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When we visited New York, we were delighted to have the opportunity to meet with Virlana Tkacz. She is a theatre director of Ukrainian heritage who translates, crafts and presents Ukrainian narratives on the stage in New York City.

She directs several plays at La MaMa Theater, including "Light from the East" (about Les Kurbas and his actors), "Yara's Forest Song" (adapted from Lesia Ukrainka's "Forest Song"), "Swan" (inspired by Oleh Lysheha's poetry), "Dark Night, Bright Stars" (depicting the meeting of Taras Shevchenko and African-American tragedian Ira Aldridge), and many more.

21 November, 2023

Virlana Tkacz by Mary Nevezhyna

TOZHSAMIST': Can you tell us about your work at La MaMa Theater?

Virlana: Our theatre is organized differently than Ukrainian ones. I have my own group — Yara Arts Group at La MaMa. There are several resident companies, but Yara has been there the longest. I have made more than 40 shows with Yara. 

T: Do you write scripts for the shows? 

V: Mostly, I bring poetry, and we start thinking and talking. Then we begin rehearsals. It all depends on the theme. I never just stage an entire play. Sometimes I choose a scene I like and work with it.

For example, I created a play about Les Kurbas. (Les Kurbas is a renowned Ukrainian theatre director, actor, and playwright, celebrated for his important role in advancing avant-garde and innovative theatre during the early 20th century in Ukraine. His enduring legacy is predominantly associated with the establishment of the Berezil Theater in 1922, a pioneering theatrical company he founded.)  He was just a projection that was constantly present. There was no character playing Kurbas, but all the actors were talking about him all the time. It was a play about the actors of Kurbas' theatre. I started it with young NYU students. At that time, I also worked with Ping Chong — a well-known experimental director. I observed him make several plays. He also composes plays from interviews.

We couldn't find a play. So, I told the actors, «Write at home about what you want to do in the theatre, and I'll edit it. That's how we'll start». They brought what they wrote in a few days. There were long monologues, one even eight pages long. As I read them, I started feeling that I had read them somewhere before. At first, I got angry, but then I realized that everything they wrote was similar to what the actors of Kurbas wrote in the «Young Theater». These are the dreams of young actors throughout the centuries. The concept of creating a new world reappears every few generations.


T: Do you work together with Wanda Phipps?  We noticed you've received numerous awards and grants together. Does she know Ukrainian?

V: We work together on translating into English. I handle the Ukrainian research, and then we prepare the English translation by speaking it out and refining it together. Our goal is to create translations that actors can use effectively. The appearance on the page isn't as crucial as how it sounds on the stage.

Wanda is an African American from Washington. She taught herself Ukrainian and is conversational in the language. She's even visited Kharkiv twice. Wanda and I have been friends since our time as students at Columbia in the early 80s. During that period, she worked as an

Wanda Phipps, Virlana Tkacz and Watoku Ueno


assistant director for my plays. She's also a co-founder of the Yara Arts Group along with me. I've always wanted to share Ukrainian culture with everyone. I used to say, "Tychyna is great!" and I searched for English translations others had done to show my friends. But they weren't very good. Then one day, Wanda suggested, "I think we could do better." That's when we began working together.

T:  Do your translations for plays differ from literary translations done for publication?

V: All of our translations are specifically created for theatre. It's a different way of thinking. The way of thinking and working with poetry, theatre, and translation is different. I just say, «We do it out loud».

We record the translation. But the goal is never publication. It is a show. That's why I often say I don't have time to translate the rest of the poems. I only translate those that I need for my play (laughs).

T: How long have you been translating Ukrainian texts?

V: We have been translating since 1989. We initially translated Shevchenko together with Wanda. As for Kurbas, I've translated him myself.

T: Shevchenko was the first one you translated?

V: Shevchenko was the first because Kurbas staged Shevchenko's poems with the Young Theatre.



& IN THE LIGHT(1990-91)

Kyiv 1920/New York 1990 They dream of a new world on stage

created by Virlana Tkacz, Wanda Phipps and Watoku Ueno

poetry by Taras Shevchenko & Pavlo Tychyna
Les Kurbas's diary & memoirs of his actors
translated by Virlana Tkacz & Wanda Phipps
plus our own dreams and obsessions

directed by Virlana Tkacz
music by Roman Hurko
set & lights by Watoku Ueno
costumes by Carol Ann Pelletier
dramaturg: Wanda Phipps

with: Jason Bauer, Sean Eden, Amy Grappell, Timothy Greer, Shona Tucker, Peter McCabe & Rebecca Moore

T: How did you learn all this about Les Kurbas and the Ukrainian theatre?

Well, I wrote my master's thesis at Columbia University about Kurbas. It was quite a journey because my advisor didn't even know where Ukraine was on the map. He wanted to know: what was there before Les Kurbas? I also didn't know.  So, I started researching the history of Ukrainian theatre to the times of serfdom. 

