“I need to feel present in today”

[b]Nikolay Pinigin, Artistic Leader of Yanka Kupala National Academic Theatre, tries to feel vibrations of time and understand their context[/b]It’s hard to understand the desires of a stage director, unless you’ve been in his shoes. Of course, they all want to create a dazzling performance commanded by beautiful acting, which will be received by audiences with pleasure. However, how do you ‘catch’ the latest trends and even be ahead of your time, while understanding the needs of your audience?Nikolay Pinigin is a famous stage director in Belarus, who has finally returned to his native theatre. In the past, his performances were filled with discoveries, bringing joy and laughter, as well as thoughtful and melancholy musings. He has made us ponder life, love and eternal human values, as understood by all nations.
Nikolay Pinigin, Artistic Leader of Yanka Kupala National Academic Theatre, tries to feel vibrations of time and understand their context
It’s hard to understand the desires of a stage director, unless you’ve been in his shoes. Of course, they all want to create a dazzling performance commanded by beautiful acting, which will be received by audiences with pleasure. However, how do you ‘catch’ the latest trends and even be ahead of your time, while understanding the needs of your audience?
Nikolay Pinigin is a famous stage director in Belarus, who has finally returned to his native theatre. In the past, his performances were filled with discoveries, bringing joy and laughter, as well as thoughtful and melancholy musings. He has made us ponder life, love and eternal human values, as understood by all nations. Mr. Pinigin has staged over 50 performances, including Ibsen’s Lady from the Sea, Kupala’s Locals, Higgins’ Harold and Maude, Gorky’s Children of the Sun, Schwarz’s Dragon, Mrożek’s Emigrates, Dunin-Marcinkiewicz’s Idyll, and Harwood’s The Dresser.
My experience of Pinigin’s theatre has never been boring, although performances are not always to everyone’s taste. They give food for thought and surround us with a certain thrilling atmosphere. Of course, this differs according to the show. Harold and Maud, starring the incomparable Stefaniya Stanyuta, conjures up late autumn frost early in the morning, which fades with the rays of the noonday sun, leaving an aftertaste of cold freshness.
The Dresser, with brilliant acting from Nikolay Yeremenko and Victor Manayev, makes us hold our breath. It’s spicy and woody, with the acrid taste of smoke — as when rotting leaves are burnt in autumn. Meanwhile, Idyll combines the aroma of hayfields and vanilla.
The director’s ‘kitchen’ is capable of a variety of creations, each one able to transport us to another world, where we view ourselves as if in a mirror. We empathise, dream and muse on our daily routines. We see the glow that comes from contentment and the dark gloom of the unhappy soul. A measure of theatre’s effectiveness is surely its ability to awaken our souls. The stage director is responsible for all before us: music, set design, lighting and acting. He stands at the top of the creative pyramid.
Nikolay Pinigin has returned home after thirty years of working for the Bolshoi Drama Theatre in St. Petersburg, to become the artistic leader of our theatre. Of course, he continues to stage performances exploring joy and disappointment, without which the creative process would be impossible, and delights all theatregoers. Eternal fans of the Kupala Theatre enjoy his ‘tailored’ pieces, each shaped by a confident hand using ‘patterns’ of good taste. From serious TRANSLATION, by Brian Friel, to humorous Kolyady Night, (see my colleague’s article on p.47) his repertoire is diverse yet focused — each piece carefully chosen.
How does he work? His job is certainly not easy, especially as the reconstruction of the Kupala Theatre’s building has obliged the company to lead a ‘gypsy life’ — moving from one site to another, which reduces their repertoire and rehearsal time. Kolyady Night had only five stage rehearsals, instead of the usual 4-6 weeks. Mr. Pinigin will no doubt have been keeping everyone calm, while looking forward to resuming ‘normality’ as soon as the theatre can enter its modernised building. Its repertoire will become more diverse again, and problems will ease.
Mr. Pinigin’s speculations about Belarus becoming more European intrigue me, as do his views on our being on the eve of a global change in human consciousness. He came to our editorial office for our interview, noting that, in the late 1970s, he occupied my current desk while working as an assistant to a television director. He even attended a nearby kindergarten, as his parents were the first Belarusian television producers. Such are the mysterious turns of life, returning us to past haunts. Perhaps Fate wishes us to understand something unclear…
I’m truly delighted to see this talented stage director return to Belarus, as I believe he’ll enhance our native theatre in good time.
You’ve headed the country’s major theatre for almost three years. Does it give you satisfaction? What have you discovered during your term of leadership?
Previously, I’d never headed anything, always avoiding this. I simply wanted to create performances. I began to head the theatre just after my 50th birthday. I can’t say that this leadership has brought me great joy, as it isn’t easy and the current reconstruction has brought difficulties. Of course, no one in our theatrical company is pleased, although the results will improve things for audiences and actors in the long run. Imagine being forced to leave your flat for three years, roaming nomadically; you’d hardly be happy. We’re doing our best but we’ll be pleased to enter our newly rebuilt theatre, returning to a normal routine — and a diverse theatrical ‘menu’. Alongside serious performances, we like to perform light entertainment and musicals.
Directors need to keep a tight rein on actors, don’t they? Who is more stubborn — youngsters or veterans? Do you enjoy leading the pride?
Power can be wielded for good or bad, enlightenment or totalitarianism. You pursue your own artistic path and not everyone will agree. Tovstonogov, an artistic leader of the Bolshoi Drama Theatre in St. Petersburg, used to say that each theatre is a voluntary dictatorship. If you believe in a person, you should obey him.
Actors need to be intrigued to stay interested. The theatre isn’t the army, where everyone obeys a command. Leadership is a heavy burden, since you must overcome apathy and misunderstanding and are likely to meet dislike along the way. Tovstonogov was a lonely person, with no family and few friends in the theatre. However, he created wonderful staging. People were afraid of him. Of course, I have to be strict sometimes; there’s no alternative to the stick and carrot policy.
Clever actors surely understand this?
Most actors are devoted to their profession, understanding our lack of money and these difficult times. Thank God, they are in the majority, regardless of age. I’m staging a performance with older actors in spring; the draft title is ‘Fairy-tales for Adults’ as it explores five of Andersen’s fairy-tales. Old men sit on a park bench telling children fairy-tales and playing with them. It’s my gift to the older generation who are rarely engaged in our performances. It’s very difficult to find a play for them, although Belarusian playwright Alexey Dudarev’s ‘Evening’ is performed on many stages and is well-loved by actors. There are few similar plays: most seem to feature a home for the elderly where life is dull and then the characters die.
Fairy-tales possess a playful element. I have no idea how successful my play will be but I feel I owe a debt to the older generation. We have many older actors with real skills, who have been awarded titles of people’s and honoured artistes. Director Alexander Gartsuev is currently staging ‘People of the Marsh’ by Ivan Melezh; it’s a wonderful performance that we’ve staged before and will again. It explores love, the impossibility of being together and the attraction between two affectionate hearts.
What would be your ideal theatre and actor?
When you serve the muses you shouldn’t be vain; you should be magnificent. If we could focus solely on creativity and put aside all else, we’d have a closed monastery, where people would be engaged exclusively in creativity. Of course, real life is full of problems to solve; nothing is ideal. My perfect theatre would be filled with like-minded people who trust and like each other, and who feel relaxed, creating something significant here and now. We can all imagine this model. As a stage director, I am very concerned about being relevant today.
We live on the edge of a global change in human consciousness, so it’s tricky to decide what to stage. I have a large library at home of plays but I don’t think I’ll ever use them; those which worked yesterday are no longer in demand today. People continue to show huge interest in music — philharmonic and light musical theatre — because these are fundamental arts which endure in popularity. We work with the spoken word, so I must listen to the mood of the time, understanding the context in which we exist.
The greatest skill an actor can possess is to be able to adapt his persona, adopting various masks with ease, to portray characters and genres. They need to be able to express emotions easily and have a philosophical side. They must be able to understand irony and be comfortable with showing anger and aggression. They can work with their stage director, co-authoring a production. Those who are just mediocre obey orders. In fact, we have a very good theatrical troupe, with our youngsters possessing these skills. Those from the older generation tend to be happier following orders but I often worry that I can’t offer them decent work.
Do these older actors listen to you?
Yes and no — as is normal. I think that I’m the same. We cannot help but follow what we are used to. When the fabulous director Lyubimov returned from abroad, he still struggled against Soviet thinking, even though it no longer existed.
Not everyone can move with the times, despite our world changing so rapidly. We shouldn’t do as Russian poet Yesenin wrote and ‘run after Komsomol in short trousers’. We need to be vitally alive to hear the vibrations of time and change alongside it. It’s no easy task. Each actor, director and creative person has a time when they flourish because they are truly in synch with their time. It’s a clichй that the old grumble about the ‘good old days’ and say that the younger generation aren’t the same; naturally, young people are very different today. Meanwhile, older actors boast experience, which gives them deeper empathy. There are no simple answers. Sometimes, a mature actor can be empty inside while a younger colleague is strong and energetic.
How do you govern rehearsals?
I can’t be the judge of that. I’m awful at the moment because of the repairs. I don’t know any stage director who can put together a performance with just five rehearsals. It’s a complex task. How can you do in five days what usually takes 6-8 weeks? Tickets are sold, so nothing can be cancelled or postponed. Sometimes, I can be horribly aggressive.
Rehearsals are my favourite time as you still have time to explore, dream and discuss. The sets are still being made. Rehearsal time is a way of life. Our profession is unique in allowing us to simulate so many circumstances and act so many roles. Who else can ‘be’ a politician, a miner, an old or young man or a person in love — all within a short time? We learn about ourselves in the process. I know something of psychological theatre but see no riddle in the human psyche. I’m keen on the subconscious and the mystical — that which comes from Heaven as pure divine energy... supreme energy.
Do you know how you want a performance to appear from the very beginning?
No, never. You set off on a voyage into the unknown. Of course, initially, the play should provoke interest. Either deliberately or unwittingly, you come to realisations. As far as the composition of a performance is concerned, Fellini once said: ‘the script has been written and now the film is to be shot’. Of course, the words must first be written before they can be performed.
This is a difficult time as theatre is not ‘what’ but ‘how’. A stage director needs to consider style, genre, image structure, music, set and lighting. Sometimes, everything falls into place quickly; at other times, it requires much time and effort. However, it’s vital to see how a play correlates with the present day. I don’t mean the obvious social direction but the deeper essence.
For example, how does Ursula Radziwill’s baroque style ‘Abduction of Europe’ [staged by the Yanka Kupala Theatre] relate to our present day? There’s no direct parallel yet critics expected a modern day message from me. I was laughing, as it was really just a bit of ‘castle fun’ Nesvizh-style. Imagine the Radziwill family gathering in the castle, giving themselves roles and playing under the guidance of Ursula Radziwill. It was home fun, as we might enjoy ourselves. However, according to the context, it was mid-18th century theatre; few nations can boast anything similar.
It was a time of comic opera, ballet and comedia dell’arte: the highest culture of Europe. There were no anecdotes, as we might see in the ‘Curved Mirror’ TV programme, broadcast by a Russian TV Channel. Next year, we’re going to perform in honour of the memory of Ursula Radziwill; that is all the context we need. Thank God, shops are selling tasty ‘Radzivilovsky’ bread’ and ‘Radzivilovsky’ stores are being constructed, while Nesvizh has been restored. This shows that the nation has a desire to understand its identity and deeper European roots. We did not originate in 1917, so who are we? Self-exploration is a major national issue.
The Radziwill dukes were very wealthy — richer than many Polish kings. However, their wealth was created by those who lived on their land: peasants and craftsmen. Nesvizh’s theatre can be considered a national treasure. Its actors didn’t fall from the sky. Meanwhile, local people sewed costumes and German decorators and mechanical engineers were invited, being paid a salary. I think this is a serious part of our history, which our theatre is showing in the form of ‘castle fun’.
There is no philosophical message. That would be nonsense, showing an inability to understand the nature of the performance. We view wall drawings of aurochs and bison as art, drawn by someone from the past, depicting a scene from their own time. The same can be said of this performance. We have not dramatically changed it from the original, although we can be proud of making it our own. Everyone knows that Shklov, Slonim and, to some extent, Tizengauz theatrical companies became the Mariinsky Theatre. It is historically true. It should be studied not only by specialists and theatre experts, but by school children, inspiring us to be proud of our past. Belarus’ European culture originates from those times.
How self-critical are you? Does theatrical criticism serve a purpose?
It’s a difficult issue. The great Russian poet Pushkin said: ‘O, Muse, obey God’s command. Don’t be afraid of insults. Don’t require laurels. Accept praise and slander indifferently and don’t debate with a fool’. If you’re confident that you hear a voice from Heaven — and everyone hears this voice — accepts it as you should.
I recall many proverbs on this theme. For instance, ‘Dogs bark, but the caravan goes on’ and ‘An empty vessel makes the greatest sound’. However, it may also be true that ‘Two heads are better than one’ and ‘A jackfish is in the pond so that the crucian carp don’t sleep’. You can choose which suits you. Pushkin may have written ‘God’s Command’ but, on returning to Russia after writing ‘Journey to Erzurum’, he opened Moscow’s first newspaper and saw criticism which disappointed him. He could not follow his own advice.
We’re all human, enjoying praise and disliking criticism. However, there are different levels of criticism. I take note of considered criticism with pleasure, although I may agree or disagree. At the same time, there are throw-away reviews written in their dozens about every performance. Some journalists earn their living this way; it’s a spontaneous process over which we have no control. I understand that such journalists are just doing their job but I would prefer us to treat each other respectfully, encouraging mutual interchange. It’s also true that a performance isn’t ready for viewing until the penultimate rehearsal — by the artistic council or by critics. I sometimes see critics creep into rehearsals early on. What do they do this for? It’s normal to visit on the eighth or tenth run-through. Give us time to feel our way; critics should be taught this during their first year of study.
