When the invasion began, The Russian Arts Theater and Studio, located at 165 West 86th Street, voiced its support of Ukraine and its opposition to war. Aleksey Burago, the studio’s Artistic Director, announced a plan to revise the 2022 season to better reflect the immediate concerns of today’s world. Additionally, he committed to donating a portion of ticket sales toward “aiding refugees of the Ukrainian crisis.” The next show will be George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
I spoke with Aleksey before the war began and while the horrors in Ukraine are impossible to ignore, my goal is to offer a glimpse into the life and art of a significant artistic leader in our community. No matter what atrocities Vladimir Putin may commit, there are Russians and Russian Americans, like Aleksey, who preserve and sustain a rich cultural heritage, sewn into the fabric of a proud artistic people. Aleksey’s philosophy challenges us to consider art’s purpose in society and helps us confront uncomfortable truths about the state of art in our own country. His artistic process tells us that if we wish to create anything worthwhile, we must first learn to like each other.
Aleksey was born in Saint Petersburg. His mother and father met in college, where they studied engineering. Upon graduating, they were both employed at the same secretive government agency.
“It was for military purposes,” he recalled. “They have special institutions [where] everything is high top secrecy. You’re doing some small things which belong to some other parts, so it has to come together as a big secret project. Nobody knows what they’re doing. [My parents] were not allowed to go abroad because of secrecy level[s].”
As a child, Aleksey would dress up as characters he would imagine and walk down the street in disguise, attracting suspicious glances from his curious neighbors. By high school he had transitioned from the sidewalk to the stage, acting in theater and winning awards reading poetry. But his parents never watched him perform. Oblivious to his talent, having never seen him act or receive accolades, they forbade him from studying acting and enrolled him in the same college they had attended. After graduation, his parents got him a job at the same government-run institution they had worked for.
“[In Russia], You have to study for 5 and half years and you have to work for 5 years. It is a rule. If you will not work, you will be in trouble. They could put you in prison. [My parents] took ten years of my life. Ten years I was doing that stupid job I hated.”
Over a decade had disappeared since high school but Aleksey was finally free to pursue a career as a director in theater. He auditioned for The Russian Institute of Theatre Arts (GITIS), a world-renowned performing arts school. Admission was extremely competitive: to study engineering, 1 in 3 students were admitted. At GITIS it was 1 in 50. To study engineering, one needed to pass four exams. At GITIS there were twelve.
“They can ask you any question and you have to answer. The level of stress was so high one of my classmates was asked to whistle the 14th Symphony by Mozart. He did it even though he has no good ear [for music].”
The day of the audition had finally arrived. Years of anticipation and countless hours of preparation had culminated in this day. And Aleksey failed.
A few of his friends had been admitted and after hearing the disappointing news, they managed to get him another audition. This time, Pytor Fomenko was there. The two clicked instantly and Aleksey was admitted into the five-year director program.
Pytor Fomenko was a well-known, albeit controversial, theater director who had developed a reputation for having his productions shut down by Russian authorities; one such production was banned after just one dress rehearsal. Unable to find steady work in the theater, he eventually became a teacher at GITIS. Five years after Aleksey’s graduation, Fomenko would establish his own theater and his fame would skyrocket, making him the most famous director in Russia.
“You cannot do whatever you want [in Russia],” Aleksey told me. “I know people who wanted to do something like what they believe in — no, people come for you and you will be in trouble. I know people who were killed. Some friends of mine were killed because they express themselves openly. Like one guy, he wanted to do film about Putin, he was killed. Nobody cares who killed them, they’re just dead. Nobody’s looking for those people.”
Four years into Aleksey’s training, Fomenko suggested the class work on Alexander Pushkin’s short story, Queen of Spades. The entire class said no, except for Aleksey. He rounded up a few of his friends, began rehearsing, and presented the work to Fomenko, who loved it. Two productions were planned and then Moscow TV heard about the work and offered to film the production.
Aleksey directed and starred in the film in collaboration with Fomenko. It was played across Russia multiple times to great acclaim. His parents, who had once forbidden him to study theatre, now bragged that their son had inherited his talent from them.
His time as a student had come and gone and Aleksey left Moscow and returned home to Saint Petersburg. One would imagine that after attending a world-famous theater school, opportunities might be more easily accessible. Unfortunately for Aleksey, that wasn’t the case. Fomenko was his only reference and the controversial teacher made getting work in any Russian theater difficult.
“Doors were closing because of him. Communist party was still around and [Fomenko] was a great artist but he was so independent and people with power didn’t like him. So they didn’t like me [he laughs]. As long as I mentioned his name, conversation stopped.”
So, Aleksey started from scratch. Directing at one small theater led him to another theater and then to another until he was directing for theaters with as many as 3,000 seats (for some perspective, the largest Broadway theater has less than 2,000 seats). Just as Aleksey’s career had begun to gather momentum, an American playwright came to see his work. He had just written a play about Anastasia, Tsar Nicholas II’s daughter, and wanted Aleksey to direct the production in America, offering him a green card and connections in New York City. Aleksey was already directing another production at the time with a famous actress from Finland but once he received the offer, serendipitously, she contacted him requesting a six month break to work with another famous director. She said she would return to rehearsals after that six-month period.
“I didn’t want to go, but I have invitation. Okay, so I will take the six months to go to America and come back.”
“And here I am [he laughs].”
The green card took time, the promise of connections fell through, and Aleksey found himself stranded in a foreign country with no way home.
“I couldn’t go back because my papers were suddenly so slow and I have no money to go. I start working here like crazy because I have to support myself.”
He found a job making copies at a center for lawyers for twelve dollars an hour. From 12am to 8am he worked, slept three to four hours a night, went to rehearsals and repeated that routine for years.
“It was difficult time. I don’t have any money, I just have to survive.”
He began directing shows at New York City Workshop Theater which garnered notable reviews from The New York Times and Time Out. The late George Morfogen, then a faculty member at HB Studio, saw his work and invited Aleksey to teach. Aleksey took the job and trained actors and directors at HB for over a decade. After HB, he went on to teach and produce work in Japan, Turkey and Denmark.
Today, he has built a home, right here on the Upper West Side, nestled on the second floor of The Center at West Park at 86th and Amsterdam Avenue. Pushkin Hall, as Aleksey named it, is home to The Russian Arts Theater and Studio. It is a home where valuable traditions of theater are handed down to future generations of actors and directors. It is a home where audiences experience theater as art and a vital beacon within our American cultural landscape.
“I [create theater] for people who are interested in educating themselves. My theater, I try to tell you honestly what I think about you. And I try to engage you in improving our life we’re living together in the moment in the theater.”
“In America, [theater is] mostly entertaining. It’s a drug in a way. A form of drug. ‘We entertaining you, you don’t think about your problems. Look at us, how beautiful, funny it is.’ We need to be entertainers — we need to be entertained — there’s no question, but we need to uplift humanity. We need to improve life together with this kind of effort.”
“Most of the American actors I work with — talented, not talented — they want success. It’s hard to connect on that. Success — it’s not enough there to get inspired. If you’re not inspired, you will kill your work. People who are looking for fast food in acting, it is ignorance, pure ignorance, because they’re looking for shortcut. There is no shortcut here.”
“Theater art is better than other arts because it’s collaboration and you have to like others to do the work. I want people, with whom I make shows, to become my friends. It is my intention. [Theater] makes you kinder and through the theater you could have more capacity of compassion toward other human beings.”