András Kozma asked the Russian director Valerij Fokin about the Theater Olympia.
– For the average spectator, the concept of Olympics is mostly associated with competition and sports.To what extent is the spirit of Theatre Olympics related to those or ancient Greek tradition, especially that the Theatre Olympics also started in Greece, on the initiative of stage director Theodoros Terzopoulos?
– Indeed, this event is related to the Olympic movement in the sense that it also started in Greece and the first international Theatre Olympics were organized in Delphi on the initiative of Theodoros Terzopoulos and Tadashi Suzuki, later joined by Heiner Müller, Bob Wilson and other well-known theatre practitioners. Delphi is one of the cradles of Greek culture and ancient Greek theatre, so the first Theatre Olympics hosted there had symbolic significance, too, since they took place on the site of the ancient Olympic stadium.It is a huge open space and an overwhelmingly beautiful place; and my performance was also guest on that open-air stage. Thus, after some 100 years after the beginning of the modern Olympic movement, the idea of a theatre Olympics was born, and after serious preparation, this special festival of theatre arts came to be realised in 1995. However, unlike at the Olympic Games in sport, there are no prizes or medals awarded and there is no competition. I think this is right, since art cannot be measured by objective gauges like performance sports, but that is not the goal either. To me, theatre is the field of dialogue between various cultures, so the basic idea of Theatre Olympics is to create a meeting of theatres not competing with each other, but representing diversity. After all, theatre is an area of diverse preferences, which does not exclude the possibility of mutual understanding or at least dialogue.
– We know many famous theatre festivals in Europe with a tradition of decades like the Avignon festival, the “Fringe” in Edinburgh, but I could also mention the BITEF in Belgrade. Over the years, each festival has created its own image. How would you define the concept of Theatre Olympics? What principles, aspects and organizing activities is the festival programme based on?
– The concept of the Theatre Olympics is complex, but it follows a philosophy which is obvious to me. The most important aspect is to be able to offer a broad spectrum of the “output” of world theatre, from traditional performances to the most experimental productions, that is we are trying to present the widest possible range of current theatre trends to the audience. Of course, this means that we do not put together the programme based on a uniform and clearly delimited aesthetical aspect, on the contrary, we are “omnivores” in a certain sense. But at the selection, we consider originality and outstanding professional level as by all means decisive. We are explicitly interested in productions where cultural interaction is seen in the performance itself: such are this year for example Macbeth coming from India, or the fully unique experimental production by Rimini Protocol, playing synchronously on various locations of the city, with the inhabitants getting involved in the performance. At the same time, the traditional production by the Piccolo Teatro di Milano, or other classical, famous theatres have their place, too, as long as they can generate a strong effect on the audience through their intellectuality and theatricality. A director may belong to either the younger or the elder generation, if they are capable of creating a “living” theatre, we will find them interesting. I could also say that we are following the path of “total theatrical diversity”. All the more so, as the Theatre Olympics feature not only stage productions but numerous pedagogical, scientific and educational programmes as well.
We also hold meetings, master classes and trainings. We organize a vast number of accompanying programmes serving deeper professional cooperation and understanding. I consider intense professional dialogue most important, since it is often missing from festival programmes. I have felt its benefit especially now in Vladivostok, where both Theodoros Terzopoulos and Tadashi Suzuki held a master class and an actor training, respectively. What a special geographic situation: Vladivostok is only one hour away from Japan by plane, but eight hours away from Moscow, and yet it had only been the first time that Suzuki visited this Far Eastern Russian city. It seems peripherical from a geographic point of view; nevertheless, local artistic intellectuals, students, and also the wide audience, had been looking forward to this meeting with huge expectations, as if literally “thirsty” for this cultural dialogue. I have to confess that during the organization and preparations I was a bit afraid that the Olympics this year would be too ramified and too “proliferating”. Of course, putting together the festival programme is the result of a long process, during which we take into consideration the suggestions and recommendations of the art directors of the Theatre Olympics. Each Olympics has its own artistic expert team, led by the art director of the specific event. The art director of the festival in Delphi was Theodoros Terzopoulos, in Japan it was Tadashi Suzuki and at the 2001 festival in Moscow the preparations were led by Yuri Lyubimov. I am the art director of the Olympics this year, but – of course – I rely strongly on the work of my team. Nevertheless, organization and logistics are extremely demanding and time-consuming tasks and first I was afraid that it would be very hard to cover such a vast territory from St. Petersburg over Siberia to Vladivostok, but now I can safely say that all our efforts have been worth it, since the result is proving us right. Due to the fact that we geographically extended the locations of the Theatre Olympics so much, it reached a vast number of people and visitors who had perhaps experienced the magic of theatre for the first time. For example, I was stunned to see that in Yalta or Sevastopol spectators were sitting on the beach on pillows or armchairs, wrapped up in blankets, in front of huge screens, watching The Government Inspector in my direction or other productions, and they were laughing, reacting to what they saw, as if they had been watching a movie.
I would not have believed that this event would move such a large audience. But I am convinced that the more people we are able to attract into the theatres, the closer we can bring the divergent groups of society to each other. One of my favorite examples is what recently happened in Magadan. A Spanish theatre ensemble from Barcelona came to Magadan – this event itself reminds one of Hašek´s absurd world, since it is almost unbelievable. But even more stunning is that the luggage of the ensemble gut stuck at the Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow, so their stage set and their props did not arrive in time. Obviously, the Spanish ensemble got quite depressed and so did the residents of the city, who almost even rioted. They forced the officialities to take action in order to solve the problem, to make phone calls and write to Moscow… since “our Spanish friends have come to us”. Nonetheless, the first performance was cancelled since the stage set and props had not arrived, but a spontaneous meet-theartist session was held instead. Not one person wanted to have their ticket refunded. Everybody came to this meeting to listen to the Spanish actors who ended up talking enthusiastically about themselves, their show, their theatre, and eventually it was a very successful event with a personal note and a very pleasant atmosphere. This proves also that spectators