Can Theatre Help Restore Relationships in Wartime: Talk with Natalya Vorozhbyt and Samir Puri

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Text and photo by Anna Morgan, Manager, Ukrainian events in London

Edited by Darya Malyutina

I have just returned from an event organized by the Ukrainian Institute in London. It’s 1 am, and I’m tired and excited at the same time. I feel like the world is a better place, and that there is a way out of the tragic war in Ukraine that has been going on for almost three years now. Using the Ukrainian playwright Natalya Vorozhbyt’s residency in London, where she is writing a new play for the Royal Court, the Institute has put together an event which has showcased an extremely successful theatre project in a brilliant way.

The discussion between Vorozhbyt and Samir Puri from King’s College was chaired by the Institute’s director Marina Pesenti. We saw parts of the film called ‘My Mykolaivka’ which is due to be released in Ukraine in 2017. It consists of video interviews with children from the eastern Ukrainian town Mykolaivka that was once lost and then regained by Ukrainian troops. The war has come to the town and ruined the local school. It was rebuilt pretty fast. However, restoring peace of hearts and minds of local population took much longer.

‘Every time I get to watch this film, I feel I’m becoming a better person.’ Natalya Vorozhbyt

I’m sure that many people in the audience felt that way. I know I certainly did.

Indeed, the Theatre of Displaced People has a therapeutic effect. Conceived by Natalya Vorozhbyt and the German theatre director Georg Genoux, this documentary theatre project has brought understanding, reconciliation and compassion to many difficult situations caused by the ongoing war in Ukraine.

First of all, it’s helping the children from the East tell their stories, explain their feelings and release the stress caused by the firsthand experience of war in their not so long ago peaceful towns. This theatre doesn’t write scripts, it doesn’t make up characters and stories. It’s only listening and recording the real stories told by real people.

‘The only reason the children were so open with us is that they feel as a part of a theatre project. They are the actors, the directors and the playwrights, and they loved this experience. We didn’t come there to fix them. If only they felt that, they would have never opened up.’ Natalya Vorozhbyt

The therapeutic effect does not only make an impact on the ‘actors’. It also affects the creative team and the audience.

Moving on to the current projects run by the theatre, Natalya explained:

‘There are two groups of displaced people in Ukraine. The first are civilians fleeing the war, leaving the East, moving to the West of Ukraine. The second are the soldiers, mainly from central and western Ukraine who are stationed in the eastern territories, fighting in so-called ATO (anti-terrorist operation). They might have spent months stationed in the eastern towns, but there’s been no established relationship with the local population whatsoever. Mostly, the locals are not rejecting the military, but there’s no understanding, let alone friendship.’

The current project run by Natalya Vorozhbyt and Georg Genoux with their Theatre of Displaced is aimed at working with soldiers and local citizens, bringing them together and developing friendly relationships. They have started from the town of Popasna, just 5 km from the frontline, where they have organized meetings for soldiers with the children from the local school. Despite the lengthy stay of the military in the town, there have been no meetings like this before, and no other significant informal social interaction. Vorozhbyt and Genoux have also created a play, involving children and soldiers, and premiered it in the hall of the local school, opening access to citizens of the town. Natalya asserts that she knows for fact: this project resulted in development of friendship between the locals and the military.

I wish projects like this, bringing soldiers and local population together, could happen in every town along the frontline.’  Natalya Vorozhbyt

Then, a question came from the audience: ‘Can the children from the East distinguish truth from propaganda, and how can one explain truth in the so-called “post-truth” world?’

‘Questions like this always freak me out,’ Natalya confessed after the talk. But while she was on stage, she said something along these lines:

‘We don’t come to teach them “the truth”. Everyone has his or her own truth there. Somebody’s fathers, husbands, brothers might be fighting on the side of self-proclaimed republics. We come from the West, and the only way we can communicate is when we don’t bring any propaganda with us. Children sense it perfectly well and reject it immediately.’

‘Only through communication, normal life and human relationships you can find the truth.’ Natalya Vorozhbyt

Another question from the audience was about art: ‘What forms of art could work best for reconciliation and development of mutual understanding?’

Considering that there have been no such projects for over 20 years of Ukraine’s independence, anything that brings people together is needed; moreover, now is the best time to do it. The form of art isn’t important. It has to be sincere and understandable. People sense when you are fake.

Samir Puri, who has recently been in Ukraine on a field trip, conducted research for a UK charity, confirmed that there should be more work done around bringing people from the East and the West together. He met NGOs representatives ready to run these projects, but they complained about travel-related difficulties among others.

There are only 5 checkpoints along the frontline though which the travel between occupied and government-controlled areas is allowed. Applying for the permit is difficult, time-consuming and often expensive. Samir Puri

Samir’s reseach paper should be released soon. You can follow him on Twitter for updates.

For more information about the Theatre of Displaced please check this website.

Photo album from this event is here.

More photos from this event can be found on the Ukrainian Institute Facebook page.

Please also check our last year’s article about Georg Genoux project presented in London

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