‘To train an actor is to disappear. The trainer has to die in the actor. When directing an actor, the director has to be in the actor, absolutely, completely. The difficulty appears when we are looking for perfection, we need to find a balance between those two exclusive things; we need to do this in order to not die ourselves, to not kill the actor, murder him. It is an extremely fine and subtle art.’
‘Sever or eight lessons on theatre’
Born in 1942 in Rostov-on-Don. Director and teacher who shaped many of Russia’s rebellious artistic explorers, amongst them: Vladimir Berezin, Igor Jacko, Boris Juchananov, Vladimir Klimienko (Klim). At the centre of Vassiliev’s attention lie words which lose their common associations in a process of long-term rehearsals and intensive actor training. Vassiliev seeks to free the theatre from its legacy of psychological realism and is not interested in narration nor human behaviour.
Vassiliev studied chemistry at Rostov State University and later received a degree in directing from Moscow’s State Institute of Dramatic Art (GITIS). His directorial debut took place at the MChAT Theatre with A Solo for a Clock with Chimes (1973), performed by aged actors, students of Constantin Stanislavski. In 1987, he founded the School of Dramatic Art in Moscow. He led subsequent laboratory works with his students on the works of Dumas, Dostoyevsky, Plato, Pirandello, Pushkin and Moliere. He has developed many international, bilingual theatre projects. He has presented his performances throughout the world and directed in France, Hungary, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.
Vassiliev was invited to Poland on several occasions by the Centre for Study of Jerzy Grotowski’s Work and Cultural and Theatrical Research. In Poland thus far, he has presented Six Characters in Search of an Author, open rehearsals of Joseph and his Brothers, Amphitryon (also at the Contact festival in Torun), Don Juan or the Stone Guest and other poems, and, most recently (November 2006), Médée-Material, produced in collaboration with French actress Valérie Dréville (Festival of Theatre Festivals in Warsaw).
“The natural environment of Vassiliev’s theatre,” writes Katarzyna Osinska in Didaskalia (2007/78), “is the art of past with its various forms: nō theatre, Greek antiquity, Italian renaissance, baroque opera, and also surrealism and various notions of avant-garde. Vassiliev resembles one and a half eye archer from Benedikt Liwszyc’s book (dedicated to Russian futurism), only that he doesn’t turn his face back only at the East but at the whole past culture in general, not losing sight of contemporary art at the same time. In his artistic strategy, we can find not only many meeting points with the tradition of native avant-garde but most of all with Meyerhold. […] Meyerhold – in my opinion – inspired Vassiliev not only in actor’s practical or theatrical actions but also in repertoire choices. It cannot be a coincidence that a barely-known opera of Alexander Dargomyzhsky, The Stone Guest, which inspired the director to create the performance of Don Juan is Dead, was staged in 1916 at the Mariinsky Theatre in Petersburg by Meyerhold himself.”
Don Juan is Dead premiered in April 2006 and was acclaimed to be the peak of Vassiliev’s theatre by Russian critics.
The director left Russia after the Moscow government decided to reorganize his theatre, attempting to make it more financially effective by allocating one of the stages to theatre projects not affiliated with the School of Dramatic Art’s activities. At present Vassiliev is Dean of the Directing Department at Lyon Drama School in France.
Vassiliev was honored with the French Order of the Cavalier of Art and Literature in 1989 and the European Prize of New Theatrical Realities in 1990.
Source: Institute of Grotowski, Poland
Anatoli Vassiliev (b. 1942)
Those interested in acting theory and research frequently turn to Anatoli Vassiliev. After his university studies, this Russian artist entered the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Moscow; his vision of theatre was thus grounded in both science and art. As a student of Maria Knebel, a practitioner of the techniques of “active analysis,” Vassiliev was exposed to the principles of Stanislavski and such Russian works as Gorky’s Vasa Zelesnova and Slavkine’s The Hoop, which he directed in 1985 after a creative process that lasted three years. Performed in various theatres in Brussels, Rome and Budapest, this production garnered Vassiliev international acclaim. His next production was Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, which played at numerous festivals throughout the world. In the early 1990s, he began to direct a number of works abroad, among which was Molière’s Amphitryon (1994) in Paris. An educator who believes in traditional training techniques for actors, as much theoretical as practical, he favours an acting style that is inextricably linked with the text, which is rigorously analyzed beforehand. Vassiliev teaches in both Moscow and Lyon.
