From Lviv to Brooklyn – Ukrainian Children’s Powerful Message: “We Want to Live Free”

Last April, eight children, ages 7 to 14, who love acting and study at a theater school put on a play. That sounds like it could happen in any city in the United States. Rehearsal after rehearsal followed by the performance lavished with applause: everywhere in the theater world, a familiar scenario. Except, in this case, air raid sirens and fear would drive the young actors and their audience underground. In a bomb shelter in their beloved city. 

That city was Lviv in Ukraine, two months after the Russian invasion began. The children: students at Lviv’s School of Open-Minded Kids Studio Theater. The play: Mama Po Skaipu (Mom on Skype), a series of monologues based on true stories of separation between children and their parents who went to work abroad in the 1990s. When the war started in February, loved ones were separated again as fathers, brothers, sons stayed to fight and could not join their refugee families. 

Performing in the bomb shelter in Lviv: Sofiia Goy and Anastasiia Mysiuha

Thus, Mom on Skype was first performed in a bomb shelter, directed by arts teacher and active-duty Ukrainian soldier, Oleg Oneshchak, the father of two of the young actors in the play. As a rare cultural event in Ukraine at the time, it was captured by photographer Finbarr O’Reilly and covered as a photo essay in New York Times. When Executive Director of Irondale Ensemble Project theater company, Terry Greiss, learned about this event, he found Oleg via Facebook and invited him and the children to bring the show to Brooklyn. After considerable fundraising efforts by the Irondale team and the generosity of so many, this dream became a poignant and meaningful reality: the eight Ukrainian children brought Mom on Skype to American audiences this past weekend at Irondale, and according to testimonials, there wasn’t “one single dry eye in the full house.”

Oleg and Mariia Oneshchak

Oleg was unable to travel, but his wife, Mariia, who is also an actor and educator made the trip. During their stay in the United States, the young actors who arrived here in late July, spent a week at Young at Arts performing arts summer camp in Ivoryton, Connecticut, in partnership with Sing for Hope, where they made American friends and taught them Ukrainian songs. They also marveled at the wonders of New York City, which included a private tour of the Statue of Liberty. On August 17th and 18th,they will perform their play at Center Makor in Brookline, Massachusetts, followed by another show on August 19th at the Ukrainian National Home of Hartford, Connecticut.

Terry Greiss, executive director and co-founder of Irondale Ensemble Project

I am immensely moved and grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with Terry Greiss and the young actors on a break from rehearsals. The conversation below is as it was recorded, with very slight editing. I felt it was important to capture the young Ukrainians’ own unique voices as they expressed themselves in English about their experiences in Lviv and here. 

Terry, what does it mean for you to finally have these Ukrainian children here and present their play to New York audiences at Irondale?

Terry Greiss: It’s all bigger than this event. It’s what it says about the importance of art-making and the importance of the citizen as artist. We all talk a lot about how important art is to a community and we love the arts… But if you think about it, these young people are in the middle of a war, and there are missiles dropping outside perhaps or they could drop at any minute, so what do they choose to do? They choose to make a play. They choose to perform that play in a bomb shelter because that’s the only theater that is available to them and that’s where they could find an audience. The material was obviously important enough to them to want to tell these stories. The other part of it is: they feel like they want to participate in the war effort, they want to help their country. They can’t go and fight, they can’t pick up guns nor should they. But what they can do is what they love to do and do that at their best, so they performed a play. I read about that, and it seemed an affirmation of everything I believed about theater my entire life, everything that we, here at Irondale, have always tried to espouse. So, I thought, we have to bring them here.

What was the origin of this performance?

Anastasiia Mysiuha: We made this performance before war with our director, but unfortunately, he can’t make trip to America. When war started, all forgot about this performance because it’s not important. But then our director decided that it’s a really good topic about children who were without their parents. So, we had almost everyday rehearsals and it’s the start of all this.

Please tell us about “Mom on Skype.”

AnastasiiaMom on Skype is about moms in other countries communicating to children on Skype. 

Hanna Oneshchak: Moms want to make a better life, but children want love, and they want to have their moms at home to hug.

Anastasiia: Yes, parents find better life in another country and leave children, but children need to have parents with them, to have a dad and mom. 

Tetiana [Anastasiia’s mother and translator for the group]: These are true stories recorded by our writers from Lviv—documentary stories of children who are left by their mothers because there was a demand for jobs for women in Europe, and for some reason, they chose not to return. Some of the stories are really heartbreaking, you cry when you listen to them.

