Oksana Lesnaya: moments of free flight
[b]This year, Oksana Lesnaya, a leading actress with the Maxim Gorky National Academic Drama Theatre, celebrates her 20th anniversary with the troupe[/b]Oksana had tough times in the past. She felt the hands of time ticking away and wondered how long she might have to live. She felt set apart from the world of healthy people and from her vocation, wondering why she had been ‘chosen’ by the black hand of fate. However, the trial of those days made her reassess her situation and gave her the realisation that life is a great gift. She began to acknowledge one simple truth: if you look at everything and everyone in a positive light, sooner or later, the world will return your positivity. The saying that an echo reflects back our call helps Oksana preserve the spiritual balance which she found impossible at a younger age. The world of theatre is one of boiling emotions. The rhythm of her life has now levelled.
Oksana had tough times in the past. She felt the hands of time ticking away and wondered how long she might have to live. She felt set apart from the world of healthy people and from her vocation, wondering why she had been ‘chosen’ by the black hand of fate. However, the trial of those days made her reassess her situation and gave her the realisation that life is a great gift. She began to acknowledge one simple truth: if you look at everything and everyone in a positive light, sooner or later, the world will return your positivity.
The saying that an echo reflects back our call helps Oksana preserve the spiritual balance which she found impossible at a younger age. The world of theatre is one of boiling emotions. The rhythm of her life has now levelled. She has regained her health and returned to a full, active career of theatrical performances, non-theatre repertory and cinema work, bringing us unique characters, filled with energy and strength. They exist on a knife edge. Sometimes, she is a proud and inaccessible woman — at others, she is full of tenderness and femininity. She can be a vamp, a composed business woman or a bohemian poet. Her portrayal of the romantic folk heroine Zoska in Yanka Kupala’s Broken Nest received high praise. Olga Klebanovich, People’s Artiste of Belarus, played Marylya opposite her. She stresses, “Oksana seemed to float across the stage; she was so ethereal yet so tragic.”
Playing young girls and women, Oksana manages to break out of the mould and even has a natural sense of the comedic. Audiences often don’t know whether to laugh or sympathise, as her characters change emotions as quickly as children. Everything is told through her facial expressions, which nakedly reveal the inner world of her characters. Her bright palette of feelings is enchanting and her ability to portray a diverse range of women is impressive. Each one is unique, lodging in the memory…
I ask if she has become more emotionally controlled with the years, and she replies that she tends to react less violently these days. In her youth, she would expend huge emotional energy on trifles; now she preserves her inner strength for more important matters. I wonder if such as thing is possible in an actor’s profession, since the roles require great emotional input, but she laughs. Oksana tells me, “Professional skill is needed. In penetrating a role, an actress must remember that she does not truly become the character. She remains herself, simply bringing the role to life.”
She has played dozens of stage roles: Yevlampia in Nikolay Ostrovsky’s Wolves and Sheep, Leda — the queen of Sparta — in Amphitryon (based on an ancient Greek myth), Inken Peters in Gerhart Hauptmann’s Before Sunset, Anna in Maxim Gorky’s Vassa and Nastasia in Fiodor Dostoevsky’s Uncle’s Dream.
Her cinema roles have also been numerous. Today, she arrives at our editorial office directly from shooting a children’s film — Striped Happiness — in which she plays a teacher.
Oksana, you seem able to play any role.
All actresses think this of themselves and I’m no exception. I’m a true ‘character’ actress, although I lean towards romanticism and sentiment. I can say without exaggeration that such roles are perfect for me. In ‘Wolves and Sheep’, I played Yevlampia — a woman set apart by her romantic dreams. I’m also intrigued by heroic stories.
Did you ever yearn for one role only to receive another?
The role of Yevlampia didn’t immediately appeal to me. In fact, I felt that I was wasting the summer (when rehearsals were taking place). I couldn’t see myself as the widow of a businessman stupidly signing blank papers. However, director Arkady Kats told me that such women do exist, living in their own inner world. The usual rules of society have no meaning for them.
He advised me to draw on Yelena Solovei and Renata Litvinova and I was sceptical but he told me to trust him. “If you start to overact, I’ll pull you back. Just search for a character which differs from the rest. Yevlampia is like a bird who understands nothing, being above routine. She wants only to love; this is the only thing that interests her…”
Did you find her inner soul?
It can’t be otherwise. I played Yevlampia as if walking on thin ice. Although she is a real person, she is very strange. I found melodious tones in her voice and gestures. My Yevlampia was all a tingle. The whole performance was nice.
Tell us, please, about your other favourite ways of creating a character.
I’m keen on dramatic heroines — be they sharp and prickly or lyrical and romantic. I use my voice, movement and gesture and like to gradually build my rhythm. Tension mounts until broken, leaving a suddenly calm atmosphere. This catches the audience’s attention. In life, I’m also interested in ‘chameleons’ whose mood changes quickly.
Theatre has its own laws. What are your views on them?
