Speaking In Tongues
Guided by Voices
MY LIFE ON STAGE
Translated by Alec Vagapov
The theatre I have been working at since the day of its foundation
is eight years old now. It incorporated the old theatre which had the name
of 'Theatre of Drama and Comedy', now simply called 'Theatre on Taganka'.
There are years of joint work behind this "simple" name. A group
of young actors headed by Yury Lubimov came to the old theatre building.
A former actor of Vakhtangov Theatre, he is now well known among the theatre
goers. He taught at the Shchukin Theatre School, and with a group of school
graduates he staged the play called 'A KIND MAN FROM SESOINE'. In those
days, nine years ago, it had the effect of a bomb explosion. The play had
no scenery, was done in a relative manner and was very interesting from
the point of view of plasticity. It had, for instance, a lot of music,
in the form of songs.
The first line of the theatre, and a very big one, is poetical. The
point is that the poetical repertoire of the 20's with its 'DISTORTING
MIRROR', 'BLUE BLOUSE', etc., had been forgotten. So we were the first
to restore the wonderful genre of poetical theatre.
It started with a play, or rather a poetical stage show, based on the
lyrical writings of Andrey Voznesensky. The performance is called 'Antiworlds'.
We have staged it about five hundred times already. We did it quickly,
in three weeks. We played the first half of the performance and then it
was performed by Voznesensky himself, if he was not away. (He is always
touring, mostly around provinces such as America or Italy...). But when
he returns from touring he takes part in some plays, mostly anniversary
performances (50th anniversary, centenary, bicentennial etc.).
He writes new poems and reads them at the theatre, so if one is in luck,
one can see and hear Voznesensky recite his poems at our theatre.
Generally, we are great friends with poets.
The second poetical performance was our play called 'THE DEAD AND THE
LIVING', a story about those who participated in World War II. Some of
them are dead, some are living . We used literary works that deal with
After that we had the play called 'LISTEN TO MAYAKOVSKY' based on the
works of the famous poet. The play was written by Venya Smekhov, one of
Then there was Sergey Yesenin's dramatic poem 'PUGATCHEV' which many
producers, including Meirhold, had attempted to stage but it was not easy
in Yesenin's life time. The author would not allow a single word to be
changed . Yesenin was a rowdy man as far as his creative work was concerned,
he never allowed anyone to make changes, 'not even for a second' , he did
not allow anything, so it had never been staged...
We have had it on for several years successively.
We have also started rehearsing the play based on Yevgeny Yevtushenko's
poem called 'LISTEN, STATUE OF LIBERTY'. We are beginning to work on a
play about Pushkin, written by our producer Yury Lubimov in collaboration
with Ludmila Tselikovskaya, his spouse.
As you see, we are stewing in our own juice, and when people ask me
if I shall ever leave the theatre for the cinema or variety I can definitely
say 'no'. That will never happen, because working at the theatre is very
interesting , and no one has ever left our theatre of his or her own accord...
well, if one is asked to leave he will leave, though with reluctance.
The second line of our theatre, which started with B.Brecht's play
is the spirit of civic duty. It developed, very vividly, in the play '10
DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD' which has now become one of our classics. It
is very popular in Moscow. The performance begins outside the building
with red flags fluttering on the roof, actors going out into the street
wearing uniforms of revolutionary soldiers and sailors. Many of them singing
songs and playing the balalaika and the accordion; there is an underground
station nearby, so people gather round wondering what is going on, and
when they find out the reason there is an atmosphere of warmth, humour
and joy near around the theatre building. Why? Lenin claimed once that
'the revolution is a feast of the oppressed and exploited'.
The play '10 DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD' based on John Reed's book was
made as a festive performance. You come into the auditorium to be met not
by ticket collectors but by the theatre actors dressed in soldier's uniforms
with bayonets who collect the tickets, pin them in the bayonets and let
you in. There are three boxes for visitors to use: one is black, one is
yellow and one is red. If you don't like the performance you throw it into
the black box, if you like it you throw it into the red one , and if you
don't care you will throw it into the yellow box. Afterwards we empty the
boxes and throw the tickets away calculating the pros and cons. Then comes
the procedure of justification of the playbills which say 'POETICAL PERFORMANCE
WITH BUFFOONERY, PANTOMIME AND SHOOTING', and we have it all on stage.
