She’s been a star since childhood

[b]Recently, as the country celebrated International Women’s Day, Honoured Artiste of Belarus Vera Kavalerova was awarded the Crystal Paulinka by the Union of Theatre Figures of Belarus, for her lifelong service to the theatre [/b]Vera is an actress of the rarest theatre genre: travesti. As a lifelong member of the Young Spectators’ Theatre, she has enjoyed years of responsibility, since children are always honest in their judgements. Adults are ready to forgive less than perfect performances, even applauding from respect — something children never do. “It’s very painful to see the back of children’s heads when a performance isn’t going as it should, for various reasons,” admits Ms. Kavalerova. I understand her, since I’ve observed the same situation at the Young Spectators’ Theatre several times. Of course, I’ve also seen children with delighted faces, enjoying every moment of Ms. Kavalerova’s appearance as a Butterfly, Fairy or as Cipollino. She is so spectacular in her roles that she immediately demands attention. It seems that her grey-blue eyes truly sparkle.
Recently, as the country celebrated International Women’s Day, Honoured Artiste of Belarus Vera Kavalerova was awarded the Crystal Paulinka by the Union of Theatre Figures of Belarus, for her lifelong service to the theatre

Vera is an actress of the rarest theatre genre: travesti. As a lifelong member of the Young Spectators’ Theatre, she has enjoyed years of responsibility, since children are always honest in their judgements. Adults are ready to forgive less than perfect performances, even applauding from respect — something children never do. “It’s very painful to see the back of children’s heads when a performance isn’t going as it should, for various reasons,” admits Ms. Kavalerova. I understand her, since I’ve observed the same situation at the Young Spectators’ Theatre several times. Of course, I’ve also seen children with delighted faces, enjoying every moment of Ms. Kavalerova’s appearance as a Butterfly, Fairy or as Cipollino. She is so spectacular in her roles that she immediately demands attention. It seems that her grey-blue eyes truly sparkle.
Speaking to her, I was disappointed to learn that a wonderful performance — American William Gibson’s Miracle Worker — has been off the theatre’s repertoire for the past year. Vera played deaf-mute and blind girl Helen. Anyone who has seen this dramatic performance will never forget her deeply psychological and penetrative interpretation of the role. It clearly demanded great mental exertion. Vera tells me that, after one performance, a mother brought her nine year old son to the stage door, so that he could meet her. He had been convinced that she really couldn’t see, hear or speak and it was extremely painful for him. “This child, who had a fine appreciation of everything, came close to me and cried: ‘This is you…you… It’s very good you can see, hear and speak…’.”
Ms. Kavalerova speaks with genuine emotion and explains her feelings eloquently. Tears spring up when we speak of issues close to her heart but she can quickly shift to laughter, encouraging me to do the same. In my opinion, she is one of the kindest people I’ve met. Chatting together, I understand her feelings and appreciate her sharp sense of humour. It’s clear why children and adults alike adore Ms. Kavalerova.

How did you feel on being awarded the Crystal Paulinka?
I learnt of it on the eve of World Theatre Day — that I was being given our theatrical ’Oscar’. I must admit that I was thunderstruck, as I’d never dreamt of being considered worthy of the prize. It’s previously been given to such outstanding theatre legends. When I was invited onto the stage for the presentation, I felt as if electricity was passing through me. It’s difficult to explain why I was trembling. Probably, it was from excitement and because I was being ranked alongside our great actors, whom I admired so much as a student.

Are you natural modest and shy?
I’m a viola according to the flower horoscope, while Cancer (the Crab) is my astrological sign and I was born in the Chinese Year of the Cat. Crabs don’t leave their shells, but can show their claws. Cats usually walk alone while violas like shade.

This is perhaps true. I can see certain behaviour patterns, which were studied by our ancestors. You don’t like being in the limelight outside the theatre, do you?
I don’t like noise and don’t tend to go to crowded get-togethers, unless I’m obliged to attend. If I need to go, I begin to prepare in advance, reminding myself that it’s important to someone. I don’t want to offend whoever has invited me. I appreciate that my feelings are vital only to myself. As a certain poet once said, you can be most lonely in a crowd.

