Recently I’ve come upon a book with two authors mentioned on the cover: Vasiliev and Abdullaeva. Anatoly Vasiliev is a threatre director who pushed the limits of theatre in its traditional understanding, living genius, tireless explorer and the author of his own theatre technique. Zara Abdullaeva is a film critic and art historian.

Pavel Gorodnitskij
Pavel Gorodnitskij
The project "Civil Journalism"

The book is titled Parautopia. It grew from interviews and conversations between Vasiliev and Abdullaeva, as well as from their joint texts published in the magazine Iskusstvo Kino (Film Art).

Parautopia is a dream about something delusive, the theatre that doesn’t and won’t exist, yet it’s a goal for some people. This paradoxical aspiration for the impossible defines their path of life and artistic career.

One of the stages. Adored by psychological theatre fans for his early performances, Vasiliev suddenly breaks from the psychological school, feeling that it “becomes dangerous for me and actors”, that it draws on illusionism instead of reality. He becomes less interested in repertory productions and focuses on laboratory work, but often doesn’t show plays in public, working “behind closed doors” and creating “something”.

What an odd man! He started his career so successfully, everybody liked him! Isn’t it a utopia? Also, he lost his theatres – one in Povarskaya Street and another one in Sretenka Street. He’s become an exile; he moved to where people understand experiments and where he can receive money for that, also from the state. Yes, post-Soviet conservative audience may find it difficult to imagine that the state gives money for “all sorts of marginal things”. Yes, the state. Because some states do understand that something new and sometimes incomprehensible moves art forward. Art, for its part, moves society forward. Most post-Soviet countries don’t need such people, and it was confirmed by the recent arrest of Russian theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov and his colleagues at Studio Seven. It’s clear and fits the logic of socialism that had ruled here 25 years ago – we remove unwanted people and leave those reliable, politically competent and ideologically faithful. The times of censorship return – there’s nothing new in it; it’s an atavism of the socialist system that couldn’t tolerate otherness.

The “naked performance” story at the Shchukin Theatre Institute is a continuation. The institute senior staff stopped the performance due to a nude actor on the stage. Suddenly, we hear moralising and accusations of desecrating the stage from 18- and 20-year-old young people who were born after the socialist period. Are they serious? Why do young actors who are supposed to provoke, oppose, rebel in art behave like elderly grande dame at imperial theatres?

Vasiliev gives the answer. <>i“What was this person doing during his studies, when teachers were teaching him theatre? He was grafted with craft, that’s all! The teacher grafted craft onto him, the student himself did it. The student was a grapevine and his teacher was an oak who cut pieces from his precious self and grafted them onto that young grapevine. What do we get? Acorns instead of grapes and fresh wine. For popcorn. The student will grow old and turn into a respected oak cabinet full of forgotten plays of unplayed roles, that's it!

I’ve seen plenty of young actors who repeated words of their teachers. A young mouth opens but only to produce such retrograde speeches that it makes you confused.

The book contains dialogues about Chekhov. Vasiliev says that he has been rehearsing Chekhov every year, several months a year or sometimes the whole year since 1990. He asks himself: “Actually, why Chekhov? Why this platonic mutuality that never ends with the birth of a child?”

He has never staged a single play by Chekhov.

Chekhov and Plato are two authors who form an actor’s mentality at Vasiliev’s theatre. All know about Plato in Vasiliev’s interpretation, but no one knows about Chekhov and the fact that Vasiliev used his works to develop his own technique he called “drama dell'arte” – the technique of acting exercises and improvisation. It allows stirring up and exploding the inner state of a present-day person who lives and creates now but uses the models of Chekhov’s person.

“I strongly believe that only this technique can make Chekhov’s plays alive, real and absolutely true,” Vasiliev says. He begins his teaching practice with Plato – with conceiving play structures – continues with Chekhov to develop psychological structures and then play structures again.

Plato’s Dialogues were filmed, so you can watch them, but what concerns act I of Chekhov’s Three Sisters played by his students during classes, you can only imagine it and envy those who saw it in their own eyes.

Much of what this man does, lives and breathes or finds interesting hasn’t been implemented. For various reasons. The book Vasiliev Parautopia Abdullaeva shows his ideas and plans. For example, he rehearsed Samuel Beckett’s text Happy Days featuring great Moscow Art Theatre’s “granny” Maria Babanova, but it wasn’t played because she stopped rehearsing and soon died of a disease. “She had an incredible voice. When she was reading Beckett at the table in the evening light of the outgoing autumn, I understood superstitiously – something’s gonna happen. At some point I began to feel that Beckett would never be released. I began to worry, I contacted the radio to record her reading Beckett, but I got a refusal. It should have been recorded to preserve this beautiful voice in Beckett’s remarkable piece for Russian wild mankind.”

