In Search of Home

Our guest today is actor Viktor Melnikov, whom fate has brought to a foreign country, where everything is different: the problem spots, the humor, the mentality, even the language itself. They say people like him are free men, men of the world. That is true, but Viktor's freedom had a heavy price.
I am from the Kiev Region myself. Our life was completely derailed by the Chernobyl disaster. My mother became gravely ill and died shortly after. My father took to drinking from grief and also didn't live long. The family fell apart; I spiraled out of control...
We were sent to Denmark for three weeks through the Chernobyl Children's Fund. My first impression of Denmark -- an incredible light, pure, clean-washed, forcing the space apart.
One childless couple took a liking to me -- they decided to give me a chance for a new life. I was, of course, very lucky to have these new parents. Without them I would surely be dead. I am eternally grateful to them. Gratitude in general is a very proper feeling; one should experience it even for the very fact of being alive.
I was having a hard time getting used to the new place. I cried a lot during my first years there, but at the end of the day I had no choice. There was no place for me to return to in Ukraine. I still had some family in Vitebsk, but with the breakup of the USSR we have lost all contact with them.
My Danish mother worked as a lawyer at the Ministry of the Interior; my new father was an inspector. They are both retired now. But despite the fact that both of them had very little to do with theatre, they supported my decision to go into theatre. They support me in everything. And I wanted to use theatre to somehow express everything that I lived through. My imagination is still being fueled by that loss. I am like Chagall, who continued painting his Vitebsk even in Paris and derived from it his melancholy, love and hope.
I entered the Danish Theatre Academy. I got lucky -- I was accepted despite my accent and a fierce competition of as many as three thousand applicants to six spots. I graduated from the Academy in 2006 and completely got rid of the accent. But it wasn't because of my sense of foreignness. My Slavic -- Ukrainian and Russian -- roots wouldn't let me go. In Denmark everything seems to lie on the surface. It must be impossible to have it any other way in this trouble-free country that has never experienced a serious disruption. One does not need to express one's feelings or emotions here. You go on stage, do your dialogue with a partner, and that's it. A theatre production is ready for release within a month and a half -- like in a conveyor factory. And their dramaturgy is fairly flat, even when it comes to social themes -- people here didn't suffer like they did back in our country.
I felt that I couldn't perform in Copenhagen. I began searching for myself in various international projects. I studied from Lev Dodin -- not literally, of course, but from his plays. I would find out where his theatre was playing and I'd rush over there. Their last performance that I saw was "Life and Destiny" in Paris. It was amazing! I would love to work with him. I am gradually discovering Russian theatre. I visited the Summer Theatre School in Zvenigorod, Michael Chekhov's Moscow school and I found a completely different theatre -- dynamic, alive. When I start to feel bored, I go to Russia for new impressions. Of all the latest performances that I've seen I really liked "The Seagull" directed by Yuri Butusov at the Satyricon Theatre and by Jonas Vaitkus at the Baltic House, as well as Kama Ginkas' productions.
I like to work on one project for several months and then change everything -- both the job and the space around me. When no one offers me anything (and that does happen), I find something to do myself. Our profession does not allow us to stop searching. Of course the fact that I am a Danish citizen means that the government will never leave me out in the cold. But that also has its drawbacks, because people tend to relax. I not only look for work, but I also try to share my experience with others. This autumn, for example, we will be getting a visit from Mario Gonzalez, director and instructor at the Comédie-Française, who is coming here on my invitation. He does very interesting work with masks.
My dramatic type? In contemporary European dramaturgy you can often encounter the so-called outstanding characters – these strange, crooked, living creatures. They have their own kind of truth, their own need for sympathy. They have a hard time living among the people of the establishment, who speak properly and wear their suit jackets the proper way. I often end up playing those types of characters. Recently I played an exhibitionist in the production of "The Cold Child", based on the play by Marius von Mayenburg. The director practically made him the main character, who experiences a powerful need for love, but can only express it in this way. In fact, an actor is also an exhibitionist of sorts.
Of course I would have loved to put together my own theatre company, but everything hinges on the issue of money. In Denmark, you cannot bring actors together all that easily. We have a very strong actors' union: five minutes of overtime can lead to complaint. There are awfully few of those who are truly ready to give themselves to the profession. In big theatres -- the Royal, the Municipal, where I worked, -- actors are employed on a contract. And they become apathetic with those contracts. Our theatre system is seriously diseased: by subsidizing theatres, the government is basically paying them for empty chairs.
Nevertheless, my friend from Portugal and I are now working on a production that is based on our own play. We were looking for money. We wrote letters to Danish and Portuguese officials, and I received a response from them. "The quality of your theatre," they say, "does not conform to our standard." And they didn't bother to explain what exactly is their standard. Still, we are continuing to write.
I know Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Ukrainian, and Russian. I worked in America and Europe. I think I am gradually starting to find freedom. These days I can no longer see myself being tied to one particular country. And so far I haven't found one where I would truly feel at home.

Recorded by Olga Foux

Viktor Melnikov, actor. Born in Kiev; graduated from the Danish Theatre Academy. Acted in movies, including those directed by Christoffer Boe. Performed in theatre plays based on the works of Gogol, Büchner, Molière, Süskind, Shukshin, Sigarev. Regular participant in theatre training programs and workshops, member of the AKT-ZENT Research Center of the ITI. His hobbies include acrobatics, stage combat, horseback riding, ashtanga yoga, and fencing. Speaks five languages.

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