Eduard Gerasimovich’s guiding role

[b]After the August holidays, the Maxim Gorky National Academic Drama Theatre (previously known as the Russian Theatre) will launch its 80th jubilee performances, explains its director, Eduard Gerasimovich — Honoured Worker of Culture of Belarus. Soon to celebrate 30 years of directing his native theatre, he is doing all he can to ensure an impressive schedule...[/b]
After the August holidays, the Maxim Gorky National Academic Drama Theatre (previously known as the Russian Theatre) will launch its 80th jubilee performances, explains its director, Eduard Gerasimovich — Honoured Worker of Culture of Belarus. Soon to celebrate 30 years of directing his native theatre, he is doing all he can to ensure an impressive schedule. Clearly, three decades is a significant milestone, so what is the secret of his longevity?
I can’t help but think that his time in the army stood him in good stead. Mastering aviation technical maintenance, he would sign off on an aircraft’s readiness to depart; clearly, he was given great responsibility but never felt anxious. He explains, “I was a skilled technician, so I had no fear.” Of course, at that young age, he had no thoughts of leadership either. Despite his success as an electrical engineer, he yearned to work in the arts, particularly in theatre direction.
He was going to become a student of Vladimir Malankin, at the Theatre and Art Institute (now, the Academy of Arts), in the stage acting department rather than that of directorship. He well remembers Mr. Malankin telling him that didn’t think he was capable of becoming a stage director, since he wouldn’t be able to apply literary criticism to the performances. He couldn’t help but agree and this was enough to make him rethink his goal.
Who knows how the threads of Fate are woven? At a particular moment in our existence we have to choose our path, as in the Russian fairytales of Ivan-Tsarevich, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf. However, I’m convinced that we are presented with choices which have the potential to match our talents (even if we don’t realise it at the time). It’s vital to make the right choice, as happened with Mr. Gerasimovich. He became a director at 38 and has since helped his theatre gain the titles ‘academic’ and ‘national’. He also tours a great deal abroad, taking part in international festivals and winning prizes.
It’s obvious that his sense of responsibility and dedication have served him well over the years. He has developed a new system of salaries for actors and has sought out titles of People’s and Honoured Artistes of Belarus for them, as well as ensuring them flats to live in.
Mr. Gerasimovich has worked to see actors treated in a worthy fashion and feels his efforts are widely appreciated; in recognition, he has a clutch of certificates, diplomas and prizes, alongside the much-coveted Frantsisk Skorina Medal.
We’re chatting in his little office at the Theatre, where everything is modest. A wonderful batik-style picture hangs on the wall, showing the good taste of its owner. “My daughter made it to give to me as a present,” Mr. Gerasimovich smiles, seeing my glance. Clearly, he’s very pleased. He’s happy to chat about all manner of subjects unconnected with his directing work. It’s refreshing to meet such a cheerful, optimistic person, especially as his efforts are so much ‘behind the scenes’ while the actors steal the limelight. Of course, without him, the Theatre would cease to function, regardless of its 230 members.
Have you ever come across plays which use a theatre director as a major character? What might interest a playwright about your profession?
Thank God, I’m yet to come across such a play. I’d have to immediately reject it, as everything — from beginning to end — would be untrue. Theatre directors are unpredictable, so it’s impossible to forecast how they’ll behave in any particular situation. Sometimes, you prepare to speak on one topic and find yourself led elsewhere. Life constantly pushes you to compromise (in the best sense) and you have to be dispassionate, using psychology with actors while keeping calm yourself. You need to retain your heart however, or you’d lose your ability to communicate with people. Everyone has their own joys and sorrows.
Are the subtleties of my work really interesting to those wishing to come to the theatre to explore their feelings? Audiences need to be moved by emotions and empathise with a protagonist. Meanwhile, directors have to make ‘unpopular decisions’; sometimes, they act against their own better judgement but are forced by circumstances. It’s rare but it does happen. I’m kind-hearted, often becoming anxious if I have to be strict with anyone. This is why I can’t imagine a director’s life being a suitable subject for a play.
It’s clear that the production process may not arouse interest among audiences but a director’s inner life could be of interest…
Perhaps… but everything depends on the playwright’s talent. I still don’t see what might attract audiences. When my grandson, Sasha, was four, he came to my office and sat in my armchair. I offered him sweets and he told me how ‘cool’ it was here. He then asked whether I watched television at work and I joked that I watched cartoons. He thought that was great and told me that he also wanted to become a director (laughing).
Do you think some people are simply born to be directors and does Belarus offer good training?
