My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Dmitry Krymov went from Moscow cult favorite to internationally celebrated director in one decade flat. Beginning in the mid-2000s, his productions for the Dmitry Krymov Laboratory at Moscow’s School of Dramatic Art have garnered rave reviews all over Europe, Britain, and the United States. His genius for combining visuals and substance advances the reputation of Russian theater as a great and serious art form, while—on the surface at least—making a clean break with the tried and true notions of “psychology” and “realism.” His mercurial rise is even more surprising when one considers that it came about due to two radical midlife changes. A respected set designer who worked with his legendary father, Anatoly Efros, in the 1970s and ’80s, Krymov abandoned theater entirely in the 1990s, devoting himself to painting. Then, he suddenly began directing in 2002. His productions turned out to be the creations of a brand-new Dmitry Krymov, and added a new page to the history of Russian theater. As perhaps only a painter could do, Krymov brought to the rich Russian directing tradition a unique, personal flair for the visual—for complex images that achieve their fullest narrative effect only when put into motion in the time and space of a theatrical context. We sat down in his workshop in Moscow to talk about the unusual trajectory his work has taken.
John Freedman Let’s begin at the beginning. I have mine and you have yours. Mine is your production of Hamlet. I’m looking at an utterly empty stage. Then foam begins oozing out from backstage—
Dmitry Krymov It’s snow.
JF It’s soap bubbles. You call it snow.
DK You just didn’t know it was snow yet.
JF For me it was soap. And nothing’s there but this foam with which a designer washes himself away.
DK It was beautiful.
JF A set designer, who had not designed anything for years, soaps himself off the stage and starts anew on an empty stage. So, even if I misunderstood you…
DK If I were the brash Italian director Romeo Castellucci, I would have come out naked, washed myself in the foam, and said, “Hello! I now am another!”
JF Yes! So how did it happen that, with this production, you said to yourself and the world, “I now am another”?
DK I said nothing to the world. I was interested in trying to do something with actors—what if it works?! I didn’t take it seriously. I met and rehearsed with Valery Garkalin, who played Hamlet. He was the one pushing me to do it. He probably sensed that something interesting was happening.
JF Then a great actor showed up in your midst, one who played in many of your father’s productions.
DK Nikolai Volkov.
JF That was obviously no coincidence.
DK Volkov played Claudius and the Ghost brilliantly. He died suddenly and we played the last performance without him, in his honor. We didn’t know it would be the last performance. We thought we’d find a replacement, but that didn’t happen. We had filmed one show, so we had a recording of his voice and even his footsteps on stage. So we played that last show without Volkov but with the sound of his voice and footsteps. A couple of times we projected his face on a screen, but nothing more. And his final exit was the sound of his feet as he left. That was an astonishing show. I’ve never heard such silence in a theater.
JF Hamlet came out when?
DK It opened the night of the terrorist attack at the Nord-Ost musical, in October 2002. We learned about that just before we began. Later, we went to the after-party at a restaurant, but all we could talk about was what was happening across town.
JF You staged Hamlet at the Stanislavsky Drama Theater, one of Moscow’s main houses. For a long time you existed as a painter and then all of a sudden you directed this show. From my vantage point, it looks like Hamlet radically changed your life.
DK It did. I painted another year or two, but now I haven’t for over ten years. My brushes are all stuck in dry paint. I look at them and wonder, Did I really ever use those?
JF Just as when you were only painting you thought, Did I really ever work in the theater? We’ve got to get you back to that.
DK Painting? You’ll have to kick me out of theater. They’re incompatible activities.
JF Hamlet is unlike anything you’ve done since. It happened as it happened, then things took off.
DK You’re right to say, “It happened as it happened.” It was serendipity. Insanely so. After Hamlet, I began teaching set design and I realized my students were out of sync with contemporary theater trends. So I began doing small études with them. That was a tradition at the theater institute—these little performances acted by designers. It was nothing like what we did later. This was at GITIS.
JF The Russian Academy of Theater Art.
DK I decided not to stop at our experiments, and we turned those sketches into shows. Some were lousy, some were magical. But something fascinating was going on. We showed our first production to Anatoly Vasilyev, the founder of Moscow’s famous School of Dramatic Art. He had seen Hamlet, so he had a vague idea of what I was up to. He even said something nice about it. Anyway, I told him that we designers had no place to perform or rehearse, and he responded with unbelievable generosity. He let us into his divine theater. He opened the door, gave us assistance, even gave us legal status as residents in his theater. That was totally unheard of. Stanislavsky, maybe, showed that kind of hospitality to Meyerhold late in his life.