What brings you spiritual comfort and happiness?
Of course, the theatre, as well as my home and family: my elder sister, my son and his wife, and my grandchildren. My elder sister brought me up from my being 11 years old, so we’re very close.

As we’re speaking about family, the issue of stage acting genes is interesting. Is yours an acting dynasty?
My granddaughter is keen on acting; she began working at the Young Spectators’ Theatre when she was just six. She’s played the Cherub in the ‘Road to Bethlehem’ for seven years; she’s developed the character in her own way. Meanwhile, I play the Donkey. Many of the theatre staff believe she’s taken the responsibility of the role very seriously. She likes actors and is always interested in their lives, but is studying tourism management. Being an actress isn’t a profession; it’s a vocation and lifestyle. People must be born to it.

Are these revelations based on your acting and life experience?
It seems that I was an actress even before I began to realise my own personality. I was always playing a role.

Who noticed your potential talent?
My sister; although she’s an engineer, she possesses a wonderful teaching gift. Whenever she played with me, she encouraged me to role-play and was astonished at my ability to cry at will. I can shed floods of tears or quickly shift from tears to laughter. At the time, we were rather poor and had no TV set. My sister discovered that there was a theatre studio at the television centre, enrolling children for involvement in TV performances. At that time, such TV performances were common. I began to study at school the age of eight and became a pupil of the theatre studio. Anna Pinigina, a director of the children’s section, immediately accepted me. Klavdiya Kazakova, an actress with Moscow’s Art Theatre, was our teacher. Her word was law to me. I managed to do everything brilliantly, so was a star from childhood.

How was your stardom assessed?
I was recognised in the street and people used to say: ‘This is the girl who played in the performance’ or ‘We know you, you were…’. Was it pleasant? Maybe, but I didn’t pay much attention. I’ve already told you that play acting came naturally to me. Certainly, my school was very proud of me. Over the course of a decade, I played plenty of roles and was joined by all the Belarusian professional stage actors. Theatre studio pupils also took part in the ‘Youngsters Read’ TV programme, where we recited verses and prose.

Do you ever visit your old school in Minsk?
Recently, our school celebrated its 50th jubilee, inviting all its old pupils; I attended and met my oldest history teacher. I came up to her and asked whether she recognised me. She immediately replied: ‘Smirnova, graduation year 1969’. What an incredible memory!

You came to the Young Spectators’ Theatre as an established actress, didn’t you?
Yes. At our studio, we were taught everything now taught at the Actor’s Department of the Academy of Arts’ Theatre Faculty. This was why one of Moscow’s theatre universities refused to accept me, saying: ‘What would we teach you? You know everything. Go to the employment bureau’. I began working at the age of 18; the role of Rabbit was my professional debut in ‘Rabbit Nose-in-the-Air’.

Have you ever tried stage direction?
Stage direction isn’t my cup of tea. I can direct my own role within a perfor-mance, but not the whole performance as a stage director. It’s a special gift to be able to see the performance as a whole. Moreover, a stage director should be a leader by nature while I’m a viola.

What about leadership in your roles?
This is leadership of another kind, which I manifest within the role, straining every sinew. It’s very important for me to be in the first team of actors for a performance, but I haven’t ever asked for a particular role. There was just one occasion, when a wonderful performance — ‘The Singing Little Pig’ — would have closed, as the lead actor left the theatre. He was brilliant but I asked to take on the role, promising that I wouldn’t fail. I did everything perfectly, although I didn’t need the part for my own personal growth. I do reveal my leadership skills in other areas. For instance, I was the absolute champion in Minsk for short distance running.

Does this mean that roles ‘find’ you?
Exactly — I think that I’ve had good luck in the theatre.

Did it take long to achieve success on the stage?
It took less than a year. The Lvov Theatre (from the Carpathian Military District) arrived in Minsk on tour, inviting me to work. I agreed, joining them for six years. Then I understood that I couldn’t live without the Young Spectators’ Theatre.

