Theatre of sincere feelings
[b]National Academic Drama Theatre named after M. Gorky soon to celebrate 80th anniversary[/b]1932 is an historic date for Belarusian theatre, being the year of the opening of the State Russian Drama Theatre, in Bobruisk. Led by Honoured Artist Vladimir Kumelsky, it moved to Grodno and then to Minsk after World War II. It was named in honour of Maxim Gorky, before becoming an academic and then a national theatre. Today, fans of the theatre continue to call it the Russian Theatre. Its company of 230 people, including 53 actors, has a repertoire of 28 plays, featuring Russian and foreign classics.Of course, 80 years is a landmark date and a reason to pronounce high-sounding words which aren’t always appropriate in everyday life. Of course, these high words will be soon said by the country’s leadership, public organisations and colleague actors from the prominent Gorky Theatre stage. For eight decades, audiences have been moved to tears and laughter and have been made to ponder the deepest emotional and philosophical aspects of life. All those who find themselves moved by stage drama will be delighted to help celebrate the anniversary of the Russian Theatre. This love not only admires the Theatre’s creative achievements but forgives the mistakes which are always part of the learning experience, showing that its work is a living, developing entity.
1932 is an historic date for Belarusian theatre, being the year of the opening of the State Russian Drama Theatre, in Bobruisk. Led by Honoured Artist Vladimir Kumelsky, it moved to Grodno and then to Minsk after World War II. It was named in honour of Maxim Gorky, before becoming an academic and then a national theatre. Today, fans of the theatre continue to call it the Russian Theatre. Its company of 230 people, including 53 actors, has a repertoire of 28 plays, featuring Russian and foreign classics.
Of course, 80 years is a landmark date and a reason to pronounce high-sounding words which aren’t always appropriate in everyday life. Of course, these high words will be soon said by the country’s leadership, public organisations and colleague actors from the prominent Gorky Theatre stage. For eight decades, audiences have been moved to tears and laughter and have been made to ponder the deepest emotional and philosophical aspects of life. All those who find themselves moved by stage drama will be delighted to help celebrate the anniversary of the Russian Theatre. This love not only admires the Theatre’s creative achievements but forgives the mistakes which are always part of the learning experience, showing that its work is a living, developing entity.
Rather than lingering on errors, we should perhaps focus more on achievements, since we are in a celebratory mood. Eduard Gerasimovich, who heads the Theatre, is a Honoured Figure of Culture of Belarus, while Sergei Kovalchik is the chief director. Of course, the Russian Theatre boasts many awards. However, these are not solely earned by its actors or directors; the whole company of backstage crew help make each staging a success. We’ve also spoken about something deep without which a theatrical art of true passions can’t exist: about hidden levers which cause its huge mechanism to move and whose vector force is directed towards human soul.
How are you planning to celebrate the theatre’s jubilee?
Eduard Gerasimovich: We’re giving a performance; the programme is almost complete, with a special anniversary poster and exhibition in the foyer. I hope that those actors who take part in the staging will surprise us with their creativity. I believe we’ll mark the anniversary worthily, as is appropriate. Since September, we’ve celebrated several anniversaries. People’s Artists of Belarus Bella Masumyan and Boris Lutsenko have taken part in the National Theatre Awards while Mr. Kovalchik directed the final concert. He’s still working on our performance for the New Year: Tamara Gabbe’s Magic Rings of Almanzor. We’ll also be fighting for our title of National Theatre, as the President has decreed that all theatres honoured by the title must periodically prove their worthiness. Autumn 2012, with the transition to winter, has been busy but interesting.
Sergei Kovalchik: I think that the anniversary is a good thing. Some time ago, we were criticised for giving too many performances by Danish playwrights. Anniversaries give us the chance to remember the great works of Alexander Pushkin for example. We have the opportunity to mark success. It’s also a great time to try something new and highlight the value of theatre. We’re happy that our Russian Theatre has existed for 80 years.
How will you confirm the status of your theatre?
E.G.: Our colleagues at the Ministry of Culture will listen to a report on our achievements. It might seem dull to those outside of the theatrical business but we’ve released a wonderful book which explores the work of the Russian Theatre. It will probably be useful to journalists, theatre experts and cultural experts, as well as those writing any thesis connected with our theatre.
Over time, your audience must have changed, with stalwarts joined by those who favour only particular playwrights, actors or genres. There must be some who dislike any break with tradition so what thoughts do you have on your audiences of the future?
E.G.: I wouldn’t say that our audiences are completely fickle (loving you one day and hating you the next). Tomorrow’s audience will be one which seeks theatre as a route to pondering the meaning of life and deeper feelings. Friends sometimes ask, ‘What do you have to entertain us with?’ but I joke that they should go to see Petrosyan [a Russian comedian] if that’s what they’re after. Theatre offers us catharsis but it requires an open mind, a readiness to empathise and a degree of intellect. We offer audiences the chance to truly ‘think’.
