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People walk past a fenced theatre building destroyed in the course of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in Mariupol, Russian-controlled Ukraine, on Feb. 16.ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/Reuters

Two years ago, on May 16, 2022, the invading Russian military bombed the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre in Mariupol, Ukraine, killing as many as 600 civilians taking refuge in the building’s basement. But even though that tragedy also meant the creative home for many Ukrainian actors was destroyed, a group of them have come together to continue performing elsewhere in the country.

The core of the new troupe is made up of seven Mariupol actors who fled to Uzhhorod, a city in the far west of Ukraine, in the summer of 2022. There, they were assembled by director Liudmyla Kolosovych, who’d also settled in the city. And while they still call themselves the Mariupol Drama Theatre, their new creative base is on the stage of the Zakarpattia Regional Ukrainian Music and Drama Theatre.

The team worked fast. In just two months, they prepared and premiered The Cry of a Nation, about the life and work of Ukrainian poet Vasyl Stus, who was persecuted by the Soviet regime, and died in a Russian prison in 1985.

Following that, the troupe launched Mariupol Drama, based on the actors’ memories of hiding out in their hometown theatre during the airstrike.

“It was very difficult to work on the second play,” said actress Vira Lebedynska, who survived the bombing. “I was constantly crying during rehearsals. Even the first two performances were not without tears. The audience cried with us. From the stage, I recall how I stepped over bodies on the stairs, how I remembered a pale girl among the others, over whom her parents leaned, waiting for a miracle.”

For the actors, says Lebedynska, the play became like a kind of therapy, a venue to share painful experiences while bringing light to the horrors of war. “Our viewers become witnesses to those events together with us, they thank us and sympathize with what we went through.”

Also in production is HaroshiRu, a new take on Mykola Kulish’s 1937 play Myna Mazailo, a play that explores how culture and identity is affected by Russian occupation.

Dmytro Murantsev, the actor who plays the son of the main character, came to Mariupol five years ago to study acting at the College of Arts. Before that, since the age of 14, he had lived under occupation in the Donetsk region. Now 24, he says he will never return to Ukraine’s occupied territories because he knows how Russians mock Ukrainian culture, teaching residents to only love Russia.

Murantsev explains that his character in HaroshiRu wants to speak Ukrainian, while his father is ashamed of his native language and wants to learn to speak Russian. “The paradox is that part of our previous troupe remained in Mariupol. Today, they work with Russian directors, put on Russian plays, and for this purpose, instructors come to them to teach them the correct Russian pronunciation.”

The bombed theatre in Mariupol was partially restored and is referred to by Russians with its Soviet-era name: the Mariupol Republican Academic Russian Drama Theatre. The company there now performs works by Pushkin, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Vampilov, and Tvardovsky.

“There should be a memorial there, not a theatre,” says Hennadii Dybovskyi, director of Mariupol Drama Theatre that reformed in Uzhhorod. “Even when Ukraine returns its legitimate territories, we will not play in Mariupol. We will be in Donetsk, because there is a large theatre there.”

Dybovskyi said that he is thinking about how to make performances of Decameron and HaroshiRu compact and mobile so that actors can tour with them. For now, they are taking Mariupol Drama on a tour through Ukraine, and onto Kyiv. They even hope to tour abroad at the end of 2024.

“We are very carefully looking for material for new premieres,” says Dybovskyi. “There are many proposals from different directors, but the choice is careful and meticulous, because we are looking for smart, modern material. At this time, in a period of difficult tests of strength, we need to believe in ourselves, in our unity and in the victory of Ukraine.”

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