The Ukrainian theater in the reality of modern war
Theatrical art is often considered as an artistic interpretation of real life. Accordingly, it is supposed to reflect what is happening to us in collective artistic images, emphasizing the main points. However, modern theatrical art not only represents reality from the stage but also consciously seeks to influence it.
When talking about the influence of war on theatrical art and vice versa, we will mainly refer to the period after February 24, 2022 — the date of the full-scale military invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation.
The reaction of theaters in the first day of the full-scale invasion accurately reflects the reaction of Ukrainian society as a whole. The first hours in the eastern and southern regions of our country, which were immediately subjected to perhaps the most powerful missile strike, are characterized by a phase of “denial” — disbelief that we could be attacked, that a full-scale war had started. This is evidenced by messages from viewers asking whether a certain play will still take place, as if hoping that everything is still the same as it was before, and that evening plans for leisure in the artistic environment should not be canceled. Screenshots of these messages were shared by the Ukrainian online platform T-fishing, which runs an information blog about Ukrainian theatrical art.
Subsequently, practically all Ukrainian theaters suspended their traditional artistic activities for a long time, becoming volunteer centers and actively participating in the defense of Ukraine within their capabilities. Many theater professionals became members of territorial defense, and also joined the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian theatrical art that existed before February 24, 2022, changed in its values in a fairly short period of time, and soon revived in a new relevant light — in the conditions of martial law and war here and now.
Among the Ukrainian theaters, there are those that were literally destroyed by the Russian Federation. Thus, March 16, 2022, is considered a black day in the calendar of modern Ukrainian theatrical art. It was on this day that Russian air forces bombed the Mariupol Drama Theater. The number of fatalities is estimated to be around 600 people. Incidentally, the theater was surrounded by large and clear inscriptions of “CHILDREN”, which were legible from the height at which the Russian aircraft were operating. In the practically unusable former theater building, which was unfit for artistic creativity and audience reception, Russian performers decided to “create” their own “art”, which Ukrainian media rightfully called “dancing on the bones”.
Later, news emerged about the destroyed theater in Sievierodonetsk, where a troupe from the evacuated Luhansk Regional Academic Ukrainian Music and Drama Theater had been operating for a long time.
Certain members of the Mariupol Drama Theater found shelter in Transcarpathia — at the Ukrainian theater in Uzhhorod. As for the Sievierodonetsk theater, they had the opportunity to resume their activities at a theater in Sumy.
Theater professionals from these theaters gave candid interviews to the media, where they talked about their future activities, as well as their current ideological views related to our times.
The production called Who am I? was the first play that the Sievierodonetsk theater showed in Sumy after its members had already left their previous theatrical venue for the second time due to the Russian aggression. It caused a stir among the audience and filled the halls to capacity. The actors report that their audience from Sievierodonetsk tried to get to them. People called, asked if it was definitely this theater, and traveled a considerable distance to see the play.
In addition, the theater troupe noted that there are significant problems with funding for theatrical art in Ukraine during wartime. In fact, the theater does not have the material resources for its existence, with its main available resource being humans. The theater team has appealed to the UN for help and cooperation.
The director of the Mariupol Drama Theater is Liudmyla Kolosovych, who was offered the position of director of the theater after her evacuation. Liudmyla confesses that accepting such a decision was quite difficult, as the theater is practically in ruins, and the documentary evidence of its ownership is also in question. However, the sense of responsibility and the realization of herself as a driver of socio-cultural and artistic changes formed a positive response from the director, the practical realization of which we will be able to see fully after the liberation of Mariupol.
The Mariupol Drama Theater had 210 members, of whom only 12 moved to Uzhhorod to continue their artistic work. The rest of the troupe partially stayed in Mariupol, moved to Russia, Crimea, and found refuge in Europe.
The first work that Mariupol residents began to work on in Transcarpathia was a play about Vasyl Stus, featured in the theatrical premiere Cry of the nation. Stus became the first symbol of the revival of the Mariupol Theater, a kind of guiding vector for further ideological and practical development. The choice of this famous Ukrainian personality is quite logical and understandable, as Vasyl Stus was a Donetsk poet who died fighting for the Ukrainian language and culture. Ms Liudmyla shared that their theater troupe would like to call themselves “Stusivtsi”, but believes that much work still needs to be done for such a loud title. Ultimately, this theater can be considered the first ideologically Ukrainian theater in the Donetsk region.
In addition, the representatives of these theaters shared their thoughts on the language issue, as well as on cultural heritage and personalities that are often ambiguously related to either the Russian or Ukrainian socio-cultural sector.
