere next fall.

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That is perhaps the most extreme example of Luminato’s new politically-engaged stance but the festival that launches Wednesday is packed with similar stories of artists for whom art is closely allied to political action. For a festival that has often floated above the city’s cultural scene without a clear artistic mandate, it’s a resolutely focused approach.

“Luminato should be part of public debate,” said Josephine Ridge, the Australian artistic director now in her second year programming the festival. “I wouldn’t be as narrow as to say, ‘Oh, it’s political.’ It’s social politics.” For the 2018 festival, she identified three themes — human rights, the justice system, including policing, and the status of women — and invited international human-rights advocate, lawyer and celebrity spouse Amal Clooney to headline the event.

“She can talk across all these areas; she’s a highly articulate and compelling speaker who had a wonderful career before she married George Clooney,” Ridge said.

Still, Clooney’s fame will help sell a serious conversation about a difficult topic — she will be interviewed on stage by her father-in-law, journalist Nick Clooney, on June 22 — and Luminato artists are also aware you need some glitter in the gloom.

“It has to be absolutely great theatre; of very high quality, that is a main priority,” says Natalia Kaliada of the Belarus Free Theatre, a company that operates in exile in the U.K. after being banned by the Belarus government.

The company comes to Luminato with a show called Burning Doors that has earned rave reviews for reminding Western audiences how fragile rights can be by telling three stories of abuses in Eastern Europe. One of those stories is performed by Maria Alyokhina, a member of the punk protest group Pussy Riot, who was jailed by Russian authorities: This is typical of the Belarus Free Theatre method, which stipulates everyone involved, including crew, have direct experience of human-rights abuses.

“One of the problems with the way human-rights issues are presented to audiences is either it’s boring or it’s presented in a way that people really want to block it out: Our priority is to engage with audiences, for every single member to say, ‘Oh, this is a human life; this could happen to me,’” Kaliada said.

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Another way to engage audiences is to put them to work: in Nassim, the exiled Iranian artist Nassim Soleimanpour asks members of the audience to master enough Farsi that they can translate his English-language play for his mother back in Iran. The experimental work about communication follows on Soleimanpour’s previous hit White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, in which he had unrehearsed actors perform his script on an international tour — because at the time he was banned from leaving Iran.

If this all sounds rather serious-minded, look to RIOT for some raucous relief: seeking a company to make resident the length of the festival, Luminato brought in the theatre and performance group thisispopbaby from Dublin with this spoken-word and circus-arts variety show hosted by Panti (Rory O’Neill), Ireland’s best-known drag performer.

But don’t doubt that this is political, too: “We have to tweak some lines,” said co-artistic director Jennifer Jennings, contacted three days after the Irish voted to legalize abortion in a landslide referendum. RIOT is filled with comedy and colour, but its message is social engagement.

“There is a line in the show that, ’The theatre is the last analog place “they” are not watching,’” says co-artistic director Phillip McMahon. “It can be a dangerous place, dangerous in a really good way. … We can make an agreement in this dark space about what we are going to do when we leave. This show is a call to arms.”

Jennings and McMahon say Ireland’s small size makes it particularly suited to launching grassroots movements or experiments in direct democracy, but Ridge has not forgotten Canadian issues either. Toronto artist Liza Balkan contributes Out the Window, about her experience witnessing the fatal beating of a local man by police, and Ridge has programmed several panel discussions about policing and mental health around that.

The Luminato artistic director makes no apology for the aggressive topicality of it all.

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“Artists are making work about … the lives we are all living and the discussions we are all having,” she said. “The arts are not tangential to life ... They can be real catalysts for change.”

Luminato runs June 6 to 24 in Toronto (

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