Dmytro Ternovyi
by Natalya Kurdyukova
Short profile

Dmytro Ternovyi is a Ukrainian playwright, librettist, and theater manager.

In 2007, together with his wife, director Olga Ternova, he founded the Zhuky Theater in Kharkiv, and since 2011 he has initiated and oversees the Theater Window to Europe educational program. Since 2010, he has been writing plays, librettos, and film scripts. In 2020, he became the curator of the first competition of librettists in Ukraine. He has published and staged his own works in Ukraine, Austria, Germany, France, and Poland. In 2022, he managed projects to create digital drama libraries Ukrainian Drama Translations and Ukrdramahab, which together became a full-fledged platform for the promotion of Ukrainian modern plays in Ukraine and in the world.

We continue our conversations with artists, discussing precisely who and how is experiencing these challenging times. Understanding how artists perceive and endure these challenges is significant for all of us, as it can, in a way, serve as a form of therapy. Our guest today is the Ukrainian playwright, librettist, and founder of the Kharkiv theater " Na Zhukah," Dmytro Ternovyi.

Dmytro, hello! Hello! You and I had been planning to have this conversation for so long that deep autumn has already arrived, and it's quite chilly. It's been a rapid shift from summer straight into winter, which, for me, once again underscores just how swiftly time passes and how rapidly everything changes. This also relates to our current times and the speed at which we're living. My first question, I apologize, is quite general. How are you coping with these times? Where are you? What are you doing? How do you react to all of this?

— I suppose, like most of us, I'm constantly immersed in the flow of information, making it impossible to fully disconnect from it. This type of living doesn't involve elaborate plans; you plan things at most for a day or two ahead, and the fleeting nature of time is truly palpable. It feels like everything has accelerated several times over. The sunrise was just a minute ago, and now it's evening. Summer began, and then it was gone — you hardly noticed it. It's a somewhat peculiar perception of time, really. Although, I believe this might have started during the COVID times; there was already a hint of it back then.


But it's precisely that sense of time that we manage to accomplish.

—  Possibly, this is due to the fact that the current experience is incredibly intense. In this intensity, you may realize that no matter what you do, it often feels like you're achieving very little because you see many others accomplishing so much more. However, when you later reflect on these times, it can seem like you've actually achieved a substantial amount. Speaking about creativity, it doesn't always thrive in such an environment. Nevertheless, there are some project-related things, some proper systems are being created in the field of culture that should function correctly.

Do you mean within the field itself?

—  Yes, in the cultural sphere. My focus is on playwriting, and that's where I try to create something.

Tell me more about it. I understand that you've initiated projects that contribute to the emergence of new Ukrainian playwrights?

—  Certainly. Yes, we're discussing the establishment of systematic mechanisms aimed at fostering the growth of contemporary playwriting and advancing modern content within the theater. The objective is to enhance the theater's relevance and alignment with current times. While the fundamental nature of theater may not undergo a complete transformation, these procedures still require a swifter pace because our theater operates as a relatively slow-moving and inert structure.

I'm sorry for interrupting you. It seems to me that Ukrainian theater, not all of it, and perhaps I'm generalizing, is not particularly flexible and not as responsive to the times as European theater. What changes are happening here now?

— I have a similar viewpoint. It seems that Ukrainian theater, as a whole, tends to react to events with a delay, unlike contemporary playwrights who respond quickly. Playwrights sense the spirit of the era and promptly mirror it in their creations. The goal is to establish methods for the swift integration of contemporary playwriting into modern theater, ensuring that the theater acknowledges its presence, includes it in productions, and delivers it to the audience with a contemporary sensibility.

Here, I can't help but touch upon the topic of Kharkiv theaters, which are currently prohibited from operating in their usual mode. It's a complex issue, and there are different opinions: some categorically oppose the decision by the regional council to ban theaters from operating in their regular manner for the defense of the region. Others attempt to understand this decision in these perilous times. Nevertheless, Kharkiv theaters are unable to work.

