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cast and musicians from 'a dictionary of emotions in war time'. From left to right: Kseniia Sinelnikova, Alvina Platanova, Borys Koniukhov and Julia Frait of Lado Strings, Anastasiia Konstantynova. PHOTO CREDIT: Olena Kiliadze

Presented by Help Ukraine Vancouver Island and Langham Court Theatre in Victoria BC from Thursday, January 18 to Sunday January 21, 2024, A Dictionary of Emotions in War Time by Ukrainian author and playwright Olena Astasieva is a raw and incisive account of the range of emotions she and her friends have experienced since the first days of the full-scale invasion. All proceeds go to Help Ukraine Vancouver Island.

In Act 1, Olena, a Ukrainian woman living in the occupied city of Kherson, recounts what she was doing during the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She talks to her Ukrainian friends about what’s happening in different parts of the country, revealing what was going on in different cities at the same time and from different perspectives. Olena also talks to her Russian acquaintances. Act 2 takes place when Olena is evacuated and leaves Ukraine.


actor Anastasiia Konstantynova. PHOTO CREDIT: Olena Kiliadze

Actor Anastasiia Konstantynova looks directly at the members of the audience, as if calling them as witnesses:

“We’re being bombed. I hear the sound of shells outside the window. I Google what to do.”

“Imagine for a second that your entire city is dead. Imagine that everyone you know has died. Imagine that all the houses in your city have been destroyed.”

She seems to be waiting for an answer to her questions: What would you do in my place? Are you ready to face the situation?

Conveying emotions

Anastasiia stands on the stage, wearing a beige dress and shoes, holding and packing a few items. The backdrop, a bomb-ravaged room. She is the voice of Olena Astasieva, a Ukrainian author and playwright who managed to flee Ukraine at the start of the war and find refuge in Wexford, Ireland with the help of the organization Artists at Risk.

“The aim of the play was to let the world know about the situation,” explains Olena Astasieva, now safe in Tekirdağ, Turkey. “But when I spoke to my Ukrainian friends on social media,” she says, “people had a lot of [different experiences] and wondered how to formulate their emotions.”

So Olena tried to categorize these diverse and complex emotions creatively. “It’s not a psychological dictionary! It’s more refined,” she explains. “I wanted to show that people all over the world are the same. But people don’t really know what it feels like under bombs and attacks. So I wanted to convey these emotions through these different fragments to people who have never experienced them.”

“War is still going on, as we speak,” Olena says. “My hometown, Kherson, is still under fire. We still need support. I am glad this play is going to be performed in Canada.”

3. Hunger

You have to stand three hours in line to buy anything. But what do you buy?

Buy meat and freeze it? But if a shell strikes the electric grid, there will be no electricity and the meat will go bad.

Pasta and rice? But if they turn off the gas, how are you going to eat them? You need something you don’t have to cook. Cookies? They sold out long ago, there’s nothing left on the shelves. I could dry out some bread maybe, but there’s no bread either.

I look at the empty shelves in confusion. I’ve got to get something. Something to eat sitting in a basement while bombs land on my home.

—excerpt from A Dictionary of Emotions in War Time


actor Anastasiia Konstantynova. PHOTO CREDIT: Olena Kiliadze

Channelling emotions

For Anastasiia Konstantynova, it was the same motivation that prompted her to take on the role of Olena and the part of the monologue: “We need to remind people that the war is not over. There are still people out there, under the bombs. Ukraine still needs support and help. We have to make our contribution, to share information,” says Anastasiia.

She knew the directors needed a strong main actor for the lead role, one who also would be able to hold the stage: “I already knew about the play because I used to volunteer for Help Ukraine Vancouver Island. I saw how I could be on the stage because I knew what we needed to tell people and how to show them.”

Anastasiia herself has experienced invasion and lived in a state of war with Russia in 2014, at the age of 20. She had to leave the Donetsk Oblast region of Ukraine to move to Kyiv, where she lived and worked as a teacher from 2015 to 2022.

But when the war started in 2022, she was shocked. “I didn’t expect it to start all over again. This time it was taking place in the capital, so I knew it was pretty serious.” In the end, she packed a bag for three people—her husband, her daughter, and herself—and set off for western Ukraine.

Anastasiia too went through all the emotions described by Olena in Dictionary. “I am very honoured to be Olena’s voice, and very happy to be able to act in this play. Olena has been through a lot. Many Ukrainians know these emotions. Fortunately, [my family] were luckier than most. We didn’t go hungry and we had some savings.”

Anastasiia now works as a project coordinator for Help Ukraine Vancouver Island, helping newcomers from Ukraine and organizing events and programs.

4. Cleaning

Dust irritates me, I should vacuum. But what if they bomb the apartment? Why make the effort?

And what if they evacuate us and we have to leave immediately? I’ll have washed the floor for nothing. Do you actually need to clean an apartment during a war? Does
anyone know what the rules are on this?

—excerpt from A Dictionary of Emotions in War Time

Actor Kseniia Sinelnikova. photo Credit: Olena Kiliadze

Different voices

Ukrainian actor Kseniia Sinelnikova brings other perspectives to the story, including those of Olena’s Russian friends. Originally from Crimea, Kseniia worked as a puppeteer after completing her studies at the Kyiv Municipal Academy of Performing and Circus Arts.

She was very enthusiastic about taking part in the casting: “I was very interested in the casting because I wanted to act, to feel again this atmosphere, the theatre, the preparation, the rehearsals. I hadn’t acted for a year and a half, a month before the war started. I really missed it. It helped me digest everything that has happened since the war started.”

Kseniia admits that pronouncing specific words and sounds in English was sometimes a challenge, but that Karmen (Karmen McNamara, co-founder of Help Ukraine Vancouver Island) helped her a lot and was a good accent coach. “The easiest part was conveying the emotions, because you know what happened. You know those feelings. You just have to connect the feelings and the words together to express those emotions.”

