Nikolai Kolyada: Theatre is math

You must know when to nudge and wake the audience up, when to appeal to its sensitive side and make it cry, and when to tickle its sense of humour

Nikolai Kolyada

All I have to do is walk out on the street and see someone, and I immediately know where they are headed, how much money they have in their wallet, what kind of furniture is in their home. What is a playwright if not a keen observer? I just need to watch, pay attention. I love ordinary people. I love writing about them because the affection for the humiliated and the downtrodden has always been the lifeblood of our literature, says world-renowned playwright Nikolai Kolyada in an interview to Europost.

 

 

Nikolai Vladimirovich, what does it mean for an artist to be independent and what is the price that has to be paid for this luxury?

The price is that at times you need to bite your tongue, pause and choose to not self-destruct, so that you have the chance to make a step forward at a later point. I think that everything is possible in theatre nowadays; you have the freedom to do whatever you please. Well, you should not dare to speak ill of your mother, father and country - this is simply not done, it is not Christian, that is all. In every other way, there are no restrictions, do what you have to do and let the chips fall where they may, as they say. I am happy that 14-15 years ago I founded my own theatre company and stopped working for a state one.

I spent 10 years with a state theatre and I remember going to the manager's office on a daily basis, begging him for one thing or another until I was blue in the face, and the answer was invariably “No! No! No!” So I kept on fighting the good fight. When I put on Romeo and Juliet I assigned the role of Romeo to an actor of very small stature and casted a very tall actress to play Juliet. They were far from the image of a cute couple and so the manager called me into his office to explain my decision. Because they are good actors, I said. “But they have to be beautiful!” he exclaimed. Who said they have to be beautiful?! The story is about love, not stunningly good looks. They were really exceptional actors, in one of the scenes she carried him like a little boy, like the child she never had. It was so moving that the entire audience was in tears. And yet, the entire time the manager kept pontificating about how this is not the way it is supposed to be. How do you know what it was really like? This is important to my fictional world and it is an awful thing to be subject to the judgement of an idiotic manager or director. I finally got fed up and am glad that I left it all behind. Now I am perfectly free to do whatever I want. It is a very difficult path, but I am a happy man because I have my own team.

But is absolute freedom really attainable in today's world?

Perhaps, and yet not quite. As Karl Marx once said, being a part of society and simultaneously being free from it, is not possible.

You have 130 plays under your belt, many directorial projects, acting appearances, books. How do you manage to be so active?

This will probably sound cynical - I write whenever I find that the money in my bank account has dwindled. As I know no other way to make a living besides writing plays, directing and teaching, my response to a shrinking bank statement is to sit down and write a play. It might not sound palatable, but I once read that Chekhov used to do the same - he wrote a lot in order to secure income. Dostoyevsky too. This is all I can do. If I had to wait for inspiration to come to me… No, I live without inspiration, a cynical existence. I have been involved with theatre since the age of 15, I know its inner-workings as the back of my hand, and I know that a play is mostly math. It is not about getting an epiphany. It is about strategically planning the audience's reactions, exploiting the viewers' psychology - I will put something in here to wake them up, I will appeal to their sensitive side there, and I will tickle their sense of humour later, so that they laugh and never be lulled into inattention until the end. These calculations are necessary and that is what I teach my students. The playwright's job is nothing like regular prose where you can let it develop slowly and sometimes the reader falls asleep on page five, only to pick up the book later. A play has to keep all 300-400 people in the hall on tenterhooks, every single one of them experiencing their own version of the show. While the actors play on stage one show, 300-400 more are taking place in the audience - every viewer has their own associations and thoughts. I have to take this into account as a playwright.

You often write about marginalised human beings, about the humiliated and the downtrodden, about the dredges of society. Where do you find your characters?

I do not need to seek outside of Ekaterinburg, it is enough to walk the tram stations in the city to find all the material I need. All I have to do is walk out on the street and see someone, and I immediately know where they are headed, how much money they have in their wallet, what kind of furniture is in their home. What is a playwright if not a keen observer? I just need to watch, pay attention. While in Sofia, I even went to see the farmer's market. I told myself, this is the real Bulgaria, the regular human life. I love ordinary people. I love writing about them because the affection for the humiliated and the downtrodden has always been the lifeblood of our literature.

What are the themes capturing the imagination of your Russian colleagues right now?

They are the same as always - the small man trying to find their spot under the sun and failing. They cannot seem to find the warm side of the stove, figuratively speaking, and sometimes even the stove itself. They futilely chase after happiness. I have spent my career writing about this as well.

In your opinion, is life more powerful than art or vice versa?

Personally, I am happy to have been born to a peasant family from an obscure corner of Kazakhstan. I moved to the city in 1973, to Ekaterinburg, to Sverdlovsk, and waded into the theatre world, which has brought me great, unimaginable joy. Every morning I wake up with the sensation that I am a small pile of sand lying in bed. My goal is to somehow pull myself together and get out of bed. I am old now, my back, my arm, my leg hurt, everything hurts. But when I get to rehearsal in the theatre at 1pm there is the sound of music and things to be done - and all of a sudden I feel no pain, everything is wonderful and bright! I live that incredible joy every day. If I were a teacher, a tractor driver, or something else, I do not know if I would have gone through life with such joy. This is why I thank God for gifting me with such fate. As for whether life or art is more important, they go hand in hand for me, and everything is amazing because of it. Praise the Lord, I am a happy man, perfectly happy.

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Nikolai Kolyada was born on 4 December 1957 in the village of Presnogor'kovka, modern Kazakhstan. He is an alumnus of the theatre school in Sverdlovsk. Kolyada has authored 130 plays, 90 of which have been staged in Russia and across the world - the US, Germany, the UK, France, Italy, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Australia. In Ekaterinburg, where he lives and works, he has been organising since 1994 an annual international festival named Kolyada-Plays featuring exclusively his own works. In 2001 he officially founded his own company, the Kolyada Theatre.

He visited Sofia recently as a patron of the new theatre association SPAM Studios and the premiere of Hen, a play based on texts by him and Anton Chekhov.

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