Then we sing chastooshkas, four line tongue in cheek songs, and wi wind
up with a rhyme sounding something like this:
Do not loiter in the lobby, come in, - and no kidding,
If you want to see the play, see it from beginning.
Everybody enters the auditorium and sits down hoping to relax. But
alas, there is no relaxation. There come three armed people and open fire.
Loud shots, the smell of powder in the small auditorium, it is dusty, some
people get sick and are carried away. But they come round and are brought
back to see the performance to the end. We never had victims for our actors
do not shoot the audience, but over the audience, and with blank shots.
The play has 32 scenes, each done in a different manner. There are
elements of buffoonery, circus tricks and puppetry. We learnt special acrobatic
tricks so that we might be able to move about the stage somehow. Generally,
the preparatory work at our theatre, and not only for this particular performance,
must be of a higher level compared with ordinary theatres. I for one play
the part of Kerensky, and I do some tricks, well, maybe not very complicated,
yet they are circus tricks. We also have a pantomime group which does exclusively
pantomimic, i.e. circus numbers. We have a lot of pantomime at our theatre.
So this line of civic duty spirit went on.
We have staged some more plays such as 'MOTHER', 'THE LIFE OF GALILEO',
'WHAT IS TO BE DONE?', 'THE RUSH HOURS' and, finally, the play 'THE DAWNS
ARE QUIET HERE' which we nominated for the National Prize, a real tragedy
based on a contemporary novel.
Yesterday we had the opening night of the play 'HAMLET' where I play
the part of Prince Hamlet.
The theatre has much work to do yet. You know how hard it is for people
to get to the theatre to see a play. It is almost impossible to get tickets.
That suits us perfectly because we run on a self supporting basis, and
we have to earn a lot... The auditorium is small and we always have to
top the bill.
We usually come to work at 9 in the morning. We have rehearsals until
3 in the afternoon. Pantomime and movement training, for those who wish
it, takes one hour, then we have five hours of rehearsal, followed by three
hours of break, and then comes the night. So we have no time for personal
life. If you want to have your personal life, you had better have it within
the walls of the theatre, you just can't help it, there is no time for
The impression that all comes easy at the theatre and that there is
nothing but flowers and laurels for the actors is all wrong. And I am sure
that there are no people with such an impression among you, though I know
that when you come to the theatre you see the most beautiful part of our
work. It's when we are on stage and nobody sees the backstage, our life
behind the scenes, which, incidentally, is not bad either.
One goes to the theatre to relax, engage in meditation, sometimes to
make merry, sometimes to abandon oneself to grief.
In cinematography things did not go so smoothly when I started acting.
It was 10 years ago. I would mostly play the parts of happy-go-lucky young
men, somewhat spoilt and nice.
Now the first film that I acted in, the film called 'THE CAREER OF
DIMA GORIN', I played the part of an emergency repairman. I should say
that, generally, the art of cinema is a great thing. One has to get new
professions for everything must be real, so one has to have some skills.
We would clime those 40-meter tall bearings when laying out high voltage
lines. It was really great. I learnt to drive a car in those days, so I
have a piece of bread for the time when I get older losing my hair...
The first shooting day was funny. I was to play a young man who pestered
Tanya Konyukhova, not the actress, of course, but the film character whose
part she played. In the cab of the truck I was to embrace her, say some
words, while Gorin was up in the body watching us. I refused to do it because
I was a modest young man then, and I said that she was a famous actor I
just couldn't do it and so on, but everybody insisted saying that I had
to do it for the film, but I would not do it. At last Tanya Kornukhova
said: 'Now, Volodya, come on, don't be afraid. Come on, come on, now, there
you are, at last, you did it!...' And that was nice, I liked that. But
after dinner comes the reckoning. Dima Gorin was to smash my face. That
was all we had to do for the first shooting day. We had to act naturally
, many times, take after take. The weather was terrible, he hit me in the
face nine times running. He said he did it 'for symmetry's sake', each
time it was the other side of my cheek, but I could not like it. When I
thought that the shooting was over, it turned out that the whole film was
defective and everything had to be done all over again...