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As for the language, everything is clear — it is necessary to switch to Ukrainian and to create in this language. Not all transitions are quick and qualitative, but it is important to make a decision regarding this transition and to honestly work on oneself.
Speaking about Ukrainian-Russian figures (specific names not mentioned) who are ambiguously associated with one cultural sphere or another and national identity and orientation, it is important to conduct a thorough analysis of each representative, as historical data have often been falsified by the Russian Federation.
The theater was born during the war
The full-scale invasion by the Russian Federation affected not only theaters in Luhansk and Donetsk regions but also theaters in Kharkiv. In particular, we want to focus on the story of the director of independent theaters in Kharkiv — Artem Vusyk.
Before February 24, 2022, Artem was known as a director of two independent theaters in Kharkiv — Prekrasni Kvity (Beautiful Flowers) and Nafta (oil in Ukrainian), which until recently was called Neft (oil in Russian), but officially changed its name, as he recognized that any Russianisms in the theater’s name are unacceptable.
At the beginning of the full-scale war, Artem, together with his fiancée and theater colleague Nina Khyzhna, had to leave their native city of Kharkiv and, accordingly, stop working in the theaters Prekrasni Kvity and Nafta. However, after moving to Lviv, Artem soon became the founder and leader of a new theater called Varta, which emerged during the war and creates plays only about wartime reality. During about a year of full-scale war, the theater has created 7 plays, and all of them are about the war.
At first, the theater worked in a small room in the Lviv art space Wild House, located on Staroevreyska Street. Later, the team was able to obtain a larger space that is part of the Lesya Ukrainka Lviv Academic Drama Theater — the Gallery of scenography.
The Varta theater can be considered a separate and extremely important phenomenon in the history of Ukrainian theater art because this theater is caused by the war and is about the war.
War is the key theme of the plays in the theater, and all artistic reflections revolve around it. According to Artem Vusyk, the theater Varta is often called a “reactive theater” because it reacts incredibly quickly to war, political, and socio-cultural changes and creates its theatrical products accordingly.
As of March 2023, the theater’s repertoire includes the plays The first day of war, Unconquered Kherson, Lesya and Andriy meet in Lviv, February (directed by Nina Khyzhna), She is war (in collaboration with the Kharkiv theater Publicist), an audio-performative concert How I met the war and almost killed Putin, and a performative-mystical play Inside my room. Each production reveals a separate aspect of the war, engaging in a dialogue with the audience, creating an opportunity to be heard and fostering mutual understanding.
In addition, in October 2022, Artem Vusyk gave an author’s lecture at the Lviv Municipal Art Center on the topic Independent theater before and after the war. There, the director sincerely shared his personal story of founding two independent theaters in Kharkiv, as well as how the Varta theater emerged in Lviv during the war. Artem’s colleagues jokingly say that if he is locked in a room for one day, he will inevitably create a theater there.
This story reveals not only the artistic-theatrical aspect of the interplay between war and theater but also the anthropological aspect — the human one because theater is primarily created by ordinary people who can also become victims of circumstances and may themselves require help.
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For Artem, the first weeks of the war were a state of shock, he literally did not know what to do and only after about ten days in Lviv, he began to write his first play and realized that he should continue to work in theater. By the way, the first play in the Varta theater — The first day of the war was staged in just three days, and the premiere took place on Theater Day.
Although the announcement of the performance was published on social media on the same day it was supposed to take place, around 60 spectators gathered and it was difficult to accommodate them in the basement of the Wild House (there was an air raid alarm), so the performance was played three times in a row.
In addition, Artem shared that he plans to return to Kharkiv as soon as possible and continue his creative work in the theaters Nafta and Prekrasni Kvity. However, he does not intend to stop working in the Varta theater, seeing the possibility of combining his artistic work in two cities in Ukraine.
According to the director’s opinion, Lviv needs the development of independent theater culture, as there are only about three well-known theaters here, while there are over fifty in Kharkiv.
Artem talked about the establishment of an artistic association of Kharkiv residents in Lviv during the lecture as one of his plans.
“Melpomena Tavrii — the voice of the Kherson region”
Unconquered Kherson is a play dedicated to the Ukrainian city of Kherson, which was under Russian occupation from the early days of the full-scale invasion. Since 1999, the theater festival Melpomena Tavrii has been held annually in Kherson, where theaters from different countries and cities in our country come to perform. However, in 2022, due to the hostilities by the Russian Federation, the festival took place in a completely different format. It was held online from June 10th to 19th in Lviv.