JF Did you sit in on classes conducted by Vasilyev and your father at GITIS in the ’70s and ’80s?
JF So Vasilyev really didn’t know you.
DK He knew me as my father’s son.
JF I want to talk about that, but first I want to hear about what is now called the Dmitry Krymov Laboratory at the School of Dramatic Art. You began teaching unexpectedly, when Vasilyev invited you to work in his theater. And then new productions began popping up. I remember when the first came out in 2004. What was that called?
DK Not-Yet-Fairy-Tales. We wrote everything there with “not-yet”—”not-yet-director,” “not-yet-actor,” “not-yet-designer.” We put on our dunce caps.
JF It’s your only show I never saw, but I heard about it instantly. The evening it opened people began emailing, “Don’t miss this!” What was it about?
DK It was a simple idea. A collective creation. When we decided to do something with fairy tales, one girl slipped off her T-shirt, baring her shoulder. And she said, “They’re right here,” and with her finger she drew an eye on her shoulder. “These characters, these archaic, strange, Russian types are all right here, in us.” That blew us away and we started drawing and turning ourselves into these characters. When I say we, I mean the actors in front of the audience. There was an unhappy bride whose fiancé goes to war. There was the fiancé. We put a shopping bag over his head, and as he stood, back to the audience, we drew his face on his back. He skied off into a snowdrift, leaving her pregnant. We showed her pregnancy using a few simple strokes. She had nothing on but a bra, on which eyes were drawn. The arms she crossed over her chest had eyelashes drawn on them. She raised her arms, making a blinking gesture to express confusion as to why her fiancé had left. It was very primitive and totemic. There was one scene with an old fairy-tale woman—a girl sat with her back to the audience, on the lap of a boy facing the audience. She embraced him, thus hiding her arms. His arms were the old woman’s arms, and her back was the old woman’s face. When the old woman cried, the boy secretly wet his hands and ran them over the girl’s back, smearing out her face. We did some very nice things for a theater of that kind.
JF What is this theater called?
DK The marvelous historian Viktor Beryozkin called it artist’s theater. That’s what it’s still called, although we’ve gone far beyond that now. I came to understand that an actor can exist in pictures and bring something a painter cannot bring—mix the two and you get a fabulous result.
JF You have a marvelous production called Gorki-10, in which you erected a frame around the stage. It was like any picture you’d hang on the wall, just a lot bigger. The actors moved and posed inside the frame.
DK There are all kinds of things you can do. So far—knock on wood—I haven’t reached the end. I’m thrilled when people say, “You surprised me again!” That means we’re on the right path. It’s one I enjoy walking down.
JF I’m calling up those first shows in my mind, aside from Hamlet, which stands apart. You did a series of shows on the small, upstairs stage at the School of Dramatic Art on Povarskaya Street. And then in 2006 there was Demon. View from Above, which you staged on a miniature copy of the Globe Theatre, in the new space of the School of Dramatic Art on Sretenka Street. That was a milestone for me.
DK Milestone in what sense?
JF You took what you had been doing all along but put it together in a more sophisticated way. Those early shows were fabulous for—and I mean this in the best sense of the word—
DK —simplicity, naïveté.
JF Naïveté, yes. Demon, drawn loosely from Mikhail Lermontov’s narrative poem, was the first of your shows to abandon naïveté. It employs it, but it is not naive. Then, your first show on the main stage in 2007—The Cow, based on an Andrei Platonov story—brought that naïveté back. In that sense, Demon was ahead of its time. Following that you’ve had a whole series of what I’m calling “sophisticated” shows: Honoré de Balzac. Notes on Berdichev, based on Three Sisters, Alexander Ostrovsky’s Late Love, and your recent Russian Blues: In Search of Mushrooms.
DK I don’t analyze myself, in order to avoid traps. I trust intuition. I never think, Now I’ll do a sophisticated show, or, Now I’ll go back to naïveté. But I know what you mean about the big stage. It has completely different laws from the small stage. Frankly, I was spooked when I went onto the big stage for the first time. I was spooked by the huge space that swallowed up our little discoveries. You need a whole different way of moving there. Maybe I didn’t pull that off with that first show. Maybe that’s why The Cow is more naive than, say, Opus No. 7.