© Louise Oligny
Anatoli Vassiliev’s stage direction of Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello, Moscow Art Theatre School, 1989. Photo: Oleg Belkin.
By Anatoli Vassiliev:
Sept ou huit leçons de théâtre, P.O.L., Académie expérimentale des théâtres.
On Anatoli Vassiliev:
Anatoli Vassiliev, maître de stage, by Jeanne Pigeon, Valérie Dréville et al., Lansman.
« Enseigner la tradition » interview with Anatoli Vassiliev in Mise en scène et Jeu de l’acteur, Tome 1, de Josette Féral, Jeu / Lansman, 1997, p. 287-301.
Article by Maria Gaitanidi published in Venezia Musica, 2011
Avoir ou non un maître dans sa vie……
De nos jours le parcours d’un acteur peut toucher à des extrémités bien inattendues. Du caprice né de l’ignorance d’un futur incertain, à la formation régulière d’un Conservatoire, le chemin est sinueux, douloureux et sans perspective réelle.
J’ai commencé à jouer sur scène dans un brouillard d’où parfois je pouvais distinguer des morceaux de ciel bleu. La recherche de ce quelque chose d’innommable ne se définissait que par un chemin négatif. Quand on ne sait pas ce qu’on recherche véritablement il est difficile de nommer le bon et le mauvais dans les rencontres.
La formation classique reçue au Conservatoire de Bruxelles ne m’a pas dotée de la liberté nécessaire à l’approche de l’autre, seulement de l’intellectualité immesurée du théâtre. Fugitif à Londres, je découvris le théâtre collectif, l’expérimentation en groupe de l’acte créatif ; déjà commençait à souffler le vent du théâtre physique venu de l’Est. En Pologne, je me suis retrouvée pendant plus ou moins 3 ans sur les traces de Jerzy Grotowski en rencontrant et en travaillant avec divers groupes. Ma recherche était de nature double : qu’est-ce que je recherche dans l’acte théâtral ? Qui est-ce qui a trouvé quelque chose qui touche au-delà de l’artiste, à l’homme en tant qu’être ?
Au début j’avançais comme un aveugle, je n’avais aucune connaissance du corps, du chant qui pouvait affecter le corps, de l’improvisation physique qui devenait rituel et j’ai cherché plusieurs techniques d’entraînement physique. Très vite, en travaillant sur la tragédie Grecque, j’ai posé la question de l’usage de la parole en tant que texte d’un auteur. Les ‘héritiers’ Polonais de Grotowski ne semblaient pas intéressés au texte dur. Un tel manque se ressentit qu’aucun mouvement sublime ne pouvait combler. Où était le sens au-delà de l’émotion et de l’action ? C’est ainsi que mes pas m’ont porté à Epidaure auprès d’Anatoli Vassiliev et de sa ‘Médée’.
Homme inapprochable, mais seulement pour les inconnus, figure ascétique de prime abord, je n’ai su que penser de celui qui m’accepta près de lui pour environ 4 mois sans que nous n’échangions plus que quelques paroles. D’une force extrême, je l’ai vu naviguer parmi les mines du territoire Grec en renouvelant incessamment sa croyance en l’acteur et évidemment à sa propre vision théâtrale. Ce silence imposé ne fit que croître ma curiosité et détermination d’aller au-delà de l’inhabituel de la méthode, il y avait beaucoup plus qui était en offre. Je venais de trouver quelqu’un qui prônait encore au 21e siècle, comme d’un manifeste oublié, une éthique d’être de l’artiste.
