Editor’s Note: This article is a part of the “Journalism of Tolerance” project by the Kyiv Post and its affiliated non-profit organization, the Media Development Foundation. The project covers challenges faced by sexual, ethnic and other minorities in Ukraine, as well as people with physical disabilities and those living in poverty. This project is made possible by the support of the American people through the U. S. Agency for International Development and Internews. Content is independent of the donors.
If there is no shelling, 16-year-old Mykhaylo Abdulin from the frontline city of Shchastya in Ukraine’s Luhansk Oblast, would normally spend the evening at home or hang out with friends outside. But the evening of June 30 was quite different: he was sitting in the Tchaikovsky National Music Academy of Ukraine in Kyiv, waiting for a play based on his script to start.
Abdulin is one of 20 participants in Class Act: East-West, a project that this year brought teens from Shchastya in the east and Klesiv, a village of 4,624 people in Rivne Oblast, in the west, to Kyiv, in the center of the country. Here, they wrote scripts for plays, which were then staged by professionals.
The project aims to unite teens from different parts of Ukraine and give them a close up view of the workings of theater.
All of the participants came to Kyiv on June 20 and spent 10 days writing scripts, and attending various workshops on creative writing. The cost of travel was covered by independent donors and the U.S. embassy. Some of the kids, including Abdulin, were visiting Ukraine’s capital for the first time, and they also did some sightseeing.
The teens, having been put in pairs – one each from Shchastya and Klesiv, co-wrote 11 plays that were then staged by famous Ukrainian theater directors and which feature popular actors.
The Class Act methodology was founded by a group of directors at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1997 to attract more young people to work in theater. In 2016, the project was run for the first time in Ukraine, bringing together 20 children from Popasna in Luhansk Oblast and Novovolynsk in Volyn Oblast.
Ukrainian playwright Natalya Vorozhbyt, the project’s curator, called Shchastya and Klesiv “cities with two different wars.”
Shchastya, which in Ukrainian means happiness, was seriously damaged during the fighting in 2014-2015, and the teens from there say that they still hear shelling from time to time. Abdulin stayed in Shchastya during the most intensive shelling. He said that now the atmosphere in the city is much better, and he often goes out with his friends.
“We’ve all adjusted (to the shelling) already,” Abdulin said, shrugging. “I mean, it’s been going on for three years, after all.”
Klesiv, located 290 kilometers west from Kyiv, was the scene of fierce fighting between the police and illegal amber miners last year. The conflict was caused by a large-scale smuggling of illegally mined amber, which has already led to environmental damage affecting huge areas of forest in the region.
Natalia Isniuk, from Klesiv, and Denys Shadsky from Shchastya, both 15, co-wrote a play comparing both conflicts. The plot involves a teenage boy from Shchastya, who moves to Klesiv to escape the war, and becomes involved in illegal mining. At the end of the play, the boy leaves Klesiv, fearing for his life because of a conflict with other miners, and returns to Shchastya, saying that the real war is in the west, not east.
“With my play, I wanted to reach the minds of people who are (mining) illegally, so they stop killing nature,” Isniuk said after the premiere on June 30, bursting into tears.
Shadsky said he wanted to raise the issue of illegal smuggling, because in his area many people smuggle drugs and weapons.
“They (Class Act organizers) said to write about things we’re worried about,” he said. “And we did.”
One of the main goals of the project, according to the organizers, was to bring together teens from small towns and villages near the front line and those from western regions of the country that are not affected directly by the war, and to help them to fight stereotypes about each other.
All three teens the Kyiv Post talked to, Isniuk, Shadsky and Abdulin, admitted that they used to have preconceptions about people from the other part of the country.
“I thought we’d be hanging out only with people from our town,” Isniuk said, adding that what she enjoyed the most about the project was meeting new people.
Despite the teens admitting that their life was affected by war and illegal amber mining, Isniuk and Shadsky were the only ones who devoted their play to these topics. The other teens, like Abdulin, wrote stories about love, and relationships with parents, friends and classmates.
The project’s goal of interesting young people in a career in the theater appears to have been achieved: many of children said they had started reconsidering their plans for a future job.
Abdulin, who said that in his town most people work as mechanics or at the power station, is now thinking about a career in theater. Isniuk said that during the project they’d found a donor who wants to build a theater in her hometown Klesiv.
The project also impacted the lives of the last year’s participants.
Seventeen-year-old Maryna Dunay from Popasna in eastern Ukraine, who participated the in Class Act: East-West project in 2016, said that she and other children staged four plays in her school. She said that she would join a theater club to continue creating plays after she enters university.
Dunay said that the teens from her city who participated in the project broadened their minds about what they could do in life, and now want to pursue jobs that are unusual for small cities, such as a theater director or a journalist.
Some of the teens have continued writing after the project: Bogdan Misan, 15, from Popasna and Oleksandr Vakuliuk, 15, from Novovolynsk, have each written a fiction book and presented them to Ukraine’s writers for review.
The entire Class Act team, including organizers, actors and directors, hope that more teens can follow their dreams after participating in the project.
“If, after the project, at least a few guys stop thinking like ‘I dream of becoming a photographer, but I’m going to be a commodity expert’ and start doing what they really want to do, then our task is done,” said the project’s director, Alik Sardarian.