I should like to point out once more that the cinema and the theatre
are absolutely different things. Different manner of playing, different
work. It is more interesting to act in a film just because you see a lot
of people around, many things happen, you visit many places. We all have
craving for travelling since childhood. The cinema offers many possibilities
for that. I have travelled almost the whole of Russia over the past ten
years since I started acting in films. On the other hand, it is more interesting
to act in a theatre performance because the creative process is more profound
on stage. Indeed, within four hours you experience the whole life of a
man, not just bits and pieces of it, now from its beginning now from its
end; then everything is cut and arranged, and you see that you are not
there, you say it but no one listens to you... To make a long story short,
both are interesting , though they are different,.
Then I acted in the film '#713 REQUESTS LANDING'. Again I was wooing
a young woman, and again Otar Koberidze was to smash my face. He comes
from the East and his eyes are burning. I thought he would kill me now,
and that would be the end. Two more takes and I shall kick the bucket.
But I am alive, and since that time I always look through the script carefully
before accepting the offer to play the part. I just want to see.. who strikes
Then I played a few parts which I do not want even to think about.
I remember one of them, my part in the film called 'PENALTY KICK', because
I learnt to ride a horse and do the tricks such as back somersault, when
the horse and I were to surmount an obstacle. It takes a lot of training,
but it is fine. One has to be able to do everything. Actors usually want
to do the tricks themselves. But over the past few years , particularly
after Yevgeny Urbansky's death, actors are not allowed to do it. Specially
trained people do it. It takes time to learn to do a trick. Yet we like
to do everything ourselves, so that afterwards we could say: 'look it's
me', though no one really sees if it is really me or not.
In the film 'THERE WERE TWO SOLDIER-FRIENDS' where I played the part
of Brusinov, a white guard officer, in the final act the man was to put
a bullet through his head, fall overboard the ship which was setting out
overseas. I asked for permission to do the trick. The producer said, 'all
right, I did not see it, and I don't know anything'. Fully dressed I fell
overboard four or three times. The water was as cold as ice, it was March,
with the temperature being minus three below zero. After that I was taken
out of the water, they brought alcohol to rub it in... So before the fourth
take I said: 'I can do it as many times as is needed'.
At the beginning of my story I said I played positive characters that
in reality do not exist, as I recollect it now, there are no such good
people in real life. I played the part of teem leader Markin in the film
'TOMORROW'S STREET'. He is such a nice man, everybody likes him, his chiefs,
his friends, his wife, his children... And he is very-very positive: he
lives in a tent, which is leaking, the furniture is decaying, the children
are crying, his wife coughs and he says: 'I will not ask for a new flat
because other people are in greater need'.
But after some time I was lucky to act in a film at Victor Turov's
studio in Minsk. This man has lived an interesting life... When he was
eight years old he and his mother were driven away to Germany, after he
had lost his parents he returned home; it took him six months to travel
all the way across Europe. He returned home and had such bright reminiscences,
that he made up his mind to shoot films about the final stage of the war
and about Belorussia which he loves greatly. He makes films that, to my
mind, are the best films about partisans. Now two films are nearing completion:
'THE WAR UNDER THE ROOFS' and 'THE SONS GO TO WAR'. I did not act in these
films but I wrote songs for them. I have written all the songs for his
films ever since he invited me to act in the film 'I COME FROM MY CHILDHOOD'.
I played the part of the captain of a tank who burned in his tank, was
laid up in hospital for half a year and came home an invalid at the age
of thirty. It was at this time that I first wrote professional songs.
Then I had the Odessa period in my life. The films were 'THE VERTICAL
ROCK', 'THE SHORT ENCOUNTERS' and then there were two films from another
studio, not from Odessa, but they were shot in Odessa: 'THERE WERE TWO
SOLDIER-FRINDS' and 'THE INTERVENTION'. The latter has not been released
I lived in trains and hotels of Odessa for almost four years. In trains
I did live for at least half a year, anyway. Every night I had to travel
to and from Odessa (or Leningrad), therefore I could not fall asleep at
night for a long time. That is why many people think that I come from Odessa
and that I have written much about Odessa. In fact, I wrote little about
Odessa. I only wrote songs for my latest film 'THE DANGEROUS TOUR'. I just
lived long in Odessa, so people living in Odessa think that I am one of
them. Well, let them think so, if they like, I don't mind.