In real life, she has met people similar to the Russian character she plays and whom we hear twice in the play. Kseniia has also talked with Russian friends and relatives who have changed their minds about the war—at first trying to understand about what is happening in Ukraine and making an effort to support their Ukrainian friends, but then ultimately supporting Russia’s military actions.

Kseniia hopes the audience can feel what the Ukrainians are feeling, through live action. “Some passages are very emotional, but I try to control myself and not cry because I have to concentrate and keep playing. Sometimes it takes time to get over these characters. Acting has helped me feel a sense of satisfaction and catharsis. I can work hard, the day can be difficult, but after rehearsals, I’m always full of energy because this is my passion. I feel more relaxed and I feel I’ve achieved something. It’s a reward. That’s what I need.”

12. Choices

What you can die of during a war:

If a shell hits you, it rips you to pieces.

If a shell hits your building, you can be crushed under the rubble.

When a shell hits, a building might catch fire. You might burn up or asphyxiate.

You might be shot in your car as you try to leave town.

You might die of hunger, sitting in a shelter, because you can’t go out for provisions.

You might die of hunger, because there’s a blockade, and no food is delivered to your town.

You might die of thirst if your water system is damaged and there is no water.

You might die of illness because medicine is not being delivered to your city.

—excerpt from A Dictionary of Emotions in War Time

Adapting the text for a Canadian audience

Co-founder of Help Ukraine Vancouver Island Karmen McNamara directs the play with Diana Budiachenko.

“A recent member of Victoria’s Ukrainian community, Zhanna Kolesnyk, who is friends with Olena Astasieva, told me that there was this text, and that I should read it. So I read it and thought this piece should be produced. I went to the board of Help Ukraine Vancouver Island and said: we have to do this play to draw attention to what’s going on and to raise money.

Both Karmen and Diana have a theatrical background—Karmen previously worked as a director and stage manager and Diana as a director. Both are Ukrainian, but as a person who has never lived in Ukraine, Karmen felt she had to be very careful about how she managed the project. That’s how Diana came into the picture. Diana resettled in Victoria BC from Ukraine in August 2022.

“We had already done a fundraiser with Langham Court Theatre,” explains Karmen, “and they jumped at the chance [to support the play]. They generously donated the rehearsal and performance space. We then held auditions in October 2023 and were very clear that we wanted to cast Ukrainian refugee women. We were very fortunate to get Anastasiia and Kseniia.”

The team worked on the three-part translated script, which was originally written in Russian, as Olena’s first language is Russian. (“a very common thing in Kherson, as people are usually bilingual; they speak Russian at home and learn Ukrainian at school,” explains Karmen)

“Olena sat down and hastily wrote the piece in Russian, she just needed to get it out. Then she wrote it in Ukrainian, which she thought was better and she took her time to polish it up. That’s why we always go back to what the original text, soaking up the language,” explains Karmen. “We’d never change her text, but if we came across something we think the translation isn’t conveying, we would discuss with Olena what the essential message is.”

Creating an intimate experience

For directors Diana and Karmen, it’s one thing to read about the war in Ukraine, especially if it is mainly statistics and figures, and quite another to listen to a person, to hear a person tell a story. It often has more impact. “What’s more, it’s a small theatre. So you feel like you’re in the real thing,” adds Karmen. “It’s not ancient history, it’s still happening today.”

For Diana, “art is a form of healing and inspiration,” and she believes that “it is crucial to artistically convey a message, and share feelings and emotions without making it heavy and unpleasant to watch.”

“I think we managed to find a middle ground and made it powerful and beautiful,” adds Diana.

Karmen concurs: “we’re trying to find the right balance between ‘we’re going to tell you a dark story and horrible things’ and ‘you’re not going to leave because it’s too horrible’. We hope people will come out of it saying wow, I’ve got a lot to think about. We’re curious to see how it plays out for Canadians, who are our main audience. The play is aimed at people who are lucky enough to live in a safe country where they don’t have to think about war.”

18. De-realization

In Europe, everything has a doll-like appearance. As though I have found my way into a fake world filled with toys. The streets, paved with stones, are too clean, the houses are too small, and too beautiful.

I stare at these sweet little houses with their panoramic windows. I imagine bombs falling on them, their glass shattering.

In Europe, everyone is too relaxed, too carefree.

I somehow want to shake them up, make them understand…that we Ukrainians are not just some special people you can bomb. This might happen to you, too, one day.

“Rockets fell in Kyiv again today,” I say.

“Are there still women and children in Kyiv? I thought there were only soldiers there. I don’t watch the news anymore, it’s too hard.”

—excerpt from A Dictionary of Emotions in War Time


author and playwright Olena Astasieva. photo sUBMITTED BY Olena Astasieva

Langham Court Theatre

A Dictionary of Emotions in War Time runs at Langham Court Theatre in Victoria BC from January 18-20, 2024 at 7:30 pm and January 21, 2024 at 2:00 pm. Tickets are on sale now for $19-$26 and available online on the Langham Court Theatre website, by phone at 250-384-2142, or in person during Box Office hours.

An original play by Olena Astasieva
Featuring original music by Borys Koniukhov and Julia Frait of Lado Strings
Directed and designed by Diana Budiachenko and Karmen McNamara
Translation by John Freedman and Karmen McNamara
Script consultation by Zhanna Kolesnyk
Starring Anastasiia Konstantynova and Kseniia Sinelikova
Music performed by Borys Koniukhov and Julia Frait
Music consultation by Arielle Parsons

Trigger warning

If you have been traumatized by violence or war, please consider carefully before attending this show. Audiences should be aware that this is an exploration of one person’s experience of war.