Calling in from his theater in Needham, Igor Golyak opens the conversation with an initial sense of calm, despite the circumstances — Russia has only very recently invaded Ukraine, the country from which he emigrated to the United States in his childhood.
The calmness suits him: Golyak, the founder and the artistic director of the Arlekin Players Theatre, has devoted much of his life’s work to telling the stories of the oppressed and the marginalized.
Arlekin’s most recent production, “Witness,” tells the story of the 1939 voyage of MS St. Louis and the 937 Jews aboard who unsuccessfully sought refuge in North America from the atrocities of Nazi Germany. “One of the ideas of “Witness” was that we’re witnessing a horrific event,” Golyak says. “During that time, there was a letter sent to President Roosevelt and all sorts of meetings and all sorts of things. But nobody accepted the people. A third of them died, and they could have been saved.”
Golyak, who is himself Jewish, implores the U.S. to see the parallels between this catastrophic event and the terrors of the present day. “We’re witnessing … the same shit,” he said.
The reality of the present situation in Ukraine prompted him to do something more with his position at the Arlekin Players Theatre. “I don’t want to make a fucking play about it again. We’re still not cutting off the air, the sky,” he said. “We’re still deciding whether to pay $3 extra at the gas station or if we should let 10,000 more people die from the bombings. That’s what we’re deciding, and that’s what we’re witnessing.”
“Does art help? Does art change people? No, it probably doesn’t,” he said. And so, rather than make another play about it, Golyak and his theater launched #ArtistsForUkraine, a social media campaign dedicated to soliciting donations and sending video messages of support from U.S.-based artists to the people of Ukraine. So far, they have raised over $20,000 for the humanitarian organization Nova Ukraine. More recently, they directed their efforts towards helping provide shelter and clothing for Ukrainians fleeing the invasion. The theater company’s work has not gone unnoticed in the art world, receiving messages of support from A-listers such as Mark Ruffalo and theater world heavyweights like Jessica Hecht.
Golyak focuses on messages of support and fundraising because he “doesn’t know what else he can do.” And despite Arlekin’s success, Golyak thinks that the actions taken so far are still inadequate. “The purpose is to try to stop the killing, and to raise awareness. It’s just not enough right now,” he said.
But he believes that individuals can help by pressuring politicians to send immediate help to the people of Ukraine.
Though one of Golyak’s recommendations to block off Ukrainian airspace from Russia remains fraught with unresolved political questions, the U.S. government did move forward with a ban on imports of Russian fossil fuels in the weeks since the interview.
Regardless of how one chooses to act, Golyak made clear that, to him, taking action to the greatest extent that one can is what matters in times of global crisis. “Our children are going to ask us, what did you do? What did you do,” he said. “Just like after World War Two, everybody, everybody was on the hook.
For Golyak, this means taking what he does best — creating art — and bringing it out of the past and the realm of the fictional to the here and now, leveraging his position and his knowledge to try to make as much change as possible. It is now up to the rest of us to think quickly and critically about how we — as individuals, as a collective — are best able to try and make a similar effort.