Our Academy of Arts’ Theatre Department offers a course called ‘organisation of theatrical business’; I lecture in theatre organisation, planning and management. Already, a great many theatre workers in Belarus have graduated from our department: directors, deputies and administrators. My own deputy, Igor Andreev, trained as an actor and as a director. Another student of my course is my backstage chief (looking after costumes, sets and lighting). I’m completely convinced that you can’t ‘learn’ how to become a director simply by studying management. You have to know how the theatre works from inside. Leading a theatre is vastly different to leading any other group of people.
Do you think a theatre should be led by someone trained as a director or someone trained in stage crafts?
I don’t think you can do both jobs; I hope my colleagues in this situation won’t be offended. Directors always play second fiddle. Stage directors and actors sign contracts to perform different jobs to mine. When you are ‘in charge’, it’s easy to let your authority go to your head but I always tell my students that this is inadmissible. Just because you have the power to hire people and enjoy a certain status does not mean you should become big-headed. If you have too much sense of your own importance, you stop being true to yourself. There’s no place for vanity when you’re heading a group, especially a theatrical company. Creative people can find a thousand ways to bite off your head and will never yield precedence. They feel that the theatre owes its existence to their labour. Actors and stage directors take first place.
Do you see actors as superstars?
Yes, if we compare their position in the theatre with that of the director. However, I don’t like it when actors or stage directors swell with importance. If an actor has played a couple of roles and received good reviews, they can begin to think they’ve ‘arrived’. True stardom comes from your attitude towards work. Moreover, ‘diva behaviour’ can make others feel uncomfortable, since they don’t tend to appreciate hearing other people’s light-hearted anecdotes or jokes before a performance.
People’s Artist of the USSR Rostislav Yankovsky had his own way of teaching jokesters a lesson while People’s Artiste of the USSR Alexandra Klimova was also able to shoot daggers at those of whom she disapproved. Playing Lady Macbeth, she’d lie on animal skins forty minutes before the performance, while centring herself on her role. No one was allowed to disturb her and she’d give a murderous look to anyone making a noise or some other distraction. This was justified preparation, respected and blessed in the theatre.
I do understand that different actors exist, so we can’t judge everyone in the same way. Just as planes fly at different altitudes (civil or military) and must be kept separate, so it is with some actors. Otherwise, a clash may occur.
Why are you using an ‘aviation’ metaphor?
I worked in aviation, in the army, for three years, as a mechanical engineer, so I know the feeling of responsibility from those years. I had to sign off on planes, guaranteeing their readiness to fly.
You must be able to repair cars then?
I’ve never tried.
How did you move from plane maintenance to the arts?
After the army, I spent some time working at Minsk’s civil aviation factory. However, my passion for the arts was stronger. I was also keen on music and had my own orchestra, beautifully named ‘Orpheus’. We performed in Minsk Region’s Ostroshitsky Gorodok. I wrote lyrics and music, entering the Theatre and Art Institute in 1969, under Vladimir Malankin.
The Institute was just beginning to train people in this sphere, including the future leaders of theatrical companies. I finished the course and came to the Russian Theatre as deputy director. I’d originally wanted to study stage craft but Malankin persuaded me that directing would suit me better. However, I’d like to repeat that I don’t think you can become a director unless you have a particular affinity for it.
Did your parents give you this affinity?
No, they were ordinary workers. My father was injured in the Great Patriotic War, invalided out of the army in 1944. He moved to Kuibyshev Region’s Oktyabrsk, where my mother had been evacuated. I was born there on June 22nd, 1945, and went into the army there. Immediately after my demobilisation, our family left for Belarus, settling in Ostroshitsky Gorodok, where I spent my younger years. My wife, Klavdia, also comes from there. We met during a graduation ball and have always since been together.
You spent many years in ‘command’. Does this change your character?
Not in essence, although the burden of paperwork (connected with taxation, statistics and financing) weighs you down. I’ve taken a leading role in promoting particular issues and have gained the ear of some officials, which is pleasing.
Do you have problems with copyright and, if so, how do you solve them?
For ‘Wild Strawberries’, we spent over a year trying to gain permission from Ingmar Bergman, although the performance was already rehearsed. Some mechanisms are not easy to navigate. We also had difficulties in gaining permission for ‘Lion in Winter’, by James Goldman. It’s world practice to ask such permission, but there is little precedent for it in Belarus.
We are developing our co-operation with the National Centre for Intellectual Property, which should help us set up the appropriate mechanisms (including foreign currency transactions). Theatre repertoires depend on this, alongside academic theatres; we need access to good foreign plays.
Which actors are closest to you and with whom are you friends?
I’m friendly with many good actors and get along with most of those at our theatre. As to whom I seek out as friends, it’s a delicate issue. Being the director, I can’t show favouritism, and must be open to everyone, offering my shoulder as needed or messing about like a child when necessary. The whole company is dear to me, although I trust some people more than others, from past experience. I admire some for their talent, dedication, inner purity and spirituality. Of course, besides being a director, I’m an ordinary person with certain preferences — as is natural. I feel a spiritual attraction to some actors though, such as Rostislav Yankovsky. I’ve known him for many years as a particular friend.
