Skip to main content

For the past two years, more than a dozen Ukrainian teenagers from cities as diverse as Kyiv, Lviv, Ternopil, Kosiv, and Kharkiv have been writing short plays about their wartime experiences. Their works depict a new everyday norm as many are scattered to countries like the United States, Spain, Germany, Austria, Romania, and Poland. Others have remained in Ukraine. Drawing on a shared sense of survival humor mixed with absurdity, the young playwrights have captured the sadness and painful uncertainty of living during a war. Their works will be coming to New York in May.

The plays emerged from an ongoing collaboration that grew from New York-based screenwriter Laura Cahill’s video course during the coronavirus epidemic. Cahill, whose long list of writing credits includes work for both stage and screen, was teaching private workshops when COVID hit in 2020. She moved her courses to a virtual platform and continued teaching and mentoring her students online. She received an offer to repeat her course for a group of teenagers who would log on from their homes in Ukraine after she had wrapped up her first pandemic-era classes. Her work with these students began in October 2021 and was to have ended on February 6, 2022, as Russian troops began to mass along Ukraine’s borders.

Having developed a relationship with her Ukrainian students, Cahill reached out to see how they were responding to the increasing Russian threat. Once the invasion took place—just 18 days later—the students scattered. Some remained home, others found sanctuary elsewhere in Ukraine and in Europe, while others moved between home and safe places in the constant motion that characterizes many Ukrainian lives over the past two years. 

Cahill urged the young writers to reflect on their personal experiences in new scripts, which she made available to the entire group for discussion. She mobilized her network of professional actors to perform an online reading of her students’ first collection of short plays, “How Do You Feel Fear?” in July 2022.

Lars Rudolfsson, director of the Orion Theatre, Sweden’s largest avant-garde theater, saw that reading on Zoom and asked if he could direct the works in Stockholm. The Orion put on the plays 30 times throughout the spring as graduation performances for young Swedish actors, accompanied by Ukrainian cellist Anna Nuzha. 

Back in New York, Cahill enlisted a distinguished group of mentors and guest artists who continued to work with the Ukrainian playwrights. The result was the Young Playwrights Ukraine Ten-Minute Play Project, performed on Zoom in August 2023. Two collections of the group’s plays will be published by theater publisher Smith & Kraus. 

New York’s Vineyard Theatre has agreed to host the North American premier of several of these 10-minute plays on May 6. A renowned off-Broadway theater, the Vineyard, just off Union Square, is a natural home for this performance. The theater has been hosting “multi-art chamber theatre” for more than four decades, according to its website, earning a reputation as an incubator for “collaborations across art forms.” The Ukrainian works reflect the venue’s core values of “integrity, creative risk-taking, and nurturing a diverse community.”

The authors of the Young Playwrights Ukraine project offer the promise of a vibrant Ukrainian theater once the war has come to an end. Their works hint at new writing and productions beyond what had represented Ukrainian theater prior to the war. Their collaboration points to a vibrant scene that will command attention from theater professionals in Europe, North America, and beyond. The New York performances next month provide the opportunity to glimpse that future now.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute

About the Author

Blair A. Ruble

Blair A. Ruble

Distinguished Fellow;
Former Wilson Center Vice President for Programs (2014-2017); Director of the Comparative Urban Studies Program/Urban Sustainability Laboratory (1992-2017); Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (1989-2012) and Director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience (2012-2014)
Read More

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more