Following my reviews of the online work of ProEnglish Theatre of Ukraine at IOTF and AIFF, I caught up with their artistic director, Alex Borovensky, about the company’s work in Kyiv and beyond, and about their upcoming Ukraine Fringe Festival.
ProEnglish Theatre of Ukraine is an English-speaking theatre and drama school in Kyiv. Can you tell me about the origins of the school and how it has been coping since the war in Ukraine?
We started in 2014 from a small-scale drama studio where students of the studio (and pretty much everyone else who wanted) came to practice acting techniques in English. We combined working on acting with immersion into the English language.
Theatre has always been our priority. We read works by Peter Brook, practised techniques by Sanford Meisner, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and others.
Many of those were never translated into Ukrainian. Acting in English has opened for us the whole new world full of opportunities.
It took us 4 years to achieve the status of professional theatre. We started inviting and nurturing professional actors. Currently, we are ProEnglish Theatre, professional theatre in English and ProEnglish Drama School, drama school in English.
Since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion on Ukraine, ProEnglish Theatre has been serving as the bomb shelter for local artists and people from the neighbourhood.
Being a small independent theatre has its advantages – you are located in the basement that can cover you up from shelling and missiles.
That’s what we did in the first month of direct attack on Kyiv. Since then, we also use ProEnglish Theatre premises as a shelter and hub to those who need it.
We survived electricity blackouts of winter 2022 at ProEnglish Theatre Hub. Never did we stop rehearsing and creating theatre. Our first rehearsal restarted on the Day 9 of the invasion.
Our first production since the beginning of full scale war was premiered on Mar 27 on International Theatre Day – in a month after the beginning of the war.
We feel it’s our duty to give people more than basic survival, we feel that we can give Art and Hope with our performances.
Currently ProEnglish Theatre exists as an international art centre, creating theatre performances in English, initiating and taking part in various artistic collaborations both in Ukraine and all over the world.
In 2022 our official name has become ProEnglish Theatre of Ukraine. Our national identity is vital to us now.
You have currently collated votes for your Golden Light awards for your 2022,-23 season. How important has it been to celebrate work and performers during the current year?
This has been a very unusual season. First of all, it started on Feb 24, 2022, at 5am – that’s when the first Russian missiles hit every Ukrainian town. What’s been before is barely memorable.
And then every performance that we created, all of them are part of the burning history of Ukraine nowadays, they represent certain stages of our struggle, both on a personal level and national one.
Whether it’s The Book of Sirens that recreates the life at bomb shelter through centuries or Blooming staged after we interviewed women from deocuppied regions.
By recognizing the performances and artists in this Golden Light Awards Ceremony, we simply allow them to stay in our memory longer. There’s a lot happening in Ukraine these days of war. We need to remember.
Every winner in every category of Golden Light Awards gets a simple yellow candle. Then they blow it and make a wish. And we all know that wish – Victory.
I’ve seen and enjoyed a couple of pieces of your work in digital form (The Book of Sirens and Naive Experiments). How important is it to you to produce and share work in this way?
Thank you, Louise, I’m very pleased to hear that. I would also recommend Love at Times and Blooming. All of them are available at scenesaver.co.uk.
We also cooperate with several other platforms and our first performance stream of The Book of Sirens is available at ProEnglish Theatre’s YouTube channel free of charge until the end of the war.
We understood that theatre has limited capacity to reach people. At one of our European tours, we had 300 in the audience, and that was the maximum number.
We are doing performances for 15 or 80 people audience as well, this ability to perform live and exchange and share experience has always been our priority.
BUT we are at war now, we have to act quickly and reach the biggest number of people possible.
That is why to each and every performance we stage we created a digital version as well, normally shot with several cameras and nicely edited. This way we reach out much faster and broader.
Also, these days, ProEnglish Theatre produces quite a number of other video content that is not only performing: video poems, short stories, and sketches.
At the same time actors of ProEnglish Theatre of Ukraine would go to destroyed city of Irpyn and record the same poetries in Ukrainian having shattered houses as background.
The result is “Four Poems from Ukraine.” We experiment with different forms, whichever has the strongest impact. We are the theatre with the goal – help our country win this war.
From 21 Aug-3 Sep you have the Ukraine Fringe Festival with both a live programme in Kyiv and an online programme with Scenesaver. Why should audiences engage with the festival?
Well, it’s the only International Theatre Festival in English in Ukraine these days (and in general one of the few festivals that are conducted in person in country at war).
Ukraine Fringe has the description “Festival for the Brave” and it works on many levels. Brave Ukrainians will get the chance to see performances from abroad in Kyiv these days.
Brave international artists are coming to Ukraine in person these days with their performances. We are going to have performers from the UK, USA, France.
This is something unbelievable under the circumstances. This is Ukraine Fringe.
As for the online part, it also allows the audience not to get stuck in the pain of the war and take a look at life broader.
We became friends with many theatremakers and festival throughout this 1,5 years of resilience and the participants we are going to have at our digital part of Ukraine Fringe are the best participants of their festivals selected and recommended for Ukraine Fringe.
Shows that were shining at Online Theatre Festival or Reykjavik Fringe are coming to Ukraine Fringe digital. They will all be available at the Scenesaver platform.
But I always say for those who are brave enough)) – come to Ukraine for in-person section of Ukraine Fringe. We could always use some volunteer help))
Are there plans to present live work outside of Ukraine at the moment or is this too difficult with the current conflict?
With the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Russia on Ukraine (that is much more than a conflict, that’s an invasion and war), the ProEnglish Theatre of Ukraine started travelling 4 times more than before.
We did more than 10 tours already and we’re not going to stop. One of our strategic missions these days is to bring the word from Ukraine to different countries.
During Ukraine Fringe, half of our team is going abroad. They will present Blooming live at Stockholm Fringe and Gothenburg Fringe in Sweden.
They will talk with people afterwards, they will meet local and international artists and opinion leaders, and they will conduct workshops.
It’s quite difficult to organize: travel – especially with Ukraine being a no-fly zone at the moment, logistics, resources. So far we manage with the help of our international friends and partners.
We are not going to stop until Ukraine wins this. Then we’re gonna take some sleep and start rebuilding the country.
What are your hopes for the immediate and long-term future of ProEnglish Theatre in Ukraine?
We are hoping to involve international directors into directing ProEnglish Theatre performances.
Some of this cooperation has already been implemented (like Herz performance directed by Poppy Franziska from England) we need more of these.
I want to continue our tours to different countries and have time and strength to create new performances at the same time.
I hope get ProEngish Theatre Hub renovated and ready for this winter that might be a gloomy one.
We will have a tour of ProEnglish Theatre of Ukraine to Crimea.
Ukrainian Crimea. This is the future.