But I wanted to write about Les Kurbas and Mykola Kulish(Mykola Kulish - a modern Ukrainian writer, playwright, and theatre director. His dramatic works were staged by Les Kurbas.)

We didn't get to Kulish, but we got to «Jimmie Higgins». My master's thesis was three hundred pages long. They sent my thesis for review to George Y. Shevelov. He was teaching at Columbia University at that time. Shevelov was a very strict person. He made remarks about my poor knowledge of geography because I wrote that Arkhangelsk was in Siberia (laughing), and asked where I learned so much about theatre. I replied that I found many things in the Columbia Library, and I interviewed Yosyp Hirniak, an actor who worked with Les Kurbas at the Berezil Theatre.  


T: In your shows, African Americans often play many roles and often it is leading ones. Can you tell us more about this?

V: Yes, African Americans and Japanese liked working with me. They played various roles in my Ukrainian shows that they had never been invited to perform before. One of the first plays I created was about Vasyl Yeroshenko. During my visit to Japan to my amazement, I stumbled upon a portrait that piqued my curiosity.

I asked, "Who is this?" The Japanese lady's response left me astounded as she recognised the person in the portrait as a "famous Ukrainian poet."  He was a poet from Obukhivka in the Kharkiv region and he had been blind since the age of four. He lived in Japan 1914-21 and race made no difference to him. Yeroshenko writes, «There is no race in the heart». I believe in these words. 

Sometimes when I see an actor or actress I think they can play a great role. Truly, there are very few individuals who can portray a blind person who sees the world or a female warrior defending a herd on a horse. These are unique individuals and something unique should be done for them. I want to give them the opportunity to perform at their best. And also have them share everything Ukrainian!

By the way, a book of translations of Yeroshenko's works into English was published by Columbia University two weeks ago. He wrote many stories in Japanese and Esperanto. I translated them together with Wanda Phippss and Watoku Ueno. He was our designer and also my husband at the time.

Yeroshenko writes, «There is no race in the heart». I believe in these words.



Japan 1914, as Vasyl Yeroshenko, a blind poet, saw it 

created by Virlana Tkacz, Wanda Phipps and Watoku Ueno

directed by Virlana Tkacz, set & lights by Watoku Ueno

costumes by Carol Ann Pelletier

dramaturgs: Wanda Phipps & Katerina Slipchenko

Ukrainian translations: Attila Mohylny & Virlana Tkacz

music: Vincent Katz sound: Eugene Kuziw

stage manager: Nancy Kramer graphics by Carmen Pujols

with Richarda Abrams, Andrew Colteaux, Jennifer Kato, Ichiro Kishimoto, Candace Dian Leverett, Olya Radchuk, Shigeko, Mykola Shkaraban and Ian Wen

T: How did your parents help you grasp Ukrainian culture?

V: I learned some things from my grandfather. My mother left Ukraine during World War II. She was 10 years old at the time. She told stories about big doors, a dog, and a doll she had to leave behind. My mother never talked about World War II. It was traumatic because they experienced all the bombings. But my grandfather talked about World War I.

He knew Les Kurbas. Not very well, but he knew him. Kurbas was a year older, and they studied together at the University in Vienna. My grandfather always tried to tell me about Kurbas, but I wasn't interested then.

T: During your work on the play about Kurbas, was your grandfather still living?

V: No, my grandfather had passed away many years before I made the play. I couldn't ask him.

I also staged a big Eugene O`Neill play for my master's thesis. It's called «All God's Chillun Got Wings». It was a rare play about the relationships between «Blacks» and «Whites». We were living in Newark. I met a lot of very good people there — both African Americans and in the theatre community. I encountered people who helped me a lot.

It was impossible to gather a multinational cast for the play in Columbia. It was the 80s. We even called Barack Obama and invited him to join us in shows. He wasn't President back then, but he was one of the students who said, «I don't have time. I'm in Law School». Then we tried to involve people from other colleges, but  it was difficult to do.

I tried a lot at that time. I worked with the director of progressive theater, George Ferencz. He said, «If we can do it, why can't you?». He came from Cleveland and was Hungarian. We did around 50 plays together. Then we also worked together at La MaMa.

One of the actresses in my first Yara show was an African American — Shona Tucker. She's a great actress. She also teaches at Vassar College now. In 1991, she travelled with me to Kyiv.

T: Did you attend a Ukrainian school during your childhood?

V: I went to a Ukrainian Catholic School in Newark. We learned the Ukrainian language and religion. The rest of the subjects were in English.

My grandpa started a Ukrainian Saturday School back in 1949 when they arrived here on ships during the summer. They had to work, and the school had two purposes: taking care of kids when their parents were working and making sure the younger generation knew the Ukrainian language.

