“Art is not an escape; it is a statement of life.” Interview with Alex Borovenskiy

by Yana Meerzon*

ProEnglish Theatre is a theatre company and a drama school based in Kyiv, in Ukraine. Its mandate is to make professional theatre in English, in Ukraine. Since 2014, when it was created, ProEnglish Theatre has produced a diverse repertoire of classical and contemporary plays and adaptations, organized theatre festivals, like the PRO.ACT Fest 2021—IV International Theatre Festival in English, and offered workshops and regular classes in acting.

Director Alex Borovenskiy in the Art Shelter. Photo: Web/Facebook. Accessed 26 May 2022

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Alex Borovenskiy, the founder and the executive director of ProEnglish Theatre, and several members of the company decided to stay in Kyiv. They relocated to their theatre building, which happened to be in the basement, and used it as a shelter for themselves and about 25 Kyivites to hide during the bombing.

Before the war: Anabell Sotelo Ramirez, ProEnglish Theatre actress and chief executive officer, and Alex Borovenskiy. Photo: Alex Borovenskiy

During the time of this invasion, we saw two productions by ProEnglish Theatre. Both of them were streamed on Facebook: Harold Pinter’s 1991 play The New World Order and The Book of Sirens, based on Markus Zusak’s 2002 novel The Book Thief and Hector Abad Faciolince’s The Oblivion We Shall Be.

Doing theatre in a bomb shelter, during the war, is a heroic act of personal bravery; but it is also a tribute to the power of performance arts to stand above the reality of horror, to bring people together and to give them hope. This conversation took place on April 10, 2022, via Zoom, after the ProEnglish Theatre streamed their second production The Book of Sirens via Facebook; and it is also a token of gratitude and a gesture of solidarity from all of us, watching the atrocities of this war from the distance, from the place of safety. 

From The Book of Sirens. Photo: Web. Accessed 15 May 2022

The title of this conversation—“Art is not an Escape; it is a Statement of Life”—is a new artistic and life motto of the company. Tetiana Shelepko, the director of The New World Order, coined this phrase in her address to the audience when the company streamed their work online.

We decided to use this saying as the title of this interview to also remind theatre makers and their audiences, in Kyiv and around the world, that during the times of war, calamities, naturals disasters and any humanitarian crisis, performance arts remain the place of refuge. It is possible that many theatre makers today might feel that their professional skills are not adequate for a war combat, but live theatre can fight differently: it can allow its audiences to seek asylum from the everyday horrors, maybe only for a bit, for an hour or so, but it can give people hope and help them stay in touch with their own humanity. This is what ProEnglish Theatre is about, that is why it continues doing theatre in the bomb shelter, talking to the people next to them and to us, across the world.  

The New World Order poster. Photo: Web. Accessed 15 May 2022

Dear Alex, I am very grateful for your decision to do this interview. I would also like to express my support and solidarity with the people of Ukraine and your company specifically. We are watching very closely and with lots of pain of what is happening to your country. You decision to do theatre work in Kyiv, during the days of the invasion, is remarkable. There are no words to express the feelings I had when I watched both productions—thank you for your work. But where are you right now, when we hear that the Russian troops are moving away from Kyiv? Are you still in the theatre?

Yes, Kyiv region has been liberated from Russian invaders, and it’s very safe to go home. Many of our actors and friends went home; we used to shelter about 25 people here, but now we have only 4 people left. It is myself and Anabell, she is an actress in our company and my girlfriend. We decided not to move from here because we got things to do, we talk to journalists, we rehearse here, and we live here. In theory, we could move back home, I am from the Left bank of Dnipro part of Kyiv, but after 37 days of being in this shelter, I do not have any desire to go home, I don’t understand what I would do there . . . it feels strange.

You mentioned journalists, and I do know that you had a chance to give some interviews about your work during these 37 days, but I thought we could use this conversation to introduce your company in a more holistic way; that is, within the framework of its past developments and achievements. So, my first question is about the history of the company: when and how did it come together and how did you decide to run a theatre company in English, in Kyiv?  

