Feeling comfortable in her profession
[b]Valentina Yerenkova, one of only a few women theatre directors, has no intention of trying to prove to anyone that a woman’s stage direction is worthwhile or better than a man’s direction. Striving for self-improvement in the profession, she continues to work at her home theatre, Maxim Gorky National Academic Drama Theatre. As a rule, there is always a full house at Valentina’s performances [/b]We had agreed last summer to meet immediately after the opening night of Esfir, based on a play by Russian writer, Lyudmila Ulitskaya. Busy schedules intervened, however, and we managed to talk only recently. Nevertheless, all the impressions I had formed of the deeply psychological play remained with me. What surprised me most in Yerenkova? I had previously thought that I understood Valentina’s style as an avowed amateur of theatre that is saturated with music, dance and song. I understood her style to be a mix of stunning innovations mixed with art nouveau, avant-garde and even impenet-rable rebuses. But take for example Valentina’s staging of Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hanged You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad at the Maxim Gorky Theatre, a piercing, exciting performance in which dialogue predominates over song and dance. It was so different to her previous work that I even wondered whether Valentina was the director, but during the interval I opened the theatre programme to check the name of the director. Sure enough, Esfir, which is always sold out, was indeed staged by my old friend from the Minsk Youth Theatre, where I used to work as a teacher.
We had agreed last summer to meet immediately after the opening night of Esfir, based on a play by Russian writer, Lyudmila Ulitskaya. Busy schedules intervened, however, and we managed to talk only recently. Nevertheless, all the impressions I had formed of the deeply psychological play remained with me. What surprised me most in Yerenkova? I had previously thought that I understood Valentina’s style as an avowed amateur of theatre that is saturated with music, dance and song. I understood her style to be a mix of stunning innovations mixed with art nouveau, avant-garde and even impenet-rable rebuses. But take for example Valentina’s staging of Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hanged You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad at the Maxim Gorky Theatre, a piercing, exciting performance in which dialogue predominates over song and dance. It was so different to her previous work that I even wondered whether Valentina was the director, but during the interval I opened the theatre programme to check the name of the director. Sure enough, Esfir, which is always sold out, was indeed staged by my old friend from the Minsk Youth Theatre, where I used to work as a teacher.
During our conversation at the editor’s office, I suddenly recalled another play — one of Valentina’s first experiences in stage direction — Jorge Amado’s The Swallow and the Tom Cat. This legendary play of the early 1980s and beyond was the talk of the entire city. The performance was inscribed into the history of Belarusian theatre as an extraordinary event in the theatre world. It was performed on the steps of the large marble staircase of the youth theatre, which served as a small stage, while the theatre’s foyer, with a capacity of no more than 60 persons, was the auditorium. The performance was attended by the majority of the actors working at the Minsk theatre, as well as by university students and members of the public. I remember well the stir around the performance and how difficult it was to hold back the crowd trying to take the theatre’s foyer by storm. I recall the happy faces of those who managed to get to the opening night. It was an outstanding labour of love, both in terms of the direction and of the actors’ performances.
Thirty years have passed since then. Valentina Yerenkova has directed dozens of plays at different stages in Belarus and abroad, and has become a respected director known for her innovative work. Valentina’s professionalism is endless; she is still seeking out new genres, believing that the process of mastering something new not only keeps the director creatively fresh, but also enriches her. A recent staging of The Bridegrooms based on Nikolay Gogol’s play proves it. She is now working on James Goldman’s Lion In Winter.
Valentina, tell us about your path to the theatre. Who inspired you to join this profession?