My grandpa's name was Kostyantyn Kysilevsky. He was a professor and had a real passion for all of this. He worked with dictionaries as a philologist. One day, he discovered the name "Virlana" in an old document and shared it with his cousin, who was a well-known feminist. She loved it because it meant "Young Eagle," not a very typical "girly" name. So when I was born, she insisted on naming me Virlana.

T: Please tell us about your trips to Ukraine. When did you visit?

V: I made my first trip to Ukraine back in December 1990, a time when it was still part of the USSR. I returned the following summer to put on our play about Les Kurbas at the Ivan Franko Theatre in Kyiv. It was a significant time – we opened our play the same week as the Moscow coup, and shortly after, Ukraine declared its independence in 1991. Our journey was captured in a film by director Amy Grappell called "Lights from the East."

In the diaspora here we used to hear fairy tales about white small cottages and cherry orchards. But in the 1990s everything was different. There were no streetlights; it was dark everywhere. Moreover, my luggage was lost at the airport, and I was left only in my pyjama because I thought I would sleep on the plane. I had nothing with me, and everyone thought I would immediately run back home.

I got to know Nina Matviyenko and we found a common language. Then the person who brought me to Kyiv, Serhiy Proskurnia, took me to Kharkiv, to the Berezil Theatre. I met the last actor who had worked with Kurbas — Roman Cherkashyn. He was amazed by my extensive knowledge of Ukrainian theatre. I knew it not just from books. Yosyp Hirniak, a well-known Berezil actor, lived in New York. He wrote his memoirs, and Bohdan Boychuk collected them. So, much of what I learned about Kurbas came from Yosyp Hirniak.

Guided by Roman Cherkashyn, I visited the historic "Slovo" building in the heart of Kharkiv, not far from the Derzhprom building. He pointed out, "You see, Virlana, over there, Pavlo Tychyna is writing poems, here Kurbas is preparing a play, and Mykola Khvylovy shot himself right here." At that moment, a profound realization dawned upon me – I possessed a deep understanding of Ukraine's culture.

Cherkashyn felt he was supposed to say those words to someone, someone who would create a link between the 1920s and the current 2020s. And at that moment I first felt the importance of my visits to Ukraine.

When I returned next summer to Kharkiv, Roman Cherkashshyn couldn't come to see our play because of his health. But we visited him, and I took my Ukrainian actors to the Slovo Building and managed to convey his message to the next generation.


Virlana Tkacz by Mary Nevezhyna

"Three Wooden Trunks" is a collection of poems by Virlyana about her relatives when they first moved to America.

Zhadan Front Cover.jpg

What We Live For, What We Die For: Selected Poems (2019)

Serhiy Zhadan (author), Virlana Tkacz (translator), 

Wanda Phipps (translator), Bob Holman (foreword)

Zhadan How Fire Descends.jpg

How Fire Descends: New and Selected Poems (October, 2023)

Serhiy Zhadan (author), Virlana Tkacz (translator), 

Wanda Phipps (translator), Illya Kaminsky (foreword)

T: Have you also been to Kyiv?

V: I went to Kyiv with Shona Tucker. We were looking for Ukrainian actors for our play. It was challenging because not everyone can perform in a bilingual play. Only one actress knew English — Olesia Zhulynska. The following actors were in the play: Olexiy Bohdanovych, Mykola Shkaraban, Maryana Sadovska, Larysa Nedina, Stepan Pasichnik and Sergej Berezhko.

Great actors don't just speak their lines, they perform them. They transform. Each actor in our show «Light From the East»  plays themselves and one of Kurbas’s actors. It was a play about how the «Young Theatre» was created, including all those funny stories they told, and about the dreams of changing the world.

I lived and worked in Kyiv for a while. I was on the lookout for poets to translate, and that's when I got to know the young Serhiy Zhadan, with whom I've been friends and working ever since.

T: When have you visited Ukraine the last time? Can you tell us about this?

V: I was last in Ukraine in December 2021. I started work on «Radio 477!» a new theatre piece based on a jazz musical at the Berezil Theatre in 1929. The people who created the original lived in the «Slovo» building, where I had a residency. I was talking to Julian, my friend, about how I met many young people now who know more about all this than I do. A new generation is emerging, thoroughly exploring our culture. And I used to have to do all this on my own.

T: You also staged «The Forest Song» based on the play by Lesia Ukrainka?

V: Yes, and I had never seen this play before. Lesia Ukrainka writes that «the forest speaks» So, the actors have to be the forest. I told the cast, «Okay, all of you will play trees». Or the part where the field asks Mavka not to reap and actors should play the field: «It's like everybody's favourite play». [laughing]

We did this together with the Lviv Theatre.

