Maxim Sokhar: ‘Directorship has chosen me’
[b]Maxim Sokhar is a recent alumnus of the Academy of Arts; he is not yet 30 but is already the chief director at Bobruisk-based Mogilev Regional Drama and Comedy Theatre (named after Vincent Martinkevich). The Maxim Gorky National Academic Drama Theatre staged his I Believe in Horoscopes (based on fashionable Belarusian playwright Andrey Karelin’s work) while he was a student of the Director’s Department. His monologues are wonderful[/b]Over the past year in Bobruisk, Maxim has been mastering his new position, gaining acquain-tance with actors and the life of the theatre, while staging new performances. He loves the city and, naturally, the theatre itself, which was established during WWI. The theatre, in turn, has ‘accepted’ its new chief director and now loves him. I listened in admiration as he chatted with actors and critics after Nero’s premiere, which was recognised as a landmark event for the theatre and the city of Bobruisk alike. Much has been spoken of Maxim’s youth, his search for his own style and, naturally, his talent.
Over the past year in Bobruisk, Maxim has been mastering his new position, gaining acquain-tance with actors and the life of the theatre, while staging new performances. He loves the city and, naturally, the theatre itself, which was established during WWI. The theatre, in turn, has ‘accepted’ its new chief director and now loves him. I listened in admiration as he chatted with actors and critics after Nero’s premiere, which was recognised as a landmark event for the theatre and the city of Bobruisk alike. Much has been spoken of Maxim’s youth, his search for his own style and, naturally, his talent.
Youth and talent are the best allies for a director; we can only guess at what performan-ces Maxim might stage over the next two decades. He is keen to look to the future, saying with humour and anticipation, “My future actors may have only just been born. By the time they are grown up and graduated from the Academy, I’ll be old, grey-haired and experienced. They’ll come to visit me at the theatre and I’ll start ‘creating’ the actors I wish them to be. I’ll have experience by then, while they will be young and able to learn something new. We’ll create something wonderful and I’ll then sit with the audience to admire my actors.”
Here, we chat about future dreams and the present, covering much more than his recent directorship.
You studied in the Czech Republic in your early years. Did it impress you?
I can talk a great deal about the Czech Republic’s small towns and love Prague, where I studied, at the Russian Embassy School. I also adore Nimburg, where my family lived. Every day, we went to Prague with my father, who lectured at Charles University. Nimburg is similar to small towns in France and Germany (which I’ve also visited) in having an ‘old Europe’ atmosphere. As a child, I saw this while watching films; it’s difficult to describe but the architecture and smells are special. People greet each other as our Belarusians do in the countryside and you can cycle from one village to the next. You know your baker and can talk to the chef in a cosy cafe about the weather or praise a flower seller’s bouquet. You pass them everyday. I search for this atmosphere everywhere.
Have you found this in Bobruisk?
Yes. I feel its breath here. Bobruisk has a European atmosphere, despite being a large city, which I admire. The centre has a unique micro-world, with a church, theatre and small cafйs. On my way to the theatre, I greet people and stop for a cup of coffee. There are many different comfortable cafйs here. I love the city in winter, especially at New Year and Christmas, when it seems to be from a fairytale. Illumination is everywhere and people are so cheerful, hurrying home with food or a fir-tree. Europe has a slightly different rhythm. When I walk through the city, I think: ‘this is my Europe’. This is one of the reasons why Bobruisk is close to my soul.
Bobruisk residents say they’re proud to see so many young people from Minsk coming to Bobruisk at weekends…
It’s true. I’ve asked them what attracts them to Bobruisk and people tend to say that they like the town’s European atmosphere! Some even say that Bobruisk smells like Europe, with the scent of old chimneys, cleaned only by sweeps. One girl asked me if any still existed in Bobruisk and I had to admit that I’ve never met a chimneysweep in town. However, I agreed that it has a very peculiar scent, like that of smoke. Nevertheless, the town is always tho-roughly clean, even in the suburbs, which have neat rubbish bins everywhere. The beaver image (the symbol of Bobruisk) is painted on fences and various signs.
Is it true that Bobruisk still has the spirit of a former Jewish town?
Absolutely! By virtue of my profession, I like watching people. You often hear people saying that they are Bobruiskers, meaning that they’ve concluded some business. Actually, I think that classical Jews are only found in Bobruisk these days; it’s as if they’ve come down from a film screen. Recently, I met a married couple, where the husband was tall and skinny and the wife short with an old-fashioned fur hat. The man was wearing a thick woollen coat, with rather tight trousers which hardly covered his ankles so that his wool socks were visible beneath — probably knitted by his wife. He had a peaked cap — and what a cap it was! The entire appearance of this couple testified to them being native Bobruisk residents. Moreover, they held each others’ hands tenderly! I’ve never met such a couple, looking like Sholem Aleichem’s characters, in Minsk…
Do people like theatre in Bobruisk?
