In a studio theatre tucked into a courtyard behind Kyiv’s main Khreshchatyk Street, six playwrights and six directors were hammering out a fraught question: how to write plays about war, during the war.
One unexpected outcome of their workshops was: through jokes.
“In Ukraine, it’s very important for people to laugh about the war. It’s a way to survive,” said playwright Oksana Grytsenko after the final session in their week-long laboratory. “If you keep on crying every day, about every lost life, you cannot live.”
Three of the six drafts that writers brought to the group were comedies, said Grystenko. The plan was, at the end of the workshops, to give them staged readings in theatres in different parts of Ukraine, from Sumy in the north-east to Lviv in the west.
In this session, the participants were discussing Kateryna Penkova’s comedy-drama set in a Polish hostel hosting Ukrainian refugees at the start of the full-scale invasion last year.
But the play also casts back to a dark and difficult episode in Ukraine and Poland’s shared history – the Volhynia massacres, when thousands of Poles were killed by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in 1943.
As the writers and directors gathered in a circle for their session, the playwright-mentor overseeing the day, Lena Lagushonkova, asked Penkova to give the group an insight into the challenges she had faced when writing her text.
“It took six months to write this draft and it seemed like an eternity,” said Penkova. “I wanted it to be funny and light – but still to raise certain problems. I hope it did that. After a year’s break from writing I wanted to play with my characters. I wanted that feeling of creation.”
After almost two years of war, the playwrights were sensing a turning point in what they could – and should – write about.
At the beginning of 2022 many stopped writing altogether: the priority was to keep themselves and their families alive. Many turned to volunteering or humanitarian work. Writing for the theatre seemed irrelevant.
Then, after the first shock, scripts did get written. They tended to be quickfire documentary works, recounting stories of escape and survival, based on personal testimonies.
“The problem for me, I think, was that a bunch of plays emerged at that time about great patriotic Ukrainians,” said Grytsenko after the workshop. “It was kind of therapy for us to derive strength from the fact that we survived, that we have so many great people around us. But quickly, this became a kind of kitsch.”
At the same time, theatres were keen to commission morale-boosting texts. “In 2022, I received five different requests from directors for ‘something patriotic’,” said Penkova. “War has to involve a certain amount of that, and it’s normal. But it’s not really art.”
“It felt like a new version of old-style Soviet realism,” added Lagushonkova. “We have not yet finished our process of decolonisation from the Soviet Union.”
Now was the right time for a deeper, broader, more complex approach, said Penkova.
“We believe that we have made it to the next level,” she said. “Not that there is any distance from events yet – but we can start using different angles to think about the war. The new scripts are not just preoccupied with survival, but with who we are, our identity, who we in relation to Europe, the world, and the past. And we want to think about certain things that are buried and not reflected upon.”
Penkova’s own comedy-drama for example, while closely informed by her own experiences running a hostel in Poland in early 2022, is fictionalised. And it is not blandly “patriotic”.
At its heart is a Ukrainian who is far from heroic. “She is a negative character, who wants to live off refugee payments and welfare,” Penkova explained.
And, with its references to the 1943 massacres in Volhynia and eastern Galicia the play explores how the often fraught past relationship between Ukrainians and Poles resonates in the present.
The broadening of approach away from verbatim, testimony-based work also accounts for the emergence of comedies among the plays the writers have brought to the group.
And, in Grytsenko’s case, for the introduction of a hint of the surreal.
Her draft is a comedy about Ukraine’s statues of the poet Alexander Pushkin and other Russian historical figures, many of which are in the process of being removed from the country’s squares and parks under new decolonisation laws.
In her play, the statues rise up and march towards Crimea in order to protect the peninsula and the “Russkiy mir”, or Russian political and cultural space, from the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Another workshop participant, Olha Matsiupa, is working on a dystopian comedy, in the style of a western, set in a postwar Ukraine dominated by women.
Despite these non-documentary approaches, the writers have, they said, been reflecting deeply on their responsibility to the truth.
As an example of how not to write a script, Penkova said the group had cited Yurik, a Ukrainian feature film set in Mariupol released earlier this year. It received a barrage of criticism for creating a false impression of the conditions during the siege of the city.
The fictionalised story, which was described as “based on true events”, was criticised for showing inhabitants with phone signals and electric light, when in reality power and signal had been nonexistent. It was also accused of wrongly implying there were safe humanitarian corridors for evacuation. The inaccuracies were regarded as tantamount to gaslighting those who really had suffered the trauma of existence under the Russian bombardment and siege of the city last spring.
Even when inventing characters, “the plays have to be based on profound research”, said Penkova. That often means gathering stories from those who have been witnesses to terrible events. During the summer, the playwrights attended sessions with a psychologist on how best to speak to traumatised interviewees.
“At this stage, journalism and playwriting go hand in hand,” said Lagushonkova.
Grytsenko herself also writes journalism. But the playwriting process is very different from reporting, she said. “If I write a story for a newspaper about a person, I of course think about this person, but I have kind of border between me and my source.
“When I do a play, on the other hand, I need to get into the skin of the person – to even become the person.”
As to the central question of how to write a play about the war, during the war: “There is no exact recipe,” said Penkova, “but it has to be honest, it has to be specific, and it has to be truthful.”