Ukrainian Playwrights Step Up, and the Theater World Attends. Q&A with Drama League’s Gabriel Stelian-Shanks

“Sometimes, Sasha, war is necessary, it’s unavoidable,” the Russian soldier Victor is saying to the Ukrainian woman who has tied him up and is pointing a gun at him. “You can’t bake a good cake without breaking a few eggs.”

“I wonder who thought of that,” Sasha replies. “Probably not the chickens.”

Sasha is taking her revenge after an army gang rape in “Return to Sender” a new play by Olga Braga that is one of the dozens of Ukrainian plays that will be read around the world, including New York, as part of  the Worldwide Readings Project for Ukraine. — an effort by more than fifty theaters in 15 countries to raise funds for Ukraine, and bring attention to Ukrainian theater, which is both flourishing and under attack. (The two photographs above: The Drama Theater of Mariupol, Ukraine in 2021, and today, after it was bombed by the Russians.)

“Return to Sender” is one of the two plays, along with “Labyrinth” by Oleksandr Viter, that will receive a free staged reading this Saturday afternoon, March  19 on the Drama League’s YouTube channel.

“I think there is a rising sense in the artistic community that we need to respond” says the Drama League’s artistic director Gabriel Stelian-Shanks in the interview below, which has been edited.

The two plays, which are part of what Stelian-Shanks calls a surprising Renaissance in Ukrainian playwriting, will featuring a cast that includes Kelley Curran ( who plays the evil ladies maid Turner in The Gilded Age), Vincent Nappo, Hunter Francisco, Catalin Stelian, and the Drama League’s associate director Nilan.

Admission is free with a reservation, but contributions are encouraged to CARE’s Ukraine Crisis Fund

Jonathan Mandell: How did the Worldwide Readings Project for Ukraine come about?

Gabriel Stelian-Shanks: We were contacted by a long-time friend and colleague, John Freedman, who for many years was the American-born lead theater critic of the Moscow Times. John now lives in Crete and works a lot to expand International theater exchange, especially with Russia and Eastern Europe. When the violence began escalating in Ukraine, John reached out to many of us to see if we would be interested in amplifying the new work of Ukrainian playwrights, many of whom have been writing plays even during this time. Some of the plays that are being done around the world literally have been written in the last month. There are now dozens of these plays.

Who else is participating in these readings?

It is rapidly growing every day. I would say conservatively now, there are 50 companies around the world, some festivals, some large national theaters; really amazing theaters. A week ago, I counted 15 countries.

Are they all performing at the same time around the world?

Some are doing it right now. Some are incorporating it into their programming over the next few months. Some will need time to translate from the Ukrainian. Companies in Finland and Norway and Italy are furiously at work at translation. We are also trying to be cognizant of the fact that we’re in the middle of a refugee crisis and that many of these artists have larger concerns than these readings.

How did you decide on the two plays you’re reading on Saturday, Return to Sender by Olga Braga and Labyrinth by Oleksandr Viter ?

We wanted plays that had already been translated into English because we wanted to move quickly. This is a moment when the American people and the American arts community are really paying attention to what is happening in Ukraine; we wanted to make sure that we added our support in this moment.

We found that these two plays feel especially representative of an emerging Ukrainian voice in playwriting. They offer an active conversation around the casual violence of daily life in Ukraine at the moment, but we also found a dark comedic comic sensibility. The characters are also well-developed.

I read “Return to Sender,” and I found it grim – comic, but very black humor, like Martin McDonagh.

Yes. Martin McDonagh, Jez Butterworth, Mark Ravenhill. The use of language seemed similar to David Mamet and some of the other playwrights that emerged in America in the 1970s. So, I think American audiences will be interested by those echoes.

What can you tell us about these two specific playwrights?

I’ve only just met them virtually. I know they’re in their twenties, and they’re both incredibly moved that their plays are being done in countries around the world. Olga is right now working on a rewrite. For people who are undergoing such a deeply traumatic moment, I’m in awe of their generosity and their willingness to collaborate.  

Are they still in Ukraine?

I assumed they were when I talked to them, but millions of people have left the country just in the last few days.  I don’t know where they are; they didn’t express to me they were in harm’s way, and I didn’t want to traumatize them [by asking personal questions.]  Asking someone to work on a play in the middle of a war is a very complicated and humbling thing

It’s impressive that they’re doing so. On the other hand,  I suppose if you’re in a situation like that, and you’re a committed playwright, it’s a way of…not escaping, but being able to focus on something positive in the midst of all the negative that’s happening.

I think that’s true. And I think they’re using their power as writers in the way that politicians use a different kind of power. They are telling the world through their plays about what life is like right now in Ukraine.

This afternoon, there was a die-in in front of the Russian embassy organized by the theater community. The show “The Minutes” is going to donate a portion of its Broadway ticket sales to Save The Children’s Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund,  What else do you know that the theatre community of New York is doing for Ukraine?

I think there is a rising sense in the artistic community that we need to respond to this. This war is not even three weeks old yet; I think you’re going to see more develop over the coming days and weeks. The announcement by “The Minutes” seems incredibly important to me. It feels really important that artists are going to be a part of the demonstrations here in New York.  At the Drama League, we’re supporting the Ukraine crisis Fund of Care to address the refugee crisis —  the donations we’re collecting will go to clean water, fresh food, hygiene kits, because many of these people have no access to facilities, clothes and essentials

I think there’s a million ways that artists can support Ukraine,  and I really hope to see a lot more from both the New York theater community and the American theater community. There are extraordinary artists in Ukraine, and it’s our responsibility to make sure they are heard across the globe.

What should we know about theater in Ukraine? I’ve read that there are more than 400 legitimate theaters in the country. I guess I should say there were more than 400.

The thing that surprised me the most is the Renaissance in Ukrainian playwriting. There’s an organization called The Theatre of Playwrights, put together by a playwright named Maksym Kurochkin and based in Kyiv,   that’s been at the center of this boom. It’s a relatively young company that has produced twenty to thirty playwrights regularly across the country, which is extraordinary. They write in the Ukrainian language and we are seeing translators from around the world say “hey send me the script, I will translate it for free” and those scripts are being turned around very fast. So suddenly the global reach of Ukrainian playwrights is growing a hundredfold

Of course, the war in the last three weeks has postponed the opening of plays in Ukraine. Some of the theater artists are literally patrolling the streets of Kyiv with machine guns.

An urgent conversation with Ukrainian theatre artists Maria Bruni and Golenko Maxim Georgievich live-streaming Friday, March 18, 2022 at noon.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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