Stephanie Turenko, Toronto.
“We can’t sit too close to the door because you know the draft kills Ukrainians!” I say jokingly to Pavel Yurov, the creator of Novorossiya: No One’s Land, a play I had just seen, as we sat down at a pub. “There are other things killing Ukrainians much faster,” he replies.
Pavel was in Toronto for less than a week working on his play, a verbatim theatre piece for the Progress Festival. Novorossiya: No Man’s Land took place on February 14, 2015 at the Theatre Centre on Queen Street West. It consisted of a 2-hour reading followed by a one hour discussion period led by dramaturg Jonathan Garfinkel along with special guests Alex Sphrintsen and Krystina Waler who candidly discussed events taking place in Ukraine.
The play consisted of 5 actors sitting on chairs facing the audience. Each rose at different times and shared personal narratives of people involved in eastern Ukraine: civilians, volunteers, battalion commanders – voices from of both sides of the conflict. A projection, curated by Yurov during the play, displayed a photo of the particular person they were presenting behind the actor speaking.
The main and integral story of the play was Pavel’s own narrative of his captivity in Slovyansk that was only added last Wednesday to the play, Jonathan Garfinkel, the dramaturg, shared with me. Pavel was hesitant to share his own story in his piece, but in doing so it became more personal with the presence of Anastasiya Kasilova, the production’s co-creator and one of the main people who fought to free him.
Pavel was held captive for 70 days in Slovyansk where he was arrested, beaten and held hostage. Sitting across from me in the dimly lit pub, you would have never thought that this smiling eastern European man with big eyes had experienced such an ordeal.
I inquired how many of the narratives in the play were real words spoken by those people and how many were fiction. Pavel stated that 98% of the entire play was other people’s words pulled mostly from Facebook posts, live interviews and blog posts.
Many of the stories in the play were heart wrenching. One particularly stood out to me, of a 52 year old woman, Iryna Dovgan, who frequently brought food and supplies to Ukrainian soldiers on the front. She was detained by the terrorists, who found photos of her work on her tablet. They interrogated her, beat her and threatened to rape her. When she revealed her pin to her bank account to them, they demanded she give all her savings to them because “she had given money to the Ukrainian army”. Later, they wrapped her in a Ukrainian flag and hung a sign from her neck which read: “She kills our children” and forced her to stand in the centre of Donetsk.
“I stood there, holding to lamppost, in order not to collapse. I was in tears. One woman squashed two tomatoes against my face, and tomato juice was running into my eyes so I couldn’t see much. “Passers-by were curious. People would drive up in nice cars, come over and pose for photos with me. Young men came with their girlfriends. Men did not hit me, but local women were vicious. One elderly woman hit me on the head and shoulders with her walking stick.” Upon returning home, she found her house looted. She had nothing left.
It was these sorts of stories that made Novorossiya: No One’s Land such a compelling play. The audience was able to see people’s experiences, instead of seeing them on TV or reading them in a newspaper. Although some context was not clear, the actors did very well by bringing life to the text.
Creators Pavel Yurov and Anastasiya Kasilova clearly worked hard in creating this piece which underlined the insanity of the situation taking place in the Donbas.