Karen Angela Bishop (she is one of the best actresses) came with me to Lviv to play the lead role. She studied at Yale University. Originally, Yunjin Kim played the main role, but she couldn't come. Then Ellen Stewart, the founder of La MaMa Theatre, said, «Don't look for someone the same. You'll never find someone the same. Just look for someone good». She was always right.



exploring the shifting boundaries between wilderness and civilization

created by Virlana Tkacz with the Yara Arts Group

based on "Forest Song" by Lesia Ukrainka
translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps

directed by Virlana Tkacz, designed by Watoku Ueno
music by Genji Ito, movement by Shigeko Suga
Ukrainian co-translators: Oksana Batiuk, Victor Neborak & Virlana Tkacz
slides: Watoku Ueno & Ole Hein P

slide projection: Oleh Tsona
assistant director: Jude Domski, Lviv literary manager: Kateryna Slipchenko
production coordinator: Kaori Fujiyabu, stage manager: Miyan Levenson
graphics by Carmen Pujols

with: Richarda Abrams, Jude Domski, Yunjin Kim, Victoria Linchon, Tim Reynolds, Sean Runnette, Katy Selverstone, Irina Soto, Shigeko Suga, Ian Wen stage manager: Nancy Kramer

Lviv, Ukraine:

Kurbas Young Theatre May 14 - 22, 1994 with: Karen-Angela
Bishop, Andrew Colteaux, Jude Domski, Oleh Drach, Tetiana Kaspruk, Lesia Kachor, Natalka
Korpan, Natalka Polovynka, Shigeko Suga, Andrei Vodichev and Ian Wen

T: What do people in New York think of Ukrainian writers like Shevchenko and Lesia Ukrainka?

V: In New York, people mostly read English translations of these writers. These translations play a big role, and they should be clear. When you go to a play or read a book for the first time, you want to understand it without dwelling on the translation. So, the translations here should cater to English-speaking New York audiences, not just Ukrainians learning English.


T: How do you see your national identity?

V: I'm a New Yorker. We're all like that here, a bit of the whole world. Sometimes I speak more Ukrainian, but there was a time when I could only speak Ukrainian to my cat.



T: What are the discussions within the Ukrainian diaspora?


V: Well, you see, there isn't just one Ukrainian diaspora. Different topics pop up in different places. But the good news is, there's less conflict these days. People are uniting, especially among the newer generation.

T: About New York City... How has New York changed since you've been living here?

V: It used to be very dangerous, but we didn't think about it much. I live here, in the East Village, and spend time in villages in Ukraine, Siberia, and Kyrgyzstan. There was a time when more Ukrainians lived in the East Village, but many moved to the suburbs, and recently this area became very trendy and very expensive.

T: What places here inspire you?

V: I like walking along the streets from one river to another. There are always new places to discover, and they can be a great source of inspiration for me!

What are your theatre performance plans, and how do you see the future of theatre in Ukraine after the war?

VI'm working on a play called "Diary of War: Mariupol," which is based on diaries collected by Daria Kolomiec from people who went through the Siege of Mariupol when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Things are definitely going to change. Right now, there are many tough experiences, and it's hard to write about the war in depth because the focus is on reporting the facts. I hope that as time goes on, we'll have stories about the brighter side, our hope for a better world, presented on the stage.



memories and dreams of water 

created by Virlana Tkacz with the Yara Arts Group

conceived and directed by Virlana Tkacz
created with the Yara Arts Group and Nina Matvienko
composer: Genji Ito, 
design: Watoku Ueno, choreography: Shigeko Suga 
English translations: Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps 
Ukrainian translations: Oksana Batiuk and Virlana Tkacz

with: Cecilia Arana, Oksana Babyi, Karen-Angela Bishop, Yunjin Kim, Nina Matvienko and Shigeko Suga



Donbas Dreams Past, Present & Future

created by Yara Arts Group
performed by: Artem Manyilov, Larysa Rusnak, Mykola Shkaraban, 
Julian Kytasty, Ostap Kostyuk, Mykola Zelenchuk & Dakh Daughters Freak-Cabaret 
conceived &  directed by Virlana Tkacz
monologues & poetry: Serhiy Zhadan
projections & photography: Waldemart Klyuzko
presented by Izolyatsia Platform for Cultural Initiative



In 1858 the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko was set free after 10 years imprisonment. He met the great African-American actor Ira Aldridge

and drew his portrait. 

created and performed by Yara Arts Group:
Sean Eden, Maria Pleshkevich, Julian Kytasty, Jeremy Tardy,
Barak Tucker & Shona Tucker

conceived & directed by Virlana Tkacz
music Julian Kytasty, set & lights by Watoku Ueno
costumes by Keiko Obremski, with projections by Waldemart Klyuzko

READ poems by Taras Shevcheko in English translations


Virlana Tkacz by Mary Nevezhyna

By Alice Zhuravel and Olha Lukoje



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