If you’re devoted to your profession, then everything falls into place. Of course, there are difficulties and tensions — since these accompany all creativity. Even those whose principles are whiter than white can be led astray and even the most easy going and kind may not get along with everyone. Our profession is guided by ambition and pride — this is what motivates us — so we all like to prove ourselves to be the best. Why else would we be on stage? Accordingly, some unpleasant traits come to the surface… but which of us is without sin? Each one of us acts as our conscience directs, controlling our negative emotions as best we can. Naturally, we’d all like to be perceived as being kind.
How long have you understood this?
It’s taken me many years to understand that we should hold our tongues when words of criticism spring to mind. We are all human, so it’s better to view others as reflections of yourself, trying to see only the best traits. We often forget that we cannot fully understand another person’s point of view unless we’ve walked in their shoes; we judge by our own life experience — but this may be lacking. We may think that we’ve understood and can offer advice but it’s better just to be patient and listen.
Mr. Stanislavsky once said that a role should ‘sit well’ with an actor’s own life, adding to their personal experience. He believed that ‘all moments of the role and an actor’s tasks will become not just imaginary, but ‘tatters’ of one’s own life’. Do you ‘project’ your own life situations onto those of your characters?
This is a very complex thing to do and it’s always very difficult for me to answer this question. On the one hand, some projection exists; on the other, I have to invent some of the drama. Of course, I do rely on my own life experience — but I tend to recall feelings rather than events — as these make me stronger and wiser. Undoubtedly, my life experience helps me in each role, but I don’t use it in its ‘pure’ form. People say that mature actors have more depth because they’ve experienced both joy and sorrow in life; pain expands the soul. We can’t always be in high spirits, since troubles always come. These give joy meaning. Maybe this is a principle of human existence on the Earth.
What are you currently rehearsing?
Unfortunately, nothing new at present; in the current repertoire, I’m in ‘Ninochka’, ‘Vassa’, ‘A Profitable Post’, ‘An Ideal Husband’ and ‘Before Sunset’. I’m also with a non-repertory company, in addition to shooting for the cinema, so I’m not upset. I can’t play young girls any more (laughs). In ‘Before Sunset’, which has long been part of our repertoire, Mr. Yankovsky’s character calls my heroine a young girl. This embarrasses me, because the audience can clearly see my age, however good I look.
I understand that age restrictions aren’t important if the play is worthy. However, before each performance, I ask Mr. Yankovsky to call me ‘young woman’. However, he says that I’m a young girl to him (laughs) and that he won’t change anything. As far as greater engagements are concerned, it’s good that an actor’s life has its high and low tides, as this gives you time to assess yourself, finding something new, which can be useful later. When an actor ‘jumps’ immediately from one performance to another, they become tired from the burden; this can lead to them falling into a rut. Rehearsal ‘down time’ is beneficial, as long as it doesn’t last too long (laughs).
Which cinema shoots do you most remember?
Each shoot is interesting in its own way. If you’re open to life, you’ll find things of interest everywhere. I’ve played in a lot of Moscow TV series — usually vamps. Belarusian film director Margarita Kasymova invited me to film ‘Temptation’, a film about love, playing a deceived wife. She’s a successful entrepreneur who transfers her business to her husband so that she can spend time raising her son. The business expands and her husband acquires a lover. It was a big role, which I enjoyed immensely, and was my first experience of Belarusian cinema. Russian actors played alongside me.
I also remember working with Russian film director Sergey Gazarov, playing a single-mother journalist, nicknamed Radio. Her prickly character made a change for me — as I’d been playing a lot of softly feminine roles. I also worked with Belarusian film director Alexander Yefremov on two pictures: ‘Rhymed with Love’ and ‘Sniper’. I was then invited to work with Belarusian film director Andrey Kudinenko on ‘Massacre’, playing an awful Baba-Yaga (a witchlike character in Slavic folklore), who turned into a beautiful woman once a spell had been removed. I wore amazing prosthetic make-up to make me hag-like. I like the dignity bestowed on Belarusians in this film, as it insults me to see us portrayed as unhappy or poor — on stage or screen. We are a proud, strong and kind nation. I perceive my fatherland in this way.
When and how did your acting style take its present form?
I have no idea, as it seemed to evolve over my whole life. I think this happens to all good actors, whose experience shapes their work. The danger comes in ‘stopping rowing the boat’ — since immobility can fossilise you. My foundations were laid at the Theatre and Arts Institute (now, the Academy of Arts), which I entered immediately on leaving school. I studied with Zinaida Brovarskaya and Valentin Ryzhy, who taught us well.
As a student, I understood that we should take everything best from each teacher. I’ve been lucky and remain so, making friends with experienced stage masters. I’ve always treated them respectfully. While studying, I admired those who, despite their knowledge and huge experience, remained friendly and open. I remember that I made a discovery at that time: the more cultured a person, the simpler their outlook and the more pure their character.
At what age did you ‘become infected’ by the theatre?
As a teenager, I attended performances at the Young Spectator’s Theatre, the Maxim Gorky National Academic Drama Theatre and the Yanka Kupala National Academic Theatre. I was greatly impressed by a performance at the Maxim Gorky Theatre — ‘Two on the Swings’. I remember crying terribly. Alexandra Klimova, a People’s Artiste of the USSR from the second half of the 20th century, was perfect. Like all little girls, I was excited by love stories. I was a rather impressionable child and I still cry when I watch ‘Wait for Me’ — a Russian TV programme about people being reunited after many years.
