Sofiia Onishchenko’s, Daria Bohdan’s and Vasylyna Martseniuk’s essay adds new perspectives on corporeal and temporal experiences of exile and war, and temporality in general. They discuss their creative process and performances of History of Ukraine. The devised and documentary production was created in refuge in Poland after they had to leave Ukraine following the invasion of February 24th. Onishchenko, Bohdan and Martseniuk argue for the close links between arts and politics and speak about theatre as a cultural war front. They discuss their strategies to facilitate conversations with and about Ukraine, and how their exile and the war led to the development of new working methods and aesthetics.
Keywords: devising, choreography, liveness, documentary theatre, autobiography, affect.
Sofiia Onishchenko (SO): My name is Sofiia; I was born in the village of Kysliwka, in the Kharkiv region. I am an actress at the Kharkiv theatre Neft, and until the full-scale
Rrussian invasion of Ukraine, I studied in Kharkiv. I came to Wrocław in Poland in March, and I am continuing my acting training there. I am interested in documentary theatre, plasticity and performativity in art.
Daria Bohdan (DB): My name is Dasha, I am from Kharkiv. I also studied at the Department of Animation Theatre Acting and Directing at the Kharkiv National Kotlyarevsky University of Arts. Until the full-scale
Rrussian invasion of Ukraine, I played in the Neft theatre. Due to the full-scale Rrussian invasion of Ukraine, I moved to Wrocław. Here, I study at the Puppetry Department, like Sofiia. I am interested in performance and theatre of movement and dance.
Vasylyna Martseniuk (VM): My name is Vasilina; I’m 18. I was born in Bakhmut, Ukraine. Now, I am interested in exploring new forms of animation and the performative form of theatrical art.
SO: From the beginning of April, Dasha, Vasylina and I started working on the History of Ukraine. After two weeks of rehearsals, we showed it for the first time at the Stanisław Wyspiański National Academy of Theatre Arts in Wrocław.
VM: The idea for the show came from our conviction that we are responsible for the cultural war front. Many of our friends and acquaintances who are great directors and actors are now Armed Forces fighters and volunteers. We wanted to create art that would be their voice and ours. We made this performance because we cannot NOT talk about the war.
DB: The title of the play History of Ukraine, on the one hand, sounds like a school subject. But we assume that we are telling history of the whole of Ukraine through our own stories.
SO: The show is called a performative documentary. Performativity lies in the fact that we allow the performance to change—from one performance to another.
We also have scenes, such as “my life story in the body,” where we talk about the period from birth through bodily texts. These corporeal texts are always performative and come from what is here and now in the body.
The documentary nature of the performance is based on the fact that we tell our own life stories. We write our texts. They are different in each performance because we change through performances, and the situation at the war front changes. For example, we have a scene where we read texts about the house from our diaries. They are different in each performance, and we write them before the performances.
The performance begins with the audience entering the auditorium. On each seat, we leave small postcards with photos taken earlier in our house. On the other side, there is an inscription: “I am giving you a piece of my house. Date of performance. Signature.” Thus, from the beginning, we make it clear that we will be honest about it.
VM: The performance uses Polish, Ukrainian and English. There are also Polish subtitles. Our reality now is in these three languages. Multilingual performance also helps us to reach more people.
DB: For me, art is about our bodies that remember everything. When certain events take place in our life, the body remembers the experience. Most of History of Ukraine is based on corporeal texts that express emotional states through the body. For example, the choreography for the second scene of “Rose’s Brave Dance” was devised from bodily texts. We worked by exploring authentic movements that our bodies experienced during the war. How do our bodies react to specific words: children, family, flower, Mariupol,
Pputin, war, madness? The choreography—to music by Dakh Daughters—was based on our bodies’ reactions.
VM: For me, it’s a play about the intimate stories of three young people and their experiences. It is about freedom of creativity, resilience and self-expression. About the importance of gratitude and support. It’s also a play because we are literally playing, and we move from statistics to our connections through playing. The performance helps to link the art to current events. For example, in the performance, we have these words: when we started working on the performance, the number of children killed by the
Rrussian invasion of Ukraine was 198 and during the fourth performance 231.
DB: For me, it’s a play and a confession because I exhibit many deep feelings in front of the audience. They relate to large-scale war experiences that involve all people and intimate personal experiences that only concern me but are known to everyone.
