Due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Luhansk Regional Theatre has been forced to relocate twice: in 2014, from Luhansk to Severodonetsk (Luhansk region); in 2022, from Severodonetsk to Drohobych and Dnipro.
You have been forced to move twice. How was it back then, in 2014? And did you manage to turn your previous experience to account?
There’s a saying: “The smart learn from other people's mistakes, while the fool - from their own ones.” I don’t know which category I belong to, but moving out now, I left almost all my things behind. I was certain (again!) that I would return in a week or two. So, this was the second time I made the same mistake.
But as the Director General of the theatre, I was preparing for this. I summoned the general meeting and we developed a “road map”, a plan of actions we would take in case of a full-scale invasion. We had a scheme that allowed us to inform each other within a few minutes. The invasion and first bomb attack started about 5 am. And at 6 am, some of our team members already managed to get to the train station.
Where has the theatre team found shelter?
The team is currently located in two cities: Dnipro (central part of Ukraine) and Drohobych (western part of Ukraine). About a week before February 24, rumours started going round about Russia’s intention to launch a full-scale war. Having lived through this kind of experience in 2014, I knew we had to be prepared for anything. So, I called the director of Lviv Academic Regional Drama Theatre in Drohobych and asked if they could host us in case of Russian invasion. And when on February 24 the full-scale invasion of Ukraine bagan (the Russian-Ukrainian war started in 2014), we had all the necessary arrangements made, and our artistic team had a possibility to evacuate to Drohobych. I landed in Dnipro, where Dnipro Drama and Comedy Theatre hosted the other part of our team, housing us on the theatre premises until the team members managed to find long-term accommodation. In Drohobych, our artistic team are still living on the theatre premises. They tend to stick together.
What are the current activities the artistic team is performing now?
In Dnipro, our actors and musicians give concerts for Ukrainian military men and women. In Drohobych, together with our colleagues from Drohobych Theatre and Donetsk Theatre (that have relocated from Mariupol), we give charity concerts to raise money for products that we subsequently use to cook dinners for the Ukrainian army. Thus, Drohobych Theatre is currently functioning as a kitchen, on an industrial scale. The actors and other theatre people cook dinners which they then freeze or vacuumize and deliver to the frontline. They cook dinners in their free time between concerts, or rather, they give concerts when they are off duty in the kitchen.
Do the team members that are currently located in different regions keep in touch?
A few days ago, the whole theatre team had a Zoom meeting. And you know, never before had a Zoom meeting been so emotional. Never before had we been so happy to see each other. Previously, during the lockdown, when we had Zoom meetings, most of the people would turn their cameras off, and you would only see black squares on the screen. Now, none of them did so. We were all smiling, overwhelmed with emotions, so happy to see each other again. It was very moving.
But the city where we were located previously is on the frontline now. The mobile and Internet connection in the region is cut off. So, we have lost touch with our people who stayed there, in the theatre bomb shelter, about 10 of them. Each has their own reasons and circumstances that did not allow them to move out.
Is anybody of your artistic team in the army now?
Three of them: our Chief Director Maksym Bulhakov who is on the frontline, our director and actor Yevhen Merzlyakov, and our actor Yevhen Hava. We worry about them a lot. Because none of them had had any military experience before. We managed to preserve salaries for our team members. (In the majority of Ukrainian theatres employees receive only a part of their monthly paycheck.) So, we have an opportunity to donate to a volunteer fund of our theatre to purchase necessary equipment for the military units where our colleagues are serving.
What were you doing the day before it started?
I do not always have time to attend rehearsals. But the day before, on February 23, I was present at the rehearsal of a new show. And this was the last one on the theatre premises. Strangely, I had a sinking feeling on that day.
The show was going to premiere on March 4. We designed an engaging poster. And then I saw a photo that sent shivers down my spine. The photo was taken right after shelling on the theatre grounds on World Theatre Day’s eve. The corpse of a man that had been shot dead was covered with our posters.
In your opinion, should the theatre repertoire respond to the current events?
We have always made a point of responding to current events and reflecting on them. In Chekhov’s Three Sisters we added elements of documentary drama when actors talk on their own behalf. And there’s a moment when one of the characters says, “Previously, I looked at birth dates of older people - 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945 - and I thought, “So, it should mean that in wartime people were born?” And now, I’m looking at birth dates - 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022 - and I understand what it was and felt like back then…”
What helps Ukrainians withstand the Russian aggression and fight back?
We have no sense of helplessness. Tears, yes. But no helplessness. Everyone is doing what they can: actors cook dinners for the army, journalists tell the world the truth, and so on. Now, Ukrainians are like a ’perpetuum mobile’: inspiring, encouraging and standing up for each other. Russians will never defeat us. Never.
What will you do after the victory?
I will go to my home city of Luhansk. I haven’t been there for 8 years, since the war started. We (the theatre team) have decided that we will surely return to our home city. Firstly, we will clean up the debris on the theatre grounds. Then, we will sign up for a volunteer squad to clean up and reconstruct the ruined buildings and infrastructure of the city. Like it was after WWII, when the reconstruction works were performed by culture workers and other state employees. Anyway, we will handle it all after. Now, we have to defeat the enemy.
What is the core element of the Ukrainian identity?
It’s our free will and craving for freedom. Our deep understanding of these notions. That is why Russian orcs find it hard to understand what is going on, why they are not welcomed with bread and flowers. They wonder where all the flowers and bread have gone, why they have turned into garden forks and jars of pickled tomatoes*. They say, “We were surprised that Ukrainians obstruct our actions and treat us so disrespectfully.” Sure, they treat you “disrespectfully”. ‘Cause they are people of free will, it’s in their blood. You can’t understand it, because in your country people are used to obeying anyone who is stronger and demonstrating their power. While Ukrainian people go against tanks and armed soldiers with their bare hands. This is the gap they will never understand. They don’t understand what it means to be free.
* On one of the first days of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army, a woman (named Olena, a mother of two) hit a Russian drone with a jar of pickled tomatoes. She later said to journalists that she had been smoking on her balcony when she spotted a drone. The only object that was near at hand at that moment was a jar of pickled tomatoes. Scared, she didn’t think twice and threw the jar at the drone.
ВОЛЯ / The Free Will: Ukrainian Theatre People in War is a Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles project, conducted by Yulia Ostrohliad.