Jelizaveta Robinson, as Sabina, rehearses of scene from “In the Garden of Z” at the Theatre Project in Portsmouth Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

As a girl, Liza Robinson dreamed of moving from Latvia to Moscow to become an actress.

This month, she will be on stage, but not in Russia. Instead, she will star in a play that would likely be banned there, one she wrote with her husband about the war in Ukraine.

The New Hampshire Theatre Project in Portsmouth will present “In the Garden of Z,” which tells a story about propaganda and family that draws on Robinson’s own experience. It is the product of nearly two years of research and reckoning, as she tried to understand how her loved ones could support a war she found horrible.

“I think it’s very important that we all know that the Russian propaganda machine is very dangerous,” she said.

Sean and Liza Robinson moved to Maine last year and now live in Cape Neddick. He grew up near Washington, D.C., and lived for years in Los Angeles, where they met while she was traveling the world. Monique Peaslee Foote, an actor and board president at the New Hampshire Theatre Project, said she was “blown away” when she first read the script for “In the Garden of Z.”

“It’s a story that needs to be told right now,” Foote said. “It’s so, so unfortunately of our time.”



Liza Robinson, whose full name is Jelizaveta, grew up in a Russian family in Riga, the capital of Latvia.

She said she had a difficult childhood and a strained relationship with her mother. She often heard the adults in her life reminisce about what they considered to be better days before Latvia gained full independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. She grew up speaking Russian and knew only a little Latvian.

“I always wanted to be an actress,” she said. “I was very obsessed with Russian culture. I wanted to be this beautiful famous actress in Russia.”

Jelizaveta Robinson, rehearses “In the Garden of Z,” which is based on her life experiences and research.

She had her first training on stage as a teenager in a local theater program. She loved it, but her home life was harder than ever. She struggled with depression and often fought with her mother, and she left Latvia at 18 for a job as an entertainer at a hotel in Greece. She traveled to Germany, England and Tunisia. She met new people and worked different jobs and broadened her worldview.

“I felt that first feeling of meeting Western culture and religion,” she said. “That taught me a lot about myself.”


Theater was still her dream. She recalled auditioning for a play in London but didn’t get the part. (“I was trying to perform Shakespeare,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t know anything about Shakespeare.”) She traveled to the United States and wound up in Los Angeles, where she met Sean Robinson. Her return trip to London was booked, but when the plane left three months later, she wasn’t on it. They married in 2019.

“We fell in love,” Sean Robinson said. “We knew what we wanted to do.”

Director Sean Robinson speaks with the cast and crew while rehearsing “In the Garden of Z.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Sean Robinson also dreamed of working in theater and film from a young age. He studied at American University in Washington, D.C., and later moved to Los Angeles. His career has spanned theater, film and television, and he started his own production company in California. He has done everything from acting to writing to video editing.

The couple would read plays and watch movies together. Sean Robinson coached his wife in acting. They introduced each other to new material.

“She brought (Anton Chekhov’s play ‘The Seagull’) to me because that was something she always dreamed of doing from the time she was very young,” he said. “I read it before but I wasn’t overly familiar with it. She was like, will you help me understand this to its fullest extent, and will you help me to be able to perform this? We would do nightly scenes of ‘The Seagull’ in our living room.”

Liza Robinson remembered how he would patiently stop the movies they watched together when she needed clarification on an English word or a historic reference.


“I told him all these dreams that I have,” she said. “I showed him my acting skills, and he was the first person to just listen to me, to just listen to everything I had to say. I felt so much in my gut that I wasn’t able to share with anyone.”


In February 2022, when the Robinsons were living in Las Vegas, their son was born. On the hospital TV, the couple watched news coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She felt shock and horror, but she quickly realized that her friends and family did not. They still supported Russian President Vladimir Putin. When Liza tried to talk to her mother, she responded, “Don’t talk to me about politics.”

