Rodion Zaveriyayev & Dmitri Volchek

Dmitri Volchek How did you come up with an idea to create the anti-theatre?

Rodion Zaveriyayev You can not really consider it the anti-theatre, although I personally would not call it the theater either.

DV Let us take your concepts of the avant-garde performances. Were they developed because neither official nor unofficial theater suited your goals?

RZ I have not seen any unofficial theater for quite some time, and I did not like the official one since I was a child. It was always boring, stuffy and smelled of bad perfume, although I have to admit that the quality of it is much better now. What we do is not theater in the common sense of the word. It is not even art. It simply is a part of our life.

DV Why did you choose classical rather than modern texts? Is it an attempt to re-evaluate the classics? Or is it an attempt of the future to part with the inheritance of the past, to laugh at it? Or is it, perhaps, to the contrary, an expression of your pagan worship of, may I say, the cultural idol?

RZ There is no rejection of the past, neither is there any admiration of it. This is an attempt to understand Tolstoy’s and Dostoyevsky’s problems that are still acute in our times, and to sort them out. As far as a selection of particular texts is concerned, the reason for choosing Anna Karenina ¹ is the same as the reason to include a quote from it in the book called Norms of Speech that I saw recently. And right before the show I was reading Nabokov’s Camera Obscura and there was a character there with a name of Dorianna Karenina. We are not trying to rewrite Anna Karenina. We are trying to understand the novel’s concept once again. Tolstoy was a very good writer but a very bad philosopher. That is why all of his ideological constructions are totally unstatisfactory, at least in the long run. It is even worse with Dostoyevsky, although he is a real find for a psychotherapist.

DV So, these are the new solutions, not an interpretation of Tolstoy’s and Dostoyevsky’s solutions in a new way. Do you take only the concepts of these authors and then sort them out?

RZ Yes, we rework the myth.

DV What about the very questions that Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky raise? Don’t they raise any doubt?

RZ A question always remains a question, but Dostoyevsky quite often has a totally ridiculous approach. For instance, when a bad society ostracizes you (good society never does because of your poverty) you have to rejoice, not to seek to return there. But the worst of all is his “Will the world stay, or should I drink my tea?” It has an inner contradiction—if l am drinking my tea, the world, therefore exists. And I see opposition—the world and the I—as a particular indication of a cracked schizophrenic conscience.

DV This immediately brings up a question of aesthetic standards. If you accept a division into an official and an unofficial contemporary culture, which one do you think you belong to?

RZ This subdivision into two cultures is quite formalistic, and we do not have an aesthetic dogma, or for that matter any other.

DV Are you talking about what we can roughly call “de-ideologization”? l am not so sure of that. You do have an obvious direction in your work.

RZ Ideology is one of the elements of our life. Therefore, as long as it remains such, our shows do carry some ideological action. Furthermore, if we were to try and reject ideology, such an act would be ideological in itself.

DV Can you describe your goals?

RZ First, the action is required to be immanently perfect. Secondly, it should not be boring for the most sophisticated audience and it should be understood by the least sophisticated.

DV What is your opinion about the aesthetics of the Western avant-garde theater, such as absurdism, etc.? Do you feel that you are a part of that tradition or have you started from scratch?

RZ I have never seen any Western performances. l am familiar only with the texts, so the attitude is like Moliere’s—I take everything where I find it. We are growing on the same family tree with classical Greek theater, Tolstoy, and in general, everything that happened before us in time.

DV Still, your performances have clearly identifiable elements, such as those of Beckett’s stage vocabulary, where gestures sometimes are tar more important than words.

RZ This is an element and tradition of life, not of theater. I deny not a connection with, but an orientation towards Western avant-garde.

DV So the most natural way in acting, as well as stage direction, is your primary objective?

RZ Yes, and we try to broaden the limits of nature.

DV Nevertheless, the audience felt that there were restrictions in acting, noting that the actors energy, sometimes uncontrollable, masked their complexes.