JF Yes, you embraced the expanses of the big stage in the harrowing tales of ruined lives in Opus No. 7, or in the grand, sweeping, tragic picture you paint of Anton Chekhov in Tararabumbia.
DK All my first paintings were very big. Basically, nobody bought them. So, I thought, I must make smaller paintings. And I wasted a year transitioning to small. Making the transition was extremely difficult, and nobody bought those either. Small paintings answer to different laws. At least they do for a beginning painter. I was still a beginning director at the time of The Cow.
JF I’m wondering how this director, who sits in front of me now, came about. Because now it seems like Dima Krymov has been around forever. In fact, it’s only been fifteen years. Hamlethappened almost by mistake. Your second show did, too. At what point did you say, “I’m a director”?
DK I don’t want to be called a director, although I don’t fight it anymore. So be it if they want to call me a director. I came to realize—this may sound egotistical—that I do a good job of developing scenes, working out psychological lines, and putting together all those proverbial supertasks and physical actions. Then I do one more thing, which determines what we are up to: I add a twist of the grotesque. Our production of Ostrovsky’s Late Love—O-y. Late Love in 2014 confirmed that. I was unsure of myself, so I called in some specialists from GITIS, very smart people who teach acting in our workshop. They do everything “by the school” according to Stanislavsky, not in a strictly formal way, but with great affection, the way true adepts do it. And they said, “Dima, quit worrying. You do everything right, you dig down into the same territory as us. You just describe it differently.”
JF Received wisdom suggests you should not have become an artist. Your father was one of the great Russian directors of the twentieth century.
DK Yes, it was a fluke. I rarely sat in on his rehearsals. I’d hear conversations at home, of course. But I was in no position to draw professional conclusions. I accepted the fact that the secret would be lost. Fortunately, perhaps miraculously, I never went in search of my father’s secret, because secrets in theater change. If I had studied his technique and tried to employ it, there is no guarantee that anything of value would have come of it. Techniques change, too. What I do formally has nothing to do with what my father did. Maybe I want to achieve what he did, getting an audience to experience specific things, but I go at it in a different way. Or maybe I needed to be a set designer first, then a painter, in order to stumble upon my approach.
JF According to a Russian saying, talent “rests” every other generation. And let’s not forget that your mother Natalya Krymova, was one of the leading Soviet theater critics of the second half of the twentieth century. You grew up in a family that understood art, to put it lightly. Which makes me ask, did your parents’ achievements ever burden you?
JF I once sat in on your lessons for a while and they left a mark on me. One thing I’ll never forget: you asked your students to design a space for a Russian fairy tale. One student created a model of a nice peasant hut with a neat yard circled by a pretty fence, outside of which sat a rather jolly bear. You were almost angry. In heightened tones, you said, “Guys! You must understand that you will work in the Russian theater! And if you have a bear in the Russian theater, there is blood and mayhem!”
DK There is no more terrible, cunning animal than a bear. In my recent Russian Blues, I originally had a bear scene. I ended up cutting it, but I did lots of research. Bears eat anything from mosquitoes to their own cubs to people. Imagine an animal like that!
JF You didn’t have to explain anything during that class. Everybody understood immediately what you meant.
DK Amazing things happen in every class. Students bring in things that leave me speechless. I teach them the language of images. I give them tasks: create an image of the essence of an angel, of sunrise, a sunset, the Bible, God. I asked them for the image of the essence of tenderness. One girl brought in a small, silver plate with a bunch of grapes neatly laid out on it. I thought, All right. Then I noticed she had stripped the skin off the grapes. And I got goose bumps. Just looking at that made your skin crawl.
Another task is how not to lose your focus while working on a playtext. I assigned five plays:Hamlet, The Days of the Turbins, The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, and Ostrovsky’s The Storm. Everybody got lost, and they came in with these models all ready. I said, “It’s like you guys all suddenly aged fifteen years! I don’t want to make traditional theater designers of you! I hate that! You have to learn to make theater out of thin air. What is the most important thing this play makes you feel? Take that and make an image of it, the essence, the way you did with God and the Bible and tenderness. Don’t think about theater. Just do it! Then I’ll show you what you do with that.”
And they brought in their images. Four of eight brought in excellent work. And I said, “Now, cut everything out but just one thing. Because a play has all those acts and characters and action. You obviously respect the play. You love Isaac Babel’s Sunset or Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard because you respect the Russian literature you were taught to respect. But that’s all nonsense. Pick one thing. When your heart starts beating, feel it. And do that.”
