Anna and Melpomene
The story of a theatre usherette who came to run a unique museum
I have known Anna Kovaleva for a long time — though only by sight. She worked as an usherette at Brest Regional Drama and Musical Theatre, wearing high heels, a fur stole and evening make-up — although many of those attending performances wore jeans. She was a wordless reproach …
Now, she comes to the temple of Melpomene as the director of the local theatre school history group and of ‘Brest Teatralny’ museum. “When did I start collecting?” she muses. “In the 1960s… I was brought up in the theatre.”
Her mother, Alina Mikhailovna, worked as a ticket clerk for a quarter of a century and was on friendly terms with the artistes, who used to visit her family after performances. “After the curtains closed, emotions would overwhelm us; we used to sit up very late joking, improvising, reciting and singing,” she recalls.
Young Annushka had no ambitions to become an actor. She didn’t feel herself to be talented and understood that it was better to be a good ticket clerk or costume designer than a bad actor. She continues to revere those who ensure the life of the theatre from behind-the-scenes, dedicating a section of her museum to ‘backstage staff’. Theatre starts with costumes and scenery and is developed by a community of masters...
She remembers, “We would chat while sitting comfortably on chairs being used as props in ‘The Follies of One Day’ or ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, back in 1994. We were surrounded by mannequins in stage costumes and a pedestal of posters and photos. A special theatrical energy existed. I remember feeling I should sit up straight and square my shoulders because a poster of graceful Natalia Gajda was in front of me. I had known Natalia Viktorovna since 1966, when she worked in the second team at Mogilev’s Musical Comedy Theatre. She played the role of Peppita in the operetta by Dunaevsky.”
Anna has been collecting and photographing programmes, tickets and playbills for forty years and is familiar not only with Gajda but many of today’s celebrities. They are novice actors, young and ambitious, some from abroad. Since 1968, she has been writing about artists and performances that took place in Brest and collecting autographs.
In 2005, she handed over her theatrical treasures (1281 items) to Brest Art School № 12. “Why should they gather dust in my country house?” she reasons. “Valentina Shijan, who teaches world artistic culture, and our famous museum worker Tatyana Khodtseva suggested the idea. Headmaster Anatoly Bulava supported it and we opened the museum a year and a half later. 95 per cent of the artefacts are authentic. I visited Alexander Kozak, the theatre director, to request the use of retired costumes and scenery. I took everything — because it was useful. Actress Dina Dojban presented a ladies corset to me, made of whalebone in the 19th century! I restored and washed it — since nobody else wanted to take on that job! “They said it would fall to pieces,” Anna announces proudly.
Brest first began staging theatrical performances in 1566, with clowns giving plays. By the 17th century, the theatre school was operating out of the Jesuit College. In 1929, there were nine stages in the city — the most famous were situated in the city garden, at the city railway station, in the Winter Palace (located in today’s regional history museum) and in Sarver’s Theatre. In 1939, Russian and Jewish theatres were being proposed — but the war intervened. Until 1943, Peter Andreev–Trelsky, the theatrical agent and stage-director of St. Petersburg’s Operetta Theatre, was working with a team from Minsk and Vitebsk. They went on tour before the occupation of Brest. In 1944, the present-day Drama and Musical Theatre was formed.
Belarusian, Russian and Soviet classics have their place in the museum. A single page is dedicated to Konstantin Gubarevich, a Belarusian writer, and his play ‘Brest Fortress’. The play is rather a champion, being staged 900 times over three decades in the city!
Brest citizens know the names of Leontiy Dovbush, Konstantin Perepelitsa, Timofey Iljevsky, Sergey Evdoshenko, Vasily Kondrasiuk, Zinaida Dudiuk and Alexander Kozak. Local theatrical society activist Vasily Cheberkus has his membership card fixed to one stand. One famous Brest photographer’s father and grandfather were closely connected with the theatre and Leonid Moshensky was one Brest businessman’s grandfather. He was a deputy audience service director. It is clear where Leonid Isaakovich’ son and grandson received their talents, not from the theatre but from business!
The Museum opened for International Theatre Day in 2007. Now, two years later, its exhibits have grown three-fold. Anna is ever busy. Last year, the Brest Puppet Theatre turned 45 and one more room in school №12 was equipped as a puppet theatre museum. An exhibition will soon be held (in commemoration of the 45th anniversary of the regional drama and music theatre), dedicated to the international theatrical festival “Belaya Vezha.”
Who ever would have thought that a common usherette could carry away young Brest citizens with her enthusiasm for the world of theatre, and bring so much happiness to those from her own generation, nostalgic to remember the years of their youth?