RZ No, there is neither an aesthetic limit, nor a dogma. The good taste is the deciding criterium. As to the demonstration of human limits on stage, I think it is quite appropriate as a testimony to the depth of the human spirit. Many people in the audience acquire even more complexes if they feel they are not as perfect as their movie and theater stars.

DV The structure of your performances allows actors to improvise. What are the advantages of this method?

RZ Preliminary thoughts do not become a monolithic structure, and do not suppress a unique and real situation. It is an attempt to look at a different angle at the questions that Anna Karenina, for example, raises. There, a conflict of real human relations and situations leads to a horrible chain of events—death of Anna, beginning of homosexual relations between Karenin and Vronsky and, finally, insanity of Tolstoy.

DV Isn’t such improvisation detrimental to the structure of performance? It is quite impossible to create an organized performance if each actor interprets the play on his own. From a director’s point of view, how far can such improvisation go?

RZ Our performances are dynamic, rather than static, so a director as such does not exist. Every performer becomes one, and we do not want anybody’s ideas, including the director’s, to force a situation. We do try to stretch nature’s limits in this.

DV Therefore, a traditional theatrical hierarchy is of no consequence to you? Is everybody an equal participant of the performance, with equal rights?

RZ Unquestionably so. Anybody who has a valuable idea becomes a director, a producer and an actor. If one is in a barrel, one is a pickle.

DV This is your rebellion against traditional values or simply an expression of new theater morals in theater?

RZ I am much better off doing business with friends, not with the bosses and the subordinates, that is why I prefer friendship to subordination. In addition, we are developing a new set of human relations.

DV I have to note that the audience was well prepared for this kind of an untraditional show that carried, in some instances, shockingly unconventional effects. Why wasn’t anybody shocked?

RZ I have no doubt, that our advanced audience is ready to see this kind of performance. By the same token, our music lovers know Western music much better than an average person in the West. The same is true about literature. It is somewhat worse with cinema and theater, but only in the sense of knowledge of the material, not in the sense of its perception. Perhaps, it is due to the fact that in addition to the traditional ways to exchange information, there are, may I say, “super-speed-of-light” ways, that are based on the real unity of the world. For instance, children, teenagers and some adults in the Soviet Union were quite ready to accept the Beatles, although they were from another culture and spoke another language. People, that are unfamiliar not only with the English but even with their own culture, quite adequately perceive the Beatles on a physiological level. The same is true for our show.

DV Are you saying that the Russian conscience is international in its qualities?

RZ Just as any other national conscience. A human being, generally speaking, is an international, a cosmopolitan creature.

DV I suppose, one can note that national elements become less important in contemporary Russian culture. In all areas of art we are, first of all, looking upon the Western models. There is an opinion that the most significant step that we can take is to adopt the Western methods in theatre, poetry, etc.

RZ What about the Orient?

DV Whatever—but the most significant achievements of contemporary Russian culture are hated on the broad foundation of the world culture. For example, Vassily Aksyonov’s novel Autumn in Vorozheyka about rural life. His book is very much written within the traditions of the new Latin American novel. Speaking of poetry, I think that the most significant Russian poet of today is Arkadii Dragomoschenko.

RZ I think I agree.

DV I also think that Dragomoschenko’s poetry is cosmopolitan in the most broad sense. For instance, his poetry is close to a school of American poetry called “language school.” Dragomenschcnko and California poets have worked independently and have arrived at the methods of handling text.

RZ Yes, and a break from the roots, from the tradition becomes very important.

DV Which tradition in particular?

RZ Any specific tradition. All traditions have to be taken into account and be accumulated, but the creative process has to be based not only on tradition but also on life as a whole, and remain independent from both and from itself. It is a different matter that the USSR, for example, practically did not have its own jazz. Before GTC ² and Kuryokhim there were only more or less successful attempts to work within the traditions of Western jazz, giving it, sometimes, an ethnic quality. The same is true about painters who caught up with Western avant-garde only recently. To name a few they are “Figuracion Libre,” Timor Novikov, Ivan Sotnikov, Sergei Bugayev, Oleg Kotelnikov, and others. As soon as our avant-garde reached the same level of development as the Western one, it had the possibility to evolve further. It could have skipped a step, of course, but then there would have been a feeling of something missing.

