Everybody is a soldier in his or her own way

Published on 30 May 2022

Olena’s face became familiar to me very early on in the festival. Our paths seemed to cross often – we attended seminars together, watched the same performances, and I even sat behind her in a workshop, but we never really spoke to each other until she won my heart when she was asked to a say couple of words about her presence in this year’s gathering. As a member of ASSITEJ Ukraine, she consciously made the decision to stay behind and continue working in her home country which is being torn apart by war. She refers to her decision as a responsibility towards the youth she was working with before the war broke out.

Being at the festival is like a miracle, an escape from reality for a little while, she tells me as I eventually pluck up the courage to interview her about what must be one of the most profound and difficult periods in her life. I intrinsically felt that her voice had to be heard because we were all privileged to be in Helsingborg, at an outstanding event, as a war unfolds not very far away from where we stand. Indeed, as we walk through the corridors of the Helsingborg Arena, or the magnificent theatre hall of Helsingborg’s Stadsteater, or anywhere the festival leads us, we must ‘Leave No One Behind’.

“I’m really scared that the influence of war and the atmosphere of hatred and violence young people and children growing up in might be very harmful,” Olena tells me as we just finished listening to the voices of indigenous artists speaking about their artistic work, artistic languages and narratives.  

“I’m not sure I’m the one who can save the world. I’m not going to do it and I can’t do it,” she adds. “But I try and take steps that I can, on a level that I can contribute and can serve my country… In Ukraine, at the moment, we say that everybody is a soldier in his or her own way. So as an educator, I can continue doing that. If I can help children to survive, to keep on being involved in the educational process, I will do that.”

“I’m really scared that the influence of war and the atmosphere of hatred and violence young people and children growing up in might be very harmful”

Olena Rosstalna is the Artistic director of Youth Theatre “AmaTea”, member of ASSITEJ Ukraine, a teacher, drama facilitator and a PhD assistant professor who has been working with children directly through her theatre.

Currently working online to continue the work she has been doing, “One of the reasons why I decided to stay behind, although I had many opportunities to leave, was the responsibility I felt towards the children, taking care of the young generation, I think, is an important issue, because they’re the future,” she tells me.

Olena was displaced from her hometown in the North of Ukraine and now lives in the west where she carries out online sessions with the children she was working with in her theatre who are also displaced across the country and the world (since writing, Olena has been able to return to her hometown and is no longer displaced).

“The responsibility I felt towards the children, taking care of the young generation, I think, is an important issue, because they’re the future”

Referring to what she offers to children through this presence, Olena believes that the children need this kind of presence in their lives, although she admits it brings as much to her as it does to them.

“It’s very important to create these, if I may call them, ‘small escapes’”, says Olena as she describes the work she’s doing online: a combination of theatre, storytelling, visual art and some theatre practice. “I call this as an escape for myself too actually, we get into this world of being safe, of having some secure space and creating a positive narrative again because when I work in these activities with my colleague who is also displaced, we both say to each other that we also felt a kind of relief and parents tell us that kids look forward to our sessions and keep on working by themselves in between sessions; they ask us to keep on co-creating with them, keep on leading them and keep on telling the stories that we tell together.”

Currently, Olena primarily works with children she was already working with before the war, although newcomers have also joined her sessions.

“It’s easier to work with children you already know … if you start working with somebody new, especially online, it’s a bit tricky, it takes some time to win their trust and find a common language,” she says. But one of the bigger challenges is finding the resources to materialise her sessions. “You can’t do many things online, kids have limited resources and that’s tricky because I’m not at home, I don’t have materials, my colleague is also not at home and all kids we work with are not at home as well,” she adds.

“We ourselves, call it working with limited resources, we work with what we have. For example, if we need to build a small installation because kids are very young and we work with them making elements of puppetry theatre, we call the parents and ask them to find an old piece of paper or a shoebox or anything that could be used. And it’s absolutely amazing to me how much they improvise and how they continue working on what we’re doing when we’re not together.”

