Pictured Above: L: Daniel Donskoy, R: Robert David Grant . Photo Credit: Charles Erickson.
The Power to Reflect Through Art, a Conversation with Daniel Donskoy
By Anthony Stoeckert
Writer Anthony Stoeckert interviews International performer Daniel Donskoy (Strike Back, The Crown, Barbarians) about his stage debut in Emily Mann’s latest production, “The Pianist,” his connection to the role, and the power of art.
Daniel Donskoy is clearly an artist who wants to make a difference.
The actor has established quite a resume since making his stage debut during the 2014 Camden Fringe festival in London. He has since gone on to roles on Netflix’s hit series The Crown, various British television shows, and the German series, Sankt Maik (which earned him a Bavarian Television Award nomination). He has also made his mark on London’s West End in various shows, including an acclaimed run as Jim O’Connor in The Glass Menagerie at the Nottingham Playhouse.
Donskoy has also lent his voice to various causes. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (his mother is Ukrainian), he wrote a song titled Vojne (“No to War”). He also takes pride in his award-winning German show Freitagnacht Jews (Friday Night Jews), which he describes as a “heartfelt exploration of modern Jewish identity,” and by becoming the first Jewish entertainer to host the German Film Awards.
“Pride wouldn’t be the right word to describe my involvement and interest in my own cultural background,” Donskoy says. “My multicultural upbringing profoundly influences me. I was born in Russia, grew up in Germany and Israel, and have lived in the UK for over 12 years. The mechanisms of being an immigrant, of fitting in and struggling to do so, are all elements that I can bring to the table regarding character development. Living life to the fullest with all the joy and all the sorrow can help create multidimensional characters, which is my aim. Always.”
Pictured Above: Cast of The Pianist. Photo Credit: Charles Erickson
Donskoy is now focused on his starring role in Emily Mann’s The Pianist, a new play based on Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir, running at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through October 22. The Pianist tells the story of Szpilman’s survival through music as atrocities were committed Jewish people in Warsaw during World War II. The book was the basis for the 2002 movie that earned Adrien Brody an Oscar.
“The play is a deep dive into the life and struggles of Wladislav Szpilman during one of the most tumultuous periods in history,” Donskoy says. “Portraying Szpilman is both an honor and a challenge. His resilience and his connection to music amidst chaos are a story that resonates deeply. We meet a loving family that is shattered in a matter of months, and the only survivor, the only person left to tell the story, is Wladislav himself. I felt an immediate connection to Emily Mann’s script when approached for the role. The narrative, the historical context, and the emotional depth were all elements that drew me in, and I am so grateful and happy for this opportunity.”
The adaptation is being billed as a “play with music,” and features an original score by Iris Hond.
Pictured Above: L: Tina Benko, R: Daniel Donskoy. Photo Credit: Charles Erickson
“It’s a beautiful amalgamation of narrative and music,” Donskoy says. “In many ways, the piano becomes a character in the story, representing hope, solace, and resistance. But on top of that, Iris Hond’s score and Mark Bennett’s sound design bring an audio-visual experience that is special and unique to a theater production. As Szpilman, I’ve had the unique experience of acting and expressing myself through music. It’s been a journey of discovering the character’s soul through the piano’s keys. Something that I’ve had to do many a time in my life. I’ve moved and lived in many countries with different cultures, but one constant is the universal understanding of music.”
Making this run even more special is the fact that the source material holds a special place for Donskoy.
“Szpilman’s memoir and subsequent film adaptation have always profoundly moved me,” he says. “They offer a poignant look into a period of history that should never be forgotten. I was just 12 years old when the movie came out, and I remember vividly being shaken by it. The memoir served as the main instrument in my preparation for the role, providing layers of context and letting me hear Wladislav Spielman’s thoughts.”
The show marks Donskoy’s American stage debut, and it’s giving him the opportunity to work with Mann, who is also directing and is a New Jersey theater legend through her 30-year tenure as artistic director at McCarter Theatre in Princeton.
“Emily is a force of nature,” Donskoy says. “Her vision, dedication to the craft, and deep understanding of the material have been invaluable. Collaborating with her has been a true delight. Every discussion, every rehearsal has been a process of discovery.”
Pictured Above: Facing L-R: Daniel Donskoy, Austin Pendleton, Paul Spera. Photo Credit: Charles Erickson
The cast includes another legend–Austin Pendleton, the renowned director, playwright, and actor whose roles include Catch-22, What’s Up Dock, My Cousin Vinny, and A Beautiful Mind.
“Austin is a powerhouse of experience,” Donskoy says. “Every interaction with him is a learning opportunity. His insights, feedback, and collaborative spirit have been inspiring to all cast members. He is our ‘Papa’ on stage and off.
“Making my American stage debut with such a poignant play is both exhilarating and humbling. The reception and support from the audience have been overwhelming, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. I cherish every moment of being on that stage and telling the story.
For Donskoy, acting and music are more than entertainment, they are an opportunity for him to engage with an audience and share a unique perspective with them.
“Art has the power to reflect, comment on, and influence society,” he says. “Lending my voice to critical issues is my way of contributing to the discourse and advocating for change. ‘The Pianist,’ with its themes of resilience, survival, and the human spirit, resonates deeply with my beliefs and the causes I hold dear. I am drawn towards material that can entertain and educate, so ‘The Pianist’ was precisely what I was looking for artistically.’
The Pianist is being performed at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, through Oct. 22. For tickets and information, go to georgestreetplayhouse.org.
Pictured Above: L: Daniel Donskoy, R: Charlotte Ewing. Photo Credit: Charles Erickson