Of course, some of our performances are lighter than others. Also, you can always relax during the intermission: have a coffee, stretch your legs in the lobby, look at the portraits of the actors, or simply ‘people watch’. Even these lighter performances have purpose, developing a taste for the theatre. I hope that, after seeing a ‘light’ play, people are inspired to return.
S.K.: It’s an impossible question to answer since the theatre’s doors are like those of a church: open to all. Some time ago, the audience watching my Woe from Wit comprised 80 percent 9th-11th grade school children, which made me rather anxious. I was afraid they’d be filled with boredom and was planning to write a complaint to the director about the administrator. However, I decided to wait and see and, surprisingly, discovered that they loved it! They gave a ten minute standing ovation — something rarely seen.
It’s no secret that younger audiences like to have their interests represented on stage. Their leisure time seems filled with virtual relationships so how do you encourage them to connect with real life?
S.K.: As you know, children gain a love for theatre from an early age and should be made to feel welcome — like anyone else. Performances always attract attraction and unite people — even where their ages and backgrounds seem to differ widely. Anyone can enjoy theatre’s psychological realism although it helps to have been introduced to it from childhood. I recall my own trips to performances as a youngster, discovering the magic of theatre.
Young people are mad for ‘virtual reality’; it is truly part of their lives, so it’s justifiable for it to be represented on stage. Modern living embraces traffic jams so why not computers? It’s true that the virtual world can become an addiction but we all need to eat, so we must all enter the real world at some point. Unfortunately, the need for spiritual food is much further down the chain. I think most become fed up with virtual living eventually, returning to real life. The recent reaction of young people to Woe from Wit is a good example. We can’t force teenagers to alter their interests: we can only introduce an idea and see if it appeals. If the emotions on stage are strong enough to compete with the virtual world, you’ll win them over. We need to offer more than simple entertainment to ‘convert’ them though.
E.G.: I’ve watched theatre through many phases of development and am pleased to say that our Russian Theatre retains its intellectual challenge, without vulgarity. It promotes spirituality, which is vital, to divert society from disasters. I feel sick when directors start shredding, for instance, Chekhov’s Three Sisters in the name of modernism; it becomes pseudo art.
S.K.: In one Russian city, I was watching Chekhov’s Three Sisters and was horrified to see Vershinin drink eight glasses of vodka during the performance. This was not how Chekhov wrote Vershinin! Rather than use Chekhov’s play, the director might as well have written his own Three Sisters. Critics gave it a Grand Prix but I felt quite the opposite. These critics were cutting out the roots of psychological theatre.
E.G.: One performance at the Chekhov Festival in Moscow left me very disappointed. The three sisters and Vershinin drank constantly. It was terrible! How can we admire such things! It’s disgusting, and very far from the theatre’s role as a spiritual temple. The theatre’s leaders must take responsibility. Of course, every person has good and bad traits but the bad shouldn’t overwhelm all else. Recently, I asked director Kovalchik how our fairy tale performance would end, as I wanted good to finally win clearly over evil, so that the children would receive a positive example to take home with them.
Which values should modern theatre promote?
S.K.: Talking about modern values, I’m awaiting the day when someone stands up at a performance by a world famous European director and declares ‘the King is naked!’ [as in the fable of the Emperor’s clothes]. I want this director to hear from the audience that his work lacks substance! Today’s modern theatre, as seen at the Teart Festival in Minsk, can lack professionalism, particularly Western European direction. Some purely wish to show off and fulfil some private fantasy. It’s essential for a director to love the original play he’s chosen. Vrubel’s Demon, inspired by Lermontov [a Russian poet], is one such play: if the stage director loves himself more than the author of the play, nothing good can arise.
E.G.: I can’t understand directors who have such attitude towards theatre and I’m pleased to take that stance. I love Tchaikovsky and cry on hearing a Bulgarian ensemble playing fiddles. Music arouses so many feelings deep within us and theatre should be the same; pseudo art simply does not stir the soul.
What relation does theatre have with state ideology?
S.K.: After the revolution, Stanislavsky was asked whether he was a Bolshevist or Menshevist. He answered that he was an aesthete. The relationship between the artist and power structures has always been of acute interest, perhaps mimicking that of the king and his jester. As soon as the jester oversteps the mark he is shunned to the corner, so he can never be absolutely free in his words. The theatre has similar restrictions, since it should not inspire chaos. Compromise is required between artists and those in power.
E.G.: The theatre cannot afford to be antagonistic towards those in power, since you shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you. If you want to develop and achieve something, there’s no point in confrontation.
