War as Theatre, at a Private Home in Kharkiv

One week before the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, about twenty young people gathered in a house in Kharkiv. It was an odd setting, both an anomaly and a function of this moment: a rare private house in the very center of town, owned by a prominent architect but currently inhabited by his twenty-two-year-old stepdaughter, Iryna Lapina, known to most people as Lapa—a term of endearment that means “paw.” On this night, the house was the venue for a semi-regular event, a performance in a genre known as Playback Theatre. It involves a group of actors; a person referred to as the conductor, who directs the show in real time; and an audience. Members of the audience come forward to tell stories, which the actors, prompted by the conductor, reinterpret.

Two nights before, several Russian rockets had hit the city, damaging civilian infrastructure. Now, as the actors prepared in an adjacent room, applying glitter makeup to their cheekbones, audience members arranged themselves in the main room of the house. A dozen people crowded onto a couch, an armchair, and the floor. Lapa, who had just that day dyed her hair platinum blond with pink tips, sat on the kitchen counter, playing a guitar. A dildo lay on the gray slate floor near the stainless-steel stove. A few people grabbed pillows and went to sit on an open-riser staircase. Above the stairs, two pieces of plaster, each about three by twelve feet, hung precariously from the ceiling; two white pendant lights, still connected to the wiring above, hung down from each of them. The ceiling had been like this since March 1, 2022, when a Russian missile destroyed the regional administration building nearby. A small sign in a large gilded frame on an exposed-brick wall behind the audience said, in Russian, “This Will Not Last Forever.”

Actors prepare for a Playback performance.

The sign predated the war by about a year, but now its message referred to the war, as did its language. Kharkiv had long been a Russian-speaking city. Russia’s first invasion, in 2014, made a dent in the dominance of Russian, along with a series of laws passed by the national government: signage is in Ukrainian now, and official city business is conducted in Ukrainian. Some people have switched to Ukrainian in their private lives. But much of the graffiti is still in Russian, as are most conversations. When the actors came out to introduce themselves, four out of five spoke Russian. By this time, someone had discreetly stowed away the dildo.

Kharkiv theatres closed at the start of the war; by the summer, the city’s famous puppet theatre performed a show about wartime in Bucha. Lapa has been hosting these performances at her house for the past three months. The actors, all of them dressed in black, sat down on folding chairs, facing the audience to wait for stories. “My name is Sasha,” the first speaker began. He had close-cropped blond hair and a sharp nose and, like the actors, was wearing a black hoodie. “For the past year, none of us have been stories in ourselves—all of us are absorbing other people’s stories, many of them very painful,” he said. He was struggling to put words to an experience familiar to anyone who has lived or visited Ukraine during the war. Stories of pain and loss, death and destruction, are everywhere, and, however bad one’s story is, there is always a worse one. The conductor, a large man in a hot-pink hoodie with buzzed hair and a long, untrimmed beard, goes by the name Shabanov. He tried to coax a story out of Sasha.

“My story is that we are all sinking together,” Sasha finally said.

“Are you sinking?” Shabanov asked.

“I am a buoy. I am holding everyone afloat.”

Four of the actors stood up to enact Sasha’s story. All of them were under thirty. Two of them were now living in Germany and were visiting family and friends in Kharkiv. The other two had stayed in Kharkiv through the worst of the shelling, and both had become involved with Playback Theatre in the past year. After a few moments of stillness, they interacted, entangling with one another. They moved slowly, tenderly, apparently trying to hold one another and hold one another up, but in the end their common motion brought them down to the floor.

The audience clapped loudly. Lapa’s two puppies, Hanna and Pichie, barked in an upstairs room.

A man with a ponytail, wearing a red cowl-neck sweater and a green jacket, spoke next. “My story is about it being harder to change homes than to change people,” he said. He’d lived in the same apartment for most of his life. A few years ago, he had moved—first abroad, then back to Kharkiv, but to a different apartment. When the war started, he felt he had to return to his old home. But he found that the connection to home that had always felt so secure was barely a trace, like a pencil drawing that had been erased. “I am living in a home with which I cannot have a connection, because I don’t know what will happen tomorrow—what if I have to change homes again?” he asked.

As Lapa played guitar, an actor named Deniza danced. She appeared to be holding on to something, and then she was lost, she was flailing, she grabbed on to things that seemed like ropes but turned out to be just pieces of string, she held out her hands, waiting for something, she cautiously touched invisible surfaces, she balanced on one foot with her hands behind her back, then she was set in motion again, scrambling, searching, then back on one foot, but she kept losing her balance.

“I’m warning you, I may cry,” a woman named Inna said, before starting her story. She had long, copper-colored, straight hair, and was wearing orange pants and a gray hoodie. Inna was a psychologist who had been working for an international relief organization since the beginning of the war. This work had felt more meaningful than anything that she had done before. Now her organization was wrapping up in Kharkiv, and Inna was grieving. The next storyteller, a tall, baby-faced man with dark, wavy hair, spoke of something similar. The war had awakened him, he said, turning a “provincial boy” into a driven, full-time relief worker. “I’m interested in everything and ready to do anything,” he said.

People watching a story being performed during Playback Theatre.

The actors riffed on these stories, looking for ways to capture the sense that a war that had upended their lives had now become a way of life, that it gave life meaning and took it away, that the feeling that the war had receded was at once welcome and disappointing, and also, likely, misleading. At one point, the actors were interrupting one another, almost shouting their reassurances, all of them desperate and unconvincing.

An actor named Illia played an important role in this scene. He is twenty-six and writes grants for one of Kharkiv’s many universities. His work now involved applying for relief funds. About two weeks earlier, a rocket had hit his university, destroying an entire wing. The strike came in the morning and no one was killed. Ukrainian authorities do not disclose the exact locations of Russian strikes, to avoid feeding information to the enemy, but, when Illia saw a photo of the damaged building on a local Telegram channel, he knew where the explosion he had heard in the wee hours had been. For a moment, he felt like he couldn’t breathe.

A stocky woman with dark, curly hair and blue eyes, wearing a green hoodie and black jeans, had been giving Shabanov angry looks since the start of the evening. He finally called on her. Her name was Sasha. She herself had been a part of Playback performances, but hadn’t been participating in recent weeks. “All I can think about is why everyone is speaking Russian,” she said.

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