Skip to main content

Theater's Social Impact: Q&A with Russian Antiwar Playwright Mikhail Durnenkov

Meet Mikhail Durnenkov, world renowned anti-war playwright, and 2024 Maya Brin Artist-in-Residence.

Every year, hundreds of J-1 scholars come to Maryland from around the world—and they become part of our Terp community. Meet Mikhail Durnenkov, world renowned anti-war playwright, and 2024 Maya Brin Artist-in-Residence. Durnenkov is a visiting faculty member in the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures and the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies (TDPS) for the Spring 2024 semester. Durnenkov’s play, “Are We at War Yet,” written in 2014 in the aftermath of Russia’s open war against Ukraine and its annexation of the Crimea, is being produced by TDPS as part of its mainstage season (April 19-26, 2024).


Please note that answers have been modified to accommodate Mikhail’s responses in both Russian and English. Italicized text indicates responses translated from Russian. 

  1. Can you tell us what inspired you to become a playwright? When did you know this would be the right career for you?

    Accidentally…actually. [I’ve been] writing since I [can] remember… 5 or 6 years old.

    I found my way to the theater completely by accident, and in general, my first higher education was engineering. In college I realized that my whole life would be spent at a factory and not agreeing with this, I decided to pursue theater.

    Because my parents wanted me to be [an] engineer…it was the 90s in Russia. It was  a very tough time. That’s why my first education was [engineering]. Luckily, I came to an amateur theater. Which was led by playwright, Vadim Levanov, who invited me to write. 

    He asked every person who came to his theater, “Perhaps you want to write a play?” I was surprised and asked, “It must be very difficult to write plays?” He said  “No, it’s very easy, on the left who is speaking and on the right what is being said.” That's how I started writing plays.

    [I] didn’t know what I wanted…maybe to be an actor or something like that. It wasn’t a mistake in my life, I think. I used this way of thinking in my job…for structure, for character, for a more sophisticated plot.

  2. What other artists inspire you to pursue your passion?

    In the beginning of my career, I was very inspired by documentary theater, which was thriving [at] that time in Moscow. Teatr.doc. It is a quite famous documentary theater. Also by British theater and British playwrights like Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter. They were my examples for writing.

    In Russian theater, the dot doc, there were a couple of artistic directors: Michail Ugarov and Elena Gremina. They really helped me [at] that time and invited me to be a playwright. They presented my plays at festivals and in their theater. My first success was there. I am so grateful [to] these people, that when I became a professional, I wanted to pay it back to them and to playwrights themselves. It has changed my life.

    I ran the festival of young playwrights. Lubimovka, a well known festival in Russia that has a history of more than 30 years. For many years, I was one of the artistic directors of the festival. Every year we collected plays, about 700, from around the world. The only condition was that the play should be written in Russian, but there were plays from America, Australia, Ukraine, Belarus…everywhere. We presented 30 plays every year to a theater audience and theaters themselves.

  3. What was the inspiration for "Are We At War Yet?"

    I was inspired by [the] events of these days. In 2015, after the Crimean annexation…It wasn’t possible to stage this play in Russia. I was lucky that a Scottish theater in Glasgow commissioned me to write this play. I wanted to write and capture the moment in society [that] I was witnessing. I fixed every situation because…

    I felt how society was gradually becoming hardened and how this idea of ​​war in society was gradually sprouting as if from some situations it appeared between us and started to thicken. I somehow wanted to warn people about what I felt and saw and at the same time record the moment.

  4. Are any of these parables based in real life?

    It is a mix, some are literally pieces of conversations, not a situation, but examples of people's logic. For example, in the instance when two parents reproach their child for participating in a peace march, they unexpectedly come to the conclusion that a peace march means burning the flags of enemies. This was the absurdity of logic, and the breakdown of logic of that time.

  5. Are you concerned about the meaning being lost in translation? We noticed that the titles are not the same in English and in Russian.