VM: The structure of the show consists of different scenes that cover three levels. The first level is here and now.
DB: For example, in the scene when we greet the audience, we enter the stage and say the first words we have learned in Polish: good morning; I don’t understand; how to explain it? My name is . . .
VM: Or, for example, a scene with a phone conversation with my grandma. Due to communication problems, I did not see or hear her for a long time. Quite unexpectedly, my uncle and grandmother called me during one of the rehearsals, and Sonya decided to record it. Back then, I didn’t even think I wanted to include this moment in the performance. In the scene, there is a video of the conversation on the projector. I’m on the stage with a bag of cotton wool from which, as if it was a clay, I sculpt strange animals. For me, this scene is about contact with my grandmother and home. Every time during the scene, I’m mentally with my grandma.
DB: During my scene, I ask myself many questions in front of the audience. These questions are from the diary I kept after my arrival in Poland after February 24th. This way, the viewer can participate in the scene and feel with me. I dance my questions to music written by my boyfriend. My scene is partly about him. I ask: “What is it like to love remotely?” It is interesting for me to share my experiences with the audience because every time I research the experience after the show and see how it has changed.
SO: The second level covers more profound events around February 24th. For example, there is a scene where I show a video on my brother’s phone taken when the
Rrussian soldiers imprisoned him for a month. They beat him almost every day.
DB: I tell a story from February 23rd. Sofia and I ate a waffle bowl from our favourite vegan cafe in Kharkiv. We were on our way back from stress management training. I then show a photo of the dilapidated building that once housed the cafe.
SO: There is also a scene about the value of things brought from home abroad. In the scene, I unpack the real stuff from the backpack that I took with me on February 24th: socks with ducklings given to me by my boyfriend, a blank calendar for March, a notebook, thermal underwear that I bought for a trip to the mountains, a few tea bags and sugar. The scene ends with the words: “I have a small house in my backpack.”
VM: The third level is historical and focused on our genetic memory and incredible fighting power. There is a scene with video clips from various periods and events in the history of Ukraine: World War II, Independence Day, destruction of the airport in Donetsk, two-time victory in Eurovision, the annexation of Crimea, Holodomor and Kadenyuk’s flight into outer space.
SO: For me, the most critical moment in the performance is near the end. We take our phones and dial our family numbers. We literally call home to Ukraine during the performance. The answer is always the same: “At the moment, the subscriber cannot answer your call.” I think we will work on History of Ukraine until our family picks up the phone and someone says: “I’m home. All is well.”
VM: For me, the most critical moments in the performance are when spectators have a feeling echoed in the performance. We have what we call a “chip.” We talk about it at the beginning of the performance: if you feel similar emotions, you were in a similar situation, or the words suit you, you can click your fingers at any time.
DB: The power of the performance lies in the simplicity of the scenic expression: For example, the stage where we sit and read texts from our journals. The power is in impulses. I try to observe the impulses very carefully while working on the performance because they are the source of the scenes, thanks to which our encounter with the audience is more profound. Often the first thought is the best. The power of change is to eliminate some scenes that are no longer relevant to my feelings for me. Our strength is listening to ourselves and changing whatever we consider necessary. The power is in silence. We appreciate silence in our performance. We are not afraid of it even when there seems to be much silence between the scenes. I always tell myself, “we don’t do spectacular concerts; our show shouldn’t be funny.”
SO: We do not share any reflection during the performance. We are not yet at the stage of reflecting on the trauma. We are at the stage of bleeding wounds that cannot begin to heal because
Rrussian troops are in my home. The strength of our work is in our honesty and the fact that we call a spade a spade. We have a scene where we tell stories of our lives as they are now. We call Rrussia’s war with Ukraine “a war” and not “a special operation,” not “a military conflict.” In one performance, Vasya talked about information propaganda in the media. Rrussia fights against the entire civilized world, and Ukraine fights for the whole civilized world.
VM: The STRENGTH lies in the fact that in the performance, we do not say we are victims, but we are WARRIORS AND CREATORS.
DB: History of Ukraine is a political and artistic expression. Art and politics are intertwined and cannot exist separately.
VM: I’m in History of Ukraine because I’m a Ukrainian actress and I have something I want to share. I want this play to help audiences to understand that everything we do and feel is extremely important and valuable.
