While we were recording this interview, the air raid alarm had already been running on for a few hours. The Chernihiv region had been being shelled.
Are you in a bomb shelter now?
No, I’m not. We’re tired of hiding.
How did you live through the first days of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine?
We were completely clueless. We didn’t have the slightest idea of what to do. The first reaction was shock. Then I started to develop a “road map” on where to hide during bomb attacks, how to detect safer places indoors and outdoors, equip bomb shelters, what is the right way of taping windows, etc. Then, our city got under siege. It lasted for one month. Each day was like a groundhog day - you wake up to the sound of an air raid alarm and you go to bed to the sound of an air raid alarm. And you are in a permanent state of unsafety.
How did you start volunteering?
A few days passed since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. We had spent these three or four days in a bomb shelter. On one of those days, a missile exploded next to our apartment building. And I understood that I couldn’t stay actionless any more. I had to take action, to be useful. So I started thinking of ways to help. I needed to do something in order to be busy, in order not to have any spare time to reflect on all those horrors raging around. And I found a volunteer organisation that supports the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the Territory Defence Forces. I volunteered there for two months without days-off. We had a great lot of work. But those 12 hours from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am (the curfew time when civilians are not allowed to be out) were the hardest to bear. Those were hours of panic.
And what about other artistic team members?
A lot of people in my theatre are volunteering. Many of our actors have been engaged in evacuating people, helping them cross the river by boats (because the bridge was blown up). Others have been engaged in delivering food and medicine.
And our troupe mainly consists of young actors who keep being mobilised to join the army.
Is the theatre conducting any public events or other activities now?
The theatre with 198 employees has been at a standstill for more than three months. But we have found a way to keep it rolling. We (the artistic team) have launched a new project. After weeks of total stress, uncertainty and constant fear, we reached a point when we felt completely exhausted. Adrenaline gave way to fatigue. And we decided to gather in the theatre to watch a movie. And we thought that it would be nice to invite more people. We invited our friends. It was two months ago. And we saw a demand for such events. So now, we screen documentaries and feature films on a regular basis.
Besides, there is one theatre show in our repertoire that we have a possibility to perform under such circumstances - Enigmatic Variations by E.-E. Schmitt directed by Denys Fedieshov who is in the army now, defending Ukraine.
Do you have an opportunity to stage new shows?
In May, I offered our actors to stage a fairy-tale for children. We premiered it on June 1. We did not sell tickets, because, officially, the theatre is not allowed to conduct public events. But we have come up with an idea on how to preserve the tradition of ticketing. Instead of tickets, the audience of this show were asked to bring children’s drawings which we will pass on to those who are in need of moral support now - to our defenders.
Unfortunately, the audience is limited to 100 people. This is the number of people the theatre bomb shelter can host. We have to be sure that everyone can find place in the bomb shelter in case of an air raid alarm. Safety remains our top priority.
Do you think there is a need for the theatre now?
We are all trapped now: in our appartments, bomb shelters, our efforts to meet basic needs. Our primary objective is to survive. We all need a way out - at least for a while. I know volunteers who are literally inseparable with their mobile phones, they receive tons of calls around the clock. Well, there’s a joke that if you want to find a justifiable reason not to answer a phone call, you should say, “I was at the theatre show.” There you can get distracted from the news and routine, and to grant yourself a couple of hours to plunge into a completely different atmosphere. To me, it is amazing. People need to have some rest. And the theatre is one of the best ways to take your mind off things.
How did you live during the siege?
It was like a damned Counter-Strike raging around you. Thanks to our army, the Russians didn’t manage to invade the city. But we could clearly hear the battlefield on its outskirts.
We didn’t have electricity for three weeks. I even got used to managing my life without it. And then, when it was restored, I turned on all appliances in my apartment - charged the phone, put the laundry into a washing machine, turned on the radio - a regular life seemed to be getting back. I was dancing to some cheerful music playing on the radio, browsing social media and then… I stumbled upon the news about Bucha. I still cannot speak about it… It is deeply painful.
Now, Chernihiv is green and blossoming. But through this blossoming, you can see the city is sick, you can see the wounds on its body - numerous holes on the roads and buildings. The Cinema Theatre (that was functioning as a Youth Culture Centre) faced exactly the same fate as it did during WWII - it was destroyed as a result of shelling. History repeats itself. Now, as 80 years ago, the facade of the building is the only piece that remained.
What has changed since the beginning of the full-scale war?
People have changed. I’ve noticed that all people are now smiling at each other. I can clearly see that we have become more sincere - in words and actions, more warm-hearted, more humane. And I‘ve noticed that people around me are amazing.
ВОЛЯ / The Free Will: Ukrainian Theatre People in War is a Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles project, conducted by Yulia Ostrohliad.