You have a family story connected with this TV programme, don’t you?
Yes. My family appeared on a similar show, produced by Agniya Barto — a Soviet writer, screenwriter and children’s poet. I’d told journalists many times about my father and brother losing each other and my mother during the bombing in WW2 — only finding one another twenty years later.
What is dear to you from your time with the Young Spectators’ Theatre?
It was my first theatrical company and it accepted me very warmly. The staff treated young actors well. My first entrance on stage was in the role of Butterfly in ‘Thumbelina’: I flew Thumbelina to a leaf. My shoes were two sizes too big, so were constantly falling off, which amused the audience and me. Having played many roles with this theatre, several years later, I was invited to the Russian Theatre, where everything was different. I was accepted intelligently and rather reservedly. However, by that time, I was also different.
My colleague once said that you represent vulnerable womanhood. Do you agree?
I think that two strands struggle within me: one active and the other vulnerable. Probably, this is true of every woman. Sometimes, it seems to me that I’m an extremely fragile person; at other times, I feel fiercely independent.
Many think that our judgments of ourselves can be too remote from reality. What do you think when you look in the mirror?
I sometimes think that my nose could have been shorter, my lips more pouty and my eyes larger. If I dwell on such thoughts, my other side steps in to reprimand me, reminding me that we can’t choose our parents or genes so I should just accept myself as I am — and like myself. Of course, people see us in different ways and their vision can differ greatly from our own. I learnt some time ago that, while at the Institute, I was seen as very composed and self-contained, although I’d thought of myself as being cheerful and chatty.
Are you of an organised nature?
I’m very responsible, with periods of serious self-discipline. However, this only happens when I’m over-tired. This side of me can be overwhelming, but I’ve been like this since childhood. I sometimes think I was born this way! Not long ago, I began using a day planner to ensure that I don’t forget anything!
Do you sway between liking yourself and not?
Naturally — everyone’s the same. It’s not normal — or healthy — to like yourself too much. A happy medium is best. Of course, we’re sometimes overwhelmed with emotions. Every now and then, we feel pleased with ourselves, thinking that we’re doing everything correctly — as Bulat Okudzhava said, ‘as if we’re living correctly’. At other times, we’re dissatisfied with everything.
It’s normal to feel this way: we’re biological creatures living in the shadow of the moon’s tides and beneath the sun’s magnetic storms. Just like any other member of the human race, my moods can change, as does my world outlook. My relations with people, even those closest to me, go through different phases. Between these ups and downs, there are periods of free flight. These short moments tend to come when I’m achieving something: either perfect acting in a performance or something else… It’s like a short flight from a trampoline. You feel ethereal — as if flying! You want the condition to last forever so it’s always surprising when we come down to Earth.
How long have you enjoyed this acceptance of yourself and the knowledge that you won’t dance to someone else’s tune to the detriment of your personality?
In my profession, it’s impossible not to dance to someone’s tune. I’m dependant on others. As far as life is concerned, experience teaches you to become your own person. I used to feel as if everyone else should bow to my wishes when I was playing a difficult part — not even breathing. Later, I realised that you have to combine the real and virtual worlds. You need to cook, and find time to chat to your husband while simultaneously responding to your son; other people’s needs are as important as your own.
In one interview, you noted that family is at the core of everything.
In ‘Anna Karenina’, Russian writer Leo Tolstoy noted that ‘happy families are all alike’ while ‘every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. I believe that our family has a good mixture of both.
It smells like pies in your home.
Of course! I’m keen on baking pies, charlottes and puddings with raisins.
Tell us, please, about the men in your life.
About real men or those on stage? (laughs) I’m engaged in a non-repertory version of the comedy ‘A Lady and Her Men’. My character has three men in Michael Cristofer’s play, acting opposite wonderful Sergey Zhuravel and Vladimir Mishchanchuk. I adore all my male stage partners but I’m not interested in how they behave in their real lives, outside the stage. Some things are best kept private. I like to think of them having only good traits, since this makes them more interesting to me. It’s probably easiest for me to like them when I invent these good qualities myself.
In real life, practical approach is needed in relations with men though.
Yes, it’s more difficult to love someone when you endure the daily routine of family life together. I sometimes think that I know someone well but may then discover something utterly different. This just proves that we’re guided by illusions. It’s good to know that a man is an important component of female life. He is a catastrophe which can’t be avoided and we can’t exist without him. I don’t understand emancipated woman who flaunt the idea of doing everything themselves, saying that they don’t need men. The world revolves around yin and yang. A woman can only be whole with a man. I love my female friends but this can’t replace the company of a man.
Do you like to be in the limelight?
Actors always love to be liked, accepted, admired and ‘showered’ with flowers. This is our work. It’s stupid to pretend that I don’t desire these things. The real and virtual worlds combine, visiting each other. Meanwhile, only the best is given to guests.
By Valentina Zhdanovich