Yuri Sokhar is a theatre critic, an Honoured Doctor of Charles University in Prague, a professor and a former actor with the Yanka Kupala National Academic Theatre. He can’t imagine life without creative endeavours
We all have our own style and paths of self-expression, as does Yuri. He is the author of numerous books and articles about the theatre, artists and plays. One is dedicated to the great Albert Einstein; Don’t be Sad, Albert! was staged at the Yakub Kolas National Academic Drama Theatre in autumn, when Vitebsk theatre played in Minsk. Yuri attended the opening night, arriving from Prague. He is spending more time in Belarus these days, in his country house in the suburbs of Berezino (Minsk region) where he can enjoy looking at woods, meadows and the full-flowing River Berezina from his windows. “I don’t have words for its beauty,” he asserts. “I can breathe and write more easily there.”
We begin our interview by discussing Yuri’s creativity, his source of purification and enrichment. It helps him to find himself and to better understand people and life. We also try to define why people are inspired to creative endeavours.
On the day of our meeting, the River Berezina looks very beautiful. The scent of tender green foliage wafts through the air, accompanied by that of coltsfoot and dandelion, and plum and bird cherry trees in bloom. The natural, fresh smell of the river joins them. These fragrances stir the soul, inspiring sincerity. Even in the office, these accents of spring steer our discussion. I hope that Yuri Sokhar’s reflections on creativity and on his life will be interesting not only for me, but also for our readers.
The beauty I see here can’t but inspire creativity! When I’m in the country, I believe I’m led by Somebody who wants us to remember our inherited creative talents. I’m ever surprised by how nature inspires us, as I realised rather early. My parents gave me a powerful and beautiful singing voice, so I sang from very early childhood. I remember how amazed I was to see people’s faces grow calm under the influence of singing. Even those with few obvious attractions become beautiful when they sing. I’ve seen it happen often before, not recognising even those I know well. Naturally, I don’t tend to contemplate the philo-sophy of creativity at such times and have never tried before to explain why we (or I) need to be creative.
In my post-war peasant childhood, along with songs, I experienced hunger and cold, humiliation and offences. I was born and raised in the Ukrainian backwoods, in Kharkov region. My father, Maxim Gavrilovich Sokhar, perished during the war, on March 8th, 1944; he threw himself on an enemy pillbox gun-port, unintentionally (or deliberately — we’ll never know) dooming his young wife to widowhood and his little sons to the bitterness of being fatherless.
My wise mother, hardworking Anna Alexeevna, brought me up well. I graduated from the vocational school, worked at a local factory and served in the army. My army service marked the beginning of my life in Belarus, since I sang in an army band and was sent to Minsk to gain admittance to the conservatoire. I earned the highest grades in every subject, except for solfeggio [sight reading of sheet music] which I failed. I felt offended and decided to enter the actors’ faculty at the Theatre Art Institute [today the Academy of Arts]. Master teacher Dmitry Orlov admitted me without exams.
I would have succeeded as an actor but for my love of freedom. This doesn’t mean that I’m not easy to get on with or have a difficult character. The point is that an actor’s profession is dependent on circumstance and other people: playwrights, directors, administrators, audiences and, finally, money. My natural character can’t stand depen-dency. Therefore, having worked three years at the Kupala Theatre, I left the stage. Nevertheless, I kept my love for the theatre, as you can see from my books and articles dedicated to the stage, alongside performance reviews and from my plays. My ‘Masters of Arts’ book contains fifty essays on the creative lives of outstanding Belarusian actors, producers, theatre artists, art critics and filmmakers.
My entire life is connected with creativity. I believe we need to direct our energy towards peaceful and constructive outlets. If I have no path for my creative energy, my spiritual and physical well being is jeopardised. Of course, you may start chopping wood, like Adriano Celentano’s character in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ [a 1980s Italian film version of Shakespeare’s comedy — author]. When I was working as director of the House of Arts, I tried to organise everything to ensure maximum creativity. We hosted recitals by young actors and stage veterans, exhibitions of stage artists, literary readings, monologues, producer master classes and meetings with outstanding theatre and cinema figures. I’d be happy to see such an Actor’s House in Belarus again.
Striving for creativity has inspired me to try research. When we learn something new, we broaden our mind and gain better understanding of the world. Accordingly, we are enriched. Before becoming a playwright, I published several books and numerous scientific works on the art of theatre; I was working at the Theatre Department of the Institute of Art, Ethnography and Folklore, of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus. There, I gained my post-graduate degree. I took part in creating a multi-volume edition, entitled ‘The History of Belarusian Theatre’. It took many years, and taught me how to meticulously gather facts.
This skill was useful when I began collecting facts for my play about Einstein; I used the Prague State Archive and the Vienna State Archive. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to reach Zurich, where Einstein was born and lived for some time. I was promoted to senior researcher at the Arts Institute and, later, was invited to lead the Department of Stage Direction and Acting at the Minsk Culture Institute [today, the University of Culture and Arts — author]. There, I finished my doctoral studies and became a professor.