At one point, you were the founder of the project "Theatrical Window to Europe." As I understand it, the project aimed to allow European theater professionals to teach Ukrainians, essentially about moving from Europe to Ukraine. Can we now talk about the "consequences" of this project, such that it has been a move from Ukraine to Europe? Are Ukrainian actors and theaters of interest in Europe now, or can we say that they might find opportunities there if they can't work here, aside from volunteering and assisting the army in any way they can?

— There are multiple questions to address, and I'll address them one by one. The "Theatrical Window to Europe" project has been running for over a decade. We initiated this program after attending a European festival and participating in masterclasses led by various theater directors. We realized that our educational institutions had notable differences from European ones, and we aimed to share our newfound knowledge and experiences with fellow Ukrainians. Specifically, we targeted theater students who had already chosen this path. When we started bringing these directors to Ukraine, we arranged for them to conduct masterclasses specifically for the students. This initiative evolved into the extensive "Theatrical Window to Europe" program. Directors from different countries, such as Poland, the UK, France, and Germany, brought their methodologies and showcased them to the students. It was a transformative experience for the students, who swiftly adapted to different theatrical techniques and explored new horizons in the theater world.

Our idea was to bring Ukrainian theater education closer to European standards while simultaneously fostering new connections. When students interacted with theater directors, they generated their own ideas and contacts, enabling them to undertake independent projects. And indeed, this has happened. I once counted that our project has given rise to around a dozen new initiatives where we were no longer directly involved. These were students who began working on their own projects with their coaches. Currently, the process of building connections between the Ukrainian theater community and the European theater community has accelerated significantly. Many of our students have gone abroad.

Simultaneously, numerous European institutions have established theater residencies for our artists, leading to various projects and programs they can engage with. Hopefully, once the war is over, these individuals will return with invaluable new experiences. This will mark the emergence of a completely new generation within our theater, and they are certain to steer it in a more contemporary direction. While we once pondered these possibilities, the pace of progress has now accelerated considerably. The program might not be as relevant as it once was, except in terms of diversifying theater education.

Nonetheless, the potential for exchange and collaboration remains, offering intriguing opportunities for all involved. However, from an effectiveness standpoint, the initial vision we had has now taken a back seat.

And speaking of this opportunity to introduce new playwrights to Ukrainian theaters, how successful is this process? Where do you create this window into Ukrainian theaters?

— Last year, we undertook two major projects. One of them was supported by the Goethe Institute. There is significant interest in Ukraine, and there is demand, particularly in the theater field, for contemporary Ukrainian playwriting. However, no one knows where to find it or how to become acquainted with it. So, we created a digital library—a website where translations of Ukrainian playwrights' works are compiled in various languages. Currently, there are translations into 11 or 12 languages available, with a user-friendly search feature and many useful services. You can search by author, language, or theme, making it a valuable resource.

But those who are searching for works by Ukrainian playwriters should be aware that such a tool exists.

— We are spreading this information. The Ukrainian Institute has also joined in, and we created this website together as partners. In fact, the Ukrainian Institute hosts and promotes this library on its resources. They also assist in disseminating information about this service to users. I am aware that the service is actively being used now.

The second project was aimed at the domestic market, let's call it, at our theaters. There is a fantastic library called "Ukrdramahub," but it was somewhat neglected, inconvenient, and amateurishly made. Once again, we revamped this service, turning it into a powerful tool—a comprehensive library with excellent search capabilities. This is now oriented towards Ukrainians. Authors now have the opportunity to register themselves there, provide information about themselves, and upload their texts.