    I think that something was certainly lost in translation, this feeling of fear, I think comes from recognizing a situation. And if you have never been in this situation, then you do not experience this fear. For example, the scene at the airport, I think it would be difficult for the American public to understand. It might be a strange concept for them to imagine that the lights could be turned off, the borders closed and you would not be allowed out of the country like in a prison.  

    But I think some other situations that are built on personal relationships, like the scene with the parents, are very easy to understand, and that is the basis of the play.

    [The change of the title] is not so clumsy in English… it makes it easier to say “Are We At War Yet?” [rather than] “The War Hasn’t Started Yet.” I was involved in the translation.

  6. Is this your first time in the United States?

    No. But is my first time teaching here [as a] J1 visitor.

  7. How does it feel to be a scholar selected for the Maya Brin Residency Program?

    I can only admire how well organized the system is. I am happily, and with astonishment, acquainting myself with what it is like to be an instructor at an American university. I’m very grateful for this opportunity

    You know… it's different. I was a teacher, you know, but this kind is very different [from] my Russian experience.

  8. Have you had time to adjust to Maryland? What is your favorite thing about campus?

    I think that a lot has been done here for people to easily integrate into social roles and life. Life in America itself seems very intuitive and understandable.

    [The experience] is created by thinking about people. So it’s very easy to understand. I understand why. Because it’s developing the [arts] environment and giving a new angle, a new perspective from different worlds. I like this system here [at UMD], like how I can enter with my ID card in every part of this campus.

    I teach a course of mostly senior and some sophomore students. We talk about theater, theater as a part of culture, as a part of literature in the context of plays. I also introduce them a little to dramaturgy, and how to write and look at plays from the author’s point of view.

  9. Do you notice any differences between American students and other students that you have taught?

    My vision about Americans is that they are very brave.

    I'm amazed at how shy they are. [My vision of American students was that] they know how to present themselves. It seems to me that there is also a language difference here, since I teach in Russian. They are very shy about their Russian language, and during every lesson it takes me a lot of effort [to get them more comfortable].

    I try to split my class time for 50% game time… it’s not so easy. 

  10. What do you hope that the audience gains from the upcoming performances?

    Yury Urnov is the director [for this performance].

    On one hand, the relevance of this play has passed because the war has already begun, on the other hand, it still remains a warning to society and it seems to me that this uneasy feeling in the world that we are seeing has not gone anywhere. Therefore, the more you pay attention to this, the better. And some of the challenges of today and recent years are not going away; on the contrary, they are intensifying. I have observed these trends in America as well. I visited in 2008-2009 for the first time, and society was not as divided as it is today. This division of society, polarization or even 3 way division, is very striking and a bad sign in my opinion.

  11. Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to pursue the arts as a career?


    I can speak about the theater. Theater is good for those who have what is called a social temperament. For those who want to change something in society. In that case I think theater is the right path. Theater no longer exists by itself; its importance today as an institution is as a social instrument above all. Therefore, if you have such ardor, then you should go, but if you just want to portray other people on stage, then maybe you should try the film industry instead of the theater.

  12. Are there any Russian artists you would recommend to a U.S. audience?

    I am not [the only one] who fled Russia after the war began. A lot, thousands, of Russian artists now

    They are scattered all over the world

    And some of them are really really interesting.

    I urge you to pay attention to them, because I wouldn’t want them to become these sparks and fade away in the dark. In America, for example, there is a director Dmitry Krymov who lives and works in New York, and produces very interesting plays. He used to be one of the best directors of pre-war Russia.

    The people who are in America.

    and whose names would be relevant to Americans. The rest who are in Europe would make no sense to name.

  13. Are there any projects you are working on currently?

    Actually on a J1 visa I am not allowed to work on other projects.

    [But] future plans? A lot of them!

    I will be writing a play for our wonderful actresses who emigrated to Europe. Specifically for them, because they are two great actresses, and for me it is a big challenge to write a play for two women. There are very few such plays in the world. If I do this I will be very proud of myself. Also in Finland I will be working on a big musical project, similar to an opera, about corruption.

Back to Top