DV Isn’t it true that we are skipping a step?

RZ No, we have developed to an intermediate level very much with a Western model in mind. Now we have a possibility for autonomous, or even better, common development. What we do now is the next level.

DV The reaction of the audience showed that your performances were a success. Only two people were not satisfied. An egg was broken on stage and a woman who was sitting in the audience got it all over her. The other person called it not theater, but a homosexual party.

RZ Did she refer to death convulsions of destroyed people as a party?

DV Perhaps, she was talking about the transvestite elements. Anna Karenina and, in the second show, Aglaya, were played by men in drag.

RZ It was a carnival, not a homosexual transvestism, and it is very productive in performances. I think that the most optimal person is almost an androgyn, with a 51% to 49% mix of his own and the opposite sex. A 100% man is some kind of a heavy creature with an axe, and a 100% woman is a sort of lake, perhaps even a swamp. At best it is boring.

DV It is interesting how the relationship between elitist and popular (in the best sense) cultures are changing.

RZ The Beatles are the most unique example, more so than Dante, whose verses were sung by the teamsters, or Shakespeare. They are almost on the same level with the Bible.

DV It is fully applicable to the rock culture in general. It took root everywhere and painlessly.

RZ I would not say “took root” but “appeared.” It is a folk rather than a conscientious art.

DV In theater, though, the situation is rather sad. Absurdism has already become a traditional form—lonesco, if I am not mistaken, is a member of the French Academy. He never made it to the Soviet stage. The original material that we have was never published in the USSR, such as Elizaveta Bum or Ivanov’s Christmas Tree. According to recent rumors, a wonderful theater on Isaacievsky Square was banned by the authorities (by the way, their staging of Albee’s The Zoo Story was wonderful). l do not foresee any changes in the official policies. There was a brief thaw in the ’60s when Waiting for Godot and The Rhinoceros were translated and published, but later it all died.

RZ There was a wonderful theater in the Engineering Fort in the ’70s that performed the avant-garde plays of Gunitsky and Grebenschikov.

DV Whatever happened, in theater we are late not by two years as in music, not by five years as in fashion, but by about thirty years.

RZ It’s all right, as long as there is a desire to catch up.

DV I would like to note a wonderful correlation between the work of your composer Igor Verichev and the show. Also wonderful were the stage sets.

RZ They are the work of such extraordinary artists as Timur Novikov, Oleg Kotelnikov, and Sergei Bugayev (Afrika).

DV Some of the gags were also successful. The so-called “vacuum cleaner”, the appearance of Anton dressed in tails and a torn shirt…

RZ Anton’s appearance was spontaneous. What happened was, so to say, a doubling of Ippolit. The actors did not really know what the others would be wearing, and what the music would be like.

DV …and I also liked the scene when in the middle of the bacchanalia Gary showed up and quietly started to sweep the floor. I think that you should have, perhaps, paid more attention to the audience and gotten it more involved in the performance. Nastasia Phillipovna did that when she sat on the lap of somebody in the front row and they started their own game. You have to destroy a barrier between the stage and the audience, especially when in fact there was no stage.

RZ There were people in the audience who participated in the performance. For example, Kuryokhin asked me a question after the performance had started, and we started a microdialogue. But I want these things to happen spontaneously, not as a result of a directive to destroy a barrier between the stage and the audience.

DV Some spectators were frightened by the cruelty on stage—everything was broken, a fish was torn apart. Some thought that showing a crucifix in the burlesque was quite inappropriate.