They love it and I have to admit that our audiences are very patriotic. For example, when a visiting theatre comes on tour to our town, after the performance, you may hear that the actors were good, but people assert that the Bobruisk troupe is better! Different companies come here on tour, sometimes more professional than ours, sometimes with more expensive sets, but Bobruiskers say that ours are the best. Our sweet ticket collectors always ask visitors if they liked the play at the end of the performance; as the saying goes, theatre begins with the wardrobe.
Maxim, how did you find yourself in stage direction?
Everything began in the Czech Republic. When studying in Prague, I admired a professor who taught us art history. As a school student from the post-Soviet region, I was impressed by his ‘free’ lessons, encouraging us to feel relaxed, like his friends. He spoke passionately about commonplace things, making time fly by. Now, as a director, I also have to ‘teach’ others. I’ve adopted a lot of the Pan Svoboda (freedom) method, as actors are just like children, who can’t be forced to love something against their will. During his lessons, we watched feature films, for later discussion. I recollect, for instance, watching ‘Kolja’ by Zdeněk Svěrбk, about a talented musician who wins an ‘Oscar’. The film subtly demonstrates how anta-gonism between two people — a grown-up musician and a five-year-old boy — transforms into true love. At that time, the film impressed me so much that I, a sceptic of 15, experienced a change of heart, fundamentally altering my view of myself and of my life. I realised that life can be more easily scrutinised. I began observing my surroundings, noting not only outer events, but trying to understand people’s motivations. Of course, I had my own activities, but I began developing my new talent — as an observer. This film and my teacher inspired me to become a film director, which requires me to be a psychologist, who can explain what he sees. It requires constant analysis of plays, searching for the motives behind characters’ actions. We compare them and create biographies for them.
Sometimes, I believe that it is the art of direction that has chosen me. When I studied at the Academy of Arts, one of the respected directors from the Kupala Theatre (the Yanka Kupala National Academic Theatre), Alexander Gartsuev, told me: ‘You will be a good director’. At the time, I wasn’t so sure. My personal relationship with Gartsuev wasn’t an easy one, as we sometimes quarrelled. He was always very demanding of me, which offended me on occasion. I kept wondering why he seemed to find fault with me but his belief in me came true.
Did your father influence your professional choice?
Of course! He’s a well-known theatre critic and playwright and a former actor with the Kupala Theatre. Since my childhood, I’ve gone to the theatre. My favourite is the Maxim Gorky National Academic Drama Theatre. We visited it many times, living close by. After perfor-mances, I’d go behind the scenes. Of course, I saw that the actors were different in real life to how they were on stage; this magical, theatrical transformation impressed me.
It’s no secret that a director’s job is filled with emotional tension. How do you avoid stress?
With the help of my wife, children and parents. I’m still in love with my wife, while my three children are always good for me. They help me to overcome stress and act as pain-relievers as soon as I come home. My sons usually meet me with great joy; the smile of my youngest daughter, Masha, is so healing. Often, I look for advice or good conversation from my parents. I’m very lucky, being brought up in an atmosphere of love and respect. All problems were peacefully discussed. Undoubtedly, my upbringing was democratic, although this doesn’t mean that I was never forced to do anything. On the contrary, my parents ignored my ‘I don’t want to’ and said ‘you have to’. This referred to music classes, painting lessons and to eating proper food. As a result, I’m quite healthy, can play the guitar, can sing decently and know how to draw.
Which character traits do you consider best?
Putting away false modesty, I believe I have the perfect genetic combination. If I have to achieve something, I can be determined, while remaining gentle and emotionally open. This is invaluable, since a director can’t produce a performance if they aren’t emotionally available.
How quickly do you feel ownership of a play, knowing how to stage it?
Usually, I experience creative animation and joy, seeing the perfor-mance as soon as I read the script. If I don’t see it, I don’t take on the play. Naturally, there are situations when you have to stage a particular play which is not to your liking. In such cases, I use the methods of Stanislavsky. Of course, there is the risk that the final production will have no soul, and will lack special appeal. The same applies to children: I’m sure that happy children are born from happy marriages. If there is no affection between the director and the play, the children may be well-brought-up, but won’t be geniuses.
In your view, why is Stanislavsky considered to be the genius of the theatre world?
He was a real genius of theatre theory, gathering the best of the art of acting and directing. He systematised all this knowledge into a single system, which is faultless. If you strictly follow it, you can stage anything. Some plays will be better than others though; it’s natural in art.
Which directors do you look up to?
For me, every stage director is an authority, provided he is a professional. I respect my colleagues and always rejoice in their successes. I try to learn something from each of their plays. You can learn a lot this way.
