A tiny English-language Kyiv theatre turned ‘artwork shelter’ goes to battle

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The ProEnglish Theatre used to be known as a small independent Kyiv ensemble that put on English-language plays and offered drama classes. But in the four weeks since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the theatre has become an “art shelter”, where actors come together to bear witness to war atrocities and scale an all-out artistic resistance. FRANCE 24 went to meet the troupe determined to help Ukraine win the war against Russia.

On February 24, Alex Borovensky, the director of the ProEnglish Theatre, received a phone call telling him that war had broken out and that Russian tanks had entered Ukraine. “I hung up, and then I heard explosions, and then sirens. It was unreal, I didn’t want to believe what was happening. My partner and I packed our bags and decided to take shelter in the theatre, which is located in a basement. At the end of the day, we all watched Mission Impossible 4 together, because at the end of the film, Tom Cruise destroys the Kremlin.”

In just a few short days, the actor and former English teacher had become a resistance fighter. The windows of the theatre overlooking the street have been secured, and the performance hall has been turned into a dormitory where people living in the building can take shelter at night whenever the city’s air raid alarms ring out. Borovensky is also helping to spread information about what is happening in Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine by speaking to English-language media. When humanitarian aid trucks roll into the city, he helps unload and distribute the goods in the neighbourhood surrounding the theatre. Survival and solidarity is the order of the day.

“Every day, people ask me to come and take refuge with them, but I want to stay here. I want to see what is happening with my own eyes. Art is my resistance, and that’s what I want to share, that’s why I’m staying in Kyiv.”

A barricade has been mounted near the Kyiv theatre on Smolenska Street, on March 20, 2022. © David Gormezano, FRANCE 24

On this Sunday, March 20, the 25th day of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the unreal has become the new normal in Kyiv. There is currently a strange calm reigning over the city, occasionally disrupted by the dull rumble of Ukrainian anti-aircraft defence systems. In the past few days, Russian missiles have hit apartment buildings and killed several people, all the while army-to-army clashes continue some 30 kilometres north of the capital. The clear blue sky and the warming rays of the sun seem to indicate that spring is approaching. Borovensky and his friends have therefore decided to take the day off to relax.

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"There is no massive bombing so we’re venturing out a little more in the city, we’re starting to drive around Kyiv again. But there have been direct strikes on the city. One of them hit a building next to where one of the theatre's actresses live and the windows of her apartment exploded. So we’re waiting to see what happens.”

Resisting and creating

Although the war is progressively taking a deeper hold on the city, the small ensemble of actors in their 30s have not given up on their ambitions. Tetiana Shelepko, an actress and director, is in the midst of putting on a play by Harold Pinter, “The New World Order”. On March 27 it will be broadcast live and be shown at several theatres in Germany, Slovakia and Portugal. For her, it’s essential to keep on performing. “In wartime, the theatre becomes a shelter for the soul, it lets you escape from the madness of war,” she explained.

Alex Borovensky, Tetiana Shelepko rehearse their plays which will soon be performed before a local audience as well as several European theatres via streaming. © David Gormezano, FRANCE 24

Borovensky is of the same mindset and is currently preparing a performance based on Australian author Markus Zuzak’s novel “The Book Thief”. "It’s a monologue that takes place in a bomb shelter – our very own theatre! It will be streamed by different theatres around the world who have expressed interest in the project. Once Ukraine has won the war, we will go on a big tour, in many cities, to make sure this will never happen again.”

Support the army!

Both Borovensky and Shelepko agree that it is not enough for the art world to simply condemn Russia’s war on Ukraine. “If you [the West] want to help Ukrainian refugees or Ukrainian artists, donate money to the Ukrainian army, there’s an account that has been opened for that and it takes donations in all currencies. For me, it’s obvious: you have to tackle the root of the problem; the Russian Federation and its army. Otherwise you won’t solve the problem.”

As the colleagues come together to have a cup of coffee, their faces grow darker. Kyiv might be enveloped in a temporary sense of calm right now, but each and every day brings new horrific news, such as the recent Russian bombing of a Mariupol theatre, where several hundred people had sought refuge. The violent attacks on the seaside city of 400,000 has only angered and galvanised Ukrainians even more. “I’m angry. This has to stop. I think we also need to boycott the Russian cultural world – without hesitation – because Russia is killing my country,” Borovensky said.

‘Europe lives in a Harry Potter world’

Shelepko also shared her anger and frustration at Europe’s attitude toward the conflict. “Europe is living in an illusion. It seems to be living in some kind of Happy Potter world, pretending that what’s going on isn’t really happening. The ‘ministry of magic’ won’t make the Russian Army go away,” she said.

Bogdan, a Ukrainian journalist who has also joined the "art shelter" on Smolenska Street, said Europe has been ignoring the danger of Russia. "After the annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin multiplied the number of press conferences praising Russia’s rearmament and development of new ultra-sophisticated weapons, and your leaders didn’t seem to pay any attention to that, they continued to buy Russian oil and gas as if nothing had happened. Putin has been preparing for war for eight years now; for us it’s been obvious all along."

Alex Borovensky, the director of the theatre, says Ukraine must above all count on itself to win the war. © David Gormezano, FRANCE 24

Although they all feel Europe has turned a blind eye to the Russian threat, Borovensky and Shelepko and their friends are steadfast in their conviction that Ukraine will win this war. “Supporting the army is very important, but we have to remember to also support the country as a whole. If our economy keeps on churning, then Russia will be defeated,” Borovensky said. As a final touch, the actor-turned-resistance-fighter underscored the fact that Russia has for more than three weeks tried – but failed – to enter Kyiv. "The Russian army is weak, rusty and disorganised. If a small corrupt country like ours can defeat it, there is no need to fear. What is Europe afraid of?"

This article has been translated from the original in French.

Artmotion Spain

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