We also organized readings of contemporary playwriting. We did this for the first time last year. We took plays that won various playwriting competitions, held readings, and presented them to experts. This took place in Kyiv in December of last year. We gathered experts from different cities in Ukraine in one place. They spent three days reviewing these texts, engaging in professional discussions, and it was very powerful. We received very positive feedback after this. We plan to repeat it this year, but we'll take another step forward. This year, we want to do what has long been needed—launch an annual anthology of contemporary playwriting, which will include plays that have passed professional expertise and won competitions. We have three competitions, and we want the winning plays to be included in this collection. We are specifically referring to Ukrainian playwriting and Ukrainian competitions. Of course, if Ukrainian playwrights become winners in international competitions, we will also include them in this anthology.

When I talk about reaching Ukrainian theaters, I am primarily referring to state and municipal theaters— those that have budget funding. However, we have a lot of contemporary theater. Before COVID, we had more than 20 theater groups in Kharkiv.

—  Much more, several times as many.

I'm referring to independent theater groups that produce their own shows. You yourself are a co-founder of the Kharkiv theater "Na Zhukah". It's sad even to mention this name. Zhuky is a microdistrict in Kharkiv, was subjected to shelling due to its location near Belgorod, russia. Given the circumstances, there isn't much to say about it as a venue. Nonetheless, you are a co-founder of a contemporary, non-governmental theater. How do you perceive the progress of this modern theater, particularly in Kharkiv? Recently, Kharkiv's 'Neft' theater premiered a production that received significant attention. I'm curious about your perspective on how it aligns with European theater, known for its swift adaptation to contemporary issues.

— In reality, contemporary Ukrainian theater is flourishing and looking towards Europe for inspiration. I believe its roots lie precisely along the European path. If you read the works of Les Kurbas, you'll realize that a century ago, he was contemplating the same ideas we're thinking about today. His explorations were more centered around Europe, as he strongly oriented himself towards it, considering Ukrainian theater to be an integral part of the European tradition and our path. Then, there was a period when we were part of the Soviet Union, and it seems like a conscious effort was made to make Ukrainian theater appear provincial during that time.

They aimed to standardize everything, with all theaters performing the same plays.

— Ukrainian theater became secondary compared to Russian theater, and a sense of provincialism prevailed, which we inherited.

Additionally, let's remember the times when theaters from Moscow or St. Petersburg would visit us on tour... Our reaction to these visits often appeared lacking in sophistication.

— We experienced a sense of inferiority during those times. However, today, we are in the process of rediscovering our identity, embracing our European heritage. I believe that the younger generation of theaters plays a pivotal role in this transformation. They are highly proactive, consistently exploring, and maintain strong connections with theater festivals across Europe and other theater groups.

I'll touch upon the phrase "reconnecting with one's origins" and would like to discuss one of your recent works, the play "Blue Bird." You began working on it in 2019, and the first part has been released. Currently, the libretto is being published as a distinct work for the first time in Ukraine. In a previous conversation with Daria Khrisanfova, the illustrator for the libretto, we found that the play resonates strongly with contemporary themes and the quest for one's roots. This is my perspective, but Daria and I explored this idea together. Let's explore this further–it's about capturing the essence of the present moment and the creative process. How do you perceive its relevance today? What led you to tackle a theme that spans many years, and how does this play connect you to the passage of time?

—  A couple of clarifications: the libretto isn't being published for the first time; there was a libretto for "Vyshyvaniy" written by Zhadan, but the uniqueness of this project is that it's the first comprehensive publication in years, including both the score and piano, the libretto, and all the instrumental parts, like it's done internationally.