We started the company in 2014, with a small studio, to explore acting techniques. I was interested in Lee Strasberg’s and Sanford Meisner’s work and pedagogy and wanted to bring them to Ukraine. In 2018, we transformed it into a performing company—a professional theatre—and started inviting professional theatre actors to work with us. So, what started as an experimental studio in 2014 turned into a professional company in 2018, which also runs a studio with many of our graduates working in Ukraine and abroad. This was a unique enterprise where people would study acting in English. For me, it was an ideological position:

I came to the theatre quite late, in my 30s. All my previous work was connected with the English language. I used to work for the U.S. Peace Corps, British Council and my first education was teaching English as a second language. Running a theatre in English was a natural choice for me. Politically, it was also an important choice for me. I love my country, and I support its move toward modernization and Europeanization, but I thought we were moving a bit too slow toward this goal, so I thought that doing theatre in English in Ukraine would help this movement.

Scene from Forgetting Othello: Web. Accessed 15 May 2022

How did you run your company: was it team- and projects-based? Or was it more like a state-sponsored theatre based on a repertoire system?

We’re an independent theatre company, and our funding came mostly from the acting school we run, students’ fees. We worked with Ukrainian and international performers who could speak what we call “plausible” English; that is, whose accent would be accessible for our audiences. It was not easy to do—there are many great actors in Ukraine, but not many of them would speak the language; and there were many English native speakers here, different ex-pats and international students, but they were not professional actors. So, we worked with the Ukrainian performers, who appeared on TV and played for the state-sponsored theatres, and others, who joined us for different projects. We were also seeking local and international partnerships, and it was important for us that our performers would be well-educated actors. We run up to six projects simultaneously and looked for new collaborations. Just before the war started, we discussed projects with Finnish and Czech theatres. And now we are here, in the shelter.  

You work during these days of the invasion is not only an example of personal bravery, each of you involved in it, but also an homage to the symbolic and affectual power of live performance. When I was preparing for this interview, I thought both of the theatres done in the Jewish ghettos under the German occupation but also theatres in the camps. What you have done, I imagine, has provided your audiences with an emotional anchor. But it has also boosted their morale, and most importantly, you gave them hope. Would you agree with that?     

I think so. But even more we were inspired by the personal tragedy of the great Ukrainian director Les Kurbas, who perished in the Stalin’s camps. Kurbas was one of the first Ukrainian theatre artists to be arrested and sent into those labor camps, and he did theatre there. Now, we’re thinking of doing a special play about him, maybe in Ukrainian, with English subtitles. When we were doing these plays, we did them both for our tiny live audiences here in the shelter and for the Ukrainian nation, and we streamed them worldwide.

Photo from Les Kurbas Cenre in Kyiv where for 4 years the company held its annual PRO.ACT Fest. Les Kurbas big portrait is at the background. Photo: Web. Accessed 15 May 2022

Do you know (approximately) who was your audience for these two productions? Who was able to watch them?

I know that our former students watched our work; there are almost a thousand of them across the world now. Many friends had to flee, but they watched us from abroad, from Poland or France. The local theatre scene is very small and supportive here; our colleagues in the state-run theatres tried to see our work too. They helped us with the streaming of the show and used their own platforms to re-stream our productions.

During the streaming of The Book of Sirens, something strange if not surreal happened: I have friends in the Mykolaiv theater, who decided to help us with this stream. Suddenly, in the middle of the play, they told us that another attack began on Mykolaiv, and they had to stop our talk and run for the shelter. It was very strange: we were in Kyiv in a so-called safety, whereas Mykolaiv, which is more to the South, was still bombed. This is how it is here now.    

This is incredible and unimaginable on so many levels, Alex. But I assume you’ve got responses from the people who managed to see your work. What did they tell you? How did they express their feelings?