In one of your interviews, you mentioned that you’ve always been afraid of speaking in a child’s voice. Is this true? Was this why you left for an adult theatre?
Yes, there was a period when I was afraid that repeatedly playing children and animals would lead to shallow interpretations of my characters. Meanwhile, I faced another problem in Lvov; the politeness of the adult audience, who forgive all failings. I realised that I desperately needed the reaction of a children’s audience, otherwise, I’d lose my reason for acting. Children never applaud if they don’t like a performance — if you’ve failed to inspire them.
Fortunately, I understood early on that children’s roles are very serious. Children have personalities, as adults do; in fact, their passions are even greater. They can’t manage their emotions, being of a tender age, and can’t explain the reasons behind their feelings. They can’t control their passions, as adults do, so it’s extremely difficult to play a child’s role convincingly. Your energy must ‘flood’ the stage to hold their attention. Contemporary children, who are used to seeing film sequences on TV and on computers, sometimes even don’t understand that they’re allured by the energy of our emotions. A good actor, whom children can believe in, always generates energy from their heart.
I once told an audience of children that each performance they are watching is unique, never to be repeated exactly the same. They were ‘touching’ a miracle, which would be different tomorrow, even at the same performance. It was a revelation to them when I explained that their teachers also give mini-performances during lessons, telling their pupils about something. No two lessons are ever the same.

If you assessed your work objectively, would you say that you deserved the title of Honoured Artiste?
I haven’t ever thought about it. I’ve worked with great commitment all my life.

When I was awarded this title, I came to the stage director and asked how I should now work to live up to this title. He laughed and responded that I’d already earned this title for my lifetime’s work with the theatre.
How do you deal with fans?

Children and adults often come up to thank me and present me with flowers or gifts. It’s wonderful to see their smiles and eyes full of tears. After a performance of director Grigory Borovik’s ‘Four Drops’, I was the last to leave the theatre. This is often the case, as it’s difficult for me to quickly ‘recover’ after dramatic roles. I was walking through the theatre courtyard when I saw a young couple waiting for me at the gates. They’d had some free time before their train left for St. Petersburg and had visited the Young Spectators’ Theatre to fill the time. They were greatly astonished that Minsk had such a theatre, giving such a serious performance. There are lots of other examples I could give you, which I remember well. These recollections are more significant than titles and awards.

Do people recognise you in the street?
It happens sometimes. People might say hello to me on the bus. Once I heard: ‘Do People’s Artistes also travel by bus?’

Critics say you are currently the only ‘travesti’ actor in the country, successfully negotiating the age barrier to continue working in a repertory theatre. Do you feel this is true?
Travesti is complex, requiring constant observation of children and direct communication with them. I was lucky that the most active period of my creative formation coincided with my son growing up. He guides me. We’d often have groups of his friends over to our house and I’d be always getting them to play games, watching their behaviour. I’d even provoke arguments to see how they would act.
To make children believe you are the same as them, you must utterly master their psychology. The difficulty is that theories on child psychology change every five years. Only initial purity and openness remain true for children of various generations. This is what I try to understand. Acting for children, I’ve long realised that they are like soil, capable of producing both negative and positive ‘seedlings’. I hold great responsibility on taking to the stage, since I command their attention. I can plant something into this soil. When playing a negative role, I should perform so that children understand that they should never behave as my character does.
Of course, travesti is closely connected with age. A decade ago, I could easily come up to the stage director and ask to play the role of the Little Lord from ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’, although I played the Duchess in this play — a woman without definite age. Now, I can’t do this; not because my energy or my understanding of children has changed but because the face the children see in the first minutes of the performance is very important. During these moments you should make them believe that you’re a young girl. After a few minutes, it’s no longer important to them how you appear, as they become engrossed in the action and the development of the characters.
A year ago, I played Helen in the ‘Miracle Worker’, but we had to call off the performance as the set broke. We were thinking of how best to repair it when I suggested closing the performance. It seemed as if Fate itself had ordered my farewell to the role, which required so much strength and great preparation before entering the stage. It remains a mystery how I played this role. I still play fairytale characters but have no idea where the future will lead me. An interesting stage director recently joined our theatre, preparing performances for adults.

