The healing potential of community theater seen in Lutsk, Ukraine

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BY BLAIR A. RUBLE

A long, unremarkable cylindrical metal shed – what Americans call a “Quonset hut” – stands in a tattered industrial yard near the train tracks in the western Ukrainian city of Lutsk. The abandoned temporary building has become the site of much coming and going since the Russians invaded Ukraine on February 24.

About 60 miles (100 km) from the Polish border and twice that of Belarus, the hangar is well placed to support recruits and store supplies gathered for shipment. The hangar stands on hallowed ground, in a marshalling yard once used by the Nazis and Soviets to round up those sent to the death camps to the west and the GULAG to the east. Today, the building rectifies that dark past by serving as a hub for Ukrainians who volunteer to defend their country.

These logistical advantages also explain why its owner, the experimental Guardian (Garmyder) theater — found the shed so enjoyable. Ruslana and Pavlo Porytsky started their company two decades ago to create theater that embraces a bit of that, and a bit of that to speak to the surrounding community. The name “Garmyder” tells the story, meaning “mess, clutter, many different things, space without order”. The shed became the home base of their artistry several years ago.

Prior to February 2022, surrounded by textile and candy factories, the building seemed a pleasantly benign gathering place for theatergoers, children attending their first performances, rock bands and international touring bands. Such peacetime activities illustrate why so many Ukrainians think this war is worth fighting.

The Porytskys established the Garmyder Theater in 2003, while students from Lutsk’s Volyn State University. A student of cultural studies, Ruslana studied the role of theater in education and community building. Pavlo, an art student and aspiring actor, approached the power of theater from the stage. They found common ground while studying Lesya Ukrainka’s poetic play song of the forest and joined forces to create an experimental company that would merge classical performance with contemporary multimedia tools such as 3D visualizations.

The Garmyder promoted physicality in theatre, an approach that remains uncommon in Ukraine. The company’s explorations did not stop there. The Porytskys wanted to explode traditional theatrical forms and spaces. In 2017, their Princely Banquet brought together visiting choirs from Lviv and an equestrian theater troupe to celebrate Prince Vytautas, his retinue, the knights, the traditional dance and the songs. Later they honored the late poet Kost Chychko, who was executed by the Soviet regime, by holding readings of his works in an unfinished high-rise building. On every floor, including the roof, there were immersive events based on his poems and his life.

Starting out on small bedroom stages in college, and moving to a local culture house, the Porytskys attracted enthusiastic collaborators. By 2022, the troupe had become a self-managed company of around 50 actors, directors, editors, cameramen, administrators and writers. The group has become a valued community resource, expanding its activities to include a dynamic training program for children at the studio-theatre workshop, the Dogory Drygom, and a performance calendar. The humble hangar, which seats 120 people for theater and up to 230 for concerts, is a flexible, open space that can be easily reconfigured to serve the company’s multiple purposes. The hangar has indeed become a partner of these different companies.

Garmyder artists also bring their performances into the community and travel to festivals overseas. Performing on the streets, in unfinished buildings and at historic sites, they promoted theater to revitalize Lutsk as an open and tolerant community. Sometimes they have joined forces with progressive theaters in Kharkiv, thus uniting eastern and western Ukraine through artistic expression. Panel discussions often follow Garmyder’s performances. The theatre’s active community outreach has helped nurture a shared sense of belonging in a city that has suffered from a long history of exclusion and conflict.

Contemporary Lutsk is home to almost a quarter of a million inhabitants. The city has existed since at least the 11e century on the unstable frontier lands disputed by the Russians (rusychi), Poles, Lithuanians, Tatars, Russians, Austrians, Germans and Soviets. By the mid-1930s, nearly half of its 39,000 residents were Jewish, with a large Polish population. Virtually none of these pre-war inhabitants survived, and as many as 25,000 Jews were shot at close range in the surrounding area. Górka Polonka hill.

The town’s troubled history and modest size encouraged the Porytskys and their colleagues to mobilize the arts to support community development. Volyn State University was founded as a teacher’s college in 1940. The school was granted university status after Ukraine’s independence and was elevated to a national university . Its growing presence in the city, as evidenced by the Portytskis, cultivates a wider artistic community.

In 2014, at the start of the war in eastern Ukraine, the Porytskys responded by using their organization to investigate the role of theater in wartime. They have continued to do so all these years, even as war erupted on a new scale this year.

Ruslana says: “When the large-scale war started, I asked myself: ‘Has our theater done enough to understand the social processes, to talk about the threat…?’ We often talked about these topics from the stage, but when this collapse happened on February 24, it seemed to me that we were not doing enough, that we were not decisive and categorical enough in our statements. How should theater change now? How to talk about war so as not to hurt? What else [is there] speak with the viewer? We are exploring a new way to interact with the public. Anyway, one thing is obvious. We can’t just pick up the repertoire after a break and pretend nothing happened.

The Russian invasion earlier this year accelerated Garmyder’s plans for further community engagement. In addition to supporting the current war effort, the Porytskys and their colleagues have already begun planning for a post-war Ukraine. Their company reflects on how the various lessons learned from building community can provide art therapy to those returning from combat. However that future unfolds, the activist community theater developed by the Garmyder Company will be fundamental to Lutsk’s success in the future.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

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