Exactly three months into the war, Olena can begin to reflect on what she has accomplished so far. “There has been some very touching moments… there was a period of active shelling in most territories of Ukraine when we worked between alarm sirens, because when you hear an alarm you need to go to a bomb shelter. So I stayed in bomb shelters and sometimes the kids stayed in bomb shelters wherever they were, and the topic we were discovering at the time was spring because it was early spring. What we were doing was these imaginary walks in spring,” reveals Olena.

“I was crying after such sessions, actually, because, it’s very hard to experience all this being an adult person. And it’s even harder as a child. There was a little boy who, when we were remembering what spring is, how trees grow and how we can show this in movement, he told us that he wasn’t sure if he remembered how trees grow; he was very young of course but these are touching moments.”

The sessions Olena leads generate some beautiful writing, small haiku poetry and small stories to name a few. “I’m very happy that in these narratives there is no hatred, no violence, they’re just good stories!” she exclaims.

As for the future, Olena takes things by the day. As she says there are more questions than answers right now, but what’s for sure is her perseverance in her work, however it may look down the line.

“It’s hard to say if I’ll continue with my theatre as such, because most young people I worked with are all around the country or the world and I don’t know if I’ll be able to start it again. I also know that when I go back, hopefully I’ll be able to go back to my hometown, I don’t have access to the building in which the theatre is housed. So I have no idea, but I also need to be honest with myself. In a way, I’m now searching for some new ways, new methods, new forms of work; I’m definitely not going to stop but I’ll definitely need to change the way I work a lot but we still keep some things going, some projects related to art, not directly theatre because that’s not possible right now.”

Some of the planned projects Olena and her colleagues have been working on or were about to begin have been cancelled, others have been transformed. “One of the projects we were dealing with was a collaboration project with international partners from Portugal and Turkey. We were supposed to make a documentary performance based on the stories of people who were displaced in Ukraine since 2014. And we started researching and collecting stories, but now 5 million people are displaced so we’re now turning it into something else which is not related to theatre performance, because unfortunately, it’s not possible now, but hopefully something else will come from that,” explains Olena.

“ASSITEJ has been very supportive. And I’m really very grateful. Since the beginning of the war, we received a lot of letters of support from ASSITEJ national centres from all around the world. And not only words, but financial support as well”

Being part of the ASSITEJ community has also been a way of keeping in touch with the international community and materialising feasible projects and actions, as well as receiving substantial support which Olena embraces. “ASSITEJ has been very supportive. And I’m really very grateful. Since the beginning of the war, we received a lot of letters of support from ASSITEJ national centres from all around the world. And not only words, but financial support as well,” says Olena.

Actually, donation card readers to support ASSITEJ Ukraine where made available at the festival, with a video that exemplifies some of the work TYA colleagues have been doing in Ukraine in recent months. An online donation page is also available for friends and colleagues who still want to donate now that the festival is over.

“We are also in touch with our colleagues from ASSITEJ Poland. On our way here, we were traveling through Warsaw and we managed to meet our colleagues from ASSITEJ Poland, we were so happy. We’re also in touch with another ASSITEJ member, the Small Size Network, from ASSITEJ Poland and we’re arranging some activities with them… We’re going to send them Ukrainian books so that they will be able to use them in the work they do with Ukrainian children… Colleagues also sent us a lot of materials related to music therapy and some performances that we share and hope that Ukrainian children might watch them and have access to art in this way. These are the kind of small exchanges and help that we receive,” concludes Olena.

Melissa Hekkers is a freelance journalist and author.
Her most recent book, Amir’s Blue Elephant, is a creative non-fiction based on her experiences working with refugees, in Lesvos, Greece. In 2018, she launched My Cyprus Mandala, an interactive educational book series on the natural and cultural heritage of Cyprus. In 2007, she published her first children’s book ‘Crocodile’, which won the Cyprus State Illustration Award. Her second children’s book Flying across Red Skies (2012) was nominated for the Cyprus State Literary award. Her third children’s book ‘Pupa’ (2014) was adapted as a theatre play in 2019.