This libretto is inspired by Maeterlinck's work "Blue Bird," which was written by a Nobel laureate. We used it as a foundation and adapted it to a contemporary context. In essence, we revisit the theme of the Blue Bird a century later, focusing on the lives of entirely modern characters grappling with present-day challenges. The essence of this work revolves around the quest for self-discovery. However, back in 2019, it primarily conveyed a personal narrative–a story that resonated with each of us on a journey of understanding, personal growth, and self-realization. This pursuit of happiness and the search for the Blue Bird as a symbol have gained even greater relevance now. The narrative metaphorically transitions from individual histories to the collective history of our nation. This story possesses both a strong national identity and a broad universal appeal. I believe that it will captivate audiences both within Ukraine and internationally, offering insights that resonate with a wide range of individuals. Simultaneously, it's distinctly national as certain situations the main character encounters are deeply intertwined with Ukraine and its history. There's a scene where he reconnects with his family. While in Maeterlinck's work, the hero reunites with his deceased grandparents, here, he encounters the entire lineage that preceded him. In one scene, Til leans on his roots, reflecting the shared experience of many who are currently rediscovering their own origins. Over the years, I felt like I was traversing unfamiliar terrain, uncertain about where to find my footing.

What to hold onto, where to find your base...

— Exactly. Our history now serves as this base. We're embracing it, and our connections to it are strengthening. That's why there seems to be a tremendous surge of interest in Ukrainian history and genealogy currently. Numerous books are hitting the shelves, television programs are being broadcast, and films are being released about history, resulting in significant public attention.

History, when we talk about it scientifically, is always an interpretation. I believe it's important to rely on the personal histories of families. Through these stories, you discover the facts. Unfortunately, Soviet times accustomed us to the idea that history is a manipulative science, and russia continues to do so. We are currently in the slow process of crystallizing Ukrainian history. It's ongoing, which is why it's important to know the personal history of your own family. I observe a few acquaintances who are engaged in the search for the genealogical tree of specific families, and I see that they have a lot of work now.

— There's currently a huge demand for them, I'm sure.

It's a substantial research effort, and you can commission these services if you lack the necessary tools.

— This applies to both individual and national aspects, and I think it's crucial to debunk numerous myths that were fabricated in the past and reveal the real events.

We're now approaching another artistic topic. Artists often anticipate certain historical events. I'm familiar with your background related to one of your earliest plays about the Maidan, titled "Detailization." The situation here is akin to "Blue Bird" because the theme you sensed in 2019 has now become highly relevant. I hope this project develops further, and it won't be just publishing, but there will also be separate productions.

— I really hope so. Ivan Vrublevskyi, the composer of "Blue Bird. Return," has crafted an exceptional musical composition. I've only recently had the opportunity to listen to it in its entirety, and it's genuinely impressive. It has become a powerful work. The entire team will be eagerly waiting to see when it can be brought to the stage.

I hope it happens in Kharkiv. If it takes place in another city, that's fine, but if it's in Kharkiv, it would be wonderful. Nevertheless, tell me about the play "Detailization." You wrote it in 2012, and it closely relates to the events that took place at the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, meaning the events on the Maidan.

— Exactly, that's how it was. This play was essentially written for an international competition where you had to discuss the boundaries of life in times of change. It was an annual competition in Austria. I wrote this play at that time, submitted it to the competition, and it won. It was translated into German, immediately published in Austria, then in Germany, and a production took place in Germany. This was in 2014, and it resonated significantly at that time. It was truly mystifying because when the Maidan events started, it gave me goosebumps. After all, the text of the play had described the barricades on the Maidan, the torn-up cobblestones, snipers on the rooftops, and there was even a machine throwing stones, which was later actually built. When I later read about these things in the news...

Has anyone read your play?

— Later, acquaintances called me and seriously said, "Rewrite the ending, rewrite the ending!" Because in my ending, a state of emergency was declared in the country, something Yanukovych never dared to do. In Germany, there were readings at first, actually at the end of February. It was just perceived like that... Just when everything was happening. And the production of the play was in the summer of 2014 at the Baden State Theatre. It was possibly one of the first Ukrainian plays to be staged in Germany at that time.

As for prediction— we never know how it works.

Well, thank God... But I can't help but ask, what are you working on now?

No, not at the moment. Although I do entertain the idea of creating something along those lines. Currently, I'm engaged in different projects, primarily focused on screenplays. I'm also dedicating my time to crafting a children's play. Speaking of foresight, when it comes to "Blue Bird", I wouldn't necessarily label it as foresight.

