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

In war, the “front” generally refers to a physical space: the frontlines where the battle is being fought. But what if culture becomes collateral damage? Or even worse, what if the attacks aim directly at a cultural target?

In the case of Ukraine, culture has been under pressure for nearly one hundred years. After the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic joined the Soviet Union in 1922, a Soviet initiative called Ukrainization encouraged the use of the Ukrainian language and sparked a cultural renaissance in Ukraine. The capital moved from Kyiv to Kharkiv and Slovo Building, a common living building for artists and intellectuals, was built there in 1929. The building had many high-class amenities, including telephones, a solarium, and a kindergarten. However, in the early 1930s, the soviets began a new initiative, russification, ultimately forbidding Ukrainian language and the promotion of a unique, independent Ukrainian culture. Between 1933 and 1941, almost all Ukrainian artists and intellectuals were executed, most of whom tenants in Slovo Building, as they were considered a threat to the Soviet regime.

Now, in the Ukrainian-russian War, not only lives are at stake but also the past, present, and future of Ukrainian culture. After the full-scale invasion on 24 February, 2022, Slovo. Theater Group was founded as a means of promoting Ukrainian culture abroad and stimulating dialogue between Ukrainians and Americans. We are exploring how theatre can be a tool to fight against cultural oppression by putting the oppressed culture in the spotlight and creating documentary materials to help that culture persevere.

Slovo. Theater Group

In late 2020, I applied for a new artistic residency called Residency Slovo, which works to revive the cultural center of Kharkiv, Ukraine. The residency would take place in one apartment in Slovo Building, which still stands one-hundred years later as a residential building. Most people living in the historic Slovo Building today have no idea about the important role it played in Ukrainian cultural history. For this reason, I chose to highlight one of the former tenants of Slovo Building, Mykola Khyvylovy, in my residency proposal. Khyvylovy died by suicide in his apartment on 13 May 1933 as a protest against the first arrest of a fellow colleague Mykhailo Yalovy, which he saw as the coming storm.

The invasion stalled momentum significantly, and those who supported the project searched for ways and means just to keep it alive.

I planned to draw parallels between Khyvylovy’s 1924 short story “I Am (a Romantic)” and modern-day Ukrainian-russian relations in eastern Ukraine. Khyvylovy was a communist, but an idealist. In the story, the main character, “I,” must decide whether to execute his own mother to protect his idea of a commune beyond the hills. However, the commune is falling apart, and I knows it. Yet he decides to kill his mother anyway. In doing so, he chooses nation over mother. What happens when man must choose between motherland and mother?

On 1 February 2022, our daughter Lili Maritchka Dégez—named for my Ukrainian- speaking great-grandmother, Marie Osadchuk—was born. As my proposed residency topics were “motherland” and “maternity,” Lili was scheduled to join me in September in Kharkiv. On 24 February, we watched from our post-partum nest in Guyancourt, France as russian forces invaded Ukraine. It became clear over the next few weeks that an artistic residency in Kharkiv would no longer be possible this year.

After 24 February, most members of the Residency Slovo team left Kharkiv for safer ground. Both apartments belonging to Residency Slovo—Slovo Building and Yurii Shevelov’s apartment—were damaged by missiles in the first few months of attacks. As an artistic residency that was still in its infancy, Residency Slovo stood in a particularly vulnerable position: the invasion stalled momentum significantly, and those who supported the project searched for ways and means just to keep it alive.

The idea behind the Slovo. Theater Group project began as a desire to support both the important work of Residency Slovo and Ukrainian actors from eastern Ukraine during the war. Slovo is Ukrainian for “word.” We added a period to our name as affirmation of the power of words, a power which clearly threatened the Soviet regime a century ago but which they could not successfully exterminate.

Three performers in the same costume point at another performer on the other side of the stage.

Yuliia Linnik, Daria Holovchanska, Olesia Zakharova, Veronika Shuster, and Lili Maritchka Dégez in Mothermotherland by Slovo. Theater Group at ArtYard. Lighting Design by Eric Fiorito. Photo by Elsa Mora.