You often take on the role of boys. Is it difficult to transform? According to psychologists, male psychology is a mystery to women. How do you manage to be believable?
I wouldn’t say that it’s difficult to understand. I had to watch boys for a long time and continue to do this out of habit. When working on a role, I don’t just play a boy. For example, I played the Donkey in ‘Road to Bethlehem’, combining the role as a boy and, partially, as ‘Hamlet’. I invented a story for him, seeing him as more than just an animal carrying Jesus to Bethlehem. The same approach can be used for any role. I’m often asked whether I regret not having played a particular role. I regret nothing. I’ve played so many roles and incorporate characters all the time. Do you now understand what an interesting profession I have? When playing Flower, I can also play Ophelia. Adults will see a Shakespearean character while children take the role at face value, believing in their fate and character. When I play an animal or an insect, I can use my imagination. I gain great pleasure from such roles. Positive audience reaction is the best proof of the credibility of my acting.

Is the stage director aware of the life you can ‘breathe’ into your characters?
Why is this necessary? It’s only vital to them that I do as I’m asked.

What is the purpose of children’s theatre?
It should promote kindness while encouraging spirituality in children’s souls. It should be entertaining and amusing, inspiring sorrow and showing the constant struggle between good and evil. The Young Spectators’ Theatre should always remember what it is planting into young souls…

How do adults perceive children’s perfor-mances?
In various ways; I’m keen to watch their reactions. At first, the face of an ordinary father, who has brought his son to the performance, reflects complete indifference. However, as soon as the action develops, his face comes alive, transforming him into a completely different person — grateful and smiling. Recently, I invited a woman from whom I sometimes buy biscuits on my way to rehearsals to attend a perfor-mance. She hadn’t ever been to see a stage production and was greatly astonished. The play was ‘A Little Bit of Tenderness’. She told me, “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Now, each time I see her, or buy her biscuits, I notice some other life in her eyes. This is the power of theatre. I’m convinced that theatre, which aims to awaken spirituality and the best traits in people, makes us better and purer. I’m against performances with much evil and blackness.

So much time has passed between your debut as Rabbit in Rabbit Nose-in-the-Air and your last role, as the librarian in Tender Night. What do these roles share and how have your feelings about acting changed?
There are no great differences, except that I’m more experienced now. When I was young, I couldn’t ‘develop’ images. I acted by intuition. My psychology and move-ments unite my past and present. Recently, I played an old woman in a Russian TV soap. I had to run with my grandson, who played an officer, so I asked the stage director how I should run. He answered that it didn’t matter, so I ran like Minsk’s champion sprinter and overtook everyone. We all later joked that a stand-in athlete had taken over.
Is it difficult to play fairytale characters as an adult? Even the most skilled actors, able to transform, must possess some other quality to make children accept them and empathise.
It’s both simple and difficult; you mustn’t ever forget that a pure child lives in your soul. You should protect it from negative influences.

Have you ever had to go on stage to perform to children when you are in a bad mood?
Many times. Almost every actor faces this.

Which qualities do you most value in your fellow actors?
There aren’t any particular traits. In fact, the perfect partner for you may not be so for another actor. It might even be difficult for someone to work with them. Some brilliant actors remain ‘closed’ on stage as partners. I believe that you need to be able to completely penetrate each other’s character, so it’s vital to be open, giving of yourself to your partner. The better you are able to do this, the more you’ll receive in return. A true partner thinks more about you than about himself. I’ve had to settle some issues regarding partnership. I asked one of our directors, Grigory Borovik [who now heads the Stage Direction Chair at the Academy of Arts] how to tackle uncooperative fellow actors. He said, “You should simply act and ignore your partner’s lack of openness. I need you to ‘fly’ over the role.” I didn’t immediately understand what this meant, but came to realise that he was talking about energy. After a performance, I feel that I can still give five more perfor-mances in a row. Mr. Borovik has given me a great deal of good advice relating to my profession, revealing its secrets to me.

Which characters do you enjoy playing most: heroes or villains?
Of course, villains; it’s more difficult to play them in such a way that they remain realistic. I begin by finding their weaknesses. They then become sympathetic and recognisable.

At what stage does a role become natural?
When a solution has been found, the role guides you itself. The process of searching can be long and painful. It sometimes happens that you don’t sleep at night, constantly searching for approaches. This happens when the play isn’t very good in itself and the role appears weak. Yet some roles are like an open book. In both cases, you need to fly over the role to achieve happiness.

If you could replay your life, would you have chosen the profession of an actress?
It couldn’t be otherwise. As I said before, some people are born to act; others are not.

By Valentina Zhdanovich
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