Many of you probably know the film 'THE VERTICAL ROCK'. I wrote the
songs for the film. I continue writing about mountains and intend to write
for a long time yet.
The film 'THE SHORT ENCOUNTERS' was made by Kira Muratova, producer
from Odessa. I wrote all sorts of fairy tales and songs for it. The role
I played there is one of my favourites. I played the part of a geologist.
Unfortunately, the film was not widely shown. It was my so called 'bearded'
period of life. Luckily, nobody recognised me after this film.
Then I acted in a film which reminded me of the good old days, and
namely the film 'THE MASTER OF THE TAIGA' where I played the part of a
negative character who was not quite honest, the team leader of timber
floaters. His name is Ivan Ryaboy. After that I acted in the films 'THERE
WERE TWO SOLDIER-FRIENDS' and 'THE INTERVENTION' where I played opposite
characters of the same age, with the same make-up, the same moustaches.
In one of the these two films I played the part of a White Guard officer
while in the other film I played revolutionary Brodsky who died in Odessa
in 1919. His prototype was Lastochkin, a well known underground revolutionary.
Both are risky men, very interesting characters who fight on the opposite
sides of the barricade and both are interesting; both die : one puts a
bullet through his head, the other is shot by a firing squad, but he is
calm for he has his faith, though without hysteria.
And finally, the film 'THE DANGEROUS TOUR' which I mentioned above.
It is based on the famous 'Litvinov Case' of 1910 when literature and weapons
were smuggled from abroad. I play Nikolay Bengalsky, a variety theatre
actor. The film was on the screens recently. There were many songs written
by me in the film. The song writer was not indicated in the credits...
Somehow it is believed that if people do not know that the author is me
then the songs are good and if they do know it, the songs are bad. So in
some films with my songs in them they don't mention the author. I think
it is a mistake which will be corrected. Things tend to get settled, after
all. It takes time though, unfortunately. But everything comes back to
normal in the end.
Now a few words about my songs. It is ten years now that I have been
writing songs for films and plays. I have written thirty songs already.
I not only write songs for our theatre but for other Moscow theatres as
Recently there was the first night in SOVREMENNIK THEATRE. The play
is called 'ONE'S OWN ISLAND'.
I mentioned the songs I write for films. The film songs are more popular
because the audience is bigger compared with the theatre. For instance,
after the film 'THE VERTICAL ROCK' I made many friends, true and reliable
ones (I had a chance to check it...), whom I sort of got in return for
How do I actually write songs? Well. I never talk about it, and it
is impossible to explain it or tell people about it. I do not belong to
what people call bards or minstrels or whatever. I heard the other day
one of those 'bards' tell people how he sat on a river bank, how water
lapped underfoot, and how he mused...
No, what I do is I sit down, and I have melody in mind, and I am in
the mood of writing. Sometimes a funny thing comes out, some times it is
a sad song and sometimes the it does not come off at all. There is no use
talking about it.
All in all I have written over two hundred songs. I don't even know
exactly how many. I never counted them. The subject-matter is heterogeneous,
like life itself. I have many songs about the war, though I never served
in the army.
Then there are 'mountain songs' and fairy tale songs or songs based
on fairy tales...
I have a good mind to write a big series of sports songs, a whole program
to embrace, if possible, all the sports. The first part, for instance,
embraces track-and-field athletics, the second part includes sports games.
But the cycle is not finished yet. The biggest part is taken up by humorous
songs. Generally, I have many funny comedy songs. But, as you understand,
it's not my wish just to laugh, pulling out my tongue. Humour will be humour,
but humorous songs, too, have some message behind them, right?
When I sing on stage I find myself in an inexplicable situation. I
look at the audience, and I see happy smiling faces, and suddenly I see
one sad gloomy face. And some magic force draws me to this face. And when
he, or she, gives the first smile it is a feast for me.
I have some lyrical songs and I regard my lyrical writings as is civic
I begin all my performances with war songs.