Kings and Gods

Moscow recently hosted the next Workshop for Young Directors from the CIS Countries and Georgia, organized by the International Confederation of Theatre Unions and the CIS Intergovernmental Foundation for Educational, Scientific and Cultural Cooperation (IFESSCO).

 Many of those directors attended that kind of workshops in the past. This is the way the backbone of an as yet unnamed theatre community is formed. A review of productions created by these directors is planned for the next year. The current workshop is being conducted by Sergei Zhenovach, Kama Ginkas, Sergei Barkhin, Mark Zakharov, Dmitry Krymov, and Viktor Ryzhakov conducting the present workshop overstepped at once the bounds of the topic, defined as “Director and Artist”. Their young colleagues were interested in absolutely everything – how to cope with their own crisis and what to do about sloppiness on the part of the actors; how to treat new drama; how to explain a task to an artist. “And it might seem like we would hear some common truths, but it is still interesting to know how each of the masters solves his own problems. It is fascinating to stew in this soup,” say participants.

In the breaks between master classes, guests from CIS countries talked to our correspondent about theatre situation in their respective countries.

 Mansur Holikov, Uzbekistan. Graduated from the Tashkent State Institute of Arts; works at the Satire Theatre. Staged seven productions; as director he debuted with Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire under the Elms”.

 “We have a theatre agency called ‘Uzbek Theatre’. Experts of this agency must approve all the productions. And 37 theatres across the entire republic obey their decisions. In order to keep your audience you need to make productions of a certain artistic level. In the Past without this artistic censorship, it happened that some of the productions were released so bad that one could hardly even call them theatre. Now, thanks to the necessity of receiving the approval of the established board of experts, theatre companies grow professionally. Naturally, we need to show the dark sides of life, the other side of the coin. Still, theatre must first and foremost appeal to the soul of man.”

 Shamil Dyikanbaev, Kyrgyzstan. Theatre experience – plays by McDonagh, Heiner Müller’s “Medea” featuring the unique mistress of diphonic singing Stepanida Borisova, Yaroslava Pulinovich’s “Natasha’s Dream” at the Meyerhold Center.

 “I want the seed to give shoots. That was thrown into the ground in the 1920s, when European forms of theatre were being implanted in my country and helped to establish our national theatre as well. But after the disintegration of the USSR, traditional links began to break, and we started stewing in our own juices. We experienced isolation which affected our professional competence. Now, finally, we are rising up, though slowly.”

 Lucine Yernjakian, Armenia. Prefers contemporary plays about the relationship between men and women.

“As a matter of fact, we have a good positive movement ahead. There was stagnation when the old generation was passing, and the new was not able to find the way to break through. Today people are actively working, experimenting. People came to realize that, in difference from Internet, theatre is a live communication, and it attracted them. Competitions for admission in drama schools grew up (for some reason, there are lots of young women for theatre directing.) Unfortunately, there are very few stages for experimentations and special projects. You need to fight desperately for an any opportunity to try something out. Although, it is also true that life in hothouse conditions can help much.”

 Ion Oseru, Moldova. Worked as actor for eight years; dreams of theatre directing.

“The situation of Moldavan theatre is a painful and difficult subject. Experienced directors don’t necessarily turn the young ones away, but they say something vague and often mention lack of money, as if they are hiding behind that problem.”

 Pavel Yurov, Ukraine. Theatre experience – “Phantom Pains” by Vassily Sigarev. Award for the best debut in directing .

“We have a clear split into academic and free theatre. Academic theatre lives in isolation and moves nowhere. It’s threatening and fatal. What is still positive – we have some informal theatres. Unfortunately, Kiev no longer has its own festival (there was no money for Gogolfest this year). Kiev is not the most theatre-loving city (Kharkov is much better); only five percent of the population are theatre-goers. As far as I am concerned, I will never accept to work in an academic theatre for a salary.”

 Rustamkhan Saitkhodjaev, Kazakhstan. Experience in directing – a full-length feature film “The Road of Destiny”, productions of “The Blushing Bride”, “The Matchmakers” and “The Wedding” based on the texts by different authors.

“I am an ethnic Uzbek. I work in a theatre that Nazarbayev opened for Uzbeks living in Kazakhstan. Our South Kazakhstan region turned out to be the most theatre-friendly. We have as many as eight theatres, including a Kazakh, an Uzbek and a Russian one. Our company is small, but we have our own audience. There is only one problem – lack of funds and these accursed tenders. Over every little thing!”