A satellite project on safer ground in the United States interested the Residency Slovo team. American funders of the arts responded positively; they were eager to help Ukrainians. Nonprofit organization CoLAB Arts agreed to fiscally sponsor the group. Immigration lawyer Larry Lebowitz donated his time pro bono, and David and Dawne Hickton agreed to let us turn their (mostly) empty Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania home into an artistic residency. Finally, Pittsburgh-born Hollywood producer James Miller donated the seed money. The project was gaining ground.

Pittsburgh, where I grew up, is the home of the fourth largest Ukrainian American population in the United States. Before the invasion, I had reached out to several organizations in the hopes of bringing my residency work from Kharkiv to Pittsburgh at the end of 2022. The response was lukewarm. Post-invasion, the project became possible on a previously unimaginable scale. The silver lining of the last nine months of devastation is that the world has become receptive to and curious about Ukraine.

Devising Theatre During Active War

In April, I began moving forward with plans for a two-month artistic residency and tour in the United States for five Ukrainian actors and artists. I created an open call and selected seven finalists. This group started meeting regularly on Zoom to discuss administrative issues such as visas and to ruminate about the creative side of the project. On Zoom calls, we heard air raid sirens in the background from time to time, but the excitement of having a creative purpose kept us going. On one of our first calls, we talked about the liminal experiences of active war and early maternity. We talked about Les Kurbas, the founder of Berezil Theater, which celebrates its centennial this year. At Berezil Theater, Kurbas experimented with style, movement, and scenography from 1922 to his arrest and subsequent assassination in 1933 and 1937. In homage to Kurbas, who famously combined artists from different backgrounds—such as writers, poets, cinematographers, etc.—to create his theatrical works, I selected applicants with very different training for the residency project; and we felt excited by the prospect of meeting each other and developing something together.

On 13 July, Lili and I left our home and family in France and arrived in Pittsburgh to prepare for the residency. The prospect of the war in Ukraine ending seemed slim, and with a help of a donation from Allan Holt (Carlyle Group) followed by a grant from the Posner Foundation, I decided to extend the tour to five months. Collaborators Daria Holovchanska, Yuliia Linnik, Maksym Panchenko, Veronika Shuster, and Olesia Zakharova joined us on 14 August after nearly two days of traveling. For our first performance, Pittsburgh-based non-profit City of Asylum booked us as one of the main events during their annual LitFest on 20 September. This meant that we had only five weeks to develop an original performance. For the first week, we met in the evenings to discuss while we spent days dealing with bank accounts, social security numbers, and toiletries. In the second week, we decided on a matriarchal (horizontal) working structure, which means co-directing and co-writing the piece, though with my role as producer gives me the final say when the group must make a quick decision. We chose to use devised techniques, writing primarily through improvisation exercises and physical research with objects and props. When we could not agree by consensus, we would vote.

Everyone plans to return to Ukraine at some point to rebuild what russia has tried to knock down, again and again.

While developing our work, we ask, “Where is the intersection of Ukrainian and American culture?” Daria says this project is about “finding common points of contact between different cultures,” and we find that we have more in common than we originally thought. Take, for example, the recent devastation in Fort Meyers, Florida following Hurricane Ian. As I showed the pictures of the aftermath to Yuliia and read her an email from a friend down there, she remarked that the language he used resembled what people in Kharkiv were living and feeling since 24 February. The only difference, she said, is that it might even be harder for people in Florida because there is no easily identifiable enemy at whom they can direct their anger. But at least those in Florida knew when the devastation would stop.

Despite working through active bombing alerts, the group does not identify with victimhood. We are runners, not refugees; and we are running home. Everyone plans to return to Ukraine at some point to rebuild what russia has tried to knock down, again and again. An hour before our first performance at City of Asylum, Olesia received a text message notification about bombing in her neighborhood in Kharkiv. During the talkback, she said: “I have to keep creating because if I am silent, they win.”

A woman holds a baby in her arms on stage.

Audrey Rose Dégez, Lili Maritchka Dégez and Olesia Zakharova in Mothermotherland by Slovo. Theater Group at Artyard. Lighting Design by Eric Fiorito. Photo by Elsa Mora.

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.

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Saw a workshop of Mothermotherland at City of Asylum in PGH. It's fantastic-- see it if you possibly can .