Q&A with Grayce Burian: Talking about the arts, the 1968 Prague Spring, and the pandemic
We had a wonderful interview exchange with author, actor and theatre scholar Grayce Burian, a University at Albany alumna and a dear friend of ours at the Writers Institute.
Grayce is the driving force behind the Burian Lecture Series, presented by the Writers Institute and the UAlbany Theatre department and now in its 23rd year. The annual Burian Lecture brings to UAlbany leading scholars and acclaimed practitioners of the art of the theatre.
The Jarka & Grayce Susan Burian Endowment funds the lecture series. Jarka Burian, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Czech theatre, taught in the UAlbany theatre department from 1955 until 1993. The couple, pictured at left, was married for 54 years when he passed away in 2005.
Grayce Burian is the author of From Jerry to Jarka: A Breezy Memoir of a Long, Peripatetic Marriage (2013). Her memoir recounts the couple’s numerous extended stays in Czechoslovakia (and later, the Czech Republic) over a period of several decades from the 1960s to the 2000s, as that country experienced dramatic political upheavals and cultural transformations. [Order information.]
The Burians arrived in Prague just days after the Soviet Bloc invasion in 1968 and remained there throughout that turbulent year while observing student protests and meeting with dissident artists, including playwright Vaclav Havel. The couple also was in Prague immediately following the 1989 Velvet Revolution and Grayce Burian offers a remarkable perspective on those momentous historic events.
Grayce Burian is a Professor Emerita of Schenectady County Community County Community College, where she served for 21 years as founder and director of the Theatre Program. She built it into one of the most successful two-year theatre programs in New York State. She earned her B.A. and M.A. in Theatre from the University at Albany and serves on the Executive Board of the UAlbany Emeritus Center.
Q: How have you been coping with the quarantine and self-isolation during the coronavirus pandemic?
A: It is interesting that during these months of quarantine I have been busy with the process of moving. Once it was allowed, I moved from my 10-room house to a 3-room apartment in Avila, a senior living community. I have been trying to set things right, find everything, set up a new household.
When I have to go out, I do wear a face covering.
I receive communications from necessary places. What I have been doing has all been determined for me, rather than what I choose to do. I do hope to feel settled in my new place very soon, and then I will no doubt have to be concerned with what I am all about during this awful pandemic.
Maybe soon I will be able to read more books and see a movie.
Q: You and your husband Jarka are an amazing love story and you shared a remarkable creative life and partnership together during 54 years of marriage. Can you share the story of how you two met?
A: I met my husband while doing an off-Broadway show (in 1950). There was an ad in Actors Cues, the publication at that time that listed all the casting calls in New York City. A friend was going to a tryout for a French play and suggested I go too. I said I did not think I was the type they wanted. He persuaded me to go anyway, and, to my surprise, I liked trying out.
I was thrilled when I was called the next day and told that I had the lead in the play, The Man Who Married a Dumb Wife. It was just a summer production, which was fine. Jarka had a supporting role in it, but we did not really get together until the play was over. He was getting his Ph.D. at Columbia University at the time.
No sooner had the fall semester started than he was called into the Army again. (He was in Germany with the troops of occupation after WWII when he enlisted between his third and fourth years at Rutgers University, and then later joined the Army Reserves.) He was stationed on Governor's Island in New York awaiting assignment overseas The government came out with a point system, which determined who could be dismissed from duty. We had been going together for a year when we decided to get married, just before he was released from service.
Soon, we were on our way to Cornell University and stayed there from 1951 to 1955 while Jarka completed his Ph.D. I studied and worked in theatre. Our next move was to UAlbany (then called the New York State Teachers College), where I was able to complete both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theatre.
Q: You have spent 60 years working in live theatre. How can theatre remain vital and survive in this pandemic time of quarantine, lockdown and social distancing?
A: From what I have been able to decipher through correspondence is that most of the theatre groups are stopping production for the time being, but they are making plans for reopening. I do know that there are groups performing virtually on Zoom and online. I understand theatre schools are having difficulty with their technical classes, especially acting workshops. I think lectures about drama and theatre history should be going well online.
Q: Do you see any parallels to what is happening now regarding the coronavirus pandemic and the reckoning over centuries of systemic racism in the U.S. and the struggle for democracy over totalitarianism that you witnessed during the 1968 Prague Spring?
A: We were on our way to Prague when Russia and other Warsaw Pact nations marched in to quell a slow rise toward to what seemed to be the beginning of democracy. There was no problem such as a virus. The only problem for the Czech people was the invaders, which they handled extremely well, without force. We stayed in an apartment in the center of Prague, just behind the hotel where some of the Russian soldiers were stationed. The soldiers all looked so young, innocent and afraid.
One way the citizens handled the situation was by changing all the road signs so that the troops and their tanks and military vehicles were confused and took much longer to get to Prague. When they did arrive in the city center, the Czechs said, “Pretend they are not here, they are just air.” They refused to acknowledge them.
Q: Did you ever feel like you were ever in physical danger during the uprising?
A: No, not at all. On occasion, the Russian soldiers would fire over the heads of the students who might just be standing in groups. Occasionally, a bullet struck a student and there were fatalities. When a citizen was killed, hundreds of students would come out in to the streets with displays of flowers in memory of the dead demonstrator. The students would just stand by their fallen friend.
We often saw large groups of students gathering around police trucks and not moving. On occasion students were arrested, but they were soon released. Students never fought back and ignored the soldiers even when they confronted the demonstrators.
Q: What other indelible memories do you have from that period of rebellion and revolution starting in 1968 when you and Jarka lived in Prague?
A: When 20-year-old university student Jan Palach set himself on fire and died of his burns in January 1969 as part of a protest, it just held the country together even more. There were mass demonstrations in honor of Palach, but we witnessed no violence after that, just flower memorials and silent rebellion. The tanks and soldiers seemed to disappear, but Czechs told us they were around, watching them, even though they were not visible to us. The non-violent demonstrations did work.
On another note, a man named Ephraim Einhorn appeared at the American Embassy while I was there one day. He said he had come to research some writings of Jewish writers in Prague. A year later, he met with Jarka and me and told us that he actually had come to investigate how Jews were being treated, He told us he uncovered no harassment or persecution of Jews and that the large Jewish population had been treated well for the most part.
Q: What brought you to Prague in 1968 in the first place?
A: Jarka knew Czech very well. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had the longest history of subsidized theatre anywhere in the world. The U.S. at the time was considering following their model. Jarka was able to receive grants to study their methods.
We first spent time in Prague in 1965. Jarka was invited to direct The Glass Menagerie there. He was the first Western director to do so. It ended up running in repertory for a couple of years.
Q: You have suggested that the theatre can be a revolutionary force and that the Prague protesters in 1968 defied the Russian soldiers by making art during that time of occupation.
A: Yes, the people fought back with their theatre.
Theatre was constantly going on at that time, minus plays or operas produced by the invading countries. I recall a citizen production of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters and there was no doubt in their interpretation that the three sisters stood for Czechoslovakia. New plays also were being written with such themes. The audience loved those subversive productions and the theatre was more popular than ever that year.
Q: You are 93 years old. What lessons and wisdom has your age presented that you might share with us?
A: I guess I would just have to say what my Italian family always says: Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be.
As long as you have tried your best to make the right things happen, then you just have to accept. I still hope to learn what it all means some day.
Grayce Susan Burian : Personal Retirement Story, posted on the SUNY Retirees Service Corps site
Grayce Susan Burian : Personal Retirement Story, posted on the SUNY Retirees Service Corps site
Visit our YouTube channel to watch a playlist of past Burian Lecture guests.