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  • NYS Writers Institute

Grayce Susan Burian, 1926-2023: Theatre professor, patron of the arts

We're saddened to share news of the passing of Grayce Susan Burian, former theatre professor and longtime benefactor of the NYS Writers Institute. After a life dedicated to art, education and foremost to her husband, Jarka, Grayce died November 16 after a short illness. She was 97.

Upon hearing the news of her passing, Writers Institute Founder William Kennedy said, "Grayce Burian was a rare being who lived a long and serious life with another rare being - Jarka Burian, who predeceased her by several years. The two of them lived a life that was as deeply involved in world theater culture as people can possibly be. We grieve at her passing, so grateful that we did such wonderful theater together over the years. There are few people in the world as valuable as the Burians were. Bon voyage, Grayce."

Writers Institute Director Paul Grondahl said: “I always referred to Grayce Burian as our Amazing Grayce. She was an extraordinary woman. Grayce was a beloved member of the Writers Institute family for a long time and we mourn her passing. I enjoyed her visits to our office, a lunch date on her birthday, and her generous notes about our programs. I can still hear her voice, urging us ever forward, and challenging us to remain relevant and excellent."

1974 - Grayce Burian teaching English and Drama

Grayce was born into an Italian-American family in Boston, where she studied acting and performed in theatre productions. After graduating high school, she moved to New York City and began a theatre career. She met Jarka when they were cast in a play together. They were married at The Little Church Around the Corner, the Episcopal parish in Manhattan with a longstanding association with the theater.

Though briefly successful in New York, the Burians’ professional acting careers were sidetracked by both World War II and the Korean War, in which Jarka served in the Army. When he returned, he pursued an academic theatre career and eventually became a world-renowned scholar in Czech theatre. During this time Grayce was his strongest supporter and advisor.

Grayce then began her own career in theatre education. She eventually received BA and MA degrees from SUNY Albany, where Jarka was a professor of theatre history for more than 40 years. Although they had no children of their own, their overlapping teaching careers provided them both the chance to nurture college students. Grayce taught at Hudson Valley Community College and The College of Saint Rose in Albany and established the theatre program at Schenectady County Community College, where she taught and directed for over 20 years.

John Sayles and Grayce Burian

In 1997, the Burians endowed a lecture series in theatre established at the NYS Writers Institute, which has brought many well-known theatre artists to the University at Albany, including Tina Howe, Wallace Shawn, A. R. Gurney, Rita Moreno, and John Sayles (left, with Grayce in 2012).

Teaching and acting were not Grayce’s only achievements. She studied sculpture in her twenties and over the years created fine, highly regarded wood sculptures. She made her own clothing and jewelry. Well into her later years, she maintained a dance floor in her home to practice another of her great loves, flamenco dancing. Jarka and Grayce also travelled extensively, usually spending a year at a time in Europe, especially the Czech Republic. In her eighties Grayce wrote a memoir of her years with Jarka, including an historic time working in occupied Czechoslovakia. From Jerry to Jarka: A Breezy Memoir of a Long, Peripatetic Marriage was published by Ohio State University Press in 2013.

Grayce spent many years after Jarka died working tirelessly to preserve his legacy. In an interview published on the UAlbany website a few years ago, she spoke about the five endowments they established at the University: "It’s important. It has to go on. Support what you believe in and what’s important to you.”

She now leaves a legacy of her own, one of artist, writer, teacher and friend. Grayce is survived by her sisters Teresa and Diane, many nieces and nephews and their children, and by her many dear friends.

A memorial honoring her life will be planned for the spring of 2024.


On July 10, 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 shutdown, we published a Q&A with Grayce talking about the arts, the 1968 Prague Spring, the pandemic, and her remarkable creative life and partnership with Jarka during their 54 years of marriage.


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