“I was crying, and I looked at Sean and said, ‘This is crazy. I have to do something. I’m going to put on a one-woman show. I’m going to talk about it.’ I was so inspired. I was so angry. I felt like I was losing them again.”

She threw herself into research, learning Russian history she had never learned as a child and studying the government’s methods for spreading disinformation. She felt inspired by the diary of of Polina Zherebtsova, a Chechnen teenager who wrote about her experience of war in the 1990s, and “For Sama,” a documentary by Syrian activist and filmmaker Waad al-Kateab.

“She was in a lot of pain during that research,” Sean Robinson said. “She was fascinated and learning so much and writing things of her own and writing her reactions, but she was in a lot of pain. She was suffering. It was bringing her to a very dark place. Eventually, after all this research, she knew she wanted to do something with it.”


Jelizaveta Robinson, as Sabina, rehearses of scene from “In the Garden of Z,” which premieres Friday at the Theatre Project in Portsmouth. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

So he helped her write a script for “In the Garden of Z.” (The letter Z became a Russian symbol during the war, and the title is an illusion to growing up surrounded by that mentality.) The story centers on Russian 17-year-old Sabina, who is troubled by what she has learned about the war in Ukraine from alternative media sources and is struggling to understand how her mother could support it. Feeling isolated, she turns the figures in her books for companionship, including the diary by Zherebtsova.

The couple said the play examines themes of propaganda, war and family.

“It’s ultimately about, how does this girl find peace?” Sean Robinson said. “How does she find forgiveness? How does she follow her own path?”


While the couple was still working on the play, they decided they wanted to leave Las Vegas. They started looking for a place to raise their son and moved to Maine on New Year’s Eve in 2022. Foote recalled the day founding director Genevieve Aichele told her about a young couple who walked into the New Hampshire Theater Project with a play.

“We gotta do it,” Aichele told Foote.


When Foote read the script, she agreed. She described Sean Robinson as “so kind and passionate about theater” and Liza Robinson as “all beautiful fire.” As the Robinsons were looking for a place to stage “In the Garden of Z,” the New Hampshire Theater Project was also looking for new leaders to take over from Aichele, who planned to step down. Sean Robinson became the director of theater operations on a three-person executive team with Foote and Amy Desrosiers. The Robinsons have found a home at New Hampshire Theatre Project, where both joined the cast last year of “Dreaming Again,” a play by Aichele about the true stories of New Hampshire immigrants and refugees.

From left, Kayt Houghton as Anna, Tracy Mullen Cosker as Ludmilla and Monique Peasle Foote rehearsing “In the Garden of Z.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

For “In the Garden of Z,” Sean Robinson is the director, and Liza Robinson will play the role of Sabina. He described it as “punk rock” in both aesthetic and attitude (“It’s loud, and it’s angry, and it’s passionate,” he said). Foote, who plays a news broadcaster, said the cast worked with a dialect coach to fine-tune their accents. The Robinsons said her lines might seem darkly funny or even ridiculous, but they are drawn from real footage on Russian television. Foote said the experience is “jarring.”

“Everything out of her mouth is a lie,” Foote said. “Watching these news reports are jaw-dropping. I get to play that character who is over the television every night in the homes of the Russian people, giving them what they want to hear or what they think they want to hear.”

Writing this play with his wife taught Sean Robinson more than he had ever learned in school about the history of Russia. Still, he said, the play tells a story that is not limited to one country.

“I’m fairly confident that people are going to draw parallels to our own nation and our own media here,” he said.

Liza Robinson said she has not talked in detail about the play with her family, but she still loves them and talks to them often. Finally bringing “In the Garden of Z” to the stage has helped her find peace from the pain she has felt over their differences. She intends to keep working in theater and writing, telling stories that are challenging.

“I’m so glad that my life worked out the way it has because I would have had to be selling my soul to the devil if I wanted to be an artist in Russia,” she said. “Here in America, I can be a true artist. I can open someone’s eyes.”

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