Later, in a conversation with Zara Abdullaeva, Vasiliev reveals a very intimate thing – he brought a tape recorder to Babanova’s funeral and recorded the sound of a nail being hammered into the coffin. The sound was later used in the score for the production Cerceau. It was important for Vasiliev. Sounds in general were important for him. That’s why he gives so much attention to sound, uncommon intonations of actors, in which he sees ancient tribal sound. “It seemed to me that the forgotten tribal sound, the ancient sound going back to pagan gods, the given sound, the sound one hears for the first time as noise in mother’s womb is hidden inside a person’s sound… I went that way and discovered that sound, pulled it out, brought it here, made it, but… I was told, ‘Why is it not in Russian?’ People don’t speak like that. Yes, they don’t speak, but it’s not stories from life, it’s not a comedy titled Uncle Jean and Professor Serebriakov. It’s the mystery play Mozart and Salieri.”

He wanted to stage Chekhov’s Swansong – a short vaudeville for 15 or 20 minutes – and use stage directions from Beckett’s Happy Days. The production was to be titled Oh, Swansong! Vasiliev has always said Beckett’s stage directions are very precise as if they were the text of a play. He had an arrangement with Paris’s Theatre de la Ville. But it failed. Because you can’t do anything with Beckett’s text for the stage. Any altering, mixing or compiling is forbidden by copyright law. It is forbidden even for iconic theatre innovator Anatoly Vasiliev. But this director’s collage, this fantasy was included in the book, and two fragments merged, unusually and accurately adding a new metaphysical side to Chekhov’s vaudeville.

There’s another performance that has never been shown – The Cherry Orchard featuring Alla Demidova. It was to be a fantasy based on the play, Ranevskaya’s dreams mostly made of dreams and images of Vasiliev himself.

Apart from Vasiliev as a director, teacher and theorist, the book also shows you Vasiliev as a writer. His mischievous short stories and poems are included into the book. Read, he’s almost like Kharms.

A school piece

The sun was shining throughout the day. My mom and me walked to a street stand and back home. We bought beer for my dad. And vodka for my grandfather. Dad and grandfather will exchange their bottles, and my mother and I will be watching them getting drunk. Dear teacher! I wish they were dead! Shop sellers selling moonshine. My mom and I tried it yesterday, it nearly killed us. The end of the essay.

The next day, we were burying dad and grandfather. Beer and vodka sellers were following their coffins. My mom and I approached them and said, crying, “The next coffins are yours!” The sellers then beat us. I was the first, mom was the second. When they were beating my mom, I pulled out an iron cross from the neighbouring grave and hit the sellers in their heads, I don’t remember how many of them. Anger took me over. Dear teacher! I feel so sad that we didn’t bury dad and grandfather. But the sellers are dead. The end of the essay.

The next morning, mom and I went to the cemetery to bury dad and grandfather and throw the dead sellers into a gully. Suddenly, we saw many pigeons in the cemetery. They were bowing their heads, greeting each other with their small asses. There were no signs of yesterday’s violence. Open country, a mound, grass. We looked in the sky, dad and grandfather were floating in the blue sky! We look at the gully and saw pigs. They were eating earth. We went to the mound. There were two sticks with plates attached to them at the mound. They read, “Dad and grandfather have lain to sleep, do not disturb.” Dear teacher! The end of the essay.

It’s almost like Daniil Kharms, isn’t it?

We can say that the book is for professionals and theatre-makers; it’s not always easy to read it, but at some point you understand it is for the young and open-minded, for those who enjoy analysing and delving into books, for those who like films. Yes, the book seems to tell more about films than about theatre. Films by Muratova, Von Trier, Fellini are analysed with surprising observation skills… Vasiliev writes how he edited the film based on his legendary performance Cerceau and describes his editing principles. But it’s not the main thing in the book.

The main thing, I think, is a living intonation of the dialogue between two talented people. You hear it and it slows down your pace of living for a while. You wake up in a few hours and ask yourself, puzzled, “Where have I been?” You have been talking to them too, because the book is also a dialogue with you. You can argue and disagree with something or nod in approval. I’d like this utopia to become the reality. Maybe it will bring us the new theatre we’ve heard about so much but never seen.

Subscribe to our mailing list: