A theatre in Mykolaiv is celebrating its 100th anniversary with empty halls and a cramped cellar as guests are being ushered underground because of Russian air strikes.
“We can’t run the events on our big stage under the roof. It is very dangerous. There are many missiles that hit the city centre,” says Artem Svystun, the theatre's director.
“That’s why we run our events in the cellar, where people are already in a safe place.”
At the beginning of Russia's full-scale aggression in Ukraine, Mykolaiv quickly came under threat by Russian forces. The city that housed half a million people before the start of the war is just 70 kilometres west of Kherson, until recently occupied by Russia.
First, the theatre team stepped up with some volunteering work to reinforce the city's defences as well as performing for the internally displaced people, soldiers, and other volunteers. Some troupe members have left to join the army or territorial defence.
Many had to hide together with their families in the theatre's cellar that used to house a gym.
Later in August Svystun and his team transformed the space into a 35-seat venue. Most of its performances are now confined to that small space, while the seats in front of the theatre's main stage are covered by a white sheet, protecting them from falling fragments from the chandelier and the ceiling.
Olha Storozhuk is a young singer and actress who performs at the theatre. She says her performances are why she wakes up every morning.
“I know that my work is needed,” she says. “When I sing, or we play on stage, people come and say ‘thank you, amazing, for this hour or 90 minutes we returned to that life we had… that wonderful, that peaceful life we had.”
The theatre lives the challenging reality with its guests: one of the shows recently staged, entitled ‘The Cats Refugees’, is meant as an educational story for children.
“[The play] shows kids how to behave in this difficult situation when the mischief came to our home… to Ukraine, how to stay calm and help each other,” says the head of the troupe Kateryna Bohdanova.
“That is not exactly a fairy tale, as what is going on here in our country is not really a fairy tale.”
A missile hit the theatre in autumn, but it quickly opened its doors right after, with slabs of wood now covering many of its windows.
“‘Life doesn’t stop, it doesn’t stop,” says the theatre’s director, like a mantra.
“The theatre lives.”