On the third day of the Russian full-scale invasion in Ukraine, Les Kurbas Theatre in Lviv turned into a makeshift volunteer centre collecting humanitarian aid and providing shelter, medical, psychological and legal support for internally displaced people from the East, North and South of Ukraine. Now the theatre is back to its usual work: rehearsing and delivering evening shows.
What has changed about the rehearsal process under the current circumstances?
I feel how exhausted the actors are. Everyone is volunteering 24/7 now. And no one has ever been ready for this. And it’s quite challenging for actors to return to their usual daily routine. They come to rehearsals completely devastated, both physically and morally, with their minds wandering somewhere else, unable to stop thinking about the horrors of the war. But you know, the theatre is our battlefield. We have to go there and fight with all our passion and attitude.
So, what do you tell your actors when you see them lost and tired?
I tell them: “You must do your job. For there’s no one else who can do it. Nobody can do this job better than you. It’s your duty, your battlefield.
I am recalling the events of 2013-2014 (the Euromaidan and the Revolution of Dignity*), when my actors were asking “Where do we have to be now? On Maidan fighting for our rights and dignity as the citizens of this country, or on the stage doing our job as actors?” I remember I told them then: “Both. On the streets as citizens, and on the stage as artists.” Yes, it’s a double charge, but I’m convinced this is the only right way. We do not have to make a choice: to be citizens, or artists. We have to be both.
Do you feel there is a need for theatre now?
There is a huge demand for theatre now - especially now. The theatre helps broaden the spectrum of our emotions, allows us to get out of the black-and-white paradigm. These days, the only emotions many Ukrainians can feel are hatred and rage. Because every single day we get smashed by the news about hundreds of our countrymen being tortured, raped, disabled, and murdered in this insane and merciless war. So now, the mission of the theatre is to help people feel the wider spectrum of emotions we have to experience to remain humans. On the contrary, what the enemy wants is to deprive us of our identity.
In my view, the Ukrainian identity is like the ‘bandura’ (Ukrainian folk 65-string instrument), not the ‘balalaika’ (Russian folk 3-string instrument). Yes, those men and women who are in foxholes at the battlefield now have only one string in their souls left to play - to scare the death away and defeat the enemy. But here, on the home front, people have to preserve all the strings of their souls. That boy in a foxhole is sacrificing his only life to give us a chance to preserve and be able to play all those strings of the bandura, to live colourful lives, not black-and-white. And artists have to help people warm up and feel the full blossoming of life. Then we won’t be defeated.
And what are the main objectives and primary mission of the theatre in wartime?
Our primary task is to fill life with senses. Because only when people have the sense and the purpose in life, only then they are alive, even if they are missing an arm or a leg. If we have the purpose, our hearts keep beating. And it is the theatre that is supposed to manifest and deliver core values and true senses that help people withstand the terror, that guide them through this darkness, lightening the way. And we need theatre that will show the depth of a complicated human character. We should finally understand that the world does not split into ‘good us’ and ‘evil them’. It is the Russian philosophy - the belief in the supremacy of their nation over the others, in being ‘the chosen ones’ against ‘the evil world’. The whole world now can see what the consequences of such an attitude may be. We should learn this lesson again. And art should help us train this skill and build up this mature worldview and attitude.
Peace or victory?
Only victory! Peace is only possible after victory. We have to get rid of the mindset which has been imposed on us by Russia all these years, do away with the Russian paradigm. A prime example of this Russian paradigm can be seen in their annual Victory Parades on May 9. While the whole world is mourning for the casualties of World War II, the Russians are proudly celebrating their victory with the slogans about the “undefeatable nation” that is always ready to “replicate their granddads’ heroic deeds”.
Previously, Ukrainians have always faintheartedly opted for peace. Now, the only way for us is to win, to do away with this vicious paradigm and never let it occupy our minds again. And that is when we can attain peace. We have to build our Mannerheim Line now. We have to win to be masters on our own land - masters of our history, of our culture - to live in peace.
What is the word that best characterises Ukrainians as a nation?
The first word that comes to my mind is “toloka”. Toloka is a traditional form of mutual assistance among Ukrainian villagers to perform urgent work requiring great effort from a large number of people, such as harvesting, logging, building houses, churches, schools, roads, etc. It’s toloka time now. This tradition is exactly what Ukrainians are doing now - altogether, voluntarily, selflessly united to do the most important job which requires this joint effort for peace and well-being of not only one country, but the whole Europe. And after the victory, we will live freely on our land, harvesting and rebuilding our ruined houses, churches, schools, roads and lives.
* The Revolution of Dignity - the fight of Ukrainian citizens for their rights in 2013-2014.
On November 21, 2013, about 1500 people rallied on the central square of Kyiv in a peaceful protest against the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych's sudden decision not to sign the Agreement on the Associated Membership of Ukraine in the European Union and choosing closer ties to Russia instead. On the night of November 30, several hundreds of activists, mainly – students, who remained on the street, were violently attacked by the special police forces. In response to that, on December 1, hundreds of thousands of people came to the centre of Kyiv. Thus, the police arbitrariness united people to rebel against corruption, the usurpation of power, the violation of human rights, and the russification policy.