Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles
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Pavlo Arie

Prominent Ukrainian playwright, theatre director, Chief Dramaturgist of Comedy and Drama Theatre on the Left Bank (Kyiv), curator of the Stückemarkt Theater Festival in Heidelberg (Germany, 2016-2017).
You are one of the founders and managers of the Ukrainian Artistic Task Force in Europe. What are the current activities and projects the organisation is running?

The primary objectives of the Ukrainian Artistic Task Force are to serve the needs of the Ukrainian people in their back fight in this war by using art and culture to promote the cause, and to help Ukrainian theatre people find work opportunities in Europe. It is important for artists to keep working in order to keep exercising their artistic muscle.

We are running projects in Austria, Germany, Italy and Lithuania.

We have already opened two offices: in Berlin (Germany) and Vilnius (Lithuania). And we keep working on broadening the geography of our activities.

In Milan (Italy), we are planning several projects: public readings of my recent work “A Survivor’s Diary” (2022), which I wrote during the first 15 days of the war, and a wide range of other events on the matter of the war in Ukraine.

In Vilnius (Lithuania), we are planning to stage a show. I am working on the script now.

In Berlin, where I am currently working, we organise monthly events that feature public readings of contemporary Ukrainian plays and artist talks in Deutsches Theater. Our Berlin office is also responsible for the artistic aspect of rallies in support of Ukraine. We are supported by the Embassy of Ukraine and 90 theatres in Germany.

And we are planning a project in Duesseldorf with non-actors as performers. Only women. And I guess you could understand what it is going to be about. I can’t hold my tears when I’m thinking about it. Now, we are collecting stories. It will be a documentary drama, theatre of witness.

You were writing “A Survivor’s Diary” during the first two weeks of the war. How did you come up with this idea? What were you writing about?

During the first two weeks of the war I was staying in Kyiv. And I let myself reflect on paper my very subjective perception of what was going on from the perspective of a regular civilian who stayed in a big city of Kyiv, on the left bank of the Dnipro River (which was disconnected and isolated from the main part of the city, ‘cause all the bridges were blocked and the metro didn’t work). Every day I was watching the city being gradually engulfed in the darkness of the war. It looked like Armageddon. And every single day, I was writing about what I was witnessing, what I saw and heard, about my personal experiences and situations experienced by people around. I started doing it in order not to lose my mind, in order to hear my own voice in the deafening noise of the war. It was one of the rituals I set for myself to keep my feet on the ground.

Could you share any random story that you journaled in “A Survivor’s Diary”?

When the war started, the Left bank of Kyiv got disconnected. All pharmacies got closed. And I had run out of my medicine to lower blood pressure. I was trying to keep calm, taking sedatives. But it’s war behind the window. And I knew if there was a bomb attack in the vicinity, and even if my apartment building remained undamaged, I could die because my blood pressure would jump up.

On the fifth day of the war, I received a phone call from my acquaintance. She said there was a pharmacy not far from my theatre that was resuming its work on that day. I rushed there. The pharmacy’s closing time was 6 pm. Because the curfew time would start at 8 pm. And when I got there I saw an immensely long line. I realised I wouldn’t get in (with 3,5 hours left till the pharmacy’s closing time). And the people’s general mood was rather negative, many worried that they wouldn’t get their medicines. And this all was happening on the background of air raid alarms accompanied by artillery fire, sounds of bombing and explosions. But no one would get out of the line.
Then, one hour before the closing time, when the tension in the line got to its extreme, a pharmacist came out and said, “We won’t close until we serve everyone who is in the line.” And that was the point when one good action had a crucial impact on everyone there. People started communicating with each other and ultimately came up with an idea of how to streamline the process by making a list of medicines needed and passing it to the pharmacist in advance. So, people organised the process, and everyone got what they needed. And we managed to get home by curfew time. So, you see, with a positive attitude and care people can find a solution to a seemingly dead-end situation.

Why did this story impress you so much? What does it make you reflect on?

This is a good example of how one person can give an impetus to others and bring about dramatic change. This is what our President is doing now. You see, he encouraged the nation to fight this heroic battle by his actions on the first days of the war. He gave such a mighty impetus and hope to the people of Ukraine, by staying here with us, in his office rather than fleeing to a safer place. He united us. And this is a prime example of a man bearing responsibility and doing his duty. He gave a mighty impetus to this struggle, to all our actions that we are taking now.

You say you came up with some rituals that helped you keep your feet on the ground during these first two weeks of the war. Could you please tell more about them?