The audience in the bomb shelter in Lviv

Can you describe how it was when you did the performance in the bomb shelter? How did you feel? How did people react?

Valeriia Khozhempa:  It was amazing. When they heard the part about mom in Germany, that was sad, but with some of the other texts people had fun, so that was good. 

Marharyta Kuzma: Yes. One of the most important things to actors is emotion of audience so when they cry or laugh, you feel that you are important. For me, it was kind of scary because it was in the bomb shelter. And I must say it: when you buy a weapon you don’t think it will be just laying down on the table, you will think about how you will use it. The same with a bomb shelter. I was very scared because a bomb could drop down. 

Valeriia:  It was scary because you understand why you’re in the shelter and why you’re not in the theater to have fun.

Anastasiia: It also was so hard because there were air alarms  and we had to stay in the bomb shelter about a few hours.  

How many hours did you usually have to stay there?

Anastasiia:  Two hours, but when there was the air alarm, we stayed about four hours. 

Marharyta: We must sit there for hours, and it’s so tiring. I sit in the basement, it’s dirty and there are so many spiders and I’m afraid of spiders. Besides the war, I think about spiders, and I’m scared, and then again I think about the war and my fear… It’s crazy.

Valeriia: In the shelter it was so cold that it was hard to do the performance and we drank a lot of cocoa. On the day of the performance, we stayed there all day, from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Was the shelter very crowded?

Marharyta: Yes. Sometimes during rehearsals there was an air raid alert, so we went to the bomb shelter to have the rehearsal, but of course other people went with us 

What about food? Did people have food inside the shelter?

Marharyta: The bomb shelter was near a café, so that was okay.

Anastasiia: But we only drank cocoa. Or tea. We didn’t eat anything.

Hannah: Because we eat at home.

Anastasiia: Before and after rehearsals.

Performing in the bomb shelter in Lviv, l. to r.: Marharyta Kuzma, Valeriia Khozhempa, and Hannah Oneshchak

This performance has music as well. I saw a video of Hannah singing and it made me cry. Hannah, how was it for you to sing your song in such conditions?

Hannah:  I knew that this is for my country. This song is dedicated to Ukraine, and, you know, it’s about war. It’s so sad, but I also think I sang it a little happy because it is like light in the dark.

Valeriia: This song is very important for us because we are on the stage so we can’t cry. But we want to.

Anastasiia: In America it’s harder to play this performance than in Ukraine. In Ukraine we didn’t cry, but in America, yes, because we are not at home, and we miss home so much. And Hannah’s song reminds us about Ukraine, about our home, about our family, and we just start crying. 

When you found out that you were coming to the United States, how did you feel?

Marharyta: There were just no words! Oh my God! I just screamed! Mom was like: “What happened?”

And when you first stepped foot in New York City?

Anastasiia: You know, yesterday we were in Times Square, and I just felt like I was in some films, because I saw New York City and the Statue of Liberty only in films. Now it is in real life, and I just can’t believe it! Everyone dreams of a trip to America!

Valeriia:  For me America was like another world which we can see just on the television, because it’s so hard to come here. You need the visa, and it takes a long time. It’s amazing here, it’s so cool! But now I want to go back home.

Making American friends at Young at Arts summer performing arts camp in CT

What did you do during your time at the performing arts camp in Connecticut?

Anastasiia: We made a performance, singing and acting.

Hannah: And dancing too!

And you made American friends there…

Anastasiia: Oh, they are so friendly!  Pleasant people. I am very happy that I met them!

Hannah: We made so many contacts and got their phone numbers. 

Sofiia Goy:  Everyone gives us hugs.

Marharyta: It was so hard to say goodbye to them and to the camp.  

Are you happy to perform for American audiences?

Marharyta: There are no words to describe how happy I am! 

Valeriia: I’m so excited because nine months ago it was a dream to have some performance in a Ukrainian theater, but in America? Never! I’m shocked now because the stage, the theater is my dream!

Anastasiia: It is a very important performance because a lot of people will come, and we can’t make a mistake. It’s very important, like this interview that we have and other interviews we had and that we will have, because the interviews and the performance remind people about what is going on in Ukraine.

Valeriia: People start to forget about war, and we must remind them.

Hannah: And we must tell the whole world: Ukraine is strong! Ukrainian people and American people are similar because we have democracy. In Russia, it’s a dictator; they have one person who has power.

