With the beginning of a full-scale war, art institutions in Ukraine have transformed the way they work. They began to approach the victory in multiple ways: providing the military and civilians with needed things, organizing shelters for internally displaced people, helping colleagues from other cities or working as a bomb shelter. In parallel with volunteering, some of them (especially those in relatively safe regions) are reviving their artistic activities more and more to raise the fighting spirit of Ukrainians and collect funds for the army or affected civilians.
Culture at war is also a weapon. This is proven both by Russia, which is deliberately destroying everything Ukrainian at reach and by Ukraine, whose cultural institutions utilise the entire arsenal of tools to take care of Ukrainians. In the first days of the invasion, Ukrainian theatres, museums and other institutions recovered from the shock and, where possible, began to help provide people with the basic necessities. During the war, the muses should not be silent; that’s why theatres perform increasingly more often from spring as well as create cultural and charity projects. Art helps Ukrainians to deal with their experiences more easily, get used to the new reality, unite and preserve the memory.
A shelter and safe space for displaced people
Since the beginning of the invasion, many cultural institutions throughout Ukraine have turned their premises into shelters for IDPs (internally displaced people). Their teams and volunteers united and turned a temporary shelter into a comfortable place for people to eat and rest, be it in the theatre, in the university, or in the library.
Theatres in the cities, distant from the front line, often became temporary new homes. One of them is the Les Kurbas Lviv Academic Theatre. This is how Volodymyr Kuchynskyi, the chief director of the theatre, commented on these events in March:
— When you feel responsibility, there is no time to gasp or moan.What is happening in Ukraine is unreal. On the one hand, there are war and human destinies, but on the other hand, there is a purification for those who defend their land. At the moment Ukraine is absolutely incredible.
In April, the Les Kurbas Theatre resumed performances with safety warnings during air alarms, alongside becoming a venue for charity performances in support of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Maria Kutniakova, an actress from Mariupol, who witnessed Russia’s air strike on the Drama theatre in the middle of March, managed to flee the besieged city and came to Lviv. Lviv puppet theatre with the hub for IDPs operated during the first months of the full-scale war, and became her first shelter.
— It was, of course, frightening to end up in the theatre again after coming to Lviv. But if I was once shelled by Russians, doesn’t mean I will stop going to theatres. So many horrible things have happened to me recently that if I pay attention to every trigger, I won’t come out of home.
Photo: Khrystyna Kulakovska
Drohobych theatre in Halychyna continued its usual work and added a volunteer component to it. The team united at the beginning of the invasion and launched a kitchen workshop to cook food for the military. Also, they accommodated several families of actors that came from the hostilities areas. Such coexistence has led to interesting creative results. For example, professional actors from the theatres of Mariupol, Severodonetsk, Kharkiv, Kyiv and Drohobych, who had never worked together before, created a Universum performance, based on Bruno Schultz’s books in August.
Theatres in Ivano-Frankivsk, Cherkasy, Lutsk, Rivne, Zhytomyr, and others also offered shelter for displaced people. Apart from theatres, other cultural institutions, such as Lviv Municipal Art Centre, became safe spaces for those forced to leave their homes. The Centre helped over 400 displaced people in the first weeks, after which it returned to the cultural front and exhibition activities. An Assistance Centre for IDPs opened in March in Lutsk at the Adrenaline City entertainment centre.
Another art hub, created in Lviv in 2020, has turned into an IDP shelter and a humanitarian hub since February 24 and distributed more than 20 tons of clothes in six months. Displaced people created here a local community and are building up a space. Space residents, together with the founders, volunteer and help each other and others. Half of the proceeds from selling art works space goes to the development of the shelter and another half to the Armed Forces. Artist and head of the residence Alexander Zykov dreams that after the war, it will be a space with creative workshops for artists to come, live, do what they love, experiment, and learn new skills.
— I know:the war will be over, but this (space – ed.) will keep existing. People will not leave it right away. Someone will leave, of course. But some people will stay anyway, and we’ll keep building the space together.
Many theatres and cultural centres have become not only shelters, but also meeting places for volunteers, where they cover a wide set of tasks: from collecting humanitarian and medical supplies to cooking food for the military.
Maria Zankovetska Lviv National Theatre offered its stage and theatre lobby for the volunteers’ needs at the beginning of the invasion. Actors also helped make masking nets and collect necessary things for the military and IDPs. The theatre resumed concerts and performances in April.
At the end of February, Drama Theatre in Ivano-Frankivsk organised an aid collection point for soldiers and people from other regions on the chamber stage. Actors sorted out everything people brought: medicines, clothes, food, personal hygiene products, and so forth. They have arranged an accommodation for displaced people on one of the floors. Also, a temporary hairdresser’s and a kitchen were installed in the theatre premises. In the sewing workshop, tailors started sewing items for the needs of Ukrainian defenders.
