Fairground Booth Update: Reprise

While I have been bound up with the film Vakhtangov and the Russian Theatre, I have not forgotten that the film is part of a series which is always in a state of evolution and development. The Fairground Booth part of the series is a perplexing and difficult project. The main problem is the style or approach that needs to be taken to realise this project. In some ways this is a question for a set designer or an artist but it is one which I myself have to solve first. The original idea was to use actors and or a mixture of puppetry and computer graphics with actors. There will be computer graphics in any case but the idea of using motion capture has been discussed and in many ways would be appropriate to this project. Motion capture would maybe be complicated or expensive so I am trying to find some simpler solutions to what are complex aesthetic questions.

In the end the play itself will dictate the form and content – its just a matter of waiting until the pieces fit into place as the thinking process and research and development continue. It may be that we will have to make one or two more films before this project becomes a reality. Another planned project in the Russian Theatre film series is Carnival in the Russian Theatre  and it is conceivable that I will complete this project before The Fairground Booth. This project will probably involve some locations in Venice as well as locations in Russia. Ideally I would like to use footage from The Fairground Booth to be available for Carnival in the Russian Theatre.

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Chekhov and the Dacha

A year on and back from Chekhov country. Completing the script for  “Vakhtangov and the Russian Theatre” which will be the next film  in the Russian Theatre Film Series – a series of films about Russian theatre of the early twentieth century. Its a long journey, taking me through the labyrinth of Russian literature and theatre, as I acquaint myself with the folding and enfolding depths of the Russian mind through its culture. Spending a long time at a dacha stimulated some thoughts on this unique Russian cultural phenomena.

To say Russia is a country going through immense changes is like saying people are human beings. Its obvious. However some things, while changing, remain constant like the tradition of the dacha in Russian life and culture. The dacha is a home in the Russian countryside, a retreat from the stifling city in summer. But it is much more than this. Chekhov used the dacha as a central motif  in many of his works. Even if it wasn’t in the foreground of a story or a play it was always there somewhere in the background of Russian provincial life.

Of course the dacha is different in modern Russia. A new class is moving into this hitherto hinterland of pre revolutionary bourgeois and what was known as the Russian intelligentsia and soviet egalitarianism in which a a piece of the countryside was theoretically within the reach of everybody. In the Soviet system political status was the measure of the luxury one could attain.  Now, it is money, with a side dish of political status, which rules more than anything else.

But what was the dacha for Chekhov in the context of theatre? Perhaps it is fanciful to consider something like the Shakespearean Arcadia or the forest of Arden in As you Like It where the norms of behaviour are turned up side down. Maybe this wasn’t Chekhov’s prototype but Chekhov did use the idea of a peaceful country setting, a place of harmony with nature, calm and meditative and turned this idea inside out.

At this time of the year, when in Russia everything seems to stop; work school, even the theatres close  for the season and Moscow empties of people, it seems like a time to to take stock. Like the characters in Chekhov’s plays the summer gathering of family,  friends and acquaintances at the dacha is like a timeless interlude for looking back and looking forward, a space where the hopes and desires and disappointments could be weighed up, contemplated and evaluated.

 The dacha is like an enclosed world where the drama of the outside world is shut out and forgotten and a sense of freedom from the activities of city life and its cares are forgotten. Here in the dacha the inner drama of peoples lives seemingly  buried deep in the human consciousness erupt in  restrained but epic proportions. Forgotten traumas are forced  to the surface
The people or characters of Chekhov’s country setting are nervous, undergoing turmoil in their lives  and their relationships. Family and friends gather after having not seen each other for a while. They meet again only to be reminded by each other of broken dreams and the unfulfilled promises of their own lives. The dacha, rather than a place of rest and meditation, becomes a cauldron of emotional conflicts, simmering away beneath the calm surface of the natural setting of the dacha. A poignant  disenchantment bordering  at times on indifference erupts into an agonising sense of loss and purposeless as the characters search for meaning to their existence.

This enclosed world, like another dimension, becomes the setting for a drama like no other. Away from Moscow in the gentle shade of the forest pines and white birch, the soft gloom of the dacha interior seems to mirror the opaque sub conscious world of the various characters.