The most important response for me was one from the live audience, who were here with us, in this shelter. There were about 10 people who came to see it, a bit less that our 40-seat black box theatre would normally hold. We were all in the same space: the actors, the spectators, all the streaming equipment and support stuff. Normally, as a director I do not watch my productions, but yesterday I was there, and I looked at my audience. I had a very strange feeling: at first, I thought they did not speak English and could not understand much, because they were sitting like this, frozen in space and time. But then, something changed, and they changed too. I spoke to them after the show: some of them clapped, some cried, some did not seem to recover at all. A couple of them told me that they were paralyzed from the first minutes of the performance, not only because of its quality but because of the surrealism of the situation. They did not think theatre had any space in these surroundings, in this Ukraine, but they stayed. It took them some long 20 minutes to get into the story, to start feeling something.

I never thought of adapting Zusak’s novel The Book Thief for the stage: I did not know what this book, written by an Australian writer about a little girl in Germany in WWII, would give my audiences, but they found it important. The Book of Sirens is a solo piece based on the story of a little girl, Liesel, from a small German town of Molching, who learned how to read and write in a bomb shelter. So, I created this production as a message to our European, Canadian and American audience: we wanted to reach out to them, to tell the truth about this war; but then the play produced something else: it created a new effect for our Ukrainian audiences.

We received many comments—mostly about our bravery—and this is important of course, but for me, as a director, it would be also important to talk about our artistic choices. I dream of putting together a round-table of different spectators from far and close and discuss their reaction and thoughts about this work.

It is hard for me to speak for other people, as I watched both of your plays on my own, in the safety of my Canadian home. But I think the reaction to your work, and maybe to this war in general, to a certain extent depends on one’s personal proximity—that is, how close one feels or is—to this war. If people have personal connections, families and friends, if they carry memories of or share stories with the people of Ukraine, they would react one way; and others would react differently. To me, your work is absolutely a symbol of personal bravery and loyalty to your country but also—and this might sound somewhat paradoxically—an homage to the power of live performance. The world just survived the crisis of COVID, performance arts happened to be one of the victims of this pandemic, with many companies being closed and not coming back to recover. What you are doing—under the bombs, in the shelter, during the war—is also a reminder to all of us why we do theatre, what power it has to create communities, to bring hope, to connect people and to give us a chance to think about our future. This is a humanitarian function of theatre that re-emerges in the times of crisis, that your work brings out again, and for which we all must be thankful.     

It is interesting you brought COVID into this conversation. For the Ukrainian theatre, COVID was also a devastating experience, with many smaller companies closed. The system of grants and financial support to independent theatres is not very strong here in Ukraine. Our company managed to survive because we depend on the school and the tuition our students pay. We use this money to rent this space, which gave us a bit more freedom, but this is not always the case. I am not a big fun on working on Zoom, I never wanted to experiment with Zoom-theatre, I would prefer to do this interview live, but we knew that this was only the way to continue. When theatres closed here, we did this poetry-reading in front of the closed doors, an homage to our theatre, and video-recorded it:

Mahmoud Darwish, I Have a Seat in the Abandoned Theatre in Beirut . . . Performance by Alex Borovenskiy

You mentioned earlier that when it comes to acting techniques, you were interested in the work of Meisner, but who else—what other artists—influenced your artistic choices?

In Ukraine, the official theatre schools continue teaching Stanislavsky and his system. I read all 8 volumes of his work, but I think it is time to bring something new. I was interested in Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner but also physical theatre and Jerzy Grotowski. When we opened our school in English, here in Kyiv, I wanted to bring as many theatre ideas from the West as possible. We read and watched lots of material from Europe and North America. Our actor Valera Simonchuk studied in New York, in The Lee Strasberg’s studio, so we asked him to share his experience with us.

