BURIED WORDS, SEEDS OF HOPE | A Benefit for Ukraine

We asked Director Nadia Tarnawsky, and Line Producer Anastasía Urozhaeva what audiences can expect from the event.  

Anastasía ―Tell us how Buried Words, Seeds of Hope came about as a project for Cleveland Public Theatre. 

The project had started from conversations in and outside of CPT about the growing sense of need to do “something” through art (as the medium available to theatre/performance artists) to speak about what had been happening, the horrible invasion into Ukraine, the war that started in 2014, horror that followed with full scale invasion on February 24, 2022. With so many people affected overseas and echoes of this war locally, in the US, and in Cleveland – stories from the people who had been able to leave before/during the war and invasion, and/or living abroad and directly connected to relatives and loved ones overseas  – it felt important not to ignore what was happening, and if nothing else, to attempt for art (a kind of “fairy tale”) to become a form of resistance, to search for conversation that felt likely not possible in the moment when the idea of doing “a project” began to emerge, asking if this conversation could be meaningful simultaneously for someone abroad and local communities. First, it was a visceral response from multiple directions and people. Most importantly, an attempt, at this time and place, to support Ukraine. 

The ideas continued, and eventually as Nadia and I had presented more details about the ideas of this project at CPT, we were asked if we may want to attempt to connect to The Worldwide Ukrainian Play Readings (WUPR). Soon I had reached out to John Freedman, organizer of WUPR, and Nadia had shared a few play readings that she wanted to be in this project from A Dictionary of Emotions in a Time of War: 20 Short Works by Ukrainian Playwrights.  

Buried Words, Seeds of Hope emerged as the play readings by Pavlo Arie, Iryna Harets and Anastasiia Kosodii became an integral part of the project, and once the project became a part of The Worldwide Ukrainian Play Readings, partnering with John Freedman, Maksym Kurochkin and Philip Arnoult’s CITD. 

Nadia―As a Ukrainian-American with direct ties to Ukraine, how has art, or in your case, song, helped you to heal or deal with the atrocities happening in Ukraine? 

Art in general, so song, but also literature, film, theatre, dance, has been instrumental to being able to continue and move forward on a daily basis.  For a few years I have been going to New Orleans to teach workshops of Ukrainian folk songs.  When the invasion of Crimean occurred in 2014, the participants of the workshops wrote to me and told about how they gathered in a public park and began singing all of the Ukrainian songs they knew.  When people passed them in the park and asked what they were doing, they said, “We’re singing Ukrainian songs to protest Putin’s invasion of Crimea!”   

When I taught at a summer course in Boston, one of the participants came to me and said, “When you said we can rebuild buildings, but we cannot rebuild people – this truly struck me and moved me deeply. I don’t know what to do for Ukraine, but now I can sing.” 

Stories like this make me feel like I am connecting people to Ukraine.  Since the full-scale war began, there has been a call to learn Ukrainian songs and I have been sharing them as I can.  I feel that songs are special and can connect people so powerfully.  There is a wondrous film named The Singing Revolution about Estonia at the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  They have a huge singing festival and there were Estonian songs which were banned when Estonia was a Soviet republic, but at this festival, one person began singing one of these banned songs and soon thousands of people were singing together.  Once the flood of music began, nothing could stop it.   

So, I keep singing for Ukraine, in the hope that other voices will join me and there will be a tsunami of songs for peace. 

Anastasía― What does getting involved with this project mean to you personally? 

At first, to me personally, it meant “doing,” “acting” as an opposite to “inaction” and “silence,” also opening up, connecting, asking questions, listening, hoping that what may come of the process, conversations, if anything at all, may be meaningful. For a while thinking that even if nothing happened, an attempt at such project could, in and of itself, be a form of resistance to the horrific violence. Being from Russia, this project especially meant on one hand wanting to “do something” to act against the horror, to support, and on another to continuously question every step of the way what it is we are attempting to do, to listen first. To hope and dream collectively for a future that is different than what we see in the moment, understanding that we cannot change what is happening overnight by our will, but instead may be here to do the work to support those who are affected now, to share stories during a horrific time, to search for people who want to do the same even though it may not make sense in the moment, and continuing to ask whether such attempt was even needed. It meant gratitude, to be at CPT at this strange time, to be reconnected to Nadia, to observe the work that ended up emerging. Gratitude for gracious openness of the people sitting across the table. Hope in doing such project together despite originally only having “loose thoughts” of making “some project.” Gratitude for conversations, for the word “peace” with which we had “signed off” our email exchanges… A wish and hope, at the time of war, to continue to dream of a better future into existence than what we are seeing right now.  

To me, personally, it meant and means Hope.  

Nadia―Tell us about some of the music being performed at the event. Will it use some traditional Ukrainian instruments such as the bandura? 

For Buried Words, Seeds of Hope all of the pre-show music and the song which ends the show belong to the winter carol/Christmas carol tradition.  This carol tradition can be found in all regions of Ukraine (whereas some types of songs – harvesting songs or spring calling songs, for example, as more often found only in one or two regions in Ukraine).  In this caroling tradition, the songs are meant to bring a good year to the listeners – a bountiful harvest, healthy livestock, a beautiful family – and those who carol view it as an important responsibility to bring this good fortune to everyone through their songs.  In this music, one can hear the wide variety of vocal production in Ukraine – some carols are sung in a loud, belty style, while others have a lighter quality to them. 

There is a song in the pre-show music which utilizes the bandura (I’m playing that instrument on the recording).  

Nadia― Obviously, there is a heaviness to the material that will be presented which I think audiences will expect, but it also sounds like there are a few pieces that show hope in the face of adversity.  Can you describe some of these pieces. For example, Singing With Your Hands “examines the pull to create something filled with light in the most absurd time of darkness – a war.”   

War is a grimly dark subject, but I have found that people who are living through that darkness find a way to make space for light.  Sadly, Ukrainian history (and quite frankly most of the histories of Eastern Europe) have many examples of war and repression, but I have also found stories of unfailing hope in that darkness.  And Ukrainians have a very wry sense of humor about things.  For example, in 2014, then President Victor Yanukovych passed a bunch of anti-protest laws in Ukraine.  Among them was a law with the provision of up to 15 days in jail for participation in peaceful gatherings, for wearing a mask, camouflage clothing, scarf, helmet, or other means of concealing or protecting one’s face or head.  So instead of wearing helmets at gatherings, people started wearing pots and colanders.  I found this amusing but also so defiant.  In a similar fashion, the stories of the farmers who ride their tractors wearing bullet proof vests, or women who embroider beautiful items while sitting in a bomb shelter, or 86 year old women who decide that the world needs more trees in times of war are the stories of light that come through in times of the darkness of war.

And in this show, there is one story in particular which I return to over and over again.  It is a short oral history of a woman named Olha Vovk.  She survived the Second World War and being sent to Siberia.  One would think that she should be able to rest now.  But no, now she has to live through yet another war and her response is to plant a pine tree to improve the health of all.  It reminds me of the Leonard Bernstein quote: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

Nadia―What do you want audiences to take away from Buried Words, Seeds of Hope

I often make phone calls to the village women and men who shared their songs with me.  I always call them on their birthday, or on Christmas, but also phone because they came to mind that day.  The phone calls are always short – “I don’t want you to waste your money on this call!” – and almost always include the phrase “Thank you for not forgetting about me.”  More than anything, I want the audience to hear these stories from Ukraine and not forget about the people there who are continuing forward day by day – sowing seeds, making theatre, writing poems, singing songs, and giving their lives for their freedom and the sovereignty of their nation. 

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