'Our fight has a meaning too': interview with Kherson Theatre director

Ukrainian play during theFestival Melpomena Tavrii, 2022. (credit: Facebook)

Renowned Ukrainian playwright Mykola Kulish was one of the leaders of the Executed Renaissance, a literary movement repressed by Stalin’s regime in the 1930s. Today, one of Ukraine’s biggest theatres is named after him in Kherson. But the city is now occupied by the Russian army.

Theatre director Oleksandr Knyga was captured by the occupants, but managed to evacuate to Lviv. He talks about how he organised the Theatre Festival Melpomena Tavrii, held in June in 12 countries.

On 23 February the theatre hosted the premiere of the immersive exhibition Immortality by Serbian playwright Milorad Pavic. In this play viewers can choose for themselves what the end will be – whether the hero, the heroine or both will survive. Two days later another show was due to take place, but Russia attacked Ukraine.

What were your first days of the war like?

I live in Oleshki in Kherson’s suburbs on the left bank of Dnipro river. On 24 February, we survived the bombing of the city. I went to the city centre to check on the theatre. We opened the bomb shelter and thought of using it should something happen. But then my friend called me and told me to go home because Russian “orcs” were already near Oleshki. On my way back home, the war caught up with me as I was about to cross the river: Russian troops already occupied parts of the city, shots were fired. We had to turn around. Luckily, a friend took me across the Dnipro in his small kayak.

You were arrested on 23 March. Is it  because you are actively pro-Ukraine or because Russians wanted to cooperate with you?

It's a mix. We were very active on social networks, we were interviewed by European television, we came out to rallies in Oleshki. We were waiting for it to happen. On 23 March, when we saw a car near our house, we realised that Russians had arrived.

They took me to Kherson: first to the regional administration, I do not know why, maybe because I am a deputy of the regional council. Then they took me to the detention facility outside the city, took fingerprints, took mugshots, and then only they started talking to me. They accused me of organising anti-Russian rallies and paying people to protest against the Russians. They were sure that no one stands up for their rights, and people only come to rallies for money. I stayed there until evening. Then I was asked whether I had a place to spend the night in Kherson, and I said that I would go to the theatre. At that time I did not know that everyone had left the theatre: a rally was held and the Mariupol theatre was bombed and no one was left there either.

They threw me in the middle of the city, told me to blindfold and count to ten. When I reached ten, I realised that I was far from the theatre, and curfew was only beginning in half an hour. I was in panic, because in Kherson, if you are in the street after curfew, they just start shooting. But I realised some friends lived close to where I was, found them and only then was I able to call home and tell family that I had been released.

And then you left for Lviv?

On 28 March the Russians came again. The Ukrainian regional authorities told me to leave by any means possible, because they knew I would not be left alone if I stayed.

My friends from Kyiv arranged an evacuation for me and my family. We left by car on the 40th day of the occupation.

Did all the employees of the theatre also leave?

No, most stayed in Kherson. There were no official humanitarian corridors, people left at their own risk. There were different suggestions on the internet, about $500 per person. But how does an actor make this money?

We were unable to pay salaries for a while but hope employees have now received their wages. You can only transfer money from card to card. So not only is it difficult to spend money because credit cards no longer work, but what’s more they only do so in places where the Internet works. Orcs do everything to make people believe them, instead of the Ukrainian authorities.

I read that Valeriy Sheludk, who previously worked as a security guard at the theatre, was appointed “director” by the occupants. Is that true?

He was the head of the production unit for many years. Just three months before the war, we dismissed him because of an unpleasant situation. But there was no one to guard the theatre and we decided to take him back.

When our actors were living in the bomb shelter, everyone noticed that Valeriy sympathised with the occupants. So that’s how it happened. Thankfully, he was supported by only a few people from our team.

Did you have doubts about the holding of the Festival Melpomena Tavrii? (This festival has been regularly held in Kherson since 1999. This year, screenings were held in different cities and countries, accompanied by the action “Kherson is Ukraine!”. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky congratulated the festival on the occasion of the opening- ed.)

The festival had to continue because the people of Kherson needed a message of support. Moreover, “Melpomena” has never been postponed since 1999. During the pandemic we invented an open-air format where theatres companies adapted their shows to our courtyard and park in Kherson.

This year, I thought everyone could play a show in their own city and at their own theatre, but under the general theme "Kherson is Ukraine”. I wanted to make sure that "Melpomene of Tavria" became the voice of Kherson. And we also invited temporarily displaced people to the festival, because there are Ukrainians and Khersonians in every country.

We were supported by 64 theatres from 12 countries. Theatres in  Japan and the USA approached us to participate and foreigners were talking about Kherson. At the same time, a theatre festival was taking place in Toulouse, France, and they said they also wanted to talk about Ukraine, to voice their declarations to the media in France. They wrote their own texts about Kherson, and it was very touching, because they accurately portrayed the situation.

We also had a literary scene. Our head of the literary department had a baby just a couple of weeks before the war and could not leave so she lived under the occupation in Kherson. She organised and supervised a meeting of poets, writers, journalists, trying to get internet wherever possible to coordinate the get together.

The occupants tried to hack our social media accounts several times. During the festival we were constantly changing the passwords, because the orcs did not like the attention we were getting. So we are also at war and our war is powerful.