Hanover High drama club to stage play about Ukrainian teens during invasion
Published: 01-30-2024 9:00 PM
Modified: 02-02-2024 3:19 PM
HANOVER — During a rehearsal at Hanover High School a couple of weeks ago, a handful of young actors recited lines an Upper Valley audience wouldn’t expect to hear spoken on a high school stage.
“That’s when I had my first panic attack.” “The scariest is the panic.” “I’m not panicking.” “I’m fine, actually.”
Teen panic attacks aren’t uncommon, but the characters speaking these lines have cause for panic. “I’m Fine,” a 2022 play by Ukrainian playwright Nina Zakhozhenko, is set during the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, when the Eastern European nation was in the first flush of shock, defiance and, for some, panic. Hanover High’s drama club, the Footlighters, is staging the North American premiere on Thursday night in a production that runs through Saturday.
Though the play is set in the Ukrainian city of Bucha, the new production is very much an Upper Valley piece of work, including a new translation of the play made in Hanover in consultation with Zakhozhenko, original music by singer-songwriter and actor Tommy Crawford and direction from Amanda Rafuse, both of whom are fixtures in Upper Valley theater. The aim is to create a way to put Upper Valley performers and audience members in the shoes of teens going through the upheaval of armed conflict.
“Even though it’s this fictional scenario, it’s not a fictional world,” Sara Garr, 15, a Hanover High sophomore from Norwich. Garr plays one of the four teens the roughly 75-minute-long play is built around. Their experiences range from flight with their families to staying to fight the invading Russians. They remain connected through their digital devices even as their physical world fragments.
“The thing that drew me instantly to the play were the themes of occupation and imperialism,” Mathias Della Croce, 15, of Norwich, said during a rehearsal break. “I’m very glad that we’re bringing this to people” who might not be aware of the what it looks like on the ground. Occupation and oppression are a common state across the world, Della Croce said.
“Theater’s a very safe place to explore these big ideas,” Rafuse said.
In addition to the four lead characters, the production includes a four-member chorus and a rock band. Though it’s not in the original script, Rafuse elected to use shadow puppets to communicate the inner state of Sasha, one of the four main characters, whose previous trauma is brought up by the violence of the invasion.
“We wanted to represent that psychological landscape in ways that are metaphorical,” Rafuse said. Rafuse also directed and helped develop “Deployed,” a play drawn from interviews with women who served in the military by Tunbridge writer Nicola Smith. Like “Deployed,” “I’m Fine” tells stories for people who don’t often have a voice in public.
The production of “I’m Fine” is part of two larger efforts. One is a season of plays at Hanover High School dealing with authoritarianism, starting last fall with a production of “Macbeth” and concluding later this year with a production of “Mean Girls.”
And it’s part of an effort to bring Ukrainian writing to a wider audience. Yuliya Ballou, who teaches German at Hanover and is the producer for the Footlighters, has family in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine and grew up mainly in Russia, a not uncommon heritage in the post-Soviet world.
When she started working with the Footlighters last June after having volunteered in the past, they hadn’t picked a winter play. In consultation with Victoria Somoff, a native of Ukraine’s Donetsk region who’s currently teaching at Dartmouth College, Ballou found “I’m Fine.” The translation didn’t sound like anything teens would say, so Somoff and Arina Dubrova, a Ukrainian student in her second year at Hanover High School, embarked on a new translation, along with help from other Ukrainians in the Upper Valley. Dubrova fled the Donetsk region of Ukraine and eventually came to Hanover, where her sister is a student at Dartmouth.
“I think translation is always a team effort,” Ballou said in an interview. Zakhozhenko, the playwright, was accessible for consultation and now plans to use the new translation to stage the work elsewhere in the English-speaking world, Ballou said. The students and Rafuse further smoothed over the translation’s rough edges, another rare opportunity for high school performers.
“This is the same movement of getting Ukrainian writing out there,” she added.
Not many high school theater companies get to produce this kind of work, Ballou and Rafuse said. The theater program is well-supported, but it also supports itself, having sold out a regional premiere of “The Prom” last year.
Lada Kolomiyets, a professor from Ukraine who’s teaching at Dartmouth, had an early exposure to “I’m Fine” during a June 2022 Ukrainian arts forum that she co-organized. Zakhozhenko was one of the guests, and “I’m Fine” had been produced in Germany. “I was so much impressed,” Kolomiyets, who is from Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, said in an interview. It was she who brought the play to Somoff’s attention.
Staging “I’m Fine” “sounded to me like the best possible decision, because the play is about their high school peers,” Kolomiyets said. It’s important to show that Ukrainian teenagers aren’t much different from their American contemporaries, she said. “They are just ordinary teenagers with ordinary teenage problems.”
Kolomiyets left Kyiv with her twin boys, now 14 years old, after the full-scale invasion. She taught in Sweden before coming to Dartmouth, where she teaches Eastern European literature, specializing in translation and censorship. Her husband and mother are still in Ukraine.
“We talk, we communicate, not every day but every other day,” she said. “The boys are missing their father very much and he is missing them, but he wants them to stay because of the unpredictable bombardments.”
“I’m Fine” is a consolation, then. “I feel pride for these young people, for these teenagers in the play,” she said. They are not heroes in the typical sense, except that there’s a truth to their responses to the tragic situation they find themselves in.
“I place great hope in the young generation,” Kolomiyets said. “They are whole persons. They are not crushed.”
The Hanover High School Footlighters’ Performances of “I’m Fine” are scheduled for 7 p.m., Feb. 1-3. For tickets ($8 for students and seniors, $10 for school staff and $12 for the general public) go to footlighters.ludus.com. Each performance will be followed by a free community presentation or discussion of Ukrainian life and culture.
Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@ vnews.com or 603-727-3207.
CORRECTION: Yuliya Ballou has famil y in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine and grew up mainly in Russia. Lada Kolomiyets found the Ukrainian play "I'm Fine," but did not have a hand in translating it. Those details were incorrect in a story in Wednesday's Valley News.