What is the situation in Lviv now?

Khrystyna Hniedko: There are many air alarms but bombing not so often.

So, people still have to go to the shelters?

Hannah: Yes. It’s a little bit quiet now but…

Khrystyna: In Western Ukraine now is more quiet than in East Ukraine.

Anastasiia: But now in August there are more air alarms than in July for example. Here in America, I saw on my phone, the messages about air alarms. 

Marharyta: The notifications are still coming…

Valeriia: Yes. And, you know, we start worrying about our parents, our siblings, our homes, our pets. We are safe here in America, but our parents are there.

Do you talk to them often?

Marharyta: We call them or message them.

Khrystyna: Today there were two air alarms, and every time you see on your phone an air alarm in Ukraine, you think: how are my parents?  I must call them. It’s so scary. 

Anastasiia: So even in America worry doesn’t leave us. If we’re in Ukraine or we’re in America, worry is always with us, because it’s about our homes.

Khrystyna: And our homes can get ruined.

Hannah: When people see something about Ukraine in newspapers, they say it’s so sad and pray for Ukraine, and then they have their life, and forget. 

I understand you’re going back home on August 21st.  What do you want to share from what you have learned in America with your family and your friends?

Anastasiia: Our dads can’t go abroad so I want to tell my dad and all my family about America, about my acting experience, about what I saw, and about how Americans help Ukraine.

Hannah: I just want to hug my dad, my grandma, my dog, and kiss them.

Terry: Hannah’s dad is the director of the show, Oleg. And Mariia is Oleg’s wife and she’s directing the show here.

How is this experience for you, Mariia?

Mariia: I’m very happy because it’s a good experience. I am getting ready for the performance and giving them additional songs from the Ukraine. I’m also an actress and singer. 

Marharyta: She said we are real actors because we have challenges, and we know how to improvise. Sometimes the microphone is broken, or we don’t have a curtain or other things but we don’t stop.

Terry, how do you hope that American audiences respond to this special performance?

Terry: Yes, it is a special performance but it’s about more than that. It’s about how performance fits into society as a whole, and when a society is broken and suffering like in the Ukraine; it’s about the meaning it has there and how that can be transferred over here.  

Do you foresee that it might help getting even more assistance from the U.S.?

Terry: I hope so. That’s always the hope, that people start to talk even more about Ukraine, more about these children and their bravery, and step up.

At a welcoming BBQ, seated from l. to r.: Oleksii Oneshchak, Marharyta Kuzma, Anastasiia Mysiuha, Hanna Oneshchak, Sofiia Goy, Valeriia Khozhempa; standing: Nikol Bodiuk and Khrystyna Hniedko

And for you, the young people, what are your dreams for your future?

Anastasiia: My dream is a future in Ukraine without war, without killing, without ruined houses, without air alarms, without the Russian planes… I want to have a childhood because we can’t have that when we have war in our Ukraine. 

Valeriia: We have a dream of victory for our Ukraine, and we hope America will help us with this. When every city will be built new, I want to go see it. I want to go to Odessa.

Anastasiia: As a job, I want to be an actress. 

Krhystina, Valeriia, Sofiia: Me too!

Hannah: I want to be a journalist. 

Marharyta: As an actress, I study emotion. I want to be a psychologist.

Is there anything else you want to tell our readers in New York and everywhere?

Khrystina: I want to say, just remember that Ukraine is a free country. We want to live free. Just don’t forget about the war and about us. 

Info about Mom on Skype at Center Makor on August 17 and 18

Info about Mom on Skype at Ukrainian National Home of Hartford on August 19

Learn more about Irondale

Photos courtesy of The PR Social

Top photo: The Lion King on Broadway, l. to r.: Anastasiia Mysiuha, Mariia Oneshchak, Valeriia Khozhempa, Nikol Bodiuk, Oleksii Oneshchak, Khrystyna Hniedko, Hanna Oneshchak, Marharyta Kuzma, Sofiia Goy 

About Maria-Cristina Necula (139 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes the books "The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions" and "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives," and a new collection of poems, "Evanescent." Her articles and interviews have appeared in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Opera America," "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically-trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Maria-Cristina is the recipient of a 2022 New York Press Club Award in the Critical Arts Review category for her review of Matthew Aucoin's "Eurydice" at the Metropolitan Opera, published on Woman Around Town. Discover more at www.mariacristinanecula.com.