Grigory Borovik: ‘I master my profession’

[b]On the eve of the Victory Day, Minsk’s theatrical community celebrated the 25th anniversary of the first theatre season by presenting These Obscure Old People at Minsk’s Youth Theatre — currently undergoing reconstruction. The performance was based on Svetlana Aleksievich’s famous documentary play War’s Unwomanly Face. Its director, Grigory Borovik, currently heads the Belarusian Academy of Arts’ Chair for Stage Direction and Stagecraft and has staged 127 performances and pop shows during his professional career[/b]I’ve many times watched rehearsals at the Young Spectators’ Theatre in Minsk, conducted by Mr. Borovik — who used to be the theatre’s director. The first was a play offering acute social critique, by Russian playwright Victor Rozov, entitled “Four Drops,” rehearsed in full costume, with set and props. It was also my first view of a theatrical performance from backstage.I must admit that there’s something quite thrilling about seeing a performance born in front of your eyes in an absolutely empty hall.
On the eve of the Victory Day, Minsk’s theatrical community celebrated the 25th anniversary of the first theatre season by presenting These Obscure Old People at Minsk’s Youth Theatre — currently undergoing reconstruction. The performance was based on Svetlana Aleksievich’s famous documentary play War’s Unwomanly Face. Its director, Grigory Borovik, currently heads the Belarusian Academy of Arts’ Chair for Stage Direction and Stagecraft and has staged 127 performances and pop shows during his professional career

I’ve many times watched rehearsals at the Young Spectators’ Theatre in Minsk, conducted by Mr. Borovik — who used to be the theatre’s director. The first was a play offering acute social critique, by Russian playwright Victor Rozov, entitled “Four Drops,” rehearsed in full costume, with set and props. It was also my first view of a theatrical performance from backstage.
I must admit that there’s something quite thrilling about seeing a performance born in front of your eyes in an absolutely empty hall. You are the only spectator, who is also the creator, able to stop the action at any moment, as often as you like. At first, it seemed to me that Mr. Borovik was simply trying to find fault in the actors. In my amateur opinion, I thought they were doing fine. However, as soon as I began to penetrate deeper into the theatrical process, I understood his desires. I learnt to distinguish semantics and nuances of speech, seeing the inner life of each role.
The rehearsal process is truly exciting and spectacular; we see the actors and stage directorship developing, with characters coming alive. I watched “Drama Because of Lyrics” — a wonderful performance about juvenile minimalism and the purity of uncompromising teenagers. I also greatly enjoyed a penetratingly sad performance, called Hope, describing the life of young painter Nadya Rusheva. It showed the spiritual loneliness of those born with great talent. Mr. Borovik’s performances from the period when he worked at the Young Spectators’ Theatre were always bold and shocking in their reality — a rare quality in Soviet times.

Grigory Borovik, an experienced director, teacher and guest of our editorial office, tells us how he managed to stage plays which offered such sharp social critique at that time and where he worked after leaving the Young Spectators’ Theatre. Why did he become involved in teaching stage direction?
Mr. Borovik, tell us, please, about the Chair you’ve headed for so many years at the Theatre Department.
The Stage Direction Chair was founded immediately after WWII and I’ve headed it since 1999. It has the following specialities: pop stage direction, puppet theatre direction and musical theatre direction. Circus direction is also planned… with all united under the notion of theatre stage direction. We employ five people, with 15-16 working with us on a contractual basis; these include famous stage masters. It’s rather a mixture.

Are there any problems at your theatrical school and how do they reveal themselves?
The major problem is the aspiration of stage direction to encompass everything. Stage directors would like to have our own Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook, as well as commedia dell’arte [also known as Italian comedy], and a host of other schools and trends.

Surely, not every ‘vegetable’ can put down roots in Belarusian soil?
I understand the great temptation to cover everything, since our world is so diverse. Every theatrical stage director wants to make their name stand out, but teaching stage direction is actually quite a conservative job. I don’t aim to be innovative. Rather, I’m independent of the opinions of critics and directors — who aim to be superior to all that has been before. In the 1990s, avant-garde drama came to the fore; yet, by the mid-1990s, it was passй. We’ve returned to our roots of serious drama, and have
managed to survive.