 Igor Petrov, Belarus. Degrees in acting, directing, theatre history (postgraduate) and Master’s Degree from the MeyerholdCenter. Staged productions based on the plays by Katayev, Bernard Shaw, Beckett, Gumilev, Vilkvist, Olivier Py and others; productions of musical performances (including Slavyansky Bazar). Works as an actor and director in the Yanka Kupala National Academic Theatre; teaches stage movement and biomechanics at the “People and Dolls” theatre; records audio books for the blind; stages read-throughs of contemporary plays.

“A read-through is an opportunity to do a quick and short-length job. For instance, I was the first director to do a read-through of Anna Yablonskaya. It hurt to learn of her death, but she always seemed to be in another dimension. There are people who need to be brought down to earth a bit by those who are near them.

You can do different kinds of theatre – including one with students and no sets, have your fun and then go your separate ways. But the audience loves a good show. And a director dreams of working with the best actors, who need to have material incentives, otherwise the motivation is gone. We also have a problem with continuity – it’s nothing like it is in Moscow, where a young director runs to consult with his instructor when he has an idea for a new production. And one’s social environment is, of course, also important. If a man has no environment, he becomes Man Friday.”


Sergei Barkhin on Russia’s best man


 Artist is God; he creates the earth. When a production has a false idea or acting is not easy, one starts grumbling on sets like if it were a steep climb uphill or monstrous heat in the desert. Well, the director is, naturally, the king.

Every time one needs to understand why a set is needed at all? Maybe it’s better to use the famous rug? But if you stage eight or ten productions on a rug, they will all blend together. You would still have bright costumes, masks, chairs, dolls – and that is no longer an empty space.

Did you notice that nothing in theatre improved over the last hundred years? Neither composers, nor playwrights, nor actors, singers. The only thing that changed for the better is the lighting.

All my life I’ve been trying to do the opposite. After all, the most important discoveries are not made in places where everyone runs to. After the war we lived in Nakhabino, in a barrack, and we gathered mushrooms for sustenance. One day my father brought home more than all of us together over the entire summer. All because he went in a different direction.

I staged about twenty productions based on Chekhov’s plays, but I’ve never been to Melikhovo. One day Borovsky said to me, “Do you know what the magic lake is like? It’s tiny.” I came to Melikhovo and was amazed – Russia’s best man lived in much poorer conditions than me, for example. And certainly nothing in that place heralded the writing of “The Seagull”.


Sergei Zhenovach on a field of wheat


Strange as it may seem, nowadays there is more theatre substance in prose than in plays. Prose is dreams, imagination. A playwright is a very rare gift; a playwright is the creator of his own theatre system. It is a mistake to think that Chekhov is only a playwright in his plays; his stories have enormous theatricality in them. You can, of course, do yet another production of “The Seagull”, but it is no less interesting to stage “A Boring Story” (as we are doing now with Yuri Solomin. And to think that nobody else dared to do it) or “The Duel”. With prose you feel more like a creator. And the majority of our maestros’ best productions are based on prose. Take for example, “The Queen of Spades” by Pyotr Fomenko, who kept all the commas and the ellipses. The writing fraternity showed no appreciation for it, but a year later his colleagues have literally taken this superb production apart into quotes.

Dramaturgy is not about the text but about the way of acting it out. One of the best productions that changed my generation was “The Square” by Nekrošius based on a completely moronic story about the correspondence between a teacher and an inmate. And now dramaturgy is nothing but a text that no longer requires a performance. A read-through is all that’s needed: have the actors sit down, read, shed a few tears, joke around. Such texts go after a dictation machine not the imagination. This was already around in the 1920s; it is not at all new drama. New drama is still Chekhov and Ibsen. Of course, theatre must have contemporary text. But contemporary does not mean the one I write as you are watching. But, rather, something like this: “Lone I muse but I feel not lonely,/ Covert solitude’s my lore;/ For my company I only/ Want my thoughts and nothing more.” How’s that, huh? And this is Lope de Vega.

There are no mistakes in our line of work – only misconceptions. Mistakes can be rubbed out with an eraser, but if you took it upon yourself to work with a human being, you need to find a solution. For me there is no such thing as a good or bad artist. There is artistic and non-artistic nature. Every artist has his or her own range, and you need to get a feel for that range. To understand when an artist is merely being capricious, and when he or she is truly unable to do it.

People ask me how one manages a theatre school. Well, here’s how. Sometimes out of five female contenders for a role four give birth. And once they have a child, they no longer live for theatre all that much. There is this tragic element – sometimes talent is lost. It is not without reason that, when “fomenki”* created their theatre, they made a pact – three years with no personal life, no children. Guys have a different vice – sometimes it’s alcohol, at other times it’s the “pipes of glory” (even though they seem normal when they are first admitted to the program). On the opposite side, we have an actress, who doesn’t have children yet, and she is playing eight leading roles out of nine. And that last one was very hard to create. You need to live with a role, to breathe a bit with it, to give that “field of wheat” a chance to breathe.

