By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In early 2015, a 19-year-old woman left Kyiv, and everything in her life there — and she went to the front line of the war zone in eastern Ukraine.
Alina was not a soldier. She was a university student, a language major. She’d tried to volunteer but had been turned away as too young. She went anyway, posing as a journalist, and was arrested as a spy by Ukrainian counter-intelligence. As the battle for Donetsk Airport raged on, one of the deadliest of the war — a war that as the world now realizes in a horrifying way has never really ended — she became a volunteer combat medic.
Alina is the brave, fiery young woman Ukrainian-Canadian playwright Lianna Makuch and her Pyretic Productions cohorts — fellow playwright/ dramaturge Matthew MacKenzie and director Patrick Lundeen — met on a research trip to Ukraine in 2017. And her highly dramatic story, with its aftermath of PTSD, found its way into the Makuch play named after her: Alina premieres Thursday at the Studio Theatre at Fringe headquarters, in a Pyretic production directed by Lundeen.
In 2017, as Makuch explains, the Pyretic trio had “travelled all over the country meeting people, talking to them, learning their perspective.” It was an exploration inspired by her Ukrainian cultural roots — “western Ukraine is my ancestral homeland” — and her discovery five years before of her grandmother’s 1944 journal, a record of the cross-border nightmare of fleeing on foot a war-ravaged country.
The three collaborators returned the next year, to workshop Makuch’s Blood of Our Soil, since renamed Barvinok (Ukrainian for periwinkle, a delicate flower of remarkable beauty and resilience) at Kyiv’s Wild Theatre. It premiered in Edmonton in 2018, ran in Toronto, and is slated to tour Alberta in the fall.
There can be no argument about the timeliness of a season of Ukrainian plays; the horrifying news re-confirms it on a daily basis. “I sometimes wish our plays weren’t so perpetually relevant,” sighs Makuch, who has a BFA in acting from the U of A. “But that’s who we are….”
“There’s an inter-generational quality about the stories,” she says. Centuries of struggle and bloodshed are written into Ukrainian history. “Because I’m Ukrainian-Canadian, with Ukrainian grandparents and parents, it’s always just been part of my world. But now, it’s been pushed into the world view,” at a moment in time when the rebellion of 2013 (“the Revolution of Dignity”) and the Russian invasion of 2014 had, as Makuch puts it, “slipped out of people’s minds” and off the international stage.
As storytellers, artists, she thinks, have a particular ability to inspire “human connection, to create a time capsule, to evoke emotional empathy and insight … sharing human stories people can understand universally.”
“When I started on my artistic journey I never considered that my Ukrainian identity could or would fuel my artistic career. But it feels to me now that, as an artist, your identity IS your art, in a way.”
The “relatable human story” Makuch tells in Alina is “the regular people in Ukraine who are going to war. That’s who Alina was. And is…. Of all the veterans we spoke to, nobody had military training, but they all felt there was no other option.” The term freedom has, as we know, been much abused of late. But “this is a fight for freedom in its most bare (and basic) context.”
It was Pyretic’s main contact Dmytro Lavenchuk, a 2014 veteran and a Russian speaker (whom Pyretic brought to Edmonton to see Blood of Our Soil) who introduced them to Alina. “We were so inspired by the tight-knit community of veterans we met,” says Makuch. “Most were men, and we wanted to speak to a woman.”
“Small but mighty, demanding respect from people.” That was Makuch’s first impression. “She doesn’t have time for people’s bullshit…. So much of her adult life (she’s now mid-20s) has been defined by war.”
For Alina, as Makuch explains, it started with the student protest of 2014, which the riot police had tried to suppress violently. A million people showed up in Independence Square in Kyiv; the protest lasted three months.
The steel in Alina was forged in the fire of that protest. “It changed her life. And it changed the course of an entire generation in Ukraine…. There was no stopping the revolution. People were chasing their future, and they didn’t want to go backward in time, to the old Soviet ways.”
By 2018, Makuch was fashioning a play (“not a biopic”) inspired by Alina’s story, and the experiences of others as well. And it was further developed and researched in longer interviews, and a three-week residency (the first-ever by Canadian artists) in February 2020 at Kviv’s Izolyatsia Institute, — the name means “solitary” in Ukrainian — where Alina was working at the Veteran Hub. Of necessity the institute had relocated in 2014 from Russian-occupied Donetsk, where the building is now a prison notorious for the torture and relocation of prisoners to Russian penal colonies.
Makuch had the opportunity to talk to Alina’s mom (who makes a cameo appearance in Alina, played by Lora Brovold). “It was remarkable,” says the playwright of connecting with the mother who’d insisted that “language was a root connecting you to your ancestors.” Makuch, a fluent Ukrainian speaker, agrees enthusiastically.
The little kid Alina, reports her mom, was a fierce, brave little kid, even at age three unafraid to snap back at men in their apartment building who challenged her.
PTSD meant that interviews with Alina had to happen in “very specific environments” to mitigate her anxiety, mostly public spaces, says Makuch. What struck the playwright was that “the return to ‘peaceful civilian life’ (which seems now permanently in quotation marks) is fraught and arduous, maybe impossible, for veterans. “I fear for the future,”
she says of a kind of national collective PTSD. “They’ve worked so hard to learn to heal and live ‘real life’. And now they’re back at war.”
War never ended; it just changed. “You used to be able to take a train to war, and then take a train back from war.” Not any more. Makuch, MacKenzie and Lundeen always asked their interview subjects if they’d ever go back to war. “And every single one of them said ‘if I had to’.” As Alina told Pyretic, “I couldn’t do nothing.”
The fateful events of Feb. 24, when Russia launched another brutal invasion of Ukraine, have meant that the story of Alina “does exist in a new context.” Makuch, grateful for a workshop at the Citadel’s Collider Festival (“it came at such a perfect time”) did write and test a coda. In the end, though, she didn’t update the play. “It’s set in a time and place. And audiences can draw lines, extrapolate, understand what has brought us to where we are now.”
Alina and her boyfriend managed to extricate her mother from Kyiv on Feb. 24. They drove her to safety in Poland; she stayed with Canadian theatre artist Michael Rubenfeld, and now has her own apartment there. She’s even thinking about coming to Canada, Makuch says. And, though plans for Alina to see the show are now on hold indefinitely, it will happen somewhere, somehow. Meanwhile, Makuch is developing the story into a feature-length screenplay. And next season in the Citadel’s Highwire Series she will direct the premiere of First Métis Man of Odesa, by MacKenzie and his now wife Ukrainian actor Mariya Khomutova, who met on one of Pyretic’s research trips.
“I hope people will feel a personal connection to Alina’s story,” says Makuch. “You don’t have to be Ukrainian to understand.” That, after all, is what art is for.
Pyretic supports Alina’s fund-raising campaign to purchase supplies for Ukrainian front-line volunteers: supportalinaukraine.com.
Theatre: Pyretic Productions in association with Punctuate! Theatre
Written by: Lianna Makuch
Directed by: Patrick Lundeen
Starring: Christina Nguyen and Lora Brovold
Where: Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn
Running: Thursday through June 5