Maybe it's not exactly foresight but more of a guide on how to move, which direction to head, where to look for support. You and I began with the realization that we live at a very high pace. By the way, we discussed this with Daria, how important it is for us to stop at such a high speed, to touch the moment, to be in the present, here and now. And being in the present can be achieved in various ways, by engaging all our senses, by utilizing the means through which we can connect with the present. But our experience also revolves around the passage of time, the opportunity to stand on the ground, feel our own roots, learn more about them, pause, and draw conclusions. I'm quite fond of the word "foundation" because, to me, it's very fulfilling.

Certainly, we all recognize the significance of being present and taking moments to pause, but we often neglect to do so. As you were speaking, it struck me that the creative process is what truly puts a halt to the relentless flow of time. I couldn't help but reflect on my own experiences, and I've come to understand that, for me, those instances of respite happen when I'm deeply immersed in a creative endeavor, especially when I'm in the midst of writing something.

I'm very grateful to you. Let me touch on the topic of Kharkiv. For me, our city feels quite complex right now. On one hand, it has a strong military presence, and on the other hand, people are returning, there are many vehicles, making it challenging to get around by car. Nonetheless, it remains on edge. How do you perceive the city? You've been away for some time and have returned, having come from a heavily shelled area. What's happening to us right now? Many say that Kharkiv has surprised itself.

— Kharkiv has truly surprised itself; I believe it has found its place in this war. They say that Kharkiv is like reinforced concrete. I think Kharkiv indeed has the resilience of concrete, but at the same time... My initial impression was that it's very vulnerable, that it hurts deeply despite all the strength here. The border situation is truly felt here. Maxim Rosenfeldt calls it the "frontier." It's a fitting term, a state of the border. I was recently on a project in Kyiv, and Kyiv is now living a somewhat safer life. But when you come to Kharkiv, you immediately sense the tension. There's a feeling that you need to be constantly on alert, it's palpable in the air. I think addressing security issues is definitely what needs to be resolved for Kharkiv to breathe easier and start developing after the war.

Nevertheless, we can see that people are returning even now, even when these security issues are not yet fully resolved.

Recently, there were shelling incidents resulting in casualties. It's evident that we continue with our daily lives, going to cafes and workplaces. This paradox of coexistence captivates me, yet it also leaves me feeling unsettled. During shelling episodes, the streets become temporarily impassable. Subsequently, repairs are made, but the marks of these events persist as boarded-up windows.

— We constantly try to regain a sense of normalcy.

I always think about various works depicting life during different wars, personal stories. What kind of story would you write about today's Kharkiv? What would it be about?

— I haven't thought about it, but it's worth considering. There can be various options, and there will be. They will be both personal stories of heroes; we already see plays about children. A new children's play by Oleh Mykhailov, "Giraffe Mons," just premiered at the puppet theater. It could be a play where Kharkiv finds its own voice and speaks in the first person.

I wish you to think about it, and considering one of our themes about prediction, to write something positive. Thank you, take care, we live in Kharkiv, and that's something we should remember. Thanks to artists, we also find therapy in reading relevant works, and seeing how different people experience this war. That's why I consider your work very important now.


Translated from Ukrainian by Anna Petelina

Short profile

Dmytro Ternovyi is a Ukrainian playwright, librettist, and theater manager.

In 2007, together with his wife, director Olga Ternova, he founded the Zhuky Theater in Kharkiv, and since 2011 he has initiated and oversees the Theater Window to Europe educational program. Since 2010, he has been writing plays, librettos, and film scripts. In 2020, he became the curator of the first competition of librettists in Ukraine. He has published and staged his own works in Ukraine, Austria, Germany, France, and Poland. In 2022, he managed projects to create digital drama libraries Ukrainian Drama Translations and Ukrdramahab, which together became a full-fledged platform for the promotion of Ukrainian modern plays in Ukraine and in the world.