DONETSK, Ukraine (Reuters) - When the curtain falls at the theater in east Ukraine, some of the audience have trouble applauding because they are holding rifles.
Others have obeyed the sign at the door telling them not to bring in their weapons, but are still in their combat fatigues.
But for all those in the audience at the Donetsk National Ukrainian Music and Drama Theatre, the night’s performance offers solace from the conflict being waged around them.
“I believe that theater is important as a weapon for a fighter in such a tough situation”, Valentin Vlasnikov, a separatist, said after watching a play called “Trap for a Solitary Man”.
“This gives us the belief that life will get better, that we have a future as a country, as a state.”
Vlasnikov was at the theater with his wife and daughter and apologized for his military attire, saying: “It’s not normal to go to the theater like this. I should have changed. I simply forgot”.
Donetsk, a city of more than 1 million before hostilities began, is at the heart of the pro-Russian separatist rebellion against Ukrainian government forces that has spread across the east of the former Soviet republic since April.
Its suburbs have been shelled for months and at times the shells have reached into the center.
Keeping the theater open is an act of defiance, an attempt to rise above the violence and lead a life that is as normal as possible - imitating other conflict-hit cities such as Sarajevo, which staged plays while under siege.
A sheet of paper at the entrance to the theater, a Soviet-era building with classical pillars, carries an image of a pistol with a red line through it asking the audience not to bring in “means of assault or defense”.
At least two men, though, sat clutching their Kalashnikov A-47 assault rifles on a recent Saturday evening. The auditorium was full.
Before the uprising began in April, performances were in Ukrainian or Russian, the native language for about three quarters of the population in the Donetsk region.
Now they are all in Russian, actor Vladimir Shvets said.
“We are fed up with the Ukrainian authorities who want to wipe us out. We want the city to not be shelled,” he said.
Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, one of the biggest names in international opera, showed her support for the people of Donetsk by donating 1 million rubles ($16,745) to another of the city’s theaters.
Shvets said some actors had fled Donestsk, where a ceasefire agreed on Sept. 5 has eased but not ended the shelling. Others have moved into the theater for safety.
“We’ve lived here since October when a shell hit our house”, said actor Nikolai Guseinov, sitting with his four-year-old daughter Angelina on his knees. “The DNR (the rebels’ Donetsk People’s Republic) paid us some money and we live off that”.
Actor Sergei Bannikov said art could not be devoid of politics in such circumstances.
“The last play we performed was The Three Musketeers. One of the last lines is ‘in war as in war’,” he said, describing how the audience shouted out during the play, convinced it reflected a situation not unlike their own.
“How would guys who’ve just come back from fighting ... react to that, and those who go back to the war zone after the play? The auditorium howls.”
($1 = 59.7200 rubles)
Editing by Timothy Heritage