Je voudrais parler de cette rencontre en termes de liberté. Anatoli Vassiliev n’exigea jamais une soumission aveuglée, il ne voulut être le maître de personne : c’est à l’individu de choisir de poursuivre une vie dédiée à l’art ou non. Il ne s’agit pas d’un cadeau, c’est un sacrifice, quasi monastique. Le plus étrange est que rien n’est demandé, comme si l’absolue liberté fait croître le désir d’appartenance. Il n’y a plus d’école à laquelle on peut s’inscrire sous la direction de Vassiliev, d’où un acharnement nécessaire pour le suivre de pays en pays, à n’importe quelle condition.
Cependant, ce n’est que presque 3 ans plus tard que j’ai finalement grandi dans cette rencontre, comme un adolescent sorti de l’âge pubère, qui arriva à regarder le maître comme un élève portant déjà la responsabilité de la continuation. Cela fut grâce au cours pour pédagogues du théâtre, organisé à Venise et dont la première phase vient de se terminer cette fin de Janvier 2011.
J’entrai le séminaire de Venise une actrice sans aucune perspective j’en suis sortie avec une mission, un éveil à la passion de la transmission de connaissance. A travers ce défi il ne s’agit pas de tester les compétences d’acteur mais de devenir un véritable être humain, prêt à prendre en main les futurs artistes. Générosité et tolérance furent les 2 premières leçons, le chemin est encore long…
Copyright @Maria Gaitanidi
Extracts from Anatoli Vassiliev’s Work
About Anatoli Vassiliev’s production Medea for the Festival of Ancient Greek Drama, Epidaurus, 2008 by Maria Gaitanidi
For two nights in Anatoli Vassiliev’s Arena
In January 2008, the Russian Director Anatoli Vassiliev, well-known for his radical re-reading of the Stanislavski method and who has developed his own pedagogical insights into actor’s training, whilst working with artists across Europe, was invited by the Municipal Theatre of Patras, in conjunction with the Festival of Athens and Epidaurus, to stage Euripides’ Medea.
Despite not getting much press coverage in the U.K, the Festival of Athens and Epidaurus (led by its Artistic Director, Giwrgos Loukos) runs between June and August annually and is famous for presenting a high standard international work; it is the only time of the year that the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus is open for performance and it hosts solely productions of Ancient Greek Drama.
7.000 spectators attended Anatoli Vassiliev’s production Medea by Euripides on Friday the 15 August 2008 and approx 9.000 on Saturday the 16 August 2008.
During the actors and musicians’ warm-up, with only a few hours to go before the performance was due to commence; ashes were falling on the stage from a fire spreading nearby the Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus. Some saw there a sign of bad luck and wondered whether the Russian ‘Master’ would cancel the premiere admitting finally that it was cursed.
This collaboration was announced as a major event for the Greek Theatre Community and more widely as a tour de force between Eastern and Mediterranean artistic visions and culture. Anatoli Vassiliev, from the Russian theatrical tradition, with a fully aesthetic vision, having researched the play’s myriad possibilities, but within a solid fence of discipline and ethics of work, entered the Greek scene as a bull. He had to stage an ancient Greek play, which would premiere in the Theatre of Epidaurus and with the participation of Greek actor only, mostly used to working from the themes encountered in Ancient Greek Drama and on how these are conveyed through the story and characters in order to bring the audience’s catharsis. Consequently, Greek audiences seem impermeable to theatrical vocabularies, which challenge their conception and belief in what is still considered nowadays a historical heritage and a fragment of the Greek identity .
Furthermore, for the theatre intellectuals, the excitement lay in the anticipation of AV’ understanding of the ancient text’s language and mode of speech delivery. Greeks had already come into contact a few years earlier with his version of Heiner Muller’s Medea Material presented at the Festival of Delphi. The announcement of a new literal translation of the text in order to respect fully the poetry and sound of the original, controlled very closely by the Director himself, had fired the imaginations even more.
On the 15th August 2008, Epidaurus was ready to receive the cream of the Greek society, intellectuals, politicians, members of financial trusts, people of theatre, regular theatre-goers or even people who consider their appearance in Epidaurus as qualification for the educated.
