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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Intimate Director




There is no stage in this tiny theater hall - every millimeter is painted black. Only a table set with a white table cloth breaks up darkness. In walks Sergei Artsibashev. He stares at the table, moves his tea cup a millimeter, touches a sugar bowl, shifts the ash tray so it sits exactly where it belongs.


The troupe is dead quiet. Then, a click. A sucking sound as his lungs draw in air. And a tall curve of smoke twists from his lit cigarette.


Sergei Artsibashev, the founder and sole director of Teatr na Pokrovke, has gained international acclaim for his intimate staging of Russian classics. In his 100-seat theater he erases the lines separating actor and viewer. Here he is not only director, but also an actor, playing Hamlet, Pushkin, Lenin and Moliere.


Artsibashev launched his Moscow career at the renowned Taganka Theater, home to legendary actor and bard Vladimir Vysotsky and director Yury Lyubimov. He then moved on to create his own troupe, and in 1991 Teatr na Pokrovke was born.


Natalya Shulyakovskaya went to speak with the director in the place he calls home - his theater.


Q:


You started at Taganka, but you never talk about Vysotsky.


A:


I came to Taganka in June 1980. I was scheduled to appear in "Crime and Punishment," where Vysotsky played Svidrigailov. Our heroes had a brief encounter on the stage, and I was filled with anticipation ... but Vysotsky died in July.


I knew him since I was 14, when I took up the guitar and started singing his songs. He influenced me a great deal. He was one of the reasons I joined Taganka, despite the fact it was a one-director theater. When from 1986 to 1987 Vysotsky's statue was being made, the sculptor picked me to pose in his Hamlet costume. I tried to wiggle out of it. It was torment for me to put on his clothes and pose as him.


I couldn't do it without a bottle ... But when I tried on his pants, his sweater and his boots, everything fit right in.


Q:


At 25 you announced you would run your own theater in 10 years.


A:


I miscalculated slightly. I became director of the Moscow Comedy Theater at 37. The theater did not have its own stage, although there was talk of it. As soon as I signed on, plans for a new building were scratched. Nevertheless, people started flocking to me: friends, students, actors from other cities and theaters. Within two years, the Comedy Theater was transformed into Teatr na Pokrovke.


Q:


With the intensity of your acting and directing, how do you manage to survive? What do you do to recharge your energy?


A:


Sadly, nothing. I smoke a lot. My plays demand a lot of concentration. And if I rehearse by day, run administrative chores later and perform at night, I pay with sleepless nights, a pumping heart and fluctuating blood pressure. But I draw on my sense of purpose and conviction that theater - just like a temple - can give something. There is also the desire to open myself up, to confess publicly, admit my flaws and sins and experience repentance.


Q:


Your intimate theater, is that a conscious choice or one forced upon you by life?


A:


Mine is a concept of home theater. It doesn't depend on the number of viewers. We are playing for ourselves, for the guests in our home. What I do cannot be found anywhere else. It is intimate, immediate tenderness. We sit in one room, at the same table, and with every fiber of your being you are immersed in the play. Beyond the show, many more human stories are pulsating. In their minds, the viewers play out their personal dramas.


Q:


What are the downfalls of having your own theater?


A:


There are constant phone calls, meetings, conversations tearing me away from creating. But I am the one who desperately needs those calls.


Q:


Do you have patrons?


A:


No. I don't have patrons rushing in to open bank accounts for us. But there are friends, people who like the theater. And they help once in a while, such as Yevgeny Strelkov (director of Moscow's bread bakeries) kicking in some money for costumes or printing.


Q:


Your "Three Sisters" was a success at the prestigious Munich festival in 1993. You have done a joint production with the Theatre Toursky from Marseilles, France. You teach master classes abroad. What is different about Russian and Western theater?


A:


When I teach French actors according to the Stanislavsky or my own method they enjoy it ... their jaws drop. But they will never be able to exist the way our actors do. Theirs is a theater of staged representation. Each and every one of our performances creates anew. I carefully watch my plays and if I notice repetition, we go back to the starting point. There, acting is a wrapper for a play. Here, I strip the wrappers off.


Q:


Don't your actors grumble because you not only direct but also take on more and more acting?


A:


You bet they do, but among themselves.


Q:


Often at political gatherings, we watch acclaimed theater directors hobnob with powerful politicians. Do you hang out with the powers that be? Is that a prerequisite for running a theater in Moscow?


A:


I don't schmooze because I am not prestigious enough, although I am well-known in theatrical circles. It is frustrating, because I cannot get immediate access to the powerhouses who are able to solve my administrative problems. You've got to have time for schmoozing, and there is still no certainty that it will help. Remember [Mikhail] Bulgakov's, "Never ask for anything, especially of those who are more powerful than you are. They will come and offer it themselves."


[Sometimes] reality pins us against the wall and forces us to annoy and beg the bureaucrats. But it's great that they don't stick their noses into my creative process anymore. At Taganka, six of my productions were shut down, some by state orders.


But now, there are financial strings to pull. There have been offers, especially with our "Inspector General." We were asked to place a bottle of vodka on the table so that everyone could see the label. They said the actors' salaries will increase tenfold. But I turned them down, because this is a harness. Ranevskaya once said: "The money will feed you and evaporate, but the shame will stick."


Q:


How does your family handle you?


A:


They don't. I am divorced, with two sons. I focus all my thoughts on my theater. It is my home, my family. This is probably bad, but it is my nature.


Q:


You said playing Pushkin is agony for you. Why?


A:


I built the play on material taken from Pushkin's letters from the most tragic period of his life - his autumn in Boldino. He was cut off from everyone by a state-imposed cholera quarantine, but his creativity breaks through and saves him. His life is fractured, but he preserves his dignity. And strangely, this is one of the most fruitful times of his life.