One of these rituals was writing the diary. Before the war, I started working with a psychotherapist, and she recommended that I keep a mood journal. It helped me to keep track of my mood swings. After my third meeting with the psychotherapist, the war started. And the first thing I realised was that I had to keep track of my thoughts on the events. There was a flow of very controversial events. And I couldn’t instantly analyse them, I had to reflect on them to understand what was going on. So, I started journaling.
The second ritual I set for myself was to keep going to my work, to the theatre. Regardless of anything. Though the theatre suspended any work activities on the very first day of the war. So, I was the only theatre artist who kept going to work. I did it on a daily basis. And I would send messages from my workplace to actors in our work chat. This ‘ritual’ was something I needed to do: something that gave me the reason to wake up in the morning.

What did you do in an empty theatre?

(laughing) Well, first, I have to tell you that concierges have been off duty since day one. Thus, only the fire guard was there.They didn’t know me. And when I came, they refused to let me in. They asked for my office pass, and I said we didn’t have them in the theatre. The only thing I could offer was to verify my identity by my portrait in the theatre foyer. But in fact, I am thankful to them for such a responsible attitude to their job. Now, I’m sure no stranger can trespass on the theatre premises.

But I just can’t get one thing. Why can some rascal have the right to deprive me of the possibility to work in my theatre which I love, which is dear to me, in which I have invested so much effort, attitude and hopes. This is the theatre which encouraged me to return from Germany (where I had lived for 16 years) to Ukraine. And now somebody is trying to deprive me of my freedom and right to be here.

And I want to ask you as a dramaturgist, as the one who works with words and texts, which word would you use to characterise Ukrainians as a nation?

Freedom. Ukrainians are the very breath of freedom: personal freedom, freedom of choice. It is in our blood. We want to be free, we want to be happy, we want to develop. And we have the right for that. And we are ready to fight for that, for our freedom. ‘Cause I don’t know whether it’s better to live as a slave or not to live at all.

What helps Ukrainian people withstand and fight back the Russian aggression?

Ukraine has tasted freedom during these 30 years of its independence. Look, the whole generation was born and has matured in independent Ukraine, in freedom. These are adult people who have already found their place in this world. They know what democracy is. And they have never let anyone coerce them into silence, make them voiceless. They are the generation of freedom. They value this freedom. And they are not willing to exchange it for anything: be that money, gas, no matter what. We have finally become ourselves. And show me a man who would willingly agree to get deprived of their own identity. Another thing is that we bear the previous generations’ memory about Holocost. It’s recorded in our DNA. Our sensitivity to injustice is a great driving force that is uniting the people of Ukraine now.

Which transformations are you witnessing in Ukraine now?

Ukraine has been a multinational country for at least 500 years. It is home for very many ethnic groups that are cohabiting. And regardless of our ethnicity, we are all Ukrainians. And now, this feeling of belonging to one nation is stronger than ever. All the other issues and matters are taking a back seat. Ukrainian culture is what separates us from that part of the world which we cannot accompany on their way / journey to the bottom any more.

I think it’s a karmic lesson that Ukrainians have taken many times throughout our history. You know, each time you fail the exam, you die - up until you pass it. And I am asking myself, ”Will we pass this exam now?”

What are Ukrainians fighting for?

We are struggling to free the world from the evil.

The Russians want us to fear them. But I haven’t heard anyone say now, “Ok, let’s surrender, ‘cause we’re scared.” Now we do not have that fear the Russians expect us to have. But I remember this fear. When the war started 8 years ago in Donbas, some of us might think, “We are weaker than them. We will lose it anyway. We’d better not fight back.” We have changed greatly since then.

And Putin has done so much as no one else in history has ever done before to unite Ukrainians, to boost our national identity, to make our culture flourish. Ukrainians are writing history right now, at this very moment. My friends in Poland have told me, “Look, you are writing history. You are that very nation of the world that is writing history now.” And it’s true. We are not only writing the history of our country, but the history of the world. That is why regular people in Europe are supporting us so vigorously. Because this is the war between the good and the evil. The evil has now thrown off its disguise.

Yes, our primary mission is to free the world from the evil. But it’s the mission we are paying an incredibly big price for.

So, if you could make a choice: immediate peace or costly victory?

Take a look at Bucha. Take a look at Irpin. There is only one way, no alternative. You see, they have come to kill us. They have come to eliminate us. They have come to rape our women and kids. We do not have such an option as peace. Unfortunately. Russians have come to free Ukraine from Ukrainians. That is exactly what they are doing now.

Thus, there are only two possible scenarios: to let them wipe us out, to turn into a herd of cattle for slaughter, or fight for our life and future. I opt for the latter one.

What will you do after the victory?

Two things. First, I will go on a long trip with my mother. And second, I will adopt a puppy. Well, I want to have a simple human life.

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