RZ Not cruelty, but directness. The mess on stage was simply a spectacle, and fish was torn because it is both a Christian and erotic symbol. Eroticism in its present state is not any better than Christianity, and it is better to have a crucifix in a burlesque than on Golgotha or somewhere along Appia Way. Besides, if something becomes a relic, it loses its sanctity.

DV I would like to talk about more general aspects of the development of free art. l am concerned with a question that I can not decide for myself: Do we need a direct access to the public through official channels?

RZ Unquestionably, and it is important both for the audience and for the artist. The scale of such access depends on the kind of audience that the artist is looking for, and vice versa.

DV On the other hand, if we look at Club 81 as an example, it has become a gathering of functionaries of letters, and the quality of literature, on the whole, is pretty low.

RZ In both the first and the second cultures there are plenty of graphomaniacs and not too many truly creative people. It was all right while we were trying to fill the vacuum but now we need more creative activity and independence.

DV But we have not answered the question—is the emergence of unofficial culture from the underground a positive event?

RZ The time has come.

DV But don’t you find that it destroys the structure of unofficial culture, its very fabric? A perfect example is the last art show at LDM.³ It was not interesting at all, and people left disappointed. Everything would have been different if the same painting were hung in some dark basement that could be raided by the cops at any moment. Let me elaborate—unofficial, as well as official cultures have their own specifics. An average unofficial artist is expressing only that he is at odds with aesthetics, morals, religion, politics, etc. of the society in which he lives. l am not speaking specifically about Joseph Brodsky, Arkadii Dragomoschenko, or Timur Novikov. In a way they do not really belong to an unofficial culture, simply their works are not printed or exhibited, and it is not yet a characteristic of belonging. There are other exceptions. But I repeat, an average common unofficial artist emphasizes a disharmony between himself and the society, while an official one has harmonic relationship to it. Therefore, those artists determine their exposure. A publication of Nikolay Tryapkin’s poetry in The Clock magazine would be ridiculous. Just as ridiculous would be publication of “The work and the days of Lavinia” in the magazine Young Guard, or rock group DK performing in Sports Palace, or Afrika’s personal show in the Manege.4 But as it turns out we all are striving for this to take place. As a result, something funny can happen, such as a story with the portrait of Lennon-Lenin. Average non-conformist art is geared towards a more or less narrow circle of likely minds, secret basements and candlelight talks. Especially since most of those works are on an embarrassingly low level. Let’s imagine a situation when all the underground comes under the spotlights of Lenin’s Sports Palace. It is a terrifying thought. Writer’s Rock-n-roll and TAEE clubs have their own audiences, so why should they seek huge auditoriums and millions of copies in print?

RZ So, you think that the clubs are ecological niches, not houses for mediocre talents? I do not have anything against this, but l am interested in something completely different. And this is why I think we do need new audiences. We also need a new approach to the understanding of art. At this time I see a learning aspect as more important than the entertaining or the educational aspects, simply because it does not receive enough attention. Art plays the same role in life of society as dreams play in life of an individual. If you do not pay enough attention to your dreams you can’t have a true picture of yourself, if you suppress them you can have a neurosis. Ancient Chinese understood very well that the development of art corresponds to the conditions of the state. They thought it to be particularly true in relation to music as the most intuitive art form that is the least likely to be conscious. So the Chinese made a peculiar move: they tried to regiment art. With the same degree of success you can forbid a person who has a cold to blow his nose. I think it’s better to study the symptoms. A correct diagnosis is the beginning of health.


Translated from the Russian by L. Terlitsky.

1 Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is one of the most widely read books in the USSR.

2 GTC refers to Vyacheslav Ganelin, Vladimir Tarasov and Vladimir Chekasin, members of the Soviet jazz group The Ganelin Trio, who recently became the first Soviet jazz group to tour the United States. (June ’86)

3 LDM refers to the Leningrad Youth Club.

4 The Manege is major exhibition space in Moscow near the Kremlin where major art shows are held.

experimental theater
russian language
russian theater
Fall 1986
The cover of BOMB 17