French and Portuguese theater colleagues joined the festival by holding an online screening of the French festival In Extremis — Art as a form of hospitality, which included a Portuguese performance by participants from the city of Braga called Without dialogues, but with gestures. The slogan of this year’s festival was “Melpomena Tavrii — the voice of Kherson region”.
In this way, the Ukrainian artistic community proves that although the Russian army has encroached on the territorial boundaries of Ukraine, it will not be able to destroy our ideological and socio-cultural front. This highlights the support for theatrical colleagues from Kherson and the residents of Kherson who were under Russian occupation.
The full-scale invasion has significantly affected the theatrical life in Mykolaiv. The Mykolaiv Russian Drama Theater removed the word “Russian” from its name, and now it is known as the Mykolaiv Theater of Dramatic Art. Initially, the theater, like others in our country, suspended its artistic activities, but later it resumed them, but no longer in a traditional audience hall, but in a small room underneath it, which serves as a shelter. The first play of the new season was in the genre of absurdity, depicting “the embodiment of human desires.” According to the actors of the Mykolaiv Theater, nowadays they stand as doctors of the human soul.
The theatrical community in Odesa also reacted decisively to the start of the full-scale war. At first, the Odesa Opera suspended its activities, but on March 12, 2022, it staged an artistic action called Free Sky, which aimed to support the all-Ukrainian movement to close the sky over Ukraine from hostile forces. As part of the action, under the direction of theater conductor Igor Chernetzky, the symphony orchestra and choir of the Odesa Opera performed the State Anthem of Ukraine, the chorus from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco, the spiritual hymn Prayer for Ukraine, and the composition The wide Dnipro Roars and Moans by Dmytro Kryzhanivskyi. At the end of the artistic action, a briefing was held with the participation of the Maniging Director and Artistic Director of the theater Nadiya Babich and the artists of the Odesa Opera. In addition, the Odesa Opera and the Green Theater took part in a series of events and projects of political, socio-cultural and artistic orientation — all of which reflect the active position and actions of the Odesa theatrical community in support of Ukraine’s victory.
Among the theatrical premieres that took place in Kyiv after February 24th, the following are worth noting:
- War-сolored face — a documentary play by Mariupol artists of the author’s play Conception.
- Reconstruction — a play by the art group Shadow about the destroyed cities of Mariupol and Kharkiv (destroyed physically, but not mentally).
- I, war, and a plastic grenade — a play about a new stage of the Russian-Ukrainian war, which began on February 24th, based on the play by Ukrainian playwright Nina Zakhozhenko (the play is set in the city of Kharkiv).
- Tsap-ka-tsap — a play in the form of a fairy tale that reflects current events from the Young Theater.
- Ukraine in flames — the events take place during the Second World War, but their experience is relevant to our days (Lesya Ukrainka Theater in Kyiv).
- Two — a play about the relationship between two people, which premiered in 2021, but after February 24th, 2022, its plot was partially changed and supplemented with scenes that reflect the impact of war on people’s daily lives.
Among the new theater projects that actualize ethnic Ukrainian culture, we should mention the Workshop of ethnic sound by the Kyiv Academic Theater in Pechersk.
Lviv theaters were among the first to become volunteer centers, in particular, the Lesya Ukrainka Theater and the Les Kurbas Theater. The first is known for its active participation in collecting and transporting humanitarian aid, while the second literally provided shelter for internally displaced persons within its walls for a period of time. However, artistic activity in the Lviv theatrical community has also been productive.
The main premiere of 2022 at the Lesya Ukrainka Theater was IMPERIUM DELENDUM EST — a theatrical production that is not classified under a specific genre, as it contains elements of a concert, performance, happening, immersion, storytelling, media art, and others. The creators of the play admit that they primarily felt a personal need to create it, as the beginning of the full-scale war raised acute questions about whether the theater is needed at all and what “role” theater professionals should play in wartime.
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The play is a reflection on the war, presented aloud and live before the audience. Each actress shares her personal story and emotions provoked by the war. This event turns into a kind of dialogue with the audience, as although only the actors literally speak, the experiences, feelings and thoughts about the war are shared.
The play was not only performed in Ukraine but also at theater festivals abroad: Avignon Off Festival (France), URBANG! Festival 2022 (Germany), Festival Contre-Sens (touring in France), International Theatre Festival Retroperspektywy 2022: THE BEGINNING OF A NEW WORLD (Poland).