There is one more rule – you need to have at least two productions that involve the entire company. Because the Maly Theatre has actors, who never once worked with one other. Oleg Tabakov tells me that I am robbing myself as a director by only working with young actors. And I myself would love to work with my peers. But first I need to create a style for our theatre. After that I can breathe freely.


Kama Ginkas on the powerlessness of logic


The remarkable thing about art is the way it presents the interaction of the opposites. I declare my love for a woman, and my beloved’s husband is sitting nearby, though I am not aware of it, and I don’t understand her reaction. And such interactions can take place not only between actors, but also between music, lighting, set design. When a sad character is grieving to mournful music, though, it’s disgusting.

I worked with three great artists – Barkhin, Borovsky and Kochergin. I designed a couple of productions myself and understood that it was a wrong thing to do – you need to be able to look at the same idea from different angles. One time Barkhin and I were doing the production of “The Idiot” in Finland. As the two of us, Soviet people, were driving through our territory, all we saw was mud, wind-fallen trees. As soon as we got across the border, there was virgin snow. I always associate St. Petersburg’s physiology with mud: a girl drowns herself, and she’s pulled out covered in mud and algae; all the houses look like they are covered in scabs – the paint has peeled off from all the excess moisture and became bumpy. And Barkhin said: we’ll have white snow, ultramarine background, three thousand white roses and children. As you may recall, there were no children in that story. And suddenly I understood: Myshkin returns around Christmas time. He doesn’t recognize it very well, but he remembers something with anticipation, with joy. I am not a Christian, not a believer, but, as a director, I understand it very well.

While looking for props, we ran across a magnificent Finnish sleigh – this was something we absolutely had to take. Later we used this sleigh to drive several thousand roses through an ultramarine door. There were also children in knee-highs and collars, who sang Christmas carols (I used to do this in earnest). And a strange man suddenly appeared in that space. He was so fascinated with everything, and everyone waited for him for so long, and there were so many hopes for the future – but we all knew how it would end.


Dmitry Krymov on student-winners


I stopped painting, when I understood that I could do it at some certain level. I put a canvas and… I don’t worry! And I had just started having art exhibitions all over the world, my paintings were finally being sold, I started making money on this, blast it!

In art you cannot take someone else’s stuff. Followers always end up becoming a parody. If you need a system, create your own.

One time my students and I were analyzing the question of image. There was a need to jump out of concreteness. Take music, for instance. One girl bought many sleds, and she put a musical instrument wrapped in a small rag on each of them. And on the first sled she put a conductor’s baton. And she began playing on a toy xylophone. Another image – “Life by the River”. Several guys are sitting silently, and girls’ laughter can be heard above them – the girls are washing linen. Then the girls sit down at the top, dangling their bare feet, while the boys are looking gloomily up at those feet. Scary! Or here’s another one: during the semester dedicated to Ostrovsky, one girl presented the image of “The Storm”. There was a case with the glazed cells splashed with a dirt on stage. And there were pictures from Katerina’s life inside. The girl came out and started to clean the glazed cells so that the pictures began to appear through. In the last cell a small video projector was showing images of a lively river, and we could hear the sound of splashing water. And suddenly she was being literally sucked inside it.


Viktor Ryzhakov on a filling station


There is such a concept as the prospect of a role. But it is impossible to play any role if there is no prospect of an artist.

Art must be positive.. Art is what will change me for the better.

Directing-oriented theater added many positive things, but it destroyed theatre as a collective art form. When I read Tovstonogov’s works, I feel conflict there – he was creating theatre and, at the same time, undermining it. Everyone needs to be pulled into this whirlpool. A light designer comes to me for some artistic instructions. He needs a task. I tell him, “Propose something yourself.” “Myself?” “Well, yeah, just sit down for a little bit first.” He sits down, then starts offering solutions – and I see that he really got into it. The same way an actor should be turned into a full-fledged creator.

Pina Bausch formulated the definition of theatre: a search for a new sincerity. To me theatre reminds oxygen filling station. Some people can not live without it. They simply cannot be denied access to theatre. “What?!! I won’t be able to get to the Chekhov festival?!? I won’t get to see Lepage?!?”

No text should be staged without the knowledge of new texts. Nowadays, you cannot stage Chekhov without reading new drama, without having a feel for contemporary rhythms.


* “fomenki” – students of Pyotr Fomenko 


Recorded by Olga Kaniskina




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