In spite of a heavy volunteer workload, Frankivsk Drama Theatre resumed its main activities in March. They played their first performances in a shelter. Theatre actor and volunteer Oleksiy Hnatkovskyi comments on this decision as follows:
— It’s like psychological help and rehabilitation for everybody as there are no people in Ukraine who didn’t suffer from the war. We all are victims of this war. Theatre exists for catharsis, that is purification through tears or laughter. By purifying one’s soul, a person is ready to view this world differently.
In Lutsk, ”Harmyder” independent theatre planned to show a performance about the war on February 23, but the full-scale war became a reality. With the start of the invasion, the “Hangar” volunteer hub was created on the theatre and creative space “Harmyder hangar-stage” basis. The hub collects food, clothes, medicine and other things for the needs of displaced and frontline-based people. Besides, volunteers purchase necessary ammunition for the military.
Ruslana Porytska, a co-founder of the theatre, comments that Hangar is a community that reacts to the events and acts. On February 24, they began to remove all the decorations and turned into a hub:
— If the community needs to unite in this way to defend itself and feel mutual support, then it should be done. I think Hangar works this way. I am sure that volunteers who are here (this is around 40 people) need it, too, to somehow count on each other, the faith that you are not alone.
Harmyder launched its new art project,“Cultural shelter”, in June. This is the space next to the hangar in the new building, where the team rented the basement, renovated and equipped it for events such as workshops, trainings, charity performances, and others.
In Poltava oblast, volunteering is combined with rehearsals at the Poltava Regional Puppet Theatre, the Hohol Theatre and the Poltava Regional Philharmonic. Their workers unload and hand out humanitarian aid, and also weave camouflage suits and nets. The Rivne Regional Theatre is also involved in weaving nets and collecting humanitarian
Shelters and off-site events for displaced people and the military
Theatres in Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and other cities, where the risk of shelling and bombing is still significant, are serving as shelters during the air raid alerts. However, a shelter in the Mariuopol theatre, where hundreds of people were hiding, became a bitter symbol of Russians’ war crime.
Over time, theatres have adapted to the reality of a full-scale war; they began staging plays for the displaced people and the Armed Forces of Ukraine, both on-site and off-site. Lesya Ukrainka National Academic Theatre in Kyiv resumed its work in April; Ivan Franko National Drama Theatre and Kyiv National Operetta’s Theatre resumed their work in May. Kyiv National Operetta and Theatre on the Left Bank transfer their revenues on the needs of the AFU, and Franko Theatre gives free entrance to the servicemen.
According to the decision of Lviv Regional Military Administration, theatre and concert institutions, museums and nature reserves of the region have returned to their usual mode of operation as of April 1, as far as possible in wartime conditions. So, in May, the Maria Zankovetska Theatre started showing the documentary drama “Life P.S.” — a play based on Valeria Burlakova’s the autobiographical book, a veteran of the Russian-Ukrainian war. The actors of the Yuriy Drohobych Lviv Music and Drama Theatre began to play for the immigrants who settled down directly in the theatre, as well as others.
In the spring, Podniprovia theatres actors (namely the Dnipropetrovsk Academic Ukrainian Youth Theatre) held a series of charity performances in medical facilities, centres for displaced people, and so on. They call these performances therapy for adults and children. The Dnipro Theatre “Virymo” (“We Believe” — tr.] started recording audio plays and audio stories to help Ukrainians to keep their spirits up. Stories for children and adults are available on the Telegram channel Audiotoreadory. Their team performed at the European Theatre Festival in Romania in July. The actors managed to raise money to support Ukrainians in Romania.
Ivan Kocherha Zhytomyr Academic Music and Drama Theatre namedlaunched a project “Theatre in war”. Actors performed for free in shelters, volunteer centres, hospitals and at the railway station.
Actors of the Taras Shevchenko Cherkasy Academic Regional Ukrainian Music and Drama Theatre are preparing off-site performances for IDPsand military personnel.
Vasyl Vasylko Odesa Academic Music and Drama Theatre resumed its work in June in a “theatre in shelter” format. Maksym Holenko, the director of the theatre, staged Natalia Vorozhbyt’s play “Sasha, take out the trash”.
“The one who knows the enemy and oneself will never lose the war. So let’s get to know ourselves better thanks to the art in order to bring Victory closer”, the theatre mentioned, inviting the viewers.
There are cases when bomb shelters become art spaces. One of such shelters was arranged in Cherkasy, and they have held dozens of events so far: performances for displaced children, fundraising concerts for the AFU, and so forth.
The film festival “Tactical pause. Ukrainian cinema in Mykolaiv” was held in Mykolaiv in a shelter from the 27th to the 31st of July. The film festival program played the Ukrainian films Homeward, Stop-Zemlia (Earth – ed), My thoughts are silent, and others.
At the end of February, the Museum of Modern Art in Lutsk conducted free tactical medicine and combat training courses for everybody interested. And in March, the museum launched an Art Battalion project, an art project that will last until Ukraine’s victory. The museum resumed its work on June 8. All the proceeds from sales are directed to the production of tourniquets, the first-aid kits assembly, and tactical shoulder pads for medical instructors to the front lines.