So, I guess it would be OK to say that your vision of theatre is focused on the actor, on their live presence on stage and on the use of language. It is indeed an interesting proposition to run an English theatre school and company in Kyiv. So, I wonder how did your actors navigate this challenge? There are many discussions—academic and artistic—in countries like Canada, where people speak many languages at home and in the rehearsal hall, about the use of multilingualism on stage. But how did it work in your context?     

When we just started, we did ask this question: whether to work in English only or in two languages. We saw many international students, young professionals who traveled and lived in Ukraine, and who, I thought, would make part of our audiences. Then, there were theatre lovers who, I also thought, would be interested to see us for the sake of our experiment; maybe they would be curious to learn new things in English. But none of my predictions came through: there was a tiny percentage of theatre lovers who spoke English and wanted to see theatre in English; and only a few expats would check us out. On a big scale, this was not really a problem because we have a small black box theatre of 40–60 people, and it was always sold out, but I am not sure how it would work if we had to perform in larger venues. Our audience was always very young—students and young professionals, people oriented to the West. In Ukraine, especially in Kyiv, people speak English fluently, so there were enough friends and curious people to see our work.

Scene from The Birthday Party. Photo: Web. Accessed 15 May 2022

You mentioned Les Kurbas earlier in our conversation. Was he also inspirational for your artistic work?

Yes, in fact we are now planning to put a full production about him. Before the war started, I was working on this Norwegian play based on Erlend Loe’s novel. It seemed to me that it was a very important material to work on—a play about loneliness and nostalgia, about growing pains and loss. But now, I do not think I can turn back to it. Everything changed so much, there is no return to the past, to anything that felt relevant and important before the war. But then, Tetiana Shelepko, who directed Pinter’s New Brave World, came with the idea of doing this play about Kurbas. She was surprised that there are no books or productions or films about Kurbas, although he was such a prominent figure in the Ukrainian theatre. Another project that seems relevant to me today is to return to another atrocious episode in Ukraine theatre history: the so called “shot generation.” It happened in the 1930s, when over a period of just one year, a group of Ukrainian intellectuals, writers and theatre makers from Kharkiv were imprisoned and killed, one by one, by the Stalinist regime. They were the members of the House of Writers, and one by one, they were taken, tortured and shot. This is a type of story which I could not think about two years ago, but now I feel I must bring this horrible history back. Maybe it will help me understand something about today. This history has turned today into a new symbol, simple and clear symbol, of national suffering. We might do this play in Ukrainian but with the English subtitles.

Photo from the performance Розстріляні Від(ро)дження (Shot Generation) about Kharkiv poets and writers murdered by the Soviet regime in 1930s. Originally staged in Ukrainian in 2014 and re-staged now. Photo: Web. Accessed 15 May 2022

I want to ask you a question, which might be difficult to respond to, and so feel free not to talk about. The invasion began on February 24, 2022—how did you learn about it and what was your immediate reaction?

I was at home in the morning of February 24, in my apartment on the Left Bank, a kind of sleeping or suburban area. Our company is located on the Right Bank, in the city center, in the basement of a larger building. I woke up because of the sirens, explosions and phone calls of my friends. For half an hour, me and my girlfriend Anabell did not know what to do; we felt paralyzed, and we watched an episode of Friends, just like that. We simply could not believe what we heard or realize what was going on. We just sat there. Then, we decided to go to the theatre—but where else? It took us 5 hours to get here. We packed our things, tried to withdraw some money, but there were already lines of people, and then we took metro, which was still working, and came to the theatre. It was simply the right thing to do. A couple of other actors joined us here too, and we decided to record a couple of videos in different languages, about this war, right here on the steps of our building, while the sirens were still going on:

Art Shelter. Day 1. Russian invasion into Ukraine. Narrator: Alex Borovenskiy

Suddenly, some local people started coming our way and asking whether we knew where a bomb shelter was. We did not know, but we invited them to share our space, our theater, which is deep in the basement, and which became our self-made bomb-shelter. And they stayed with us; almost 25 people lived here, in the theatre. During the first week, we didn’t do anything else, except from logistics, because there were many people here, older people, kids and seven cats, who eventually ate our props. We were simply trying to organize things—a small toilet, a fridge, some food supplies, one coffee machine and so on. But then, everything became a routine, a new life, with the attacks getting stronger and stronger. And so, we felt it was time to start thinking of and doing arts.