My decision was predetermined by my father, a former military man who survived the Second World War. He welcomed my choice when I entered the Actors and Stage Direction Faculty of the Belarusian Theatre and Arts Institute (today known as the Academy of Arts). Although my family lived in a small Ukrainian town in Dnepropetrovsk region, my father supported every stage of my professional development by reading specialist literature. He read Stanislavsky, asked me millions of questions, and we even argued with each other just to prove a point. He visited me frequently in Minsk, where we went together to the theatre and, after the play, we would analyse it. After graduation, our entire class went to Bobruisk where I worked for two years. It didn’t turn out to be as romantic as I had imagined it in Minsk. But I was young and very determined to establish our own theatre in Belarus, a theatre that would be better than Moscow Sovremennik. Our class was formed with the intention of creating a new theatre. I remember that we even swore not to betray our high ideals of serving Melpomena, honestly telling each other who was fit to work in the profession and who was not. We thought that by creating a new theatre we would surprise not only Belarus but also the entire world. Our class was very talented, many well-known names in the theatre world today are class alumni. Unfortunately, the idea of the new theatre did not come to fruition. After Bobruisk I went to the Maxim Gorky Theatre where I worked as an actress for 6 years and, later, I went to work for my classmate, Yury Mironenko, who was then the director at the Youth Theatre. The repertoire of the youth theatre didn’t allow me to express myself fully. A lack of appealing roles pushed me towards stage direction. At the same time, I started teaching. Afterwards, I spent two years working as the director of the Youth Theatre, later enrolling as Mark Zakharov’s intern at Moscow Lenkom. Only after my internship did I return to the Maxim Gorky Theatre and gradually start to produce my own plays. I am very grateful to the theatre’s chief director Boris Lutsenko who taught me how to survive in the theatre.
Woman-director… Are these two notions compatible?
They are compatible, just like woman and politics, or woman and state management. As a child, I greatly admired Indira Gandhi. For me she was a legendary woman, a standard of sublimity, the incarnation of some secret. Over the years, when I was already in school, I realised the magnitude of the responsibility that goes along with leadership. It is a well-known fact that any management structure requires strong personalities. And people are very different. In the theatre, the potential for confrontation is greater. On one hand, you have to work with the text of the author’s play, his or her philosophy, tastes and vision of life as reflected in the heroes’ characters. On the other hand, you have to deal with actors, with the production team and with distribution, which also depends on many different people. Therefore, I always say that a woman-director is like the president of a small country.
But the woman-director also has family, a home. A woman’s duty to maintain her family’s home comforts has not been eliminated, no matter how little time she has.
It is in our nature. I am deeply confident that in any profession we shouldn’t try to outdo men, to prove that we are more skilful or stronger. Man is like a rock that breaks the wave on its way to the beach. Man is always ahead owing to his nature of a defender. Therefore, it is wiser to step back and let him be in front of you.
Do you sometimes have to prove your worth in this profession?
I don’t want to prove to anyone that I am doing something better than my male colleagues. I simply do what I like. I have spoken out about my thoughts on how we women should treat men in my play ‘Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hanged You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad’.
We sometimes find that men are not as we imagined them to be, but we still believe that our ideal man exists, somewhere in the universe...
The ideal man — the prince — is inevitably brought up by a woman. When a boy is born into a family, every mother has the opportunity to raise the prince of her dreams.
So, it turns out that every woman who gives birth to a son has the possibility of bringing him up as the incarnation of her dreams, and that all the men around us could be princes...
And the divine forces would say ‘thank you’ to those women. By the way, the same refers to raising girls.
Have you ever been offended when a male director or theatre critic has criticised your work and then condescendingly said that a woman in the theatre is allowed to make mistakes?
Indeed, I’ve witnessed that attitude, but I have never been offended because I believe that it is not worth battling with foolishness. When we go to a doctor or some other expert, we don’t choose them by sex, but are guided in our choice by their professionalism. Over the years, I have come to understand that such an attitude is characteristic of men with too many hang-ups. So now I pay no heed to such remarks and just keep improving myself professionally. In any case, I have been working in theatre for so long and feel that I’ve been doing it forever that I am in a position to ignore such condescension.
Your actor’s past doesn’t hamper you in your work as a director, does it?
How could something that is part of my profession hamper me? By the way, Boris Lutsenko and I often wish we could perform in our plays. Perhaps we’ll manage it one day.
You seem to be a leader by nature?
I would probably never have become a director if I had had no leadership qualities. Both in school and at the institute I was the instigator and was always organising events. I was raised by talented parents. My mother, Anna Kirillovna, was an artistic person. She can still sing beautifully and, being a professional philologist, has a very rich vocabulary; my father, Grigory Trofimovich, played the accordion wonderfully. He was given the instrument as an award for courage and heroism during the war. There was always a creative atmosphere in our house. I never attended theatre classes but did learn to play the piano. For three years, a special teacher came to our house to teach me. This wonderful woman had noble roots and I was impressed by her hat and white lacy gloves. Although my teacher was quite strict, I liked her lessons. She passed onto me a passionate love of music. Later, I studied at music school and dreamt about ballroom dances.
Is that the reason why you give such a prominent role to music and plastic art in your performances?
In my view, they are important components of a play and when skilfully used they only add to the experience.
If you had a chance to turn back the clock, would you still become a theatre director?
Definitely I would. I am so comfortable in my profession. It is so difficult and yet simultaneously so easy for me that I can say that stage direction gives me life, gives me the feeling of eternal youth. In my profession you are always in motion, constantly searching, full of energy, and your mind is in constant training, trying to create something and present it to others. There is a permanent energy exchange with other people. I like learning new things in my profession, constantly discovering something new for myself. We live in such a wonderful time! There is so much to learn! I like this dynamic existence.
Do you have time for your family?
My work life coincides with my home life, since my husband (Alexey Yerenkov — music director at the Maxim Gorky Theatre) is a composer and my colleague in the theatre.
How do you, both creative personalities, manage to work in such close proximity?
We manage very well indeed. And do you know why? Because in our everyday life we are also creators: we create our relationships, our everyday life, our communication with a grown-up daughter. By the way, our profession helps us a lot. I don’t try to dominate Alexey, I always fulfil my duties and so does he and we help each other. I have perhaps inherited this characteristic from my parents’ family, where mother and father were equals, and brought the same principle to my new family. My mom always respected dad and he adored her.
Do you bring your work home, and discuss the staging of this or that play with your husband?
Oh, yes! We literally go to bed and wake up with theatre talk: we argue a lot, of course, but our disputes are always positive.
While Alexey is composing music at home, what do you usually do?
We — I mean me, our daughter and cat Shlema — try not to disturb him. But sometimes we — largely me and the cat (our daughter is already an adult) — can’t avoid bothering him. Naturally, I understand the creative process and how important it is for a creator to be alone, but I also need him. For instance, I may need to ask him something important so I do come and disturb him if necessary. Or, as another example, at a very critical moment for Alexey, when he has finally found the required accent for the piece of music he is working on, the cat, Shlema, might jump on the piano and walk all over the keys. We have had several instances of such creativity from the cat. Alexey says: “One day, I’ll arrange Shlema’s music and release a CD.”
Does your husband ever prompt you when you are directing and, if so, how do you feel about it?
He doesn’t prompt me — Alexey helps me a lot. Along with composing music for plays, he works on the script during our ‘reading’ rehearsals. By the way, he calls himself ‘the script keeper’ and every time an actor misses a phrase or substitutes a word Alexey prompts him on the actual text. Knowing psycho-linguistic rules, he can easily interfere in the process of working with text and recommend that the script be strictly adhered to. Alexey is very perceptive and understands what the author wants to say with this or that phrase.
I understand that it is usual to consider the text of the play during ‘reading’ rehearsals in order to preserve the message of the play?
You are absolutely right, but the actor’s understanding of the sub-text shouldn’t be brought to the role. On the contrary, the sub-text should be apprehended without words. Prior to opening night, the actor should let go of the text, stop thinking about the words. Just like a good surgeon, the actor should cut out everything extraneous, including those auxiliary words that helped him during the rehearsal process.
As I understand it, the actor becomes free of the text only after fully mastering the essence of his or her role?
As well as the character’s journey and conflicts with the other characters... And the director is best placed to help in this.
Does Alexey Yerenkov attend all your rehearsals?
In most cases, yes. His music is very precise, it guides the director.
Do you always like his music?
No, sometimes we fight and I try to prove to him why I need different accents from those he is proposing. Sometimes Alexey manages to persuade me and I agree.
You mentioned that you did an internship with Mark Zakharov in Moscow. What did you learn in this outstanding director’s workshop?
