War as Theatre, at a Private Home in Kharkiv

Most performance spaces in the city have been shut down since the start of the war. Some residents are reënacting experiences from the invasion themselves.
A photo of people gathered in a basement and one person is holding a guitar.
Actors and spectators in a kitchen, during a Playback Theatre meeting, in Kharkiv.Photographs by Mila Teshaieva for The New Yorker

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 in 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.

Shabanov responded in Ukrainian. “What does it mean for you to speak Ukrainian?” he asked. “How long have you been doing it?”

“That’s not what it’s about,” she responded. “Last night, the city was hit again. And we are acting like we can just go on.” Sasha had once watched “The Normal Heart,” a fictionalized account of the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York City. These days, Sasha, who is twenty-five, reminded herself of the character based on Larry Kramer, who always seemed to be shouting that people were dying while the others, including some of the people who would soon die, paid no attention. Here in Kharkiv, most people appeared to think nothing of continuing to speak the language of the empire that was trying to recolonize them. Sasha had grown up in a small town not far from Kharkiv, speaking a mix of Russian and Ukrainian. When she came to Kharkiv to attend university, she learned to speak pure Russian, which is what educated people in the big city did. Now these educated people—her friends—were driving her crazy. “I want things to be different!” she said. “When I speak Ukrainian, I think differently. But people in Kharkiv don’t care.”

Sasha asked that the only one of the actors who’d introduced herself in Ukrainian perform her response. She danced while another actor vocalized in Ukrainian. “My heart is jumping out of my chest, it wants to get out,” she repeated over and over. “Kharkov/Kharkiv,” she said, alternating the Russian and Ukrainian pronunciations of the city’s name, and then repeated, several times over in the two languages, one of the principles of the troupe: “In the language of the storyteller.”

“I think I want to end the evening here,” Shabanov said.

It was nine o’clock and pitch-black outside—Kharkiv keeps all street lights off to avoid helping Russian bombers get their bearings. The actors and their audience didn’t have much time to mill around: curfew was at eleven. Though public transport resumed operations in the spring, service was still reduced, and it took longer to get anywhere. They drank white wine, ate apples and tangerines, and hugged—two, three, five people at a time. They clung together like puppies trying to keep warm. Lapa and Sasha, the first storyteller, were hugging. They are best friends; Sasha is Lapa’s buoy.

A year ago, Lapa’s mother and two younger siblings fled to Germany. Lapa stayed in the house alone, but, when the Russians started systematically bombing the center of the city, she and her boyfriend left for Dnipro, a city situated in the middle of the country. Dnipro, she discovered, had an active drug scene. After two months, Lapa concluded that she would rather risk dying from the shelling in Kharkiv than an overdose in Dnipro. She and her boyfriend returned to the house. Kharkiv was gray and empty. It seemed like half the windows downtown were gone. Lapa spent the first week crying. A few weeks later, the city started filling up with people, and so did Lapa’s house. People joked that it was the backup headquarters of Kraken, an army reconnaissance unit that has become legendary in Kharkiv.

Iryna (Lapa) Lapina with her new puppies, in her house in Kharkiv.

In the summer, the Russians seemed to maintain an intelligible schedule of bombardments. Lapa learned that if they hadn’t opened fire by eleven in the evening it was safe to go to bed. But, if there had been shelling or rocket fire, it was best to wait for more hits before turning in for the night. At one point, it appeared that they stopped targeting residential buildings. At the same time, the hits became irregular, which Lapa found disconcerting. She caught herself thinking that the relentless fire of the summer was easier to take than the intermittent hits, which had the tendency to come whenever she had relaxed and stopped expecting them.

Lapa and her boyfriend had broken up a couple of weeks earlier. A friend immediately made his interest in her known. He was in the house, hanging out with the puppies without joining the party. She liked him. He was in the military, and had been wounded. He was on his recuperation leave now. He had chunks of flesh missing, in his leg and on his hip. This wasn’t the problem, though. The problem was that he would recover and go back to the front. Lapa just wasn’t sure she could take that. ♦