How many people from the company stayed in this shelter?

Not everybody, maybe six of us. Some theatre people joined the army; some fled abroad. Many other companies split too—people get scared under the attack; everybody reacts differently. But our company is like a family; we are very close, we work and do a lot of things together, we even celebrate birthdays. And this is what we continued doing here.

In the shelter, we started this ritual—listening to Zelensky everyday. Before the war, I did not pay much attention to the President, what he was saying or doing; but now it was really important to hear his voice. So, every evening, we would listen to the news, all together, chatting over dinner, listening to the President. Not everybody stayed, some people left earlier, some later, but I and my girlfriend decided to stay even now, after the Russian soldiers left. 

You chose to present Pinter’s play The New World Order for your first performance in the shelter. Why this choice?

Before the war started, we planned to put a series of short performances united under a title, “Bar Tenderness,” with four different directors: four stories in one bar. Pinter’s script was part of this series; it is very short, only three pages, and it is about two people who come into a bar to torture the bartender. We thought it was the right script for the moment.

With this new, war version of appropriate in the current circumstances, the director, Tetiana Shelepko, made all these excellent choices, with one of our actors being in a different shelter in the other part of Ukraine. All the artistic choices were caused by the necessity of our situation: originally, all characters were male; now, we made one of the characters a female because Alina Zievakova, an actress, was available to join us.

Pinter wroteThe New World Order in 1991, after the Gulf War. We felt there was some great irony in this choice: to use a play that was written after one war to speak about another. In the centre of our production, there is this woman who gets abused. This character—she is like an intruder, but she has no rights, and she is exploited and manipulated, tortured and abused by two other men. We felt this conflict really spoke about our situation—look what news we get from the town of Bucha and other places. We live with these news, with this reality, everyday, and it affects our choices, our emotions. 

Some people asked me whether we would tour this work from one shelter to another, but I don’t think it is possible. This production is not to inspire or to help—if I wanted to do that, I would put something simple with songs and music; but a show based on Pinter in English was done for the Western world to send our message out.   

Do you think you received the reaction you were expecting?

Yes, the play was very well received, many people still watch it on Facebook.

Initially, we received the rights to stream this performance only for one night; but then, we got a special permission to keep the recording on Facebook for much longer. The recording we made is very precious for us: there was a cat, who lives with us in this shelter; it came on stage, and you can still see it there. It is like a record of what truly happened.

Many people talk about the style of this production: there are projections, and an actor is streamed. But it is hard to say what people really see, many say thanks to us for doing theatre during the war, but what they really see I don’t know. Yes, it is a theatre made during the war, in the shelter, under the bombings, but it is not only that.

I am not even sure if my next question is appropriate in the current circumstances, but I still think it is an important one: what do you think you might be doing next? What are your dreams?

For now, I think for both myself and Tetiana it is important to continue doing theatre in English in Ukraine. We may produce some Ukrainian plays in Ukrainian but also Shakespeare in English. It is really hard to say or to dream, everything has drastically changed. I used to know what I would do in the next five years and how to plan my repertoire, now nobody knows. We may produce Ray Bradbury, something like a dark dystopia, or not. Today, I heard on the news that Julian Lennon, for the first time in his career, would sign his father’s song “Imagine.” Many years ago, he said that he would sing this song only at the end of the world. Now he sang it—maybe it is the end of the world, and it is the topic to do theatre about. 

Alex, we’re approaching the end of this conversation; and I know I probably did not ask you the most important question, which you expected me to ask. What would be that question? And what would be your response? 

I think we did not talk enough about our artistic choices and how we indeed were able to make theatre in this shelter. And so, I would focus on the questions of space—how we worked in this space which was both our home and our playing space.