The Lesya Ukrainka Theater also created a series of other theatrical projects: I, war, and a plastic grenade — a performative reading of the play by Nina Zakhozhenko, directed by Andriy Kravchuk; Reactive flash performances My mom is a kettle (playwright — Liudmyla Tymoshenko, director and performer — Tetiana Frolova), Air alarm (playwright — Den Humennyy, director — Vladyslav Bilonenko); How I met the war and almost killed Putin — a concert-performance in collaboration with the Varta Theater.
Additionally, the theater resumed the activities of the Lesya Theater School — a space where those interested can learn theatrical practices, including therapeutic ones. At the beginning of the season, the focus was on such elements of current therapeutic theatrical practices as storytelling and improvisation. The topic of the therapeutic impact of art became the subject of lectures held at the theater, for example, Art therapy: The art of recovery, with lecturer Nigel Osborne.
The methods of forum theater (theater of the oppressed) have been revitalized by the NGO Theater of changes in Lviv. The experience of war and life during it have become key topics for exploration.
No less important
The theme of the transformation of Ukrainian theatrical art in the conditions of full-scale war became the basis for publications by modern theater critics and cultural journalists. In particular, an analysis on this topic was presented by Oleg Vergelis, the editor of the culture section of the Dzerkalo Tyzhnia media outlet.
Natalia Vorozhbyt became the main playwright in the new “war season” of 2022. That year, together with the team of the Kyiv Academic Theater of Drama and Comedy on the left bank of the Dnipro, the playwright became a laureate of the national Shevchenko Prize for the performance Bad Roads (written by Vorozhbyt, directed by Tamara Trunova). The play was also shown during a tour in Europe.
Additionally, they worked on two other plays by Natalia — Sasha, take out the trash! and Grain depot, under the direction of Maxym Holenko. Therefore, the Ukrainian theater community is looking forward to further development of Natalia Vorozhbyt’s playwriting.
They clearly highlight the need for the development of modern Ukrainian drama in general, emphasizing the Dramatists’ Theater as a leading platform that has great potential for the development of Ukrainian dramatic creativity. Among the founders of the theater are Natalia Vorozhbyt, Pavlo Arie, Andriy Bondarenko, Lena Lagushonkowa, and many other representatives of the contemporary theater community in Ukraine.
The play Caligula by A. Camus at the Ivan Franko National Theater, directed by Ivan Uryvsky, is given an important role. The parallels between the phenomenon of ancient Roman tyranny and our days become too obvious and help the viewer better understand the reasons, essence, and absurdity of the motives and actions of the tyrannical ruler. The play vividly reflects the phenomenon of “cyclical evil” and the “silent people,” which is a clear and relevant allegory of our present-day enemies.
Among the important processes that have become an integral part of the transformation of Ukrainian theater after February 24, 2022, we emphasize once again the process of Derussification. The theaters of Kyiv, Mykolaiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, and other cities have eliminated the use of the adjective “Russian”. At the same time, the question arises about replacing the repertoire in theaters that previously freely staged performances in Russian. Critics express their concerns about the quality of the replaced repertoire, the ability to convey the essence through artistic form without the consequences of the previous Fussification of theaters. However, we note the Derussification of Ukrainian theaters as a clearly positive phenomenon and believe that aspects related to mental and ideological differences will be addressed in a pro-Ukrainian context, as each of us now revisits the question of our own national, ethnic, and personal identity consciously.
“Therefore, the impact of the full-scale war on contemporary Ukrainian theatrical art is no less significant than the “response” — the impact of modern Ukrainian theatrical art on the war events after February 24, 2022. As a result of the bombings and occupation of Ukrainian territories, the Russian Federation was able to temporarily interrupt the traditional work of Ukrainian theaters, but not to cease their work permanently or destroy Ukrainian theatrical art as such. On the contrary, the theaters have taken a clear, active civic, national, social, and artistic position. They became volunteer centers and bomb shelters, and members of the theater troupe became participants in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and Territorial Defense. There was a sharp Derussification, which affected the names of theaters, the language of performance, and the semantic content of plays. Modern Ukrainian drama and experimental productions emphasizing the themes of war and national identity are experiencing powerful development. In the conditions of full-scale war, there is not only a revival of Ukrainian relevant theatrical art but also the birth of new theaters and projects, a bright example of which is the theater created in Lviv by artists from Kharkiv, called Varta,” said Lana Kostyniuk, an author of the article.
This means that modern Ukrainian theater has no less powerful impact on the war than it has on the theater itself — both practically and ideologically, defending its own borders and helping compatriots defend them, making choices here and now aimed at achieving freedom, and telling about the war beyond our country. In addition, the therapeutic impact of theatrical art on the socio-cultural environment in times of war is also important.
Originally posted by Lana Kostyniuk on Zbruc.eu. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website
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