 In this context of another dimension I am reminded  of another Russian artist, Tarkovsky. The Russian countryside plays an enormous part in Tarkovsky’s films. The opening part of Solaris comes to mind and also, strangely enough, Stalker.
The "Zone"
In Stalker the the main characters travel from the gruelling oppressive city to the countryside just like Chekhov’s characters. Here, Chekhov’s gloomy indifferent countryside has turned into a dystopian radioactive nightmare known as the “zone”  where the normal laws of existence are no longer applicable and as with Chekhov there is no immediate relief.
Relief can only be bought at a price, through suffering and confronting through suffering ones inner and moral failures and deficiencies. The landscape looks the same as it does in Chekhov’s world but  now is littered with the debris of an apocalyptic event.
The the motif of the Shakespearian Arcadia (if it exists at all in Chekhov’s plays) and its light hearted fantasy is also akin to a zone, another dimension where the normal laws of life have been suspended. In the film  Stalker, this “zone” has given way to the life and death struggle of the soul in a hostile environment.

I only use the image of Shakespeare’s Arcadia as a theatrical device to draw attention to a feature of Chekhov’s work and the role of the dacha which I link (perhaps spuriously)to an Arcadian space or psychological zone in which characters confront the true nature of themselves as human beings. Chekhov’s characters are also engaged in a life and death struggle like those in Stalker but the life and death struggle is with themselves.

A thematic line can be drawn from Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard which hints at the negative aspects of progress and its negative effects on the psyche or souls of human beings, through to Tarkovsky’s Stalker where a new cycle has begun and human beings battle literally with a toxic environment which requires them to confront their own  moral decay in order to find inner salvation or at least an understanding of what inner salvation might consist. The Cherry Orchard is still recognisable as such but its sale and demise points to a new era where nature and humans will have a more ambiguous relationship to each other. Because our lives are intimately bound up with the natural world any change in its character will have an impact on us. Tarkovsky takes up this theme in a  specifically Russian context.

Chekhov changed the course of Russian theatre and theatre in general and yet out here in Chekhov country one can glimpse and experience that world before the revolution and before the industrial and technological dream of a modern world.

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Prospero and the Anti author in “The Fairground Booth”

What is the connection between the Tempest and Alexander Blok’s and Meyerhold’s The Fairground Booth? At first there is no apparent connection although it is believed that Blok used the Tempest as an inspiration or foundation for many of the ideas in The Fairground Booth. One thought is the notion of authorship. The Fairground Booth is in many ways anti author.

The author in the traditional sense of this notion and therefore by definition the text was considered an obstruction to theatrical development and freedom. Theatre was thought to be enslaved by the word and literature. Theatre directors like Meyerhold and writers such as Blok attempted to break free from this tyranny

In the Tempest, Prospero is the author of the adventures and happenings on the enchanted island. he controls the fates of almost everybody in the play and in particular Caliban and  Ariel who are only released after serving Prospero’s whims and manipulations of reality. Prospero, as author, is a kind of extension of the theatrical author or playwright.

In the Fairground Booth, the author appears in his own play but only to lament the fact that what we are seeing has no bearing on reality and certainly is far removed from the intentions of the author. This inversion of the role of the author and degrading of the authors place in theatre is a constant theme of early twentieth century Russian Theatre.

This theme and others will be pursued through The Russian Theatre Film Series by Copernicus Films

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Some reflections on the film “Stanislavsky and the Russian Theatre”

As I  make my way through the pre production phase of Vakhtangov and the Russian Theatre I have been reflecting on on the film Stanislavsky and the Russian Theatre. This next film about Vakhtangov will pick up from where “Stanislavsky and the Russian Theatre” left off with a quote from Stanislavsky’s book “My Life in Art“.

“How does an actor act? … How can the actor learn to inspire themselves? What can they do to impel themselves toward that necessary yet maddeningly elusive creative mood?……..”

These were the simple, awesome riddles Stanislavsky dedicated his life to exploring.

“……..Where and how to ‘seek those roads into the secret sources of inspiration must serve as the fundamental life problem of every true actor’ … If the ability to receive the creative mood in its full measure is given to the genius by 
nature”, Stanislavski wondered,  “then perhaps ordinary people may reach a like state after a great deal of hard work”

“Vakhtangov and the Russian Theatre” will go into this same question but from another point of view which will shed light not just on Vakhtangov’s work but also on Stanislavsky’s thoughts and ideas as well.