Does today’s theatre have a duty to honour such concepts as love for one’s homeland, high ideals and patriotism?
S.K.: Ideology and the concepts of which you speak are closely connected. All great civilisations are built on some ideology; anyone who thinks otherwise is mistaken. On seeing the full version of the film Andrei Rublev, by Andrei Tarkovsky, I agreed with the decision to remove the scene where an insane mother gives birth to her child. Its naturalism simply wasn’t aesthetically pleasing. It was Soviet ideology which made the great Tarkovsky edit out the scene. Aristotle told us that even the ugliest idea should be presented in an aesthetically pleasing manner.
These days, there are very few obstacles to our method of staging, while even the West has censorship — as we can read online. Certain plays have been banned in Switzerland, in the USA and elsewhere because they don’t fit in with accepted ideology. We have no such prohibitions. Ideology is closely linked to our civil position, leaving us to decide what is acceptable. If you don’t like the society in which you live, look for another. If you do like it, help make it better. In Dead Souls, Gogol showed his love for Russia, despite criticising it. Artists have the power to criticise regimes and society but should do so constructively; criticism for its own sake is worthless.
Honouring concepts such as love for one’s homeland, faith in the highest ideals and patriotism are, of course, part of our mission. They are intrinsic to our work. My first performance, The Run, was patriotic and I long intend to explore such themes. The Submariners, my next work, is based on Andrei Kureichik’s play: a patriotic spectacle. If we don’t inspire patriotism in audiences we are missing the importance of theatre as a public platform.
E.G.: I repeat, I don’t believe that any artiste can act freely of society, disregarding its precepts. To do so would make us an enemy or antagonist. There is no place for such people in our theatre.
Does yours have any similarities with that of wider European theatre?
E.G.: I don’t remember a festival or tour which wasn’t successful for us, which speaks volumes. The Kupala Theatre’s Wedding has been staged across half of the world, with success everywhere, while our production of Pane Kokhanku in Russian Saransk caused a storm of applause. I’m convinced that we’re appreciated not for offering simple entertainment but for our pearls of wisdom, which glisten in the beautiful surroundings of the past. Our rich costumes and folklore motifs — as seen in Pane Kokhanku and other performances — are also part of our identity. We bring true passion and culture beyond the routine; we raise everything via artistic staging to touch the senses and feed the mind. We offer real theatre, which appeals to European and non-European audiences.
S.K.: We’re not restricted, being able to invite foreign directors to stage plays: Arkady Katz from Russia, Krzysztof Zanussi from Poland, and Latvia’s Igor Kulikov. We’re now negotiating with other foreign directors, which is surely an indicator of being ‘European’. Naturally, audiences are intrigued to see what’s being offered by directors from abroad and they like to see new names on posters. I love Mr. Katz’s performances, as he’s a good person as well as a good director, which promotes a creative atmosphere. Theatre needs such experiments but they do need to serve a purpose; every day can’t be a holiday or it becomes a punishment.
Do you receive feedback?
E.G.: We also take our performances abroad but perhaps not as often as directors would like. We’re busy at home. If I sent Mr. Kovalchik to Istanbul or elsewhere to promote Belarusian theatre, who’d work here? The British don’t much bother with festivals or foreign events but their theatre is no worse for this.
S.K.: We don’t really strive to impress others, as there’s no real purpose to it. Just as you can’t command someone to love, you can’t make an artist work in a particular way. We all have our own style. Those who are famous will always be well-received but world theatre extends beyond a few names. Just imagine how many theatres exist across the globe; they work to please audiences in their own countries without thinking any further. I have no idea if we influence European theatre but Stanislavsky’s methods certainly live on. You can see evidence of them in modern American films; they sometimes use the best of Stanislavsky, surpassing even ourselves. We can be guilty of throwing away our ‘gold’.
E.G.: I don’t know why some critics want us to put aside Stanislavsky’s methods.
Directors have the chance to experiment don’t they?
S.K.: Experimentation is one thing but theatre should play a civil role in society. Experimentation shouldn’t be a goal in itself. Of course, small theatres are freer to take this path and I’d do so myself if I didn’t work for an academic theatre.
What role does Russian theatre play in Belarus?
E.G.: Our theatre is a complicated organism, which has its own stability. I’m proud of this as I do believe that much depends on the leadership of the head of the theatre (I’m not referring particularly to myself). If the leader soothes the path for everyone else, the theatre will work smoothly; the administrative details may seem dull but they are important. For 30 years, I’ve headed our theatre, developing my own system of values and priorities. Many documents, decrees, orders, instructions and so on have appeared and I’ve had to assimilate them all. I’m an expert, as I can say without false modesty! If heads of other theatres call me, I’m happy to share my expertise. If someone is working well without my advice, that’s fine too. I always ask when I’m puzzled by something or when I disagree. For example, some think we don’t need Art Councils; it’s necessary to debate the issue.