Do you sense what treasure lurks in this approach? I mean, what is contemporary theater? It’s not the rotting atavism that happens on most stages. You can’t live in the age of the iPhone 6 and go bonkers over mid–twentieth century theater. It’s the same with your head: you must go into it some other way. By way of emotion. By way of emotion embodied in an image—there you have the concentrate of a future production.
My dad used to say you have to formulate tasks in a theatrical language. That means you have to want to come in tomorrow and actually do something, not think about how you’re going to do it. You must set up bridges. Like with Lego pieces, there must be protrusions and little holes. Then you can snap things together. Your first image needs a protrusion that you’ll snap into what you do tomorrow. And then things start working on their own.
The next time they came in, I said, “Pick one thing yourselves, and then we’ll all begin putting a show together. I want you to see how a show grows from the seed of your emotions and experiences, not from your desire to serve a written text, no matter how good it may be. A play is words. A performance is seconds. They are not always the same thing. You yourself are the performance.”
JF ”A performance is seconds.” Decode that.
DK A performance is time. Not every word of Hamlet, pronounced literally, by the book, gives you seconds of theatrical action. Seconds of existing theatrically. Seconds during which theater is born. A play is just words. You have to be able to create the fabric of theater; it’s that simple. It’s a question of honing your organism to make it execute specific tasks. Do you find this interesting?
JF Extremely. But I have a question: Are you teaching set designers to stage shows?
DK No. I run an experimental course with the director Yevgeny Kamenkovich. Among our students are future designers and future directors. I meet with the directors every third day. I don’t care if they want to do something realistic or extremely personal. Whatever they do, it must have some inner turmoil, some feeling at its core. You can’t do a play just because someone gives it to you. That will be rubbish. You must be able to extract a message or emotions from it. I have an emotion.… Here, use it!
Theater is like painting. Or Shostakovich. Why write slapdash music when Shostakovich already wrote his thirteenth symphony, or Mozart his fortieth? There must be a transfer of emotion. And it’s important to have teamwork. Directors must work in tandem with set designers. The question, though, is: To what end? Not to show why Petya likes Masha. Rather, it’s to come to an agreement about that initial emotional impulse. You must be in sync. Maybe the designer doesn’t know how to talk to actors, and the director doesn’t understand movement, the history of art, or the use of space. They complement each other; it is their job to achieve the emotional experience that they conspire to create. When I say emotional experience, I mean that cluster containing their ideas and philosophy. But they must come together on the basis of emotions, because while the head can be convinced of anything, passion cannot be persuaded. You need passion at the core.
Why aren’t words enough? Why must things be expressed in other ways, too? Because they need to be fixed in a given form. It’s one thing to talk about a bouillon cube, but it’s another thing to hold in your hands a bouillon cube from which you can break off a chunk and actually make a pot of soup. It is the primary model of your future production. Maybe, physically, it has nothing to do with the production you will mount, but it contains your emotions in a concentrated form.
JF You talk about a new kind of theater, at least for Russia. Did you hit on this by chance, too?
DK Naturally. I come home and jot my thoughts down in a notebook. It’s like having scales fall from my eyes. I want to keep on working with these students in order to keep making discoveries. I test all my ideas on them.
JF Look how this has seized control of your life. You are passionately consumed by the fascinating business of seeking a future theater among your students. How did it happen that about twenty-five years ago, you abandoned theater for painting?
DK My father died and a year later I realized I had lost interest. I had designed one show every year with him—twelve years, twelve shows. Those were dazzling times, even though I didn’t understand that fully. But you begin to notice when one work gives you goose bumps and another doesn’t. I didn’t get goose bumps every time with my father, but they were significantly rarer when I didn’t work with him. So he died, the goose bumps disappeared, and I grew bored.
At such times you want to be self-reliant. You don’t want to put yourself in the hands of those individuals—directors—who are in charge of the goose bumps. I had not yet thought of directing myself, so I painted for fifteen years.
JF So what we do is hunt for goose bumps?
DK Of course.
JF Did you get goose bumps while painting?
DK It happened only a few times in all those years. I have a few paintings that I don’t know how I painted. That’s goose bumps for you.
JF Tell me a little about painting.