Here lies the major point of misunderstanding. I used to keep reviews about myself but stopped doing so, although my mother continued, as it was interesting to her. Now, I’m almost indifferent to them; I prefer to believe the audience reaction. It’s the most vital critique. ‘We’re given sympathy, as we are given Godsend’. If you’ve been heard and understood, that’s great; if not, you’ve done something wrong in failing to evoke a response from your audience.
Are omnivorous audiences the best judge? What would you say about Minskers? Do they differ from residents of St. Petersburg?
If an audience laughs during a performance, this doesn’t mean that it’s a success. Everything depends on how they laugh and what makes them laugh — this is the indicator of the performance’s quality. If we joke about mother-in-laws, wives and husbands, we’ll always amuse people. I don’t know who attends our performances and it’s not something I’ve ever really pondered. Psychological theatre, which explores current problems, is not interesting to me, as I’ve already solved my own life dilemmas. Much of that which was unclear to me in the past is now clear. I’m ready to understand and forgive. However, this doesn’t mean that I can do so every day, however much I try; my pride can still be hurt.
Why did I stage ‘Ursula Radziwill’ and ‘Kolyady Night’? I prefer to bring people joy. A new age is yet to arrive while our old knowledge is becoming obsolete. We’re in the middle of these two periods, so I believe we should await the new by performing plays with music and some moral lessons which are eternal.
Over the course of time, I’ve become more cynical, working to please myself. In my youth, I was very cheerful and could entertain half of Minsk with a guitar on my shoulder, staging sad performances. Now, I stage cheerful performances with only a weak smile on my face.
I like Minsk audiences more than any other. In St. Petersburg, no one stands after a performance. I can remember only one incidence of a standing ovation, for ‘Quartet’ — starring Zinaida Sharko, Oleg Basilashvili, Alisa Freindlikh and Kirill Lavrov. The audience stood because there were eighty and ninety year olds on stage — the greatest stars of the city and of all Russia. They stood in respect. In St. Petersburg, the audience is more reserved, requiring more intellectual theatre. Belarusians and Minskers make good audiences. They may not be so well educated but they are very open, which is more important to me. They are open to simple human joys and sorrows; as they say, ‘even a wise man stumbles’. If I gave them a complex intellectual drama, it might create problems.
For me it’s not food for thought which is most important, but that I engage people’s hearts, souls and emotions. When we are astonished, laughing or crying, we understand more about life than when we are given a complex plot to follow. Thinking too hard can be our enemy, since our mind often won’t allow us to sleep, replaying events repeatedly. It is an instrument for human activity but if we give it complete control we go insane. It’s better to be able to feel, since our intuition is more reliable than our thought processes. Our mind may tell us that we should love a woman for her perfect hourglass figure, and because her father is a director of a bank and she owns her own flat. It would be logical. Whether you can actually fall in love with her is another thing. Your heart must decide…
How is it possible to combine public taste with high art in this age of market relations?
This is the ultimate question, since we are expected to teach while entertaining. Doctors’ psychological tests are organised as games, and the same technique is used for children in kindergartens. When you play you learn better. If you are under stress, you can’t concentrate; accordingly, playfulness is essential in the theatre. You must appreciate the audience’s desires.
Mr. Tovstonogov used to say that artistic concepts lie with audiences. This means that you should formulate what the audience anticipates. If you say something bizarre — that people are violet in colour, rather than lilac — you may get away with it. If you say something which is half expected but which is not yet formulated by people artistically, you may meet confusion. It’s a case of understanding the spirit of the time.
Which performances should we next expect?
I’d like to stage Adam Mickiewicz’ ‘Pan Tadeusz’. I’ll also be staging ‘Local Cabaret’, which is a French genre; it flourished in Poland between WWI and WWII and is completely unfamiliar to Belarusian audiences. I’ve already used Belarusian songs in a similar genre, as well as French, German and Polish.
Whose play are you using?
I don’t need a play as it’s a cabaret. Someone enters the stage and asks us to imagine that we are elsewhere: in Baranovichi or Grodno. Our artistes sing amusing songs, dressed in bourgeois hats with feathers, evening suits and top hats. I like the title very much.
However, there is a very good Lithuanian play, called ‘Mister’, about Mickiewicz and his difficult years in Paris. It features Victor Hugo, George Sand and others… It’s an interesting dramatic work, but may not have wide appeal. At the Chekhov Festival we plan to perform Shakespeare jointly. It’s very convenient for us, as some of the costs are covered by the organisers. Moreover, we’ll tour Europe and elsewhere. I have various plans but I don’t want to look too far into the future. We first need to return to our theatre building after its reconstruction.

By Valentina Zhdanovich
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