Vitaliy Chenskiy, what’s up?
Vitaliy Chenskiy, who has transitioned in his life from an engineer at the Azovstal Steel Factory to a playwright in Kyiv, has been in Finland as a artist-in-residence for a month now. Originally from Mariupol, the writer received a residency and emergency accommodation in Hailuodo through the Artists at Risk network. The transition from the heart of Ukraine to the north of Finland has been smooth, as he has learned to heat a sauna and has gotten to know people in the Finnish theater industry. Chenskiy and his work have influenced the rise of new Ukrainian dramatic literature in his home country, and internationally. We talked to him, and began by asking how he is doing.
Vitaliy Chenskiy: Thank you very much. My time is spent making contacts, attending meetings and getting to know new people. I call this manner of being in a new place “the honeymoon." My honeymoon period is still ongoing.
I originally studied engineering in my hometown of Mariupol. My father, who loves technology and worked until retirement as an engineer at the Azovstal Steel Plant, influenced my choice of studies. However, I liked reading more. Naturally, I also wanted to write. However, I didn't understand how I could make it my profession in a way that my writings would feel like, so-called, “real” literature. As such, I went to work as an engineer in the same factory as my father. For seven years I worked as an engineer, but I continued to read non-stop. I printed books on the office printer, and read more. Until one day I sensed that I myself could write in a way that felt honest and genuine.
However, I didn't understand how I could make it my profession in a way that my writings would feel like, so-called, “real” literature.
My favorite authors – Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski – both wrote about themselves. Michel Houellebecq's books are also very personal, and I like the dark atmosphere of his books. This understanding of writing by means of the personal was a hugely significant event for me. But I needed a point of reference so I could judge whether my work was well written. Luckily, I wasn't married, and I wasn't good at relationships, so I had time to do all kinds of weird, wacky experiments. It was a difficult decision to leave the factory in 2005 and move to another city, Kyiv, to become a writer. But I was aided by psychological exercises among other things. One day I will write about this phase of my life that is so important to me.
I started writing for the stage because here is how life works: To become a writer, someone already established must call you a writer. For me, this person was Andrei Krasniashchykh (Андрей Краснящих), the editor of the Kharkiv Writers' Union magazine. He published my story “The Death of a Goose" and we became friends.
I also wrote texts in the form of short plays, and one of these was included in the competition program of a Kyiv play festival. At that festival, the famous Ukrainian playwright Natalia Vorozhbyt (Наталка Ворожбит) and the director Andriy Mai (Андрий Май) both said I was a playwright. I wrote many more works for theater.
The purpose of our organization was to elevate the playwright to the forefront of theater.
I have been involved in founding the Theater of Playwrights in Kyiv. In Ukraine at that time, the director was king, and playwrights were mere servants. The purpose of our organization was to elevate the playwright to the forefront of theater, so that playwrights themselves could decide which plays would be produced, and which directors would be selected to stage them. I don't think the situation has changed significantly in Ukraine since those times, but, of course, the war has influenced this matter. After war, broke out our theater expanded its mission and its influence. However, the current situation is one of emergency, so I cannot be happy about this development.
My play “Robinson” is part of the Worldwide Ukrainian Play Readings, which is led by a prominent cultural figure, theater critic and translator John Freedman. Freedman works with The Center for International Theater Development (CITD, USA). For many Ukrainian playwrights, this project has provided strong support for their work. It was with great pleasure that I accepted the invitation to participate in the project, and I am very grateful to John for his personal attention. Above all, my “Robinson” was produced at many drama readings around the world. Thanks to these events, I also had the opportunity to participate in an international project inspired by the thinking of Brecht. This was also a great honor for me. Much effort has gone into Freedman's project, and its effects will be felt for years to come - but most important, it's still active now.
I ended up here at Hailuoto's Kulttuuritalo Päiväkodi residency thanks to the Artists at Risk network. The residency creates the most favorable conditions for creativity. The only culture shock I may have experienced here is heating the sauna. But I learned to do that too, and now I love it.
I am currently working on a play about war, but in a somewhat specific genre. My main character is a writer. He wants to write an emotional text about how he survived the occupation of a city. To do so, he asks his friends to share their memories with him. They willingly divulge their sorrows and injuries to him. But as they discuss these traumatic events, they slowly begin to laugh as well. An apt description of my work-in-progress might be: the play deals with trauma therapy and trauma awareness.
Personally, I would like in the future to be able to experience important things, and to have the freedom and sufficient time to describe them. To describe them as I see them.
Vitaliy Chenskiy is a playwright, screenwriter and prose writer. He was born in Mariupol, Ukraine and trained as an engineer at Azov Technical University. He has lived in Kyiv since 2005, where he worked as a journalist and writer. His writings have been published in several periodicals, and his plays have participated in such international projects such as the German Magdeburg Theater Ukrainian Festival in 2016, the Eine Brücke aus Papier project in 2018, and the Worldwide Ukrainian Play Readings project in 2022. His plays “Vitalik” and “Aeneid XXI” received the GRA/GRA (Great Real Art) award at the Ukrainian Theater Festival.
His play “Robinson” was published in January in A Dictionary of Emotions in a Time of War: 20 Short Works by Ukrainian Playwrights.
Photo: Dmitry Chichera
The interview translated into English by John Freedman
Also check out the previously published What's Up interviews