DB: I want to believe that History of Ukraine can make a difference. Most likely, I will not see these changes and will not know about them directly. All of us have the responsibility and the strength to do something to win together. I’m in the play because I want Ukraine to be heard. War is not about statistics and numbers but real life. In our performance, we are the voice of millions of Ukrainians.
SO: When living in Kharkiv, I helped participants prepare for the Ukrainian History test. There are many presentations and summaries on my phone and laptop.
Rrussia is now destroying my history: museums, schools and monuments. At one point, it hurt so much that the pain was taking me away from me. As if with every rocket launched, I disappeared. This is Rrussia’s goal, but fuck you, Rrussia. I will put on a show about the history of my Ukraine that will never be destroyed.
DB: For me, History of Ukraine is a conversation with Ukraine and about Ukraine. We ask a question: how to be in a war from our perspective and, at the same time, from the perspective of the whole of Ukraine. Our performance draws attention to the topic of war. For example, we play the film Kharkiv_Bakhmut_Kyslivka which is about our cities now. What life looks like now? How does our home, so far away, feel? The film’s videos, images, music and art are by Kharkiv artists. I feel close to home when I share a movie about home. This movie has many shots where we sit with our parents in the basement listening to the explosions. There is also a recording of my neighbour, whom I haven’t seen since the beginning of the war, because she, like us, was constantly in hiding.
On stage in Poland, I’m almost at home because I remember how it all happened, and I feel that my home is waiting for me and that I will come back. Performances are also a return to reality. Sometimes, I feel disconnected from the war because my mind cannot always concentrate on it. But remembering that there is war, that this is really happening, is necessary. Forgetting and getting used to it is a crime for me.
I am in Europe, and there is peace. My boyfriend is in Lviv, where there are sirens. My parents are in Kharkiv, where there are explosions. I will return to reality through this play again and again until I return home to peaceful Ukraine.
VM: History of Ukraine is primarily about and for people. People who have feelings, memories, history. People who cry, laugh, hate, are upset or happy. Working on this show was not easy for me, but I knew that we were doing something important, at least for ourselves at the time. Each rehearsal was like a discovery. Although Dasha, Sonia and I studied at the same university in Kharkiv, we did not know each other. We are different people. Therefore, not only the country, language and people were new to me but also these two girls from my university. And for some reason, it was very difficult for me at first. Working on the show was the first step toward a mutual understanding and satisfaction while learning together. Sonia became the initiator of such meetings. And the more rehearsals we had, the more I wanted to open up, soak up information and share ideas. Therefore, I can say that this art has become my outlet, an opportunity for further work, and it has also brought together three different people.
SO: Ukrainian Theatre in the future will be strong and independent. This is what theatre is like now because it is in our hands, now and in the future. Many of our colleagues who are outstanding directors, actresses and actors are now soldiers in the armed forces of Ukraine and volunteers, for example, in the organization Cultural Shock. One of our friends created a theatre during the war: Varta in Lviv. Artem Vusyk is the director. Many actors and actresses travelled to different countries: Portugal, England, Ireland, Denmark and Poland. Many of them create performances about Ukraine. They broadcast Ukrainian traditions and symbols of culture. Ukrainian Theatre is made stronger by
Rrussian rockets hitting buildings of theatres.
We are part of the future of Ukrainian theatre. My experience and studies in Poland have helped me greatly. After finishing my studies in Poland, I believe I will return to Ukraine to teach acting at national universities. I know that after Ukraine’s victory, we will do a project in Ukraine with our Polish colleagues from our year. We are planning an animation show that we can show in cities near different sides of the Ukrainian border, including Ukrainian Crimea and Ukrainian Donbas, without war.
 Editors’ note: The desire of the authors of this conversation was to write putin (instead of Putin) and russia (instead of Russia) to underline their feelings towards the invadors of their country (their smallness). Τhe strikethrough of the capital letter is not removed to indicate exactly that.
*Sofiia Onishchenko, **Daria Bohdan, and ***Vasylyna Martseniuk are students from the Kharkiv National Kotlyarevsky University of Arts. Onishchenko and Martseniuk are 18; Bohdan is 20. They left Ukraine because of the
Rrussian invasion. They are currently studying at the Puppetry Department at the Stanisław Wyspiański National Academy of Theatre Arts in Wrocław, Poland.
Copyright © 2022 Sofiia Onishchenko, Daria Bohdan, Vasylyna Martseniuk
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411
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