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Kyiv's 'art shelter' basement theatre heals the scars of war

By Vladyslav Smilianets and Barbara Lewis

KYIV (Reuters) - The bombs fall and the sirens blare but, in a Kyiv basement, rehearsals for the show - about a German town relentlessly attacked during World War Two - go on.

The ProEnglish Theatre's next performance of "The Book of Sirens" is on Feb. 21, three days before the first anniversary of Russia's invasion.

It is the latest instalment of theatre founder and Artistic Director Alex Borovenskiy's creative mission to help heal the scars of conflict and tell the world there is more to Ukraine than survival.

"If we talk about the war through the means of art, this wound will be able to heal much faster. We will not scar. We will not have this trauma for generations," he told Reuters.

Theatre allowed people to experience trauma in "a non-traumatic way," added Borovenskiy, whose troupe performs in English.

"You can talk about it and feel easier. It's very therapeutic to speak in the form of art about military things."

The theatre is in a basement beneath a four-storey building.

A bomb shelter in World War Two, it is now an "art shelter," Borovenskiy says.

In the early days of the Ukraine war, 40 people and seven cats lived there to stay safe, and actors rehearsed among them for "The Book of Sirens".

"You don’t need any soundtrack. You just open the window and you hear the sirens and this is your music," Borovenskiy said.

He calls the play the ProEnglish Theatre's trademark production and he is taking it to Mykolayiv, close to the frontline, after the Feb. 21 performance in Kyiv.

'SO MANY BEAUTIFUL THINGS'

Borovenskiy founded the theatre in 2014 and his aim was always that its performances should be only in English.

Although there is an appetite for theatre in Ukrainian as an expression of national identity, he said English can relay the message to the world that Ukraine is not just about fighting.

"We are a beautiful country and when we win this war, we will create so many beautiful things," he said.

In December, the theatre hosted its first international performance since the conflict began.

Actress Kristin Milward performed an English version of "Pussycat in Memory of Darkness" by Ukrainian playwright Neda Nezhdana, based on the real-life story of a woman from Donbas.

RADA-trained Milward, who is half English and half Norwegian, first performed the play last August at London's Finborough Theatre, where she will reprise it this spring following a week-long run in Atlanta, Georgia.

She said her experience of the play stands out in the extent to which the entire audience is moved as everyone, whether Ukrainian or not, understands the depth of suffering.

"The (non-Ukrainian) people they are sitting amongst will feel their pain," she said.

Borovenskiy said Milward's visit was "an example of international theatre support and solidarity" that he hopes will be cemented by Ukraine's first fringe theatre festival.

Planned for late August and September, it will mark Ukraine's Independence Day on Aug. 24.

(Reporting by Vladyslav Smilianets in Kyiv and Barbara Lewis in London; additional reporting by Sarah Mills; editing by John Stonestreet)