Raising children is also creative. I’m not reinventing the wheel in saying this. It involves much higher responsibility than writing a play. If you create a bad play, it might never be staged or read; if you fail to raise a child well, this is a problem or, even, a tragedy — for the child and for society. Without false modesty, I can say that I’m not a bad father, husband or grandpa. My daughter Anna, who married a Frenchman and now lives in Orleans, has given me three grandchild-ren — Gieyem, Jerome and Antoine. My son Maxim decided to study in Europe; he attended school and university in Prague. This is how I came to sign a contract with Charles University and began teaching the history of world culture. The Czech Republic is a calm Slavic country with a mild climate and kind, honest people. It’s easy to reside there. Later, Maxim took a holiday in Belarus and married a girl from Berezino. Today, he is the creative director of the Wincenty Dunin-Marcinkiewicz Theatre in Bobruisk. They are raising two sons and are expecting a daughter.
I do nothing special in bringing up my grandchildren. Firstly, I believe this is the direct responsibility of their parents. Secondly, I’m convinced that you can’t teach anyone anything, you can only impart the basic social skills. Everything else a child learns from watching your life style and that of other people. We reveal our nature in the way we behave. We should encourage children’s creativity, being careful not to suppress talent by imposing our own vision. We should guide children in a positive direction, while allowing them to be led by their own free will. I’m confident that Einstein would never have become Einstein if his parents hadn’t given him free reign.
Why have I used Einstein as my muse? Not for his theories as a physicist or as the inventor of quantum theory but because of his innovative spirit. He was a tireless fighter for peace, a talented violinist, preferring the music of Mozart, Vivaldi and Beethoven, and was incredibly kind. He was also known as a fearless sailor; he used to take to the open sea in his yacht to talk to the Universe.
As any parent loves his child, a creative person feels affection for his works. I like my play, which is a realistic, intellectual piece of work founded on the true lives of historical figures: Einstein, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, Niels Bohr, Sigmund Freud, Enrico Fermi and other world science luminaries. One of Prague’s best theatres (Liberec) staged it strictly, with verbose monologues and passionate dialogues. The performance lasted 2 hours and 24 minutes. I personally saw that the audience was inspired by my work.
‘Don’t be Sad, Albert!’ has been staged in Vitebsk by director Vitaly Barkovsky, who has a reputation as a modernist and avant-garde artist, both at home and abroad. He treated the play as a vehicle to realise his own concept, so only partially based his work on the original form. He stayed loyal to his creative principles, reducing the text by more than half. His vision is full of incredible fantasy, with dominating symbols and extravagant allegories. I accepted this interpretation, since his spectacular performance didn’t violate the basis of my own idea. Music, poetry, drama, passion, tears and love are fully present in the production. As far as real characters are concerned, they are presented symbolically; nevertheless, he hasn’t diminished their historical significance. Minsk audience received the play with calm respect, trying to comprehend its European aesthetics. Indeed, the performance isn’t for everyone. It’s most likely to appeal to intellectuals who value the ideal of living for art.
Why do I need creativity? I’m often asked this. The answer is simple: this is my lifestyle. Perhaps, also, it gives me some courage. Creativity adds more sense to my life, and helps me to find and understand this sense. Every day of your life can bring something new, if you know how to value life as a gift — even when everything seems routine at first glance. When I write, I open something new to myself. Recently, I finished a play entitled ‘Nero’. To be honest, working on it was both emotionally stressful and thrilling. I was greatly surprised to find myself writing a historical drama about Nero in verse. It’s been an amazing ride! (anyone who writes will understand me). I adore this emotional state! Nero had a reputation as a bloodthirsty tyrant, but my play shows him in a different light — as a man who is unloved. Even his mother, wife and teacher betray him. This is what inspires his revenge… I don’t blame him for his actions. I hope that the play will be interesting to audiences at home and abroad.
My ancestors on my mother’s side were churchmen. My grandfather, Alexey Zinovievich, was a church precentor, heading a large cathedral choir. He was a very kind man. When I was a child, he told me a poetic folk legend. He said that, at the end of May, at the very culmination of nature’s triumph, a ‘thundery summer night’ occurs, when lightning fills the sky and the oak tree blushes with white-pink light for a few seconds. I was hugely impressed with this beautiful fiction and spent many years watching oak trees in anticipation. I used the idea in my play about Einstein. My grandfather taught me how to see primordial beauty in nature and to preserve God in my soul. Even today, I believe that, in real life, an oak tree might blush with divine fluorescence during a thunder storm.
By Valentina Zhdanovich
Creativity as way of life
[b]Yuri Sokhar is a theatre critic, an Honoured Doctor of Charles University in Prague, a professor and a former actor with the Yanka Kupala National Academic Theatre. He can’t imagine life without creative endeavours[/b]We all have our own style and paths of self-expression, as does Yuri. He is the author of numerous books and articles about the theatre, artists and plays. One is dedicated to the great Albert Einstein; Don’t be Sad, Albert! was staged at the Yakub Kolas National Academic Drama Theatre in autumn, when Vitebsk theatre played in Minsk. Yuri attended the opening night, arriving from Prague. He is spending more time in Belarus these days, in his country house in the suburbs of Berezino (Minsk region) where he can enjoy looking at woods, meadows and the full-flowing River Berezina from his windows. “I don’t have words for its beauty,” he asserts. “I can breathe and write more easily there.”