DK If painting is what you do, you do it every day. You think in colors and in combinations of colors. You go into a trance. Things happen that only the hands can do. The head cannot do them. I have a book, The Way of the Samurai. The single most important rule for samurai is not to think. If a samurai trains well, knows battle technique and everything else, then his goal in battle is to not think. They say a single samurai can defeat ten common warriors in one fell swoop. Thinking is a sign of not being sufficiently trained yet. There ought to be training like that for painters, where you begin a battle for something with your canvas and paints, in which you take a stand for the Maker. Because Velázquez is out there, Rembrandt, Picasso, Matisse. Your job is to defend them from ersatz. Only then can something of value arise. I have a few paintings like that. Most are ersatz.
JF Describe some of your successful paintings.
DK I have one at home called The Pianist. I painted it in one day. It was a dream come true. When I wanted to continue working on it, there was nothing to do—I saw before me a finished painting. I may have added a stroke here or there, but that was all. Another is called Big Man Reclining. It’s a self-portrait. It shows that moment when you have an array of brushes in your hand and you feel exhausted and you have to kick back and rest. You sit on a chair and you’re afraid of touching anything because your hands are wet with paint. You gingerly rest your hands in your lap and take five. This is a very interesting moment in which to paint yourself. I did many paintings like that.
I’m not ashamed of these works. The question of shame may be the most important one. Sometimes you’re so ashamed you turn the painting over. You think, Lord, I hope nobody exhibits this after I die! Horrors! But you can’t bring yourself to destroy it either; that would mean taking yourself too seriously.
JF The questions of so-called success, failure, and mistakes in art are philosophical. It might be argued that there are no failures or mistakes in art. Are you comfortable with your “mistakes”?
DK These days I think it was probably even worth making bad paintings. If I hadn’t made bad paintings, I might have lost my mind. I might have thought I was a genius. And I’m no genius. At least not in painting. I struggled to be a good artist and the paintings I’ve described came about when someone upstairs simply took pity on me. “That kid was trying so hard, let him finally have a good picture!” That was the conversation going on over my head. And I’d make a good painting. After that, though, it would be, “Oh, come on. He’s not that good. Let him struggle.” Picasso was always perfect. Somebody up there let him do it all the time.
As for mistakes, I don’t know. It’s murky. You know what my biggest mistake in painting was? Wanting to be a good painter. To tell you the truth, these days I don’t give a damn whether I’m a good director or not. Somebody wrote an article saying that all the serious directors are dead, and now we only have directors like Krymov, who work easily and are proud of it. Screw him! I’ll tell you what I read in one of the books by my father, whom this critic listed as one of the “great, serious, departed” directors. Dad wrote, “The director’s primary commandment is to work cheerfully.” My dad spent his whole life at this job, and he had a commandment. It was to work cheerfully.
JF We would be mistaken not to touch upon the world we live in today. We both know perfectly well what is happening in Russia. Some huge, crazy new thing happens every day. Today’s event was the sudden flash of a potential military conflict between Russia and Turkey. Yesterday it was something else. Tomorrow some other thing will horrify us. How do you live and work with that?
DK My wife turns on Euronews and I turn on Bach. Whoever turns on the radio first wins. I can’t hear that stuff—I know about it, but I simply cannot hear it in the morning. These things are too serious to be of any help to me. But you can’t let them get in the way, either. This is the air you breathe, like it or not. The question is: What do you exhale? Even if, like a tree, you take in carbon monoxide, you must exhale oxygen. Art is oxygen. An artist must exhale oxygen.
JF You recently staged a show called Russian Blues. It’s a bleak show, though stunningly beautiful. I’ve never seen you do anything like it.
DK If you see bleakness in Russian Blues, then, naturally, that is what is there. But there is not one word in it, not one direct gesture or image, that would say anything about the downed Malaysian airliner or the downed Russian fighter jet, or about terrorism. There isn’t the vaguest hint of that. I present other themes in such a way that makes you sense what you describe. Doing this show, I scraped down close to open nerves, and I expressed the experience of doing so directly. I don’t think I’d want to do it again. Oxygen takes on different forms. Russian Blues puts you in touch with something that is very hot. And I prefer it when heat comes by way of a calque… the way Fellini did it. That’s not escapist. It’s a matter of the quality and nature of what you do.
John Freedman is a writer and translator who has lived in Russia for twenty-eight years. His short play Five Funny Tales from Buenos Aires has been produced in New York, Edinburgh, and Chattanooga. He has published ten books about Russian theater, including Provoking Theater: Kama Ginkas Directs (2005) and Real and Phantom Pains: An Anthology of New Russian Drama (2015).
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.