Image of the space the company worked. Photo: Web. Accessed 15 May 2022

When we started working on Pinter, we could not rehearse or play in our normal space, which we call our Hollywood room because it has a screen. We had many people sleeping there, some of them would never leave the space, they simply could not. So, we rehearsed in a second room, and suddenly the space itself changed its meaning. We had to use one corner because it was the only empty spot possible for us to perform in. Normally, your artistic choices depend on your budget or timelines; here, you don’t really get the choice. And because of these limitations, we got very creative—we had to use this minimal space most effectively, so people could hear us, and we could deliver our message. Then, we had another complication: two types of audiences—live and on Zoom. We had to adjust to them too and to work with the actors from the viewpoint of the camera.

When we did The Book of Sirens, we used the objects from the shelter. Everything we used in this production, the books, the cans of food, everything that the little girl from the novel has and uses, we also had and used. The books were important. Those books were ours, we used them to protect our windows instead of sandbags, that is why they look this way in the show.  

The text of this play also came together because of these books. It was a strange coincidence. We were using these books for protection. When I opened one of them, I realized that it was Hector Abad Faciolince’s The Oblivion We Shall Be. We thought it was symbolic to add Faciolince’s text to our play. It came from those books, and we got the rights to do that. So, this is how this war situation, this necessity dictates new choices. Maybe it was destiny to discover these books and to use Faciolince’s words.  

Would you say that these choices became more intuitive, more spontaneous, more impulsive for you? Would you also say that you were looking for similar spontaneous reactions and emotions from your spectators, specifically when you worked on a soundtrack for The Book of Sirens?

Yes, quite specifically, and I think that for someone like you, who is familiar with these references, it was also difficult to listen to. The play begins with the sirens announcing an air-raid, to be followed by a soundtrack from the Soviet time, with the announcement of the beginning of WWII. People recognize it immediately. We knew it could be traumatic for our people, some spectators left. But it was also important for us that the international audiences, who joined us from Japan to Brazil, heard it too and spread the word and talked about Ukraine. 

I can talk about my reaction: when I heard that opening soundtrack, I was truly shocked, viscerally affected. I was shocked to hear the words I am familiar with since my childhood, the words that I associate only with history, with the events of the WWII, in which Russians were the victims of the German aggression. I was shocked to hear them in the context of this new war. The juxtaposition between the soundtrack, its habitual context and your or rather our reality in which we hear them today was chilling and surreal, impossible to comprehend intellectually or logically. Because there is no logic in what is going on, none.

When we worked on The Book of Sirens, we were not looking for writing a new play. The text of this production is a compilation of many sources, mostly the excerpts from Zusak’s novel. But the very last line, after which there is a blackout, is ours, we wrote it. It says, “you can write a book about it.” This is how we feel today, but, at the same time, we do not want to leave our audience only with this feeling. I want to believe that when the war will be over, people will find the way back to each other, and start talking once again. But this will take a very long time, long, long time.  

NOTE: After this conversation, on April 17, 2022, ProEnglish Theatre organized a Zoom-roundtable Why Art Thou: Reflections on Art at War to reflect on its performance The Book of Sirens.  The recording of this conversation can be found here.

To support the company, the donations can be sent here. 

*Yana Meerzon is Professor at the University of Ottawa and President of the Canadian Association for Theatre Research. Trained as a professional theatre critic in Moscow, Russia (GITIS), she also holds a PhD from University of Toronto, Canada. Yana is the author of three books, with the latest volume Performance, Subjectivity, Cosmopolitanism published by Palgrave in August 2020. She co-edited seven collections of articles, including Migration and Stereotypes in Performance and Culture with David Dean and Daniel McNeil (Palgrave 2020). Her current research project is entitled “Between Migration and Neo-Nationalism(s): Performing the European Nation–Playing a Foreigner,” and it has been funded by The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). Yana is the editor of the “Essays Section” of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques.

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