How Slovo. Theater Group Fights for Ukraine on the Cultural Front

So far, we have presented our work fourteen times in eight different cities. Our largest and most prestigious performance yet was last Friday, 2 December on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. At each performance, we held a talkback with the audience, which helped us to develop our work further. In addition, we gave guest lectures at Chatham University, University of Pittsburgh, and the John David Mooney Foundation on Ukraine’s Executed Renaissance. Our project will continue on to Cannonball Festival in Philadelphia, Point Park Playhouse, City Theatre in Pittsburgh, and finally at the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) conference in New York City, with a five-day run in the Gural Theatre from 11-15 January, 2023.

The Frontlines: Cultural vs. Physical

Life during active war is like living in parallel realities, parallel universes; and sometimes so are our rehearsals. Not only do we have different mother-tongues, we also speak different theatrical languages. Some days the only thing holding us together is our sense of common purpose. Then there are moments when someone is suffering from deep grief, something that she cannot even put into words. And there is Lili, who has now spent more than half of her life in an intensive theatre residency. Thanks to her, we have all experienced early maternity. Every day holds something unexpected, and as a group, we adapt.

So often in times of war, culture is also at stake.

This is what active war feels like: life as usual until it’s not anymore—and then we go back to whatever we can. Working with a baby helps us with this, as Lili is ignorance and pure life-force. No matter what happens, we must keep on living as long as we are still alive.

When group members feel guilty about the privilege of living and working in America while friends and family members suffer elsewhere, we reassure ourselves by reminding ourselves that we are fighting, too: on the cultural front.

But what are we fighting for? We remain focused on our common goal of sparking curiosity about Ukraine and Ukrainian culture, but what we fight for is different for each collaborator on the project. Olesia says, “for a very long time, foreign voices spoke for Ukraine. Now we’re changing it.” For me, it has become clear that we are fighting for the rights to transmission, evolution, stability, and place. The right to exist and to create. The right to a history, a Ukrainian history. For Yuliia, fighting is about “continu[ing to be] able to love and to dance even into the jaws of the beast. And maybe this dance will kill him. That is what being a fighter means.”

For Maksym, it wasn’t easy to leave Ukraine. As a man, he felt like a traitor, like he should be a Ukrainian “hero,” a soldier fighting on the frontlines. But Maksym is a sensitive soul and a powerful actor. As a human being, he has the ability to touch an audience. He could do a lot for the future of Ukraine by promoting Ukrainian culture—by encouraging American audiences to learn more about Ukraine, and even more importantly, by living and carrying that culture forward to future Ukrainians.

In early October, the physical front called Maksym back. At the beginning of this project, we were able to attain special permission from the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture so that he could leave Ukraine to participate in our project despite the military draft for men. However, he recently received notice that he had to return to Ukraine before 4 November. His request for prolonged leave for the duration of our project was denied. On 30 October, he flew back to Warsaw, Poland, and over the last month, we rewrote our performance without him. During talkbacks, we now have an empty chair—a reminder that this war continues to claim Ukrainians’ lives and cultural community.

Culture is food, which depends on the land. Culture is common experience, which depends on shared place of living. Culture is language, communication, and community. So often in times of war, culture is also at stake. The extermination of Ukraine’s cultural renaissance cut off the blood flow of culture in the 1930s, and russian propaganda has continuously tried to keep Ukraine, particularly eastern Ukraine, from rebuilding that culture. Nearly one hundred years ago, all artists and intellectuals were assassinated and millions were starved, leaving no teachers behind. What is Ukrainian culture today? Where does it stand? What can we do to save what is left and help those who are still alive rebuild and evolve? Slovo. Theater Group exists to put forward one idea, one project, one way to stand for Ukraine.