Can you draw a picture of contemporary Belarusian stage direction? Does it please you?
Does it please or sadden me? Neither. We’re now seeing a tendency to return to the ‘avant-garde’ years. Our critique is shaping this process but it isn’t theatrical criticism. Instead, journalistic criticism is guiding the trend; the media tells us that our theatres should mimic those in the Baltic States or Poland. Why aren’t serious drama theatres from the UK, France or the USA mentioned? Why don’t critics recollect Warsaw’s Teatr Narodowy or Krakow Theatre in Poland? I’ve seen fabulous performances at these theatres…. which are part of a true school! They’ve preserved their traditions, despite changes in society. A good drama theatre is, to some extent, conservative — like serious literature.
Unfortunately, classical European theatre is a rare guest at Belarusian festivals. Our ‘new’ criticism makes reference to semi-professional theatres from neighbouring and far abroad countries. As a rule, these tend to come to our festivals. Of course, these semi-professional companies tend to be lightweight — even superficial. Professionalism impedes them rather than aids them; such aesthetics don’t match our mentality.

You don’t like experiments, do you? Aren’t you afraid of being considered conservative?
There’s always a limit to experiments. If these fall beyond the scope of a particular genre — such as a literary novel or dramatic theatre — the genre is destroyed. If too much dance is included, the performance is denoted as ballet; if there is too much singing, it ‘becomes’ operetta. It’s a pity that such experimentation takes root in people’s minds. It’s just dilettantism — a primitive response to fashion. Truly experimental art deserves respect; the abstractionists were once skilful drawing artists.
When we see such works, we see that professional understanding exists — something which strikes to the quick. We can see beyond a malformed face or hand in abstract painting. In theatre, stage directors sometimes twist relationships to fit an artificial idea. However, their lack of understanding of the deeper essence doesn’t stir our imagination or touch our soul.

Is contemporary Belarusian theatre developing in such a way that its future is secure?
Theatre has always relied on a community of talents. It was so yesterday and remains so now. It is a flexible organism, ever changing. Everything depends on who assesses this community: stage directors, actors, playwrights, composers and set designers. If a community of creative personalities exists, then a theatre of a definite quality exists. If no such community develops, a whole range of problems arises and ‘modernisation’ begins. Artistic groups’ programmes require harmonisation of many aspects — including personnel and repertoire.

Do programmes require ethical principles?
Ethical, disciplinary, creative and organisational principles exist, guiding troupes. These are sacredly preserved over the years in serious theatres. If we look at European theatres — such as Comйdie-Franзaise or Britain’s Royal National Theatre — we see that they reverently preserve their principles. Once, the Russian director Efros told me that, in Japan, poorer actors are greatly respected by those who have reached star status. The latter will leave their luxurious cars away from the theatre and walk, so as not to embarrass their less well-off colleagues. This is how ethics is observed. Unfortunately, such principles have been lost in our time. Every Belarusian theatrical company has interesting actors, and good performances and directors, yet the spirit of the theatre needs to be reinforced, as does the spirit of those who can influence the theatrical process in some way.

What can be done to inspire this spirit?
We should never forget who we are and where we’re from, where we’re going and what we’re aiming for. For instance, we can’t become African in spirit, because of our mentality; we won’t ever be able to play blues as they do. Yes, we can be keen on blues, but we should explore our own mentality. We’re a talented nation.

What inspires hope?
Hope is inspired by the aspiration of certain theatres to preserve the fundamentals of classical theatre, based on traditions. We have some directors who want to achieve this. One of Belarus’ most powerful theatrical companies is the Theatre-Studio of Film Actors. Its artistic leader, Oleg Yefremov, is working hard to this end. Another interesting company is the Belarusian Army Drama Theatre, headed by Alexey Dudarev, which boasts a theatrical atmosphere and team spirit. Valery Anisenko, [the artistic leader of the Republican Theatre of Belarusian Drama] is working hard to preserve theatrical foundations in our country. Some performances not only strengthen these but further develop and renew them. Another interesting stage director in Minsk is Vladimir Savitsky, who has recently become head of the Young Spectators’ Theatre. Mr. Savitsky is one of a few bold and talented personalities who are really concerned about theatre, our country and social problems. As a stage director, he consistently selects Belarusian drama works. Even when he stages foreign drama, he gives it a Belarusian spirit. Mr. Savitsky tries to be sincere in his reactions towards today`s life. Slavonic theatrical art has always been logical, exploring the human essence, alongside daily life.

Do you teach stage direction?
I teach stage direction and stagecraft — vital elements for a stage director. Stage direction courses are also headed by talented directors like Alexander Yefremov, Boris Lutsenko, Valery Raevsky, Valery Anisenko and Vitaly Katovitsky.

How many people are enrolled in stage direction?
Six people, as a rule. After graduation, only 2-3 used to gain employment with the theatre a decade ago, for various reasons. However, this figure has now risen to 4-5 people.

Which of your graduates are you most proud of?
I’m proud of many of my pupils. Among them are laureates of various theatrical festivals and honoured artistes. Some now head drama theatres in Mozyr, Gomel, Mogilev and Bobruisk. Others work as stage directors while some are employed in Ukraine or in Russia. Some have received employment from me while others have been taken by the Young Spectators’ Theatre while still students. Some were viewed as unpromising actors early on, but I’ve helped them to establish themselves; one is now a famous stage director in Belarus, gaining popularity for his avant-garde performances. Another of my pupils works for a Moscow theatre and has appeared on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival, alongside Hollywood celebrities. My pupils work with pop musicians, some teach and others occupy executive posts in the sphere of culture.

We sometimes hear that there are few good stage directors. Do you agree with this?
As a rule, people with particular tastes tend to make such comments, asking: ‘Where is our NekroЁius?’ Alas, they don’t see that we have our NekroЁius, as we have our own Stanislavsky and Peter Brook. However, the profession is naturally critical. On closer inspection, people may see that their views on stage direction may be incorrect.

It’s said that acting is a vocation and way of life, rather than a profession. What then is stage direction?
When people speak of the lifestyle of an actor or a stage director, they think only of the most sensational aspects. If we look deeper, we see that there are routine elements, as there are in any job. To an ‘ordinary person’, the profession seems incomprehensible. A stage director’s creativity appears when he awakens his consciousness to penetrate the essence of life. He studies a script and generates an image of the future performance. He relies on his imagination.
For example, Russian writer Maxim Gorky was writing a play where he couldn’t decide on how a certain character would react on being stabbed in the liver with a knife. Gorky tried hard and long to imagine the scene until, one morning, his relatives found him lying on the floor, having stabbed himself. He muttered: ‘It’s very painful to be stabbed in the liver with a knife’. Gorky undertook this experiment to better understand the state of his character and to honestly describe it. Of course, I’ve never taken such extreme steps but, sometimes, the path is long, unless the performance’s structure becomes clear. Once the structure is formed, you can develop other skills. Teaching stage direction, we try to nurture creative consciousness but we can’t ‘create’ talent. There are only certain things you can teach — such as particular skills and some rules regarding our profession. You can also promote a certain world outlook.

Tell us about your path into stage direction. Which difficulties did you face? Who were your teachers?
After serving in the army, I arrived in Minsk from Ukrainian Kamenets-Podolsky to study, as my roots are Belarusian. I simultaneously entered the stage direction and acting departments, but failed in the acting department during the second round. My teacher was Dmitry Orlov, a Belarusian stage direction leader. I was an acting director from my second year, staging a mime show, as I was keen on this genre. In fact, it was the first mime show in Minsk, organised as part of the republican review. I also took part in a performance by prominent Russian actor and director Nikolay Okhlopkov, who selected me out of fifty students for a mime role. As a third year student, I staged Yanka Kupala’s ‘Primaki’ and was completely involved in stage direction during my fourth year of studies. After graduating from the university, I was invited to work at Brest’s Drama Theatre and, two years later, joined the Young Spectators’ Theatre.
I spent 18 months training at the Moscow Art Theatre, taught by Oleg Yefremov. There, in co-operation with Victor Salyuk, I staged Vasil Bykov’s ‘Last Chance’. Yefremov invited me to stay at the theatre as a director-teacher but, at that time, I also received an invitation to work for the Young Spectators’ Theatre as chief director. Of course, I chose Minsk’s theatre, aiming for independence.
I remember asking the Minister of Culture, Yuri Mikhnevich, whether I would be able to stage plays of my own choosing and he said: ‘Write a list and I’ll put a stamp on it’. My list of 30 plays included some with acutely critical themes — for which I was later criticised by the party press. Meanwhile, the Minister couldn’t say anything, because he had given permission. I worked for four years at the Young Spectators’ Theatre before going freelance, staging performances beyond Belarus for eight years. I worked with the best theatres in Russia, Moldova, Ukraine and Siberia.
At that time, the Soviet Union press in Minsk wrote about me a great deal. I was then invited to create the Youth Theatre, being appointed chairman of the commission to set up a new troupe. I was able to create a unique company, comprising young Belarusian and Russian actors, whom I selected from various Moscow universities. After working three years with the Youth Theatre, I directed some performances abroad again.
However, destiny stubbornly called me to teaching. I was already an established specialist, who had helped outstanding Russian figures rehearse. Moreover, the teaching of stage direction was topical at the time. I became keen on the theory of stage direction and defended a thesis dealing with problems of conceptuality in performances given in the 1970-1980s (a topic first developed in the Soviet Union). I then wrote several articles dedicated to issues of stage direction, drama and acting.

Finally, you became a teacher of stage direction?
The path was long yet fruitful.

How would you describe your style of stage direction?
It’s a complex notion; I don’t know how to describe it. I understand the mission of a stage director as the need to explore social problems and the contradictions of life. To my mind, no drama theatre exists beyond this scope. This guides my creativity. My colleagues are sometimes scared to invite me to their premieres, as I tend to be critical — which can be hurtful to them. Over all, I’m a meticulous stage director. I can end up eviscerating actors, which some can’t deal with. Why am I this way? I had good teachers and worked with excellent companies.
Angelina Stepanova, a People’s Artiste of the USSR, was a pupil of Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. During an artistic council, she said that, despite my junior status, I’d managed to turn around the performance of Kira Golovko, a People’s Artiste of the USSR and Professor at the MKhAT School-Studio. Ms. Golovko had asked me to critique her acting and MKhAT People’s Artistes Alexander Kalyagin and Yevgeny Kindinov overheard my reply. They must have been amused, anticipating how Ms. Golovko would give me a dose of my own medicine. She told me that she didn’t understand my remarks and I replied that she had played her role wonderfully from a technical point of view. However, I noted that Stanislavsky would have called her performance unbelievable, having no inner, mental movement. She thought for ten minutes and then asked if she might be excused from the next few rehearsals. I gave her a week and, when she returned, she was brilliant. Everyone was astonished.
Now, I always give my students the same advice. I master my profession.

You can be considered as a ‘wise old man’ of stage direction. Have you ever partnered another stage director for a performance?
It was impossible when I had just begun staging performances, but, as the years passed, I began to think that it would be possible. I even came to the conclusion that it didn’t matter too much which stage director is the first. Naturally, it’s still important to me to see my ideas realised. I’m interested in how my partner stage directors think. I can disagree with them and they also can argue with me. It was so when the stage direction chair was organised. I worked in tandem with many stage directors. I believe that partnership is a key element in a joint performance. It would be a pleasure for me to work with some of our leading masters, to understand their methods of working with contemporary actors.

How do you select actors for roles?
As a rule, I listen to actors carefully and can make quite a prompt decision as to whether they fit a particular role. I sometimes hear from my colleagues that actors should fulfil any task set by a stage director. Yes, they should — but it’s another question as to whether they have the ability to do so. Talent, professionalism and technical equipment play their role but actors can only do what comes naturally; they cannot automatically embody the stage director’s view of a performance. Rather, actors should be given the opportunity to do their best.

Haven’t you ever lost interest in staging performances?
It’s impossible. I continue to stage performances even now: one performance a year, as a rule.

Are you critical of yourself professionally?
I’ve staged many performances, yet am truly only satisfied with five of them. Is that self-critical? Of these, I’m thinking particularly of Mikhail Bulgakov’s ‘The Heart of a Dog’, which saw 40 full-houses at Kiev’s State Academic Theatre of Drama and Comedy. People were always asking for extra tickets…

Do you have any unrealised dreams regarding something you’d like to stage? And are there any particular actors you’d like to work with?
Yakub Kolas has a wonderful work, called ‘Poison’, which has only been staged twice in the history of Belarusian theatre. It explores the theme of how unrealistic dreams can ruin a person. I’d also like to stage Chekhov’s ‘Cherry Orchard’ with good actors. It’s about how dreams are crushed by reality and that there’s no need to return to the past, since there’s nothing in the past, except for loss. I’d also like to stage Kondrat Krapiva’s ‘Gates of Immortality’…

We often hear that today’s theatre isn’t the same as it was yesterday and that it has diminished in meaning. Do you agree?
Partially. Art in general and theatrical art in particular are manifested in various forms: literature and religion are forms of spiritual mentality. Too much shine and glitter have appeared in contemporary theatre; to my mind, theatre is more than mere entertainment. It should also teach us something, while bringing hope that, if something impedes our life, it will be corrected.

By Valentina Zhdanovich
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