One month after the Russian invasion in Ukraine, Maksym Holenko started staging one of the most timely Ukrainian contemporary plays - “Sasha, Take the Garbage Out!” by Natalka Vorozhbyt. This play tells a story of the life and afterlife of a Ukrainian soldier who was not appreciated while alive. But the war changes everything, and he returns to this world to join the Ukrainian army in order to defend the country.
What is going on in your theatre ? Are you working now ?
All theatres in Ukraine (except for those in the western part of the country) are at a standstill now, which means all professional activities are temporarily suspended. We don’t have an opportunity to perform on the stage. But our theatre has found a solution - we opened a new stage in the bomb shelter. After the war had started, we discovered a bomb shelter in the basement of our theatre. Previously, the premises were used as a scene dock. Now, we are using the shelter for its primary purpose, so we have an opportunity to welcome the audience. On the 30th of April, we premiered our new show "Sasha, Take the Garbage Out" there. We made this show transportable for the purpose of performing it for the Armed Forces of Ukraine and volunteers.
What has changed about the rehearsal process under such circumstances ?
Normally, the terms and deadlines are clear, and we work pretty fast. But now we take our time. Now, work is more of a therapy for everyone involved. It allows people to see each other, to support, to know they are alive. Though the rehearsals are often interrupted by air raid alarms, the team keeps working.
Are the actors of the theatre staying in the city ?
Only 10 out of 50 in-house actors are staying in Odesa now. Ten actors are serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine defending the country from the Russian aggression, among them our leading actors. So there’s no possibility to play any of our repertoire shows, for the actors are on the battlefield. About 15 female actors have left the country to find shelter in Europe, others have moved to safer places within Ukraine.
Do you feel there is a need for theatre now ?
People cannot constantly live under the pressure of war. They are in need of emotional relief that could lessen this tension, in need of the opportunity to let their feelings out. People need the theatre. It is part of their usual life, a habit they used to have in peaceful times. It brings people back to life. I think people in Ukraine deserve to have an opportunity to go to the theatre, provided it is safe. Theatre is all about the pure energy of life. And when there’s so much energy of death around, I feel there is a huge need for this energy of life.
What plans did you have before February 24 ?
We had many plans for this year: to stage 8 new shows, several of them were to be staged by European directors. I was going to direct a musical based on Isaac Babel’s works (a Ukrainian writer that was arrested by the Soviets on fabricated charges of terrorism and espionage in 1939, and then executed). But now, when only ⅕ of the troupe are available, we are forced to change our plans and adapt to the new reality.
What is the word that best characterises Ukrainians as a nation ?
There is a good word that can describe a Ukrainian - “gazda”. It means “landowner”, but the idea behind it is a way wider. “Gazda” is someone who takes care of his household and makes it thrive. We are the nation of “gazdas”, landowners, masters of our own households: we know that our well-being depends on us, so we do not hesitate to take responsibility, make our own decisions, and are able to manage things. In critical situations, each of us can pull himself or herself together, put extra effort and accomplish incredible tasks. And each Ukrainian is a Cossack, who is not a part of the horde. And we are not a herd either. We do not wait patiently for the leader to guide us and make decisions for us. We are not those people who exalt and worship leaders. We can give someone power, but then, if we see they do not deserve it, using it for their own corrupted purposes, we depose them. I think this is a sign that the nation is alive. This inborn free will does not allow us to become an autocratic state.
What are Ukrainians fighting for?
The stakes are high - do or die. Losing the war would mean the death of the nation. What we are experiencing now is nothing else but the genocide of the nation. Now, we have only two ways - either survive, or become extinct. I will tell you a horrible thing: Putin has done for the Ukrainian nation more than anyone else has ever done. He managed to unite the people of Ukraine into a tight-knit entity. Again and again, he puts us in such circumstances that we are forced to find extra resources to survive and get stronger as a nation. And I think it was in 2014 that we freed ourselves from the post-Soviet, post-imperial paradigm and started identifying ourselves as the nation. Then, we totally realised our national identity. We faced a real enemy that came to eliminate us as a nation. But this enemy didn’t know that if we are being oppressed hard enough (and we are now), we can pull all our strength together, hold tight and strike back. And you can see it for yourself - how people stop Russian tanks with their bare hands.
So, peace or victory ?
Pardon me, but you have to understand that there will be no peace without victory. Victory is the only way. Only victory will bring peace. If we agree to peace, they will use this time and accumulate more resources to prepare for another “campaign”.
What is the first thing you will do after the victory ?
I will sleep at nights. For almost two months, neither fatigue, nor pills or alcohol can help me fight this insomnia. I spend all my time ruminating. Then I manage to fall asleep at 7 am, and I have to be at work at 11 am. And I cannot do anything about it. So, after the victory, I will go to bed and get as much sleep as I can.
ВОЛЯ / The Free Will: Ukrainian Theatre People in War is a Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles project, conducted by Yulia Ostrohliad.