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Galina Volchek ...
“America for example is way ahead of us in musical theater but is equally behind in dramatic theater”
Text by Marina Lukanina

alina Volchek, the artistic director of the Sovremennik Theater, comes from an artistic family. Her father was a filmmaker and a cameraman who won four State prizes.

In 1956, Oleg Efremov, a prominent Russian theater director and actor, set up a studio – which was to become the Sovremennik Theater, with his young graduates among whom was Galina Volchek.

After Efremov left, Volchek became the artistic director of Sovremennik in 1972. She has directed over 30 productions. She was the first Soviet theater director to be invited to work to in the USA.

She is a USSR People’s Artist (1988), Winner of the State Prize (1967), the Prize of the President of the Russian Federation for literature and art (2002), a recipient of a great many national and foreign awards, including the Order of the Labor Red Banner (1976), and “For services to the Fatherland” of the 3rd Degree (1996), 2nd Degree (2003) and 1st Degree (2008).

What was your impression of your first trip as a director to the US?

I was the first Soviet director invited to stage a production at an American theater and this was the first time in the history of our countries - in 1978, in the midst of Cold War. There were many aspects of that trip that were so strange, uncomfortable and scary; I needed to constantly remind myself that I had to get back here, to where my son, my family and my theater were.

How did you even get invited to begin with?

A sizeable theater delegation arrived from the USA invited by the Agency of Author’s Rights. Their goal was to analyze Soviet dramaturgy and to promote it in the West. On their last evening in Moscow they decided to come to the Sovremennik and see the play, Echelon. I tried to discourage them from this idea since it was a very Russian culturebased play. However, they insisted and brought their own interpreter. I was shocked as I thought they could never relate to this.

During the intermission I suggested to them that they could leave if they wanted. They were silently sitting in their places as if frozen to their seats. Then all of a sudden one of them stood up abruptly and took my hand. I figured she wanted me to take her to the restroom. As we entered the restroom, that was full of people, she said: “Galina, I want to invite you to stage the same performance in a theater in Houston,” and she asked me when I could come. I told her in December. It all seemed so bizarre to me – in the middle of the restroom, in the midst of Cold War – an invitation to the USA!

At the end of the performance I went to see them again. They were still sitting there motionless. That night two more theater directors invited me to stage this play at their theaters.

In the morning, during the meeting at the Agency of Author’s Rights where I was invited, Nina Vance, the founder and the artistic director of the Alley Theater in Houston said she wanted to invite me to stage Echelon in Houston. All the Russians were shocked. A Russia Ministry of Culture representative was always present at all meetings, and he would always prohibit everything. Nina won support from representatives of the US State Department and she immediately asked the opinion of the Russian Ministry of Culture. It was a Saturday and the ministry of culture representative had no one to seek advice from and had to give an immediate answer: that he did not have any objections. So in December of 1978 I crossed the Atlantic.

When did your theater first go abroad on tour?

During Soviet times, very occasionally, we would be sent to socialist-block countries. And in 1989 we were selected by an American producer to perform the plays, Three Sisters and Into the Whirlwind, in Seattle during the Good Will Games. The Sovremennik performed for 1.5 months every day non-stop. It was a great success!

Then we toured twice on Broadway. I was very nervous the first time. The New York Times finally published an excellent review about us and I cried so hard.

So New York audiences accepted you as well?

I do not want to boast but the Sovremennik is the only drama theater to hold a Drama Desk Award. It was awarded in 1947 by US writers and journalists; 600 people voted for this award. No foreign theater has it, including the London Shakespeare Theater which goes on tour there.

Returning to the present: what have been your latest opening nights?

In March we had a unique event – the opening night of a new version of Nikolai Kolyada’s play, Murlin Munro. The old version was part of the theater’s repertoire for 19 years, starring Elena Yakovleva, Sergei Garmash, Nina Doroshina, and Valery Shalnykh. So I figured that the play had grown tired – the crew got older and they outgrew their heroes. But the audience adored this performance and they began writing to the theater asking us not to stop performing.

I decided to let Sergei Garmash, one of my actors, whom I was pushing to try directing anyway to re-stage this play from scratch with a new crew. After three months we held the opening night with new actors. I was nervous as it was a very popular show but they played wonderfully. Sadly, this play has not lost its relevance but has become even more applicable to the present time.

Another new performance is Gaft’s Dream, retold by Viktyk, (Valentin Gaft is a Sovremennik actor and Roman Viktyk is a Russian director). Gaft is, for the first time, acting both as an author and an actor. I love Gaft dearly and everything that comes about from his creative work.

Do you attract young actors/directors to your theater?

Definitely. During this season, we took four students from the Russian Academy of Theater Arts. They were to direct their plays on the other stage of the Sovremennik using our actors – no other conditions were imposed upon them. I said that this would be a success even if only one of them ended up working for us. Currently one for sure will be joining our team - Katya Polovtseva.

We have a good crew of young actors at the theater now so I am trying not to recruit more right now.

What does the future hold for the Sovremennik?

Theater can’t exist without plans. Currently, Sergey Puskepalis is directing Yasmina Reza’s play, God of Carnage. This is a great tragicomedy that was launched on Broadway at the end of March. The Sovremennik received exclusive rights for this play in Russia. We planned the opening night for May in the framework of an Open Festival of Arts, Cherry Forest. Also, the famous playwright Alexander Galin will direct his play with our young actors.

I read that your relationship with your son, Denis Evstigneev – on a professional level – is the source of constant arguments. What does this mean?

Denis indeed has an independent artistic personality. He has proved that many times – at first as a cameraman receiving all possible awards. Then he directed wonderful movies like Limita, Mama and Let’s Make Love. And he is constantly asked a question that makes me irritated (I can only imagine how he feels) – how hard it is to be the son of such a mom and dad? When a person is a grown-up and proved himself, how much more does he have to do to justify himself, his art, and his independency?

Yes, we often have arguments but only on an artistic level. In terms of football – we have the same preferences.

How did you end up being a Duma delegate? Your impressions?

For an artist, every experience is an interesting experience, so it was interesting for me. I don’t regret it.

What plays would you recommend for someone with a minimum knowledge of Russian?

It’s easy to recommend Chekhov as there is a belief that everyone knows him and we have two of his plays – Cherry Orchid and Three Sisters. I would recommend Five Evenings. Foreigners who have seen it really enjoyed it.

Some critics predict the end of repertoire theater in Russia…

America for example is way ahead of us in musical theater but is equally behind in dramatic theater. That’s why Stanislavski is like a God there.

I strongly believe in the value of repertoire theater. It is Russia’s greatest asset. If it goes, we will lose our upper hand.

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