Actor-driven Director

Nikolai Kirichenko, the people’s artist of Belarus, believes in inherent human goodness
Have you ever seen a real director running hoppingly to his subordinates to break some great news? I have this rather unusual and memorable experience now: I came to the Kupala Drama Theater to have an interview with the general director. An offbeat picture it was: a 60-year-old maestro that has just been awarded the status of the people’s artist of the country walked into the cafeteria where his actors were having a coffee-break between rehearsals bouncing on his way and humming “cha-cha-chas” and “pa-pa-pas”. He was gesturing violently and in fact seemed too emotional. And there was no role running to make him so high-pitched.
The explanation was simple: Nikolai Kirichenko, the general director of the theater for 18 months now, had contrived (as he himself put it) to arrange a tour in Kiev. A couple of days prior to the “bargain” nothing was clear about the transport, containers for set dressing and schedules: the normal administrative problems that accompany any large tour that very few theaters can afford nowadays. And this happiness of the general director was one of the brightest moments of the otherwise very tense and serious working day. “OK,” said the smiling director, “I will still have time to go to Lublin, and then we’ll have a talk.”
Before the departure for Ukraine, where the theater will present its eight best productions, Nikolai Kirichenko paid a visit to “Беларусь.Belarus”.
— Your trip to Lublin was connected with the theatrical festival “Theater Confrontations”, wasn’t it? How was it?
— Just great. Like it happened previously, in fact. We have been to Poland twice to take part in this annual festival, and we were invited to present our best plays again, so we are very flattered. We presented “SV”, where I play the part of the oil servant Firs — an original plastic performance inspired by Anton Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard”.
— Do you expect anything special from the Ukrainian public?
— Sure, we all expect recognition; it is a natural expectation for actors. This was the first global tour in months, and I am happy about my company as the general director: a tour is always like a fresh breeze. Cities with another type of human energy, different people, old friends. I am always excited to plunge into this experience. We have been friends with the Kiev-based National Academic Drama Theater named after Ivan Franko for many years. In 2004 that theater performed in the Kupala Theater during the Days of Ukraine in Belarus, so this year’s tour is something like “Belarus Strikes Back”. I hope we will be a success, and I hope they have not forgotten us in Kiev.
— You are a very prominent actor here, a professional that has reached the highest status possible in this country. Finally, you succeeded Gennady Davydko, who was very good at combining acting and directing. Do you like feeling a full man in all these dimensions?
— I cannot get used to my new post, because I had never dreamt of becoming an administrative manager. At some moment I just told myself that the theater needed me. I cannot say I dislike the way the things are now. Actors are somewhat ambitious and vain. The wish to get recognition, acknowledgment and awards is in the core of this profession. All soldiers dream of becoming generals. But after I became a top manager I understood I would never become the people’s artist of the country, because requirements were too tight. They never awarded anyone with this status for seven years, and then it was my turn. I did not understand how it happened. So when they called me and said there was information about the presidential ordinance to make me the people’s artist of Belarus posted on the website of the president I thought I had misheard something. My wife was in the room together with me. I am quite a sentimental man, and can cry once in a while, so I will never forget when I told her “Snezhana, I guess I’m the people’s artist now…” I am so flattered that I have this status and that I manage the leading theater of the country.
— Aren’t you dizzy with success? Have there been any special achievements since you became the top manager?
— I managed to complete many nice things that Gennady Davydko started. I managed to have lighting equipment replaced, and one illuminator costs the same as a nice car. I also dream of having cutting-edge equipment behind the curtains and have a modern control desk for assistant directors. I had double-glazed windows installed in make-up rooms, so my actors are warm and cozy and comfortable now. They had been freezing in winter. This tour to Kiev is another true achievement. Yes, I’m a bit dizzy with success and happiness when I see I can do something useful for my theater.
— Are you still on a first-name basis with your subordinates, or do you insist on being called “Nikolai Mikhailovich”?
— Oh no, I’m still Nikolai to most of them. I’m happy when experienced actors call me Kirill (another name of mine derived from the second name). It is a good theatrical tradition. And when they say “Well done, Kirill,” I am the happiest man in the world. And I tell myself “Kirill, you are happy.
— Do you tolerate the idea that you will be playing less and less and might even miss your dream role?
— No! (He’s shouting). I never have a slightest thought about leaving stage. I’m an actor, and this vocation prevails. By the way, every time I go on stage I get inspired as a director. I know the theater from within as an actor; I know what all actors and staff need. As for the dream role, I don’t have one. Once the actor plays the dream role, it is time for him to leave. There are landmark roles for every actor, and my role of Jagailo in “Prince Vitovt” can be called one.
— Is there any director that you would like to work with?
— Many of them. I would like to work with those whose personal style I prefer.
— Can you submit to the director easily?
— I’m a hard man to deal with, I often argue with the director, and then I have bitter remorse for being so stubborn and emotional.
— Have you ever associated yourself with any of your characters?
— I sometimes start using the intonations of my characters, and this comes as a surprise to me. On the other hand, I often use my character’s words in real life to get what I want.
— Does it help you deal with the director?
— Sure it does!
— Good actors are always good psychologists. Are you good at looking into people?
— I may be straight here: I’m a good psychologist. It helps when I dig very deep into my characters — it is a sort of auto-training. I can understand who stands in front of me in seconds.
— Are there any actors that you admire?
— I have no chance to meet them at the European or world level, but there are some Europeans that are very interesting to me. As for admiration and love, I simply adore some of my colleagues. I love my company.
— Theater today and yesterday — is there any difference?
— Theater remains the same. It is a special body that never changes. There can be new forms, ideas and facets, but the nature of theater is always the same. Acting is always acting, and the contact with the public that aims at catharsis will always remain, too.
— A talented Moscow critic once said that we live at the end of a wonderful theatrical epoch. Do you agree?
— I read her book, and I absolutely disagree with Marina Davydova. Why should I bother if we are so close to the end? Why build a house that you will never live in? Theater is in demand now, like it was back in the 60s and 70s and 80s. We had some concerns in the 90s, immediately after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. We had half empty auditoriums, we had uncertainty. But we are back to theater. They are very different now, and it should be this way. I was amazed when young people proved to be so understanding: at Alexei Dudarev’s “Evening” all people were dead silent, and there were 80% of young people there. I seemed to hear the breaths of young boys and girls (I play one of the old men, Vassil)… They seem to have no reason to care about three old men and their loneliness. After the performance I saw young faces, and many of them were with red eyes: girls must have been crying… They were taking cellulars and walkmans out of their bags, this is a normal thing now, but they still laugh and cry when they are happy or sad, and it has always been like that. I am happy that mass culture did not annihilate the basic feelings. I believe in human goodness.
— Is there anyone that you are most grateful to?
— There is no such person. I am grateful to everyone who is close to me, and can thank my destiny for making my life as it is now, for ruffling neurons in my brain, for my unmalicious heart. For allowing me to come into this world to love and suffer and get on stage. I am also very thankful to everyone who helps theater.

Valentina Zhdanovich
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