In an interview with ForUm, Ukrainian artist and principle director of the Kyiv city puppet theatre Serhiy Yefremov told about modern theatre life and routine.
- How did you decide to become a puppeteer? How did it start?
- It started with amateur performances. When I lived in Chernovtsy, I was a frequent visitor of the children's cinema, which had puppet theatre department. The woman responsible for the theatre noticed me and offered to participate. She took me in the puppet shop and I fell in love with glove puppets. I agreed to make shows and already in the sixth grade I organized my own theatre. I was studying in a boy's school, and male puppet theatre was the latest thing in the city. Our first show was "The Little Round Bun". Then we staged "A rooster and a fox" and won silver at the city Olympiad.
- Was your journey to the professional stage difficult?
- When I was at school I set a task to learn puppetry. I wrote a letter to Sergey Obraztsov in Moscow and asked him where I can learn this profession. There were no puppetry faculties in Soviet Union. Obraztsov wrote me back and said he was also a self-taught artist. He recommended entering a drama school. I did as he said. I graduated a cultural and educational school and worked in the Lviv drama theater for over a year. Then I finally decided to enter Kyiv theatre school to study staging but failed. It was a tragedy for me. Moreover, I was angry with the Kyiv school because the admissions office did not show much respect to puppets and puppeteers. It is interesting that now I teach in that school. Anyway, after Kyiv I went to Kharkiv and managed to enter Kharkiv theatre school. I warned the admission commission that if they had not let me do puppetry I would have withdrawn my documents. The commission appreciated my passion and I was accepted. I was allowed to do practical training in the Donetsk puppet theatre. I staged my pregraduation and graduation plays. The theatre liked my works and I was offered the post of director.
I worked in Donetsk for eight years, staging three plays annually. Then I decided to work independently and opened my own theatre in Khmelnitsky. It's been working for 40 years already. Then I was invited to Odessa, but worked there only for two years, as was offered to head the Kyiv academic puppet theatre. After three years the Kyiv authorities had an idea to open the second puppet theatre, as there were too many visitors and one theatre could not serve all comers. That was the beginning of the Kyiv municipal puppet theatre. Our theatre has been working for 30 years already and many actors, including me, have been working here since the opening. In my entire life I have staged about 170 plays.
- What are the particular characteristics of the work with puppets?
- A puppeteer must feel the puppet's soul to make it live a life on the stage. And to do so a puppet master must love the puppet and must know all of its capacities. Personally, I cannot live without puppets.
- Do you have favorite performances?
- Of course I do. My favorite play is "Russian salt" - a joint work with Moscow artist and theatre critic Irina Uvarova. This play has visited many international festivals in Poland, Germany, Austria. Another play we staged together is a monodrama for the actor of our Municipal theatre Charles Foerberg called "Everything will be OK". This is a play for adults speaking about the last night of Polish educator Janusz Korczak. Among children's plays I prefer "the Snow White". I also want to point out the play "Sunray", developed and staged by my late wife. WE now stage this performance in her memory.
- I know you have worked abroad. Is the work of puppeteers different there?
- In France, for example, all puppeteers are self-taught. We have the center of our puppet organization "UNIMA" there, and we teach the French this profession. Poland has its own schools of puppetry, but Polish puppet masters prefer such grotesque style, while Ukrainian puppet dramas are rather psychological.
In December, my friend invited me to America. American audience is good - naive and law-abiding. Interesting thing, they do not have cloakrooms in puppet theatres. People were sitting with coats in arms and watching the plays. In Europe, there are no puppet theatres at all. The only theatre of marionettes for adults is in the Mozart Museum in Salzburg. Puppets move to music - mostly opera, recorded in the Vienna Opera House. It is very boring, but considered a top class.
I remember an American woman, studying children's crafts, came to our Kyiv municipal theatre and started praising everything around. "I wish we had similar plays and performances for children! The only entertainment our children watch is violent cartoons! It is so sad we do not have all this!" I gave her my contacts and offered to invite our troupes for guest performances. But then she left and nothing happened.
- Does public always enjoy the puppet shows?
- I would say yes, especially children. Once I was in the Russian restaurant "Rasputin" in New York for a New Year children's matinee. All children were having fun.
- Do modern children differ from 'soviet' or 'perestroika' children?
- Modern children are more open and forward, in a good sense. They are not as tense as in soviet times and do not fear to show emotions.
- How's the life been treating municipal theatres?
- Country theatres live better than city theatres. They have regular grants and the state pays for communal services, while our municipal theatre has to pay rent and communal services from its own budget. Kyiv has many theatres and the state cannot finance them all. At the same time, we cannot charge people100 hryvnias per performance to compensate our expenses. 35 hryvnias is expensive enough, and people will simply stop coming if we increase prices.
- You said that in soviet times there were no schools, which could teach puppetry. How about now?
- Better. Two years ago, the Karpenko-Kary Institute opened the faculty of puppet theatre scene designers, by the example of Petersburg department.
- Do you have many young specialists coming to work in the theater?
- The Theatre Institute and Variety-Circus School train young generation for us every year. We do not have any problems with young specialists. Moreover, if someone comes now asking for a job, we do not have vacancies.
- What about theatre property and scenery?
- We have our own workshop, scene-painters and an engineer. The state culture department used to allocate money for materials, but we have not seen any grants for a long time. I must say it is difficult to cover expenses for communal services and scenery from the theatre budget. There was a time, when the financing was suddenly cut and I did not know what to do and what play to stage. Then I went to the warehouse and found some plywood, brown simulated fur and green fabrics. The decision was obvious - we staged "Funny bears".
-Where do you take new scripts? Does anybody write them for the theatre?
- Take for example, an "anti-fire" play "Adventures of a little tiger" by Sofia Prokofiyeva about a boy who left the iron on and went for a walk. The play was written back in 60s. We found all the theatres that were staging it and asked for a copy. Sometimes people send us their own scripts, but not often. Moreover, we usually reject them.
People write not knowing the specifics of the theatre - what a puppet can do and what it cannot. They do not take into account perception peculiarities of a child - what is entertaining and what is boring for a child. A puppet is a generalized creature. It cannot play 'a five-year-old boy' or 'a 45-year-old man' like some scriptwriters specify. There is a puppet-grandpa, a puppet-grandma, a puppet-boy, a puppet-girl.
But if there is something worthy, we work with the script. Famous writer Vsevolod Nestaiko, for example, has written for us a play "Sister fox and brother wolf".
- In soviet times, puppet theatres had such characters as the Boy Nipper Pipper to instill patriotism. Do you have similar characters now?
- No, there are no such characters nowadays.
- What is the most important for you in the work?
- To win audience's compassion. When we were staging "Stolen ball", children were so worried about the main character that they did not even make a sound. Only at the end of the play, when the bad guy was defeated, they started to laugh and applaud. Teachers always worry that children will make noise or chaos during the play, and our job is to involve them in the play and keep silence in the hall. Adults are the same. One woman wrote a feedback after watching the play "Everything will be OK". It said "I was crying" and then she explained why. It was very touching. We are writing a book about our theater and this comment will be included in it.
- For whom do you like working more - children or adults?
- In general, there is no difference, but I prefer to work for children and the major part of plays I have staged are for children.
- What does one need to become a good puppeteer?
- I believe that puppeteers are born rather than made, but of course, one can learn to be a good puppet master. A puppet master must put his soul in a puppet and make it alive on the stage. Dragging and speaking is not enough.
Anastasia Pika, photos by Maxim Trebukhov
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