Relocation and assistance to colleagues from other places
Together with Ukrainian cultural landmarks, Russia destroys the lives and health of the people who work there. That is why another important volunteer activity of cultural institutions is providing assistance to colleagues from the affected places and their relocation in case of need. In particular, this applies to museums, which require protection for their collections as a cultural heritage.
In March, the Museum Crisis Centre emerged as a response to the need to help Ukrainian museums as a bottom-up initiative. It was founded by Olha Honchar, a cultural expert and director of the memorial museum of totalitarian regimes Territory of Terror.
— The organisation’s current mission is to make the problem of cultural workers visible. They are a component of the culture as important as heritage and exhibit objects because they are the owners of unique expertise.
According to Olha Honcha, the organisation became a bridge between those willing to help and those who need help. Now, the main focus is helping museums in the south of Ukraine.
The crisis centre team receives both institutional (supporting museums in hot spots) and individual requests (helping museum workers who continue to work there). The museums request, for example, the evacuation of people from the occupied territories, ammunition for conscripted museum workers, basic necessities for remaining employees, financial support for museum workers at the frontline regions, etc. If you wish to support a cause, please contact Andrii Shestaliuk, the representative of the Museum Crisis Centre.([email protected]).
Also, the crisis centre helps Ukrainian museums cooperate with each other, with a main focus on information exchange. Olha Honchar tries to bring attention to the problem of cultural institutions during the full-scale war more visible and shares her experience on different platforms (International Network of Museum’s congress, UNESCO, media, etc.).
— This project drives me. It is inspiring that a lot of funds come from very different sources, from some international foundations for war zone aid, to personal contributions, auctions that are organised in different parts of the world, where people unite, sell paintings and transfer funds to us. It is also about the unifying idea and networking, the feeling of being together in this war.
In July, Donetsk Drama Theatre actors (based in Mariupol) started to play a performance titled Scream of the Nation about Vasyl Stus in Uzhhorod. The premiere was scheduled for July 16, exactly four months after the Russians dropped a bomb on the Mariupol Drama Theater. So part of the troupe, which managed to get out of Mariupol to Uzhhorod, decided to declare itself loudly and in Ukrainian, “We are alive!”. Before the play premiere, a photo exhibition of the military correspondent from Donechchyna Serhii Vaganov was opened in the theatre lobby.
Some museums of Halychyna became shelters for museums under threat, and accepted their collections for safekeeping. Thus, the Luhansk Regional Museum of Local Lore is currantly based at the Territory of Terror museum. It was assisted to restore the statutory and financial documents, and now both institutions are engaged in joint program activities and applications for grants. We’ve earlier told the story of Olesia Milovanova, the director of the Luhansk Regional Museum of Local Lore.
Kharkiv Literary Museum together with the Slovo residency, conducts a range of events in Lviv. The museum opened an exhibition about Kharkiv in the Lviv municipal centre. There were poetry readings, a curator’s tour and the board game “House Slovo” at the opening. A part of the collection was left in the museum, another part was evacuated. Employees of the Lviv Museum of Natural History helped with the equipment for preserving this collection.
Theatre community helps their colleagues too. For instance, Lviv hosted the “Melpomene of Tavria” XXIIII International Festival which was held in Kherson before. The slogan of the festival was “Melpomene of Tavria is the voice of Kherson Region”.
“The festival was huge . I am grateful to all my friends, all Ukraine’s theatres, and all theatres from abroad for picking up this idea. 64 theatres from 34 Ukrainian cities and 11 countries of the world participated. During all these 10 days (June 10-19) they played performances, talked about Khersonians, and, if possible, raised funds for support. Entire campaigns were dedicated to Ukraine and the Kherson Region in France, Japan, and the USA. So our little girl Melpomene raised the whole world so that our voice was heard”, told Oleksandr Knyha, the director of Kherson Theatre.
Some organisations resume the work of their volunteer hubs after their evacuation to safer places. For example, at the start of the full-scale war, “Halabuda” educational and artistic centre was operating in Mariupol. In the first weeks, most of the organisation’s volunteers continued to work under shelling, providing humanitarian and informational assistance. During this time, the centre helped about 25,000 residents of Mariupol, the military, hospitals, and shelters. Despite the fact that the “Halabuda” community is scattered throughout the country, it managed to resume its activities in Zaporizhzhia. A team of volunteers began to provide the necessary supplies to the displaced people both from Mariupol and from other places where hostilities took place. In addition, it helps the military with food, medicines and other necessary things and has recently launched a mobile workshop for repairing drones.
After the beginning of the Russian invasion, Ukrainian cultural institutions demonstrated that they could adapt, protect the heritage, help the cultural community and all Ukrainians in need. They also need people’s attention and support. So, whenever possible, visit cultural institutions and their events in your country, follow their announcements, and join their initiatives.
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