When I started work on the film “Stanislavsky and the Russian Theatre”, one of the difficulties I found  is the common approach to Stanislavsky which is mainly  from an actor’s point of view, from the point of view of technique and pedagogical considerations. In other words Stanislavsky as textbook – a canon of knowledge from which each generation of actors can learn their trade. That is why I wanted to make a film about Stanislavsky in a particular time and place, a context, namely Russia, more or less at the turn of the century and in the early  part of the twentieth century. With this context Stanislavsky  makes much more sense.

Self evidently Stanislavsky’s book,  “An Actor Prepares“, was written in a pedagogical vein and was, to some extent, Stanislavsky’s intention. However I thought in terms of a film it was important nonetheless to look at this body of knowledge in relation to Stanislavsky’s relationship with his students and contemporaries and the environment in which he found himself.

Therefore,  it  was decided  to avoid a strict pedagogical approach and concentrate on a historical/philosophical exploration of Stanislavsky’s work. One reason for this is that Stanislavsky’s work is not just a set of techniques for achieving specific acting tasks. Stanislavsky’s world represents a whole world view or philosophical and moral outlook which influenced Stanislavsky’s approach to his art. Without understanding that world or universe its not easy to follow the techniques or “system”

In my conversations with  those interested in Stanislavsky’s influence on acting, he is considered by some to be on the one hand the authority in acting technique while others on the other try and say that he is irrelevant in a contemporary world and has been superseded by other practitioners, like Vakhtangov, Mikhail Chekhov, Meyerhold (see also Meyerhold Theatre and the Russian avant-garde) during his own time and later by the Grotowski, Artaud, Brook, Becket et al who have taken theatre and acting into a contemporary world. Perhaps this is the wrong way of approaching things, that is, trying prove or disprove Stanislavsky’s relevance in the context of techniques in the way that say Newton was superseded by Einstein and in turn Einsteins theories are now being questioned with the discoveries of quantum mechanics.

In the film Stanislavsky and the Russian Avant-garde what interested me was not Stanislavsky’s techniques themselves so much as the context in which these techniques came into to being. To borrow   a term from Kuhn and continue the scientific analogy, Stanislavsky was the first to challenge an old acting paradigm  and try and create a new truthful acting. His experiments were based on his deep humanistic beliefs of universal qualities which he maintained were inherent in each human being. These humanistic beliefs were in turn being challenged by the events taking place in culture and society.

His work took place against a backdrop of enormous and fundamental social economic and industrial change which impacted on the development of his ideas. Some of Stanislavsky’s students, Meyerhold and Vakhtangov in particular began to develop their own ideas and move away from the straightforward  realistic character of Stanislavsky’s theories. In addition  a crisis in culture accompanied the social and political changes during the early part of the 20th century together with the growth of mass society, making the understanding of reality as a fixed and permanent entity,  unsustainable. Artists from all disciplines began to challenge accepted notions of reality through their work, experimenting and subverting the accepted canons and traditions. In the Russian theatre, Meyerhold developed an acting theory based on body movement and dance, Vakhtangov developed an acting technique called fantastic realism which brought an imaginative thrust to Russian theatre of the time.

Even though Stanislavsky struggled with the  questions and problems of his time we can still say that Stanislavsky was the source of change in the theatre in what would be called the modern era, the catalyst for challenging the accepted theatrical norms. However Stanislavsky still had one foot in the previous epoch of the nineteenth century of which he was very much a product. The challenges of the twentieth century stimulated and sometimes confounded Stanislavsky. In this he was helped by Anton Chekhov who changed the way theatre was perceived. We don’t see now how much of a break with the past Chekhov was, how revolutionary his style and approach despite also being deeply embedded in the traditions of Russian literature which had come before. Chekhov however was different from what went before, and the break with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy was evident. The religious overtones of these authors was absent in Chekhov. His plays were modern, contemporary. Anatoly Smeliansky talks about this in the film in some detail and the full interview can be seen here. Chekhov for Stanislavsky became the counterpoint for a new type of theatre and acting.