You initiated the unveiling of a memorial plaque to People’s Artiste of Belarus Anna Obukhovich, didn’t you? Do you have any similar plans?
I’m a very scrupulous person as far as morals go, having developed my feelings over many years. No one goes behind anyone’s back here, so there is nothing to damage our atmosphere of open benevolence. People know that I respect them and that I’m honest, so they respond to me similarly. Of course, I doubt they all love me. Some may dislike me very much for certain approaches I have — such as regarding sobriety in the theatre. However, I have a wonderful backstage crew, alongside good stage shifters.
In all, we are a good team and enjoy a healthy atmosphere, of which I’m proud. It’s important that we remember actors who are no longer with us, since they were an indispensable part of our team. We organise evenings to recall their birthdays, inviting the youngsters (who eagerly agree). It took over three years to gain a memorial plaque to Anna Obukhovich but its unveiling was a joyful event for us all. Thank God, everyone else remains alive, so I have no further plans in that direction.
Do you influence repertory policy and, if so, how?
I think so but the chief stage director has the final word. Certainly, if I dislike something, I express my opinion. However, I try to justify my views. I do believe that we need to observe a balance of playwrights: foreign, national and Russian. It’s not easy to choose a repertoire so I’m glad that I can work with Sergey Kovalchik [the Artistic Leader of the Russian Theatre]. We’re happy to listen to each other. Of course, his opinion takes precedence, so I’m always attentive to his suggestions.
It would be awkward if I acted in any other way. The stage director is chief while the director is ranked second. Everything works fine as long as I don’t write our plays or personally direct performances and my wife doesn’t work at the theatre as an actress. I can then sit comfortably and sign the necessary paperwork as head of the theatre. I’m convinced that problems appear if you flout those rules. I can express my opinion when needed, knowing that I can speak objectively.
Under which circumstances would you write off a performance?When audiences seem to lose interest, as it can indicate that a theme isn’t topical. For example, we’ve staged ‘The Sole Heir’ thousands of times, even using two acting teams. To continue running it, we’ll need another team of actors again; we haven’t decided yet. Everything becomes out-dated eventually, including costumes and sets. It’s easier to stage a new performance than to ‘repair’ an old one. Moreover, if a performance involves a large company, we can’t bring it to a festival or take it on tour.
Why do you have no big tours planned at present?
Big tours cost a great deal more than we can afford, although we can manage smaller tours and travelling to festivals.
Do your actors ever play pranks on you or have a nickname for you?
I’ve long been called Gerasim, which I like. Pranks are rare, since those who had a talent for them have since passed away. I cherish their memory.
Are you popular at actors’ parties? Do they joke freely with you?
It’s difficult for me to judge my popularity. Sometimes, actors spring a joke on me but they tend to prefer to parody their stage directors. I do appreciate a good joke but it needs to be appropriate. In serious situations, I have to rise above pranks — even if the whole theatrical company is laughing.
Could you stand in for an actor on stage in an emergency?
No, no and no. This is taboo. I’ve already said that I wouldn’t write plays, wouldn’t stage performances and wouldn’t marry an actress.
So, acting is your fourth ‘pillar’. Wouldn’t you like to just show up on stage, as famous Russian film director Eldar Ryazanov did?
Whatever for? I sometimes have nightmares where I’m in that situation and can’t remember my lines!
Do you feel influenced by the wider arts?
Absolutely. I don’t like pop arts but I’m keen on lyrical poetry and prose, alongside classical and other good music. In my youth, I enjoyed reading Rubtsov’s verse and Hemingway’s stories. I remember Belarusian director Valery Maslyuk reciting his own clever poetry to me (he had released a collection). I even wrote my own verse at the age of nine — on the theme of the evils of smoking (after my father beat me for smoking with friends). I hung my poetry on the wall after my flogging.
Where does your positive attitude come from?
Nothing is better than nature for curing and calming us, while inspiring optimism. I like to look at lakes and rivers, observing the movement of their currents; these are a true miracle. I’m also keen on forests and fishing but I can’t stand hunting. For over twenty years, I’ve holidayed only in Belarus with my wife and friends — around the Vitebsk Region’s lakes. It’s so beautiful there. We tended to camp in tents, but recently bought a caravan — so now we sleep on sheets. I’m always glad to chat with my family. I have two daughters and a son, who are all adult and independent.
Don’t you feel the burden of years of directorship?
No. I haven’t even noticed them, as I enjoy my work greatly.

By Valentina Zhdanovich
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