During that internship I was reassured that I had made the right choice of profession. Also, I realised that professionalism in stage direction is not only required at rehearsals. It should be present in the very atmosphere of the theatre starting with the stage door entrance and the billboards. The Director should use professionalism when giving remarks and instructions to the actors. Moreover, during the internship, any criticism was expressed with such priceless humour and such kind irony that it was not at all offensive. Nevertheless, it was criticism! During Zakharov’s rehearsals I learnt a lot: how to analyse roles, how to verify the performance concept and how to use examples from real life —past, present and, perhaps, future. I felt so comfortable there that every rehearsal was like a date for me. And today, when working on a play, when talking to actors I sometimes ask myself how Mark Zakharov would do this or that scene...
Who else do you consider to have been your teachers?
I learned the director’s profession under the wing of Boris Lutsenko who is my colleague now. Generally speaking, every time I manage to leave Minsk I attend the rehearsals of outstanding Russian directors. I keep the notes that I make after all the rehearsals that I have the opportunity to attend.
What trends in modern Belarusian theatre do you like?
I like it when young directors develop new forms, experiment. For instance, let’s take Yevgeny Kornyaga who was responsible for the plastic artwork in ‘Esfir’. I was pleased to note his bright and very thoughtful work. I like seeing creative people who are not afraid to take risks in Belarusian theatre. Even though not everything they do is successful, in the long run taking risks makes them better at what they do.
What is most important for you as a director after the play has been chosen?
It is to persuade the management that the play is important for the theatre. When I am confident that I will manage to stage it and the actor has been selected for the main role, I start working with the stage crew — costume and scenery designers, the composer and the choreographer — without waiting for the final decision of the management.
I’ve heard that your Esfir is always sold out within a few days. What is the secret of the play’s success?
Firstly, the play, by popular Russian writer Ulitskaya, is so authentic that the entire plot is perceived as being true to life. The audience always appreciates the moment when it recognises how accurately the author and the company have depicted true life in a drama. After thoroughly reading the play I could imagine only one actress from our company in the role of Esfir — People’s Artist of Belarus Olga Klebanovich. Esfir is an amazingly human character. And Klebanovich portrays her with great talent. Despite the fact that Esfir’s utopian dream to perpetuate her ancient Jewish family through her son is smashed to smithereens, she remains a decent human being and with her kind soul, she accepts a Russian girl into her family like a daughter.
What is your attitude towards one-dimensional characters that one sometimes finds in plays? How do you approach these roles knowing that they are weak links in the drama? What do you offer to an actor in such cases?
First of all, I try to understand the hero and to justify him or her: the author must have had some intention in portraying that character. The role is still some kind of catalyst: it is either an obstacle, or a stumbling block, or a dream lying somewhere beyond the bounds of the play. Usually, I suggest that the actor breathe new life into the role, taking it in a new direction. And naturally, the actor is also responsible for adding his or her own vision of the character. Sometimes, even the weakest role can be improved if we work together.
I frequently hear in the theatre world the following statement: these actors are not for this director. What does that mean to you?
I totally refute that. I am ready to co-operate with anybody because I never come to the theatre to conspire with ‘friends’ against ‘enemies’, but to work in the knowledge that this or that actor will bring something special to the role in question. Sometimes, the material doesn’t fit the actor’s profile, so that actor shouldn’t be pushed into the role. It would be better to use that actor in some other role that would allow him or her to display the full range of their talent. I have to admit that there are cases when an actor is given the wrong role and, as a result, the actor suffers and the play suffers.
What does a gifted actor mean to you?
Someone who knows all the requirements of the profession. A talented actor is highly disciplined, well-organised, responsible, flexible, easy going, knows how to listen to others, is able to improvise, and knows his or her body... There are many aspects to a talented actor.
What kind of theatre is closest to your heart: the kind that entertains or the kind that brings the audience to catharsis?
Only the cathartic kind. Nevertheless, you can obtain the same result with entertainment.
Is Stanislavsky’s system relevant today?
It has been relevant from the very moment of its creation and it will be relevant until theatre ceases to exist.
What is your attitude towards youth culture?
I’m all for it! I don’t close my mind to anything. Everything that moves forward is healthy. With time, everything will fall into place: the superficial will disappear and the perpetual will take root.
By Valentina Zhdanovich