Which school of stage direction is your favourite? What about the Belarusian school?
Belarusian stage direction is full of people, especially younger members, who want to ‘reinvent the wheel’. We keep doing this, but all things new are derived from what has gone before. Jerzy Grotowski, a great visionary of stage art, believed that, although there were no new words, the way they were used could be reinterpreted. The profession of stage directing is called a spiritual craft, since we create a show from the bare bones of words. In my view, it’s wrong to boast that you are doing something new, since there are no new Americas to be discovered. It’s important to approach your profession with honesty. Of course, you can use various modern special effects, but they can’t replace the performance: it would be very unprofessional. It’s also wrong to jump on a fashionable bandwagon. For instance, many theatres took up Bulgakov’s ‘Master and Margarita’ immediately after it was shown on TV. Theatre should be above such trends, with its own style.
Have you managed to find your own style?
I’m not confident enough to say so, as I’m a young director. I’ve staged a few pieces and must leave the audience to judge.
How do you view criticism?
I believe there’s a difference between criticism and petty nitpicking. Criticism is objective and relevant, especially when fresh eyes are used. The play is usually born from torture, since it must become part of you. You want to preserve every detail, although some aspects may be unsuitable, and this can lead to lack of focus. If somebody tells me how to make it clearer, simpler or better, I always follow their advice. This is the kind of criticism I like. If it’s relevant, then it’s useful. I’d like all criticism to be kind and constructive. Some critics seem to only desire to ‘pull apart’ a play, leading to a biased view. Incidentally, it makes actors feel uncomfortable when they know a member of the audience has this objective in mind.
Do you know how to make actors feel relaxed?
I’ve seen such situations, where the actor enters the stage in confusion. Primarily, this is the director’s fault, since it is his responsibility to make the actor feel relaxed, in an atmosphere of trust. A director must show that they know what they are doing and to what end. I spend a lot of time explaining to actors that their eyes are the most expressive tool in the theatre. Audiences can see your eyes for at least the first ten rows. You can choose one audience member to ‘speak’ to, choosing someone who looks sympathetic. It will appear as if you are speaking to everyone in the stalls as a result.
Have you tried stage acting yourself?
There was time when I felt utter panic in front of an audience, I was afraid to say something wrong. My uncertainty brought on excessive internal trembling. I had to contain my fears and force myself to go on stage, catching the audience’s attention and making viewers believe in me. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to tell actors what they have to do.
It seems like psychological training…
It was groundwork for my directing future; I use my own experience of overcoming stage fright to teach others.
Which element of performance do you prefer: music, sets or acting?
I can’t say, since all are important. If the music is suitable, the acting is better and audiences feel more connected. The music attunes the entire theatre machine to the audience.
Let’s put it this way: music is the soul, sets are the house in which this soul lives.
Absolutely, a play cannot be interesting if any element is lacking. Sets play an important role. If the actors play their parts well and the music is wonderful, yet the sets and lighting are bad, this creates a fly in the ointment, which can spoil everything. I’m pleased to say that, when working on ‘Nero’ for the first time, I managed to reach a ‘consensus’ with the theatre art director. I totally accepted his work. As far as the composer was concerned, everything was easy. He is a wonderful friend of mine and took on board my expectations regarding the music and the play. In such a situation, it’s an absolute joy to work.
Do you plan to show your new play, Nero, in Minsk?
We have plans, but it will take more than a day to fulfil them. The play isn’t yet ready to be shown to the capital’s audience, although it is growing in strength. We’re constantly changing something. When I feel that it’s ready, we’ll definitely bring it to Minsk.
What can we expect from you in the near future?
We have plenty of ideas. I’m the chief director, and there are other directors under my management, whom I have to consider. I try to develop our production plan to use their creative abilities. Also, we study audience expectations. For more than a year, I’ve been thinking about Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. We have all the required actors but I can’t picture it in my head. I have to admit that the material is fascinating. Also, my plans include ‘The Broken Nest’ — a Belarusian classical play by Yanka Kupala.
I’ve heard that you are studying for a post-graduate degree.
Even after having completed my master’s degree, I am doing this with pleasure. My thesis is called ‘Theatre Education in Belarus: Stage Director Training Problems’. I believe the issue is interesting not only for myself, but for the entire theatre community. Every year, the Academy of Arts graduates a certain number of theatre producers. You can’t help feeling as if they are birds being released from a cage, who suddenly disappear. Where do these powerful creative directors go to? The future of our theatre depends upon them and I’d like to hire one: daring and young, with sparkling eyes. I’m not afraid of developing someone else’s talent. We need such people. I’m looking forward to the June graduation at the Academy of Arts’ Theatre Department. I retain the firm belief that the theatre has a promising future, as does my native drama theatre in Bobruisk.
By Valentina Zhdanovich