Daria Bajus for New Pathway – Ukrainian News.
Performer, producer and playwright, Lianna Makuch, was the 2020 recipient of the $25,000 grant from the REACH Mentorship/Residency for the Arts program.
REACH Mentorship program is the Shevchenko Foundation project, in partnership with the Ihnatowycz Family Foundation. It aims to help and develop projects of Canadian artists that promote the inclusion of Ukrainian-Canadian heritage with a goal of artistic growth and professional development.
A graduate of the University of Alberta’s BFA Acting Conservatory, Makuch is an Artistic Producer at Pyretic Productions, an independent theatre company that works directly with communities that are relevant to the subject matter of their plays.
“It’s a competitive industry,” said Makuch. “Especially as a young woman. There are millions of aspiring young actors out there. I was never really someone who wanted to sit there and wait for the phone to ring. Nor am I someone who would be artistically fulfilled just waiting for someone to ask me to be a part of their project.”
Makuch, a second-generation Ukrainian Canadian artist, describes her Ukrainian culture and artistic work as always being separate entities.
A few years before she graduated, around the time of the Revolution of Dignity, she came across a journal entry that her baba had kept chronically throughout her emigration from Ukraine during World War Two.
The artist referenced a quote that stood out to her:
“Our country is so beautiful and so rich. But for some reason, so unfortunate. How can our land not but be fertile, when so much blood, both Ukrainian and foreign, has continually seeped into it. It shows that our enemies love our land more than we do, for they fight for it ceaselessly. Will we live to see that moment when our people join “the circle of free nations?”
“These are musings that my baba had over 70 years ago which are still so resonant with what is happening today,” said Makuch. “I said to Matthew Mackenzie, co-founder of Pyretic Productions, I think you should write a play about what is happening in Ukraine and about the journal. He said well why don’t you write it?”
And that was the launching point for “Blood in Our Soil.”
Blood in Our Soil tells a personal story about war across generations. The main character, Hania, sees her baba tortured by some memory while in long term care. In order to help her baba, Hania needs to dig into her past. She travels to Ukraine to seek out a missing piece of their family’s history.
The play allowed Makuch to explore her Ukrainian Canadian cultural identity alongside her artistic identity. “All of that has existed inside of me,” she said. “Through this project, however, I deeply re-connected with my Ukrainian identity. Not that it was ever gone.”
Blood of Our Soil saw several reiterations and development throughout the years, with over 20 public theatre performances. It began as a 60-minute workshop version, premiering in Edmonton in 2017.
“We were really surprised by the support we got for it,” said Makuch. “Generally workshops are fairly small and not well attended but all of our performances sold out.”
Makuch recalls how Linda Duncan, Canadian Member of Parliament, attended a performance. She talked about Blood of Our Soil in the House of Commons during a debate about Operation Unifier, describing it as “the most powerful presentation she has seen about the history of Ukraine.”
The workshop version focused on her baba’s history of emigrating and drew parallels of what was happening in Ukraine following the Revolution and in the present day. “There’s only so much you can learn from newspapers and documentaries,” said Makuch. “That was where the play needed to go next. It needed to explore further what is happening in Ukraine today.”
In October 2017, Makuch embarked on a research trip to Ukraine with the founders of Pyretic Productions, Patrick Lundeen and Matthew Mackenzie. Starting in Western Ukraine, the team conducted interviews across the country gathering people’s perspectives.
“That trip profoundly deepened all of our understandings,” said Makuch. “There is not a homogenous idea of Ukraine being good and Russia being bad. What was so inspiring was that people were hesitant to talk to us at first when they thought we were media,” she explained. “But when we said we were theatre artists, they opened up a lot more. They experience a lot of fatigue with journalists who would come, take their stories, and they leave.”
Only three months separated the initial research trip and the premier of the new play in March of 2018.
Makuch however, felt as if there was more work to be done and decided to go back to Ukraine once more. Having made several connections and good friends, the team met war veteran, Dmytro Lavrenchuk, who connected them with “Dykyj Theatre” an avant-garde theatre company in Kyiv.
They once again created a workshop of the play with Ukrainian actors. “Being able to work with Ukrainian actors is special as this is their lives,” said Makuch. “This gave us a significant opportunity to deepen our understanding of the situation, which is important as were bringing these stories back to Canada.”
The newest workshop was met with enthusiastic responses and a packed house in Ukraine. Following the performance, there was a discussion group opened to the audience.
The last line of the play wasn’t sitting quite right with the discussion group:
“I wonder, just like baba did so many years ago… will they live to see that moment when their people join ‘the circle of free nations?’”
Makuch explains that there was a fine line between thinking about the play as an “us” and “them” kind of way. This was a critical line that shifted the tone of the ending and the context of the entire play.
“People wanted to make it clear that there is hope and that a lot of people are fighting with a lot of optimism that the war will end,” explained Makuch. “They said to remember that this is about their dignity and spoke a lot about the strength of the Ukrainian spirit.”
The play now ends with: “I saw a spirit. An unbreakable spirit that, like the barvinok, can withstand anything. And now I will never forget.”
Makuch describes Blood of Our Soil as a presentation of a human perspective on war. “We didn’t want to get wrapped up in the politics of things and talk about the big picture. Ultimately we’re talking about people who are caught in the crossfire of war,” she said.
A particular review from The Toronto Star stood out to Makuch, which stated, “I hope some smart person has picked up the film rights to this play.” She thought to herself “Why can’t I be that smart person?”
Makuch applied to the REACH Mentorship program with the idea of adapting Blood of Our Soil into a feature-length screenplay under the mentorship of award-winning playwright and screenwriter Nicolas Billon.
“This is a really exciting opportunity for me to diversify my voice as a writer,” said Makuch. She looks forward to learning about screenwriting as opposed to playwriting.
Makuch acknowledges the grant as an incredible opportunity to launch emerging artists to another level of their career. “It’s such an important thing to do – to support the next generation of artists and think of how they can create a long term career in the arts. It’s not an easy industry. Any opportunity to create a platform is impactful, and I’m very grateful for the REACH Mentorship and the opportunities they are creating.”