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  • Wheels: The Berlin theatre company building bridges to Kharkiv


Wheels: The Berlin theatre company building bridges to Kharkiv

After six years of cooperation with Ukraine, Berlin-based theatre company Wheels found themselves in a much larger drama.

Wheels drama group. Photo: Gianluca Quaranta

Eight years ago, the Berlin-based, independent theatre company Wheels sent out feelers hoping to find Ukrainian theatre artists willing to collaborate. Its members never expected to be driving for days to the country’s border with Romania to rescue their colleagues from a war zone.

In 2014, director and actor Konstantin Buchholz, director and choreographer Lisa Pauline Wagner, musician and composer Jonas Flemmerer and light and stage designer Florian Fink founded their company Wheels. On a visit to Teatr Brama in Goleniów, Poland, they asked about potential Ukrainian contacts interested in collaborative projects.

They found enthusiastic colleagues at the Kharkiv National University of the Arts and the Pushkin State Theatre. Every year since then, Wheels has collaborated with its Ukrainian contacts to present productions in Berlin, Kharkiv, Hamburg and other locations. In 2015, they staged Home, an anti-war musical. A year later, in 2016, they put on the first (and to date only) Ukrainian-German Theatre Festival, which opened first in Berlin, then in Kharkiv.

“We’ve had a project every year since then,” said Wagner, co-project leader with Buchholz in Berlin, while Maria Vanieieva and husband Andrey Vanieiev directed in Kharkiv. The lockdown in 2020 and 2021 made working together physically an impossibility, yet Wheels still managed video and long-distance work. Its four-month project Room After Tomorrow (2021), connected a room in Berlin-Schöneberg and one in Kharkiv at the Testo School of Acting to create a long-distance “friendship lounge”. The border-breaching space hosted parallel events, Zoom contacts and simultaneous concerts.

The long-distance connection suddenly became immediate with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Within days, Wheel members Maria Vanieieva and Andrey Vanieiev, as well as Olha Kryvosheieva and Alexander Kryvosheiev found themselves fleeing their homes and former lives in Kharkiv.

Wheels received the plea for help from Olha Kryvosheieva, travelling with her mother, mother-in-law and five-month-old daughter, in the evening of 2 March, and reacted instantly, hiring a van and driving non-stop for 24 hours to the Ukrainian-Romanian border at Siret. After the long journey back to Berlin, actor and drama teacher Olha Kryvosheieva and her family were installed in a home with food, clothing and enough money to keep them going – financed by a call for donations. Two days later, the procedure was repeated, this time with Maria Vanieieva, her son and her sister-in-law.

He says to me, the fireworks are getting less, soon we can go back. And I say, yes, yes …

Men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been forbidden from leaving Ukraine. As volunteer civilians, Andrey Vanieiev and Alexander Kryvosheiev are together in central Ukraine working as human conduits for the dissemination of information on vital supplies such as medicine or petrol.

Currently, everybody is involved in the effort to help theatre studies students at Kharkiv’s University of the Arts to flee the country. Buchholz and Wagner have contacted colleagues in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and the Czech Republic to help place students at other universities and performing arts schools in Berlin, Prague, Bern and Salzburg. “We’ve also put the word out to all our contacts at other cultural institutions and theatres in the hope of booking performances,” says Buchholz. So far, Vanieieva and Kryvosheieva have been booked for performance in Hamburg. An information/collage evening in the Haus der Jugend in Zehlendorf, is on the cards.

In a special, long-distance cooperation with husband Andrey, Maria Vanieieva works every day at helping their young son make sense of the experience. “We have a game with him,” says Andrey. “The bad guy in Paw Patrol, Mayor Humdinger, is blasting fireworks in the sky.” Maria elaborates: “We told him we’re on a mission and need to escape from the bad guys who are doing this. And he believes this. He says to me, the fireworks are getting less, soon we can go back. And I say, yes, yes … ” Her voice trails off, cracking with emotion.

Wheels is an international drama group headquartered in Berlin-Moabit. Alongside an artistic collaboration with Kharkiv, it also works with colleagues in Poland, Russia and other locations. Further information and updates available at wheels-berlin.de and facebook.de/wheelsberlin1