For me what is important in Stanislavsky’s work is not so much a concern with the techniques and theories (although obviously I believe these are of huge importance, the very substance of  Stanislavsky and his time) but an interest of what Stanislavsky believed an actor was capable; morally , spiritually, psychologically and physically in their art. In other words  an actors potential,  what extraordinary insights and to what great heights an actor could aspire  in their art, this is one of  Stanislavsky’s great contributions to theatre. Added to this was his colossal attempts to put the tools to achieve such goals into the hands of every actor who might wish to  take up the task outlined by Stanislavsky.

Stanislavsky’s focus is the individual, the human individual and moreover the actor as an individual. This  is clearly demonstrated in Bulgakovs relationship with Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theatre. Smeliansky’s Book, “Is Comrade Bulgakov Dead“? is an analysis of Bulgakov’s relationship to Stanislavsky and The Moscow Art Theatre. A novel which Bulgakov wrote called  A Theatrical Novel or Notes of a Dead Man (In English Publications Black Snow) is a thinly disguised satirical portrait of Stanislavsky and the politics of MXAT. It is reported that Bulgakov wrote the novel about his experiences at the Moscow Art theatre in revenge for Stanislavsky rejecting his plans for the theatrical production of Dead Souls and his subsequent treatment of Bulgakov. In point of fact despite the biting satirical quality of the novel Bulgakov is in many ways not entirely unsympathetic and his respect for the theatre is evident throughout.

Bulgakov spent  several years and much energy on a production of Gogol’s novel “Dead Souls” which was to be put on at the Moscow Art Theatre. Bulgakov was nominally in charge of the production and had a certain amount of freedom over its creative direction. However Stanislavsky eventually took over the production and rejected many if not all of Bulgakovs innovations. The story of this episode is  relevant to the issue. What was left was an entirely different production in which sets and other theatrical  and scenic considerations took second place to the vision that Stanislavsky had for the play. The actors performances were paramount. Stanislavsky, commenting on the production considered that the vastness of the sweeping steppe for instance should be conveyed by the light in the eyes of the actors and their emotional response to each other. This observation is a testament to what Stanislavsky believed possible of  his actors and he worked hard to get it. He believed they could carry, with the strength of their emotions and performance  such giant and intangible universal concepts as the sweeping metaphors of Gogol’s text and express them unaided largely by any stage pyrotechnics or theatrical tricks.

In conclusion its worth quoting from a dissertation which I found on the internet. The author (no name is given but here is the link )unearthed this quote from Gogol who offers advice to directors and actors contemplating putting on his play “The Inspector General”

“Before trying to copy all the small peculiarities of his hero, an intelligent actor should try to catch something universal in his character, should understand what his role is called for, should know the principal and prior concerns of the person he presents on the stage, must find out the permanent subject of the thoughts that appear in the hero’s mind. Having caught the main concern of the character, the actor should fill his own soul with this concern, so that the thoughts and aspirations of the hero became the actor’s own ones and were sitting in his mind during the whole performance”.

Certainly, it’s possible to argue with Gogol: the history of Russian and world theatre knows diametrically opposite approaches. But we’re talking about Stanislavsky and the roots of his system and ideas about acting so it’s worth reflecting that Gogol outlined some of  the corner stones of Stanislavsky’s system and gives a preliminary answer to Stanislavsky’s question which is posed at the beginning “how does an actor act…… “

Vakhtangov went further and deeper in an attempt to find his own answers in the context of Russian theatre and the film “Vakhtangov and the Russian Theatre” will explore these themes further through encounters with Vakhtangov’s theories of acting and theatre and the productions he brought to the stage.


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Russian Theatre Film Series update

VakhtangovAn update on the Russian Theatre Film Series. I have been constantly working on the Vakhtangov script and the production as a priority but the series itself is evolving simultaneously so its worth making a few comments about that process. The Fairground Booth by Blok is beginning to take shape as well through my researches with Vakhtangov material and while Vakhtangov remains to the fore so to speak, its a positive development that this particular part of the series is moving along as well. One thing I am not certain about is the title. I may change it to The Puppet Show or A Puppet Show although I like The Fairground Booth as well. This is in the light of the various translations of the title – Balaganchik which doesn’t easily translate into English.I am also working on a series of articles and written material which will broaden the scope of the series and explain some of the main themes.

The main thing that has resulted from this process is that the project is beginning to emerge as a significant and integrated project with a wide range of elements and facets which will relate to Russian Theatre of the period and in fact Russian culture itself around what is know as the Silver Age in Russian Art which took place at the beginning of the twentieth century.

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