S.K.: Our theatre should be an example to others; we do try — for example in our handling of copyright issues. Other theatres should follow suit, adhering to copyright laws. We also set high standards when it comes to dialogue: not just diction and articulation but in conveying the inner essence. You can learn a lot from our actors regarding conveying thoughts effectively. Directors also need to express their desires clearly, communicating unambiguously with actors. Simplicity is best. I wouldn’t be so immodest as to say we set the bar but I do see us as a leading light in Belarusian theatre. I agree with Eduard Ivanovich on this. Others can aspire to equal us if they wish to. Each theatre group chooses its own path.
Are your audiences ever bored? What do you, Eduard Ivanovich and Sergei Mikhailovich, feel then?
S.K.: Boredom is a relative notion. I watched [Russian stage director] Sergei Zhenovach’s Three Years, based on Chekhov’s story, and was bored during the first act; during the intermission, the director explained to me why I was bored. In the second act, I was better able to empathise, feeling sorrow for the Russian people. As Oscar Wilde said, there are no moral or immoral novels, only well-written and badly-written. Poor staging leads to boredom and I have no time for this. Sometimes, a scene fails to work but this can be remedied by altering a few aspects. Theatre is a living art, so mistakes and technical faults can be solved.
E.G.: We’ve had performances at which people have appeared bored, which annoyed me. Now, we try to prevent this happening.
Do you ever have a sense of community with your audience?
S.K.: Yes, not long ago, Truth is Good, but Happiness is Better was playing in Vilnius for our Days of Culture. Eduard Ivanovich and I attended, to see how the performance was being received. We stayed until the end and were so excited to see our young actors much admired.
E.G.: I felt similarly at Kovalchik’s The Run. At first, I was worried, as it was his first as the new chief director. Mikhail Bulgakov’s work is complex but the performance exceeded all my expectations. I’m also proud of our Pane Kokhanku. I think that rising interest in the Radziwills has helped. The play has been running for two years, still drawing good audiences. Valery Maslyuk’s Sign of Trouble, by Vasil Bykov, and Boris Lutsenko’s Macbeth (which I watched in Kaliningrad) were also fabulous! Beautiful Klimova, Sidorov and Stupakov were wonderful. Yankovsky was perfect; such power! The audience in Kaliningrad has a mixture of mentalities: German and Russian... It’s a special culture. Audiences were impressed greatly; the applause did not stop. The same happened in Germany, with applause for about twenty minutes. We’re speaking a language understandable to everyone.
How do you feel about our talented actors taking part in films and commercial work?
S.K.: The acting profession demands that we constantly seek out new roles and ideas. For example, I conducted the first rehearsal of Pane Kokhanku in Nesvizh Castle. For The Submariners, I’ll try to go to a museum of submarines in Moscow for our first rehearsal. When our actors are invited to take part in a film, I’m happy. They meet new directors and actors, some of whom may be great professionals. It means a lot to play alongside Oleg Menshikov or Oleg Tabakov! Of course, in taking a TV role, you may lose a good role in the theatre. However, in five years of theatre work, I’ve seen actors refusing film roles for theatre; eventually, they’re offered the roles again.
E.G.: Theatre roles provide daily bread but films are also significant.
Those who realise the importance of theatre in shaping their talent are clever indeed. If you’ve worked for a theatre named after Maxim Gorky, it helps you at auditions. Such actors are sure to be offered film roles.
What are the best traditions of your theatre today and how will these take you into the future?
E.G.: We are strongly creative, with a moral and ethical component formed throughout the long life of our theatre. I’m very glad that our Russian Theatre has no villains or scoundrels. Some don’t get on well, leaving after a couple of seasons. Theatre rejects them as outsiders, with different energy.
S.K.: We have strong traditions of psychological theatre and respect for language which are supported by plays passed from generation to generation. I’m happy that we employ such actors as Rostislav Yankovsky, Olga Klebanovich Alexander Tkachenok and Bella Masumyan. You can learn a lot from them. Like a nightingale, the only bird that shows its children how to sing, they share their experience with younger members. To act next to them is a school for young actors. It’s impossible to act badly beside them or appear false. If you make a mistake, it seems insignificant. In trying to emulate them you can only improve your skills. This is the power of our theatre’s traditions. Our policy is guided by the continuity of generations. We have a perfectly balanced, strong team staging classics: Russian and foreign. Audiences expect a certain repertoire so we do our best to live up to our titles of Russian Theatre, national and academic. It’s a great responsibility.
By Valentina Zhdanovich