In Ukraine, Pact-supported production ‘12 Ophelias’ promotes rights and inclusion of women with disabilitiesYana Mikhnich · February 2, 2021
Iryna Sukach had dreamed of performing on stage since her childhood, but for a long time she was unsure whether it was something people who used wheelchairs could do. She pushed herself and was able to get into dancing, but it wasn’t until two years ago that an opportunity presented itself to become an actress as well. She heard that Arabesky, a Ukrainian theater, along with an inclusive theater studio in the city of Kharkiv, were planning to put on a play called 12 Ophelias – a continuation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, told from the perspective of modern women with rights and agency. The production would pair professional actors with women with disabilities who were interested in taking part.
Rehearsals would be held 150 kilometers from Iryna’s home, but she decided it was a small inconvenience to finally get to try acting. She is one of six women with disabilities who are now part of the production.
Working with Arabesky and the inclusive theater studio was an organization called Modern Woman, which planned to create a documentary series about bringing the play to life, its actors, and how art can be used to build civic engagement and create social change. Based in Kharkiv, Modern Woman works to promote women’s economic empowerment and the inclusion and protection of women and girls with disabilities.
“I had to drop dancing some time ago, and getting a role in the play gave me a chance to get back on the stage,” Sukach says. “Everything I have in this life I had to work hard for, and now I just proved to myself once again that I can do it.”
Putting on the play has not been without its challenges. Its July premier, to be held at the Kharkiv National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, was cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. And rehearsals had to be staggered and moved outdoors to reduce risks. But the cast and crew of 12 Ophelias have managed to overcome every obstacle. They are planning to release a video version of the play, and the five-part documentary series about it produced by Modern Woman aired nationwide in Ukraine in December, along with a November screening at a media center in Kharkiv.
The play itself was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Pact supported the documentary series with a grant to Modern Woman through our “Women of Ukraine: Heard, Capable, Resilient” project. Funded by Global Affairs Canada, the project works to increase the fulfilment of human rights for women and girls, and to advance gender equality in Ukraine. The project is building the capacity of women’s rights organizations and supports advocacy campaigns through the delivery of small grants. Modern Woman, which was founded in 2000, is one of the organizations that is receiving capacity building support from Pact to better deliver on its mission.
“Modern Woman was chosen because inclusion matters. They proposed a great way to make women with disabilities heard and visible,” says Alyona Gerasimova, Pact’s country director in Ukraine. “While all human rights and development norms and standards apply to women and girls with disabilities, they have not enjoyed full rights on an equal basis with others. For far too long, women and girls with disabilities have been invisible, including to advocates of women’s rights and of disability rights, and this has increased their vulnerability.”
Gerasimova said the content of 12 Ophelias is important. Written by American author Caridad Svich, the play is an alternative story of the heroines of Hamlet – a story of what could have happened if women of the 16th century had rights to make decisions on their own. In the play, Ophelia is resurrected after drowning and able to discover a whole new way of life. Svich makes female roles more important, with strong female characters pushing back against stereotypes.
"For far too long, women and girls with disabilities have been invisible, and this has increased their vulnerability." –Alyona Gerasimova
The decision to include women with disabilities was also key, Gerasimova says. They learned acting, vocals and choreography alongside professionals. “We need more opportunities for Ukrainians to see people with disabilities taking part in art, in civic life, in social change and much more.”
Daria Nagaivska, a project manager with Modern Woman, says the organization aims to tell stories showing that physical trauma and disabilities don’t have to be obstacles to a joyful life.
“Inclusion is possible,” Nagaivska says. “Through the real-life stories in the documentary series, we want to inspire people to overcome barriers and not be afraid to try something new, even if they have a disability.”
For Fiona Kudrevatykh, the experience of being in the play has helped her do just that. An English teacher who is transitioning into IT, she had long wanted to try acting, but wasn’t sure she could because she uses a wheelchair. Then she took a role in 12 Ophelias, with her journey into acting featured in the documentary series.
“Only you can define and form yourself,” she says in the documentary. “No one else.”