At 21.05 Aglaia Pappa, the actress playing the role of the Nurse entered the stage covered in red cork, and walked slowly around the red arena of Dionisis Fotopoulos. Then Euripides’ text exploded in a flow of unexpected intonations, broken silences, words, which were falling as light as ashes but as strong as drops. The song of a clarinet was heard and slowly a snake of male and female chorus entered the stage as drawn by the magic flute to assist Jason’s punishment. Dressed in black and white, representing the yin and the yang of West and East, women and men brought back the fashion of the lost lands of the Greek Minor Asia. Then after a long tearing amane (a song of mourning), Medea appeared, crying for her forgotten homeland, her lost family and her current fate.
From that moment, everything unravelled to an unavoidable sacrificial end. The bullfighting between Medea and Jason was given more symbolic ground with choreographies exploring the myths of Dionysus birth, the festive rituals of the Bacchae, the burning of Semele and even the construction by Medea’s own hands of the crown and the dress which would bring Jason’s downfall. The male chorus, clearly on Medea’s side, struck its instruments to the rhythm of rembetiko, a musical genre coming from the refugees of the eastern coasts and which survives till now in the Greek culture as the musical catalyst of every man’s tormented soul.
Anatoli Vassiliev had staged a Medea anchored in the ground of the ancient text: a festival of joy in a peasant kingdom is interrupted by a woman who, betrayed, decides to sacrifice herself and her children in order to be understood. The foreigner, the witch, the lover, the mother, provide the character with an unforgettable complexity seen in a new light in this arena, where everything was not solely about revenge but the transcendence of human passions. The Russian Director understood what Euripides had so unexpectedly done for his own times: Medea is not a monolithic character; there is no sacrilege because we are on a perspectivist field where our vision is fragmented into multiple interpretations of one single act. Euripides was well-known for his love of sophistic arguments and word-battles and Anatoli Vassiliev took his challenge and made it his own by multiplying the layers of the performance: Medea argues with the Chorus male and female, with herself and the three men who she has to surpass (Kreon, Aegeas and Jason), her discourse reaches towards the divine, beyond the authorities of the human. Anatoli Vassiliev argues with the text, Ancient Drama, the space and the spectator and he achieves a live argument, which gets an immediate response.
Two hours into the show, the upper rows of the amphitheatre started emptying dramatically. A heavy whisper was travelling across the steps every time the actors’ delivery was not handled with the skill of Lydia Koniordou (Medea) until the crucial moment came: Aglaia Pappa this time in the skin of the Messenger entered the stage and addressed the audience with a cold smile began to describe the murder of the Princess and the King of the City by Medea’s poisoned gifts. The frontal delivery of the poetic word, in Anatoli Vassiliev’s epic fragmentary style, outraged the members of the audience who were already in doubt. Half way through the Messenger’s speech, a woman form the chorus came forward and started delivering the same speech in French, the outcry from the steps rose unashamedly, 10 minutes later, a man from the orchestra descended and added the English version to the triad; the ground roared, individual more daring comments were heard and half of the auditorium seemed to be moving. Insults were thrown at the actors’ faces who despite the impromptu chorus carried on. Lydia Koniordou who had entered Medea’s house and was unseen by the audience, appeared on her doorstep and faced the crowd, the conventional relationship audience-stage was broken; instead, the arena had opened to include Epidaurus’ steps. Someone cried ‘shame on all of you’. When the Messenger episode ended, music took over and the spirits seemed to calm down until a second ‘sacrilege’ was committed in the Epidaurus’ name: Medea was driven on stage sat on a wheeled chariot, dragging the dead bodies of her children, Jason chasing her to recover his children and moaning their death; the actor was ridiculed verbally by a spectator. An argument started amongst the audience, some reacted to the inappropriateness of the comments and demanded respect, others continued to insult. Theatre became a living experience, theatre returned to its birthplace, theatre recovered its reason of being.
In the aftermath of the double performance in the ancient amphitheatre, Anatoli Vassiliev was accused of starting on the wrong foot: the use of Plato’s dialogues for the interpretation of Euripides’ text seemed an outrageous anachronism for the Greek intellectuals. However, they were ignorant of the reason Anatoli Vassiliev started his journey with those dialogues: he did not seek to understand Euripides’ text via Plato, the philosopher’s texts were read and analyzed in order to provide the actors with the tools of an acting technique which goes beyond the representational, the psychological realism or the dry naturalism on stage, Vassiliev’s actors had to seek a metaphysical aim and a new way to offer it to the audience.
In this brief report there is no space to go deeper into a method, which demands years of learning, I would like to clarify a few things about the verbal technique which seemed to outrage most of the Greeks.
I remember one burning remark given to the actors again and again whilst in rehearsal: to not treat the poetic language as the language we speak on the street. Greek actors defended themselves behind the learned rules of their education: to make Ancient Greek Drama more approachable one has to speak it as in every day life. Truthfully, we do not know how Ancient Greeks spoke their texts. We have indications, we can guess and assume but we do not have fixed knowledge and it would not be useful today to reconstruct the exact way they were speaking. To bring a tragedy close to the people is arguably the most current way in theatre. How do you approach this sort of text without being old fashioned, pedantic, overwhelmingly egocentric and unnecessarily visionary?
Vassiliev’s verbal technique, although not respecting exactly the way the language is written (this does not include pronunciation but intonation, accent and syntaxic order of the words), has found a unique way of introducing metaphysics and truth in the way of delivering poetic language. I understand the critics’ doubts to a certain extent: when not mastered fully, the verbal technique sounds artificial, rendering the text difficult to understand. In the performance of Medea, only Lydia Koniordou was able to achieve this combination of technique, individual actor’s essence and content and this was due to her tremendous experience and education with the old masters of Ancient Greek Drama that unfortunately Greece currently lacks.
Numerous times during the rehearsal period, Greek actors had to admit their lack of theatrical education and discipline; both sides had fixed ideas about how to approach what one considered as their heritage and the other as an amazing cultural and intellectual vestige buried in Contemporary Greece. The shock was considerable.
Between June and July 2008 the actors and musicians trained vocally and physically with Ilya Kozin, one of Anatoli Vassiliev’s best-trained actors from his Academy in Moscow. They were introduced to the so-called verbal training. Etudes on Medea’s text and verbal technique were combined in July together with choreographies learnt by the female chorus and folk Greek songs originally composed, performed by the male chorus.
Anatoli Vassiliev never sacrificed attention to detail despite the constraints of time and the nervousness of the actors, who did not feel ready to perform in front of thousands of spectators; hours were spent to go over highly technical scenes again and again. To the last moment things seemed to conspire against the result that the Russian director had envisioned: lighting and sound technicians were trying to impose their views and alter seriously the quality of the entire production; the musical composer was threatening to remove his music and forbid the musicians to play on the night if his requests about his work were not heard. These were only a few elements, which had charged the atmosphere the day before the premiere. Due to the nature of the Epidaurus amphitheatre, there was no possibility to rehearse during the day under the merciless August sun; rehearsals started around 6pm whilst the site was still open to tourists, and carried on into the early hours of the morning usually around 5am.
The Director’s comments to the press about the host country, the money spent on his demands, served to only feed the scandal for more than a month. We must also admit that the first reaction of a nation against foreign interpretation of its language and texts is to doubt. It took Greeks a good month to admit that Vassiliev’s Medea was actually a successful challenge
Maybe Greece is not ready yet for radical interpretations and a supposed violation of her sacred heritage but in my opinion this heritage is in danger of disappearing if left to suffocate under the weight of academic assumptions and endless textual analysis.
An experimental staging and a foreigner’s vision, which opened up so humbly to a thousand years old Euripides could only generate desire for more anarchy and that is what it did, the arena is now open.
Copyright @Maria Gaitanidi
Extracts from Medea in Epidaurus