Naar hoofdinhoud
Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles

Lena Liagushonkova

a Ukrainian playwright, the Winner of The European New Talent Drama Award 2022

You are living and working in Poland now. Could you tell us about your decision to move out? 

I left my home in Luhansk in June 2014, due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I moved to Kyiv. In early March 2022, they forced me to leave my home again. Now, I am living and working in Poland. When I moved out in 2014, my mom had to stay in Luhansk to look after my sick father. And when my father died in early 2015, she moved to Kyiv as well. Since then, we've been living together.

I was not going to leave Kyiv. And my mom didn’t want to become a refugee for the second time. Besides, I have three cats (one of them has a disability), and I was anxious about crossing the border with them. I was afraid to be asked to leave them behind. 

Could you say that your experience in 2014 has come in handy?

This accumulated refugee experience is making it even harder. It was really challenging to leave home now, with my mom crying, “Why? We’ve just started living a normal life again.” 

Which projects are you working on now?

I am taking part in a residency program in Poland. Here, I have an opportunity to work. On May 26, at Kontakt International Theatre Festival in Torun, we premiered one of the plays I have written since the beginning of the full-scale war. It’s a co-production of Polish Theatre in Bydgoszcz and Bydgoszcz Municipal Cultural Centre. This is a postdramatic play entitled “Life in Case of War”. It was staged by Ula Kijak featuring Ukrainian artists and actors. The play is based on instructions on protective measures in wartime, as well as reflections on personal experience of our actors. The instructions vary from the rules on how to pack a survival kit, where to find a safer place during bomb attacks, what to do in case of a chemical attack or nuclear explosion, how to behave while being raped to some humorous instructions on how to highjack a military vehicle and others.

While staying in a bomb shelter during bomb and missile attacks in Kyiv, I finished writing another play entitiled “My Flag Was Peed On By a Cat”. This play is going to be staged in the Theatre of Warsaw. 

Which projects and plans did you have in Ukraine before February 24?

It’s painful for me to recall that time. I had a lot of plans and expectations. Three premiers by my plays were scheduled for February 27, March 5, and June 25. I was working on productions of those shows in Golden Gates Theatre in Kyiv and Odesa Academic Drama Theatre named after Vasyl Vasylko in cooperation with Wild Theatre in Kyiv. I even received royalties for some of them. But since February 24, there's been no more opportunity to rehearse and perform these shows. I hope we could stage one of them here, in Poland, with an actress from Odesa Academic Drama Theatre who is taking part in the residency program with me. And another one will be staged in Stuttgart Schauspiel Theatre in Germany.

How did you get to know about the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and what did you do during the first days of it?

I actually overslept it. The news caught me at 7 am. At 8 am, my mom, my cats and I were already hiding from bomb strikes in the basement of our apartment building. We were staying there for 10 days, only leaving it to go to the toilet and take a shower. I tried to drink less water in order to leave our bomb shelter as rarely as it was possible. But my cats seemed to enjoy it: we shared the basement with rats which they had fun hunting for. 

My mom is an experienced ‘resident of basements’. In 2014, when the Russians occupied Luhansk, she lived in the basement for 2 months without getting out, with a bucket for a toilet. So, she shared with me and our neighbours some life hacks on how to pack survival kits and equip the shelter.

While hiding in our makeshift bomb shelter, we were volunteering on the Internet - helping people in need. Now, recalling those days, I can hardly imagine how I managed to do that much urgent work: to find necessary contacts, medical supplies, military equipment etc. just within a few minutes. 

Are you thinking about returning to Ukraine?

I have good opportunities and prospects to work here, in Poland. But there are days when, all of a sudden, I wake up with the thought that I long for home, I want to quit everything here and return home. I guess such mood swings are an integral feature of being a refugee. 

Do you believe that Ukraine will win in this war?

Of course, I do. We do not have an alternative. Any compromise will only mean a prolongation of the war. We’ve been living in a state of war for 8 years. And we can either continue or stop it. 

There is a high demand for plays and other art works on the issue of this war now. Do you think there is a need for them?

During these 8 years, we didn’t talk about the war from the theatre stage a lot. So, when it unfolded on a full scale, we were not ready to face it. Each time I would bring plays about the war to theatre directors, they would say, “No, people are tired of war. They don’t want to watch shows about it. We’d better stage a comedy.” So now, when we are staging plays about the war in Europe, it’s a way to speak about it. Because this is our reality today. And people have the right to know about it - not only from mass media, but also from ordinary people like us, the witnesses. Because until recently, Russia succeeded in spreading fake information through their media in Europe, like Russia Today and others. And they were consistent in it. So, now I can see that people here have a distorted image of the war that has been raging for 8 years in Ukraine. But people in Europe have the right to know the truth. The truth about the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and the Russian-Ukrainian war that has been raging since then with the armed occupation of our territories. When you hear about it from the news, it’s not the same as if you discover it through art. And this is our duty as artists to talk about it. 

I feel that my mission now is to record the events I’m witnessing. 

Why should Ukraine keep fighting to regain control over the occupied territories?

Those who suggest handing the occupied territories over to Russia, should just think about all the cruelties that the Russian occupants are executing on those territories. For instance, in Donetsk, since 2014 the former Izolyatsia (“Isolation”) Art Foundation has been functioning as a high-security prison, where people who are opposing the occupation are being kept and tortured.* Just imagine that such a prison may be functioning, say, in the Louvre. Would you engage in negotiations with the founders of that prison? Would you try to "save their face"? 

* According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Report for the period from 16.11.2019 to 15.02.2020, prisoners of Izolyatsia underwent rapes and tortures (in particular, by electric shock and mock executions). Now, this prison functions as the point for captivating relatives of those who are serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, social activists, journalists and others. 

Such things shouldn’t be allowed. It is unfathomable to let people die in exchange for cheap gas and other comforts. Then, the phrase “Never Again” makes no sense. 

The incredibly violent things that were executed by the Russians in Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel are just the tip of the iceberg. We can only guess what is going on in occupied territories. 

And I am thinking about young people who were just kids when Russia occupied Donbas in 2014. They didn’t make a decision to stay there. And now, they have to join the Russian army to sacrifice their lives in the fight against their own country. 

Which challenges do you think Ukrainians will have to meet after the war?

I assume it will be as hard to get accustomed to peace as it was to get used to war. I suppose conflicts may emerge between those who have left Ukraine and those who have stayed. We are different now. And we can only guess how these two different worlds will coexist after the war. 

How did the Ukrainian theatre community respond to the challenges of the war?

The community of Ukrainian playwrights united on the very first days of the full-scale invasion. We’ve been raising money for the militaries on the frontline, for civilians in need, and pets that have lost their homes. The opening of the Ukrainian Dramaturgists Theatre was scheduled for March 12. It was supposed to be a project uniting 20 Ukrainian playwrights. But the war didn’t let us launch it. Though an American writer, translator and theatre critic John Freedman contacted us with a request to write one-act plays (which was pretty hard to do during the first days after February 24). And now, he is organising events presenting our works all over the world: the USA, Canada, European countries. 

Are you already hatching an idea for the next play?

I am thinking about writing a play about pets in wartime. In this play, cats, dogs, parrots, guinea pigs and other pets are dwelling in an apartment of a freaky elderly woman who’s adopted all these formerly stray animals. The lady has passed away, and the pets are now discussing whether they have to mobilise to help humans defeat the evil in this war in order to save humankind. They have to come to a decision whether or not they will fight for humans who have caused so much harm and pain to them and other living beings. 

Why pets?

Pets are innocent victims of this war as well. There are numerous chats on social media in which people are searching for their pets that have run away during artillery shelling and bomb strikes. Others can’t take their pets with them while leaving their homes to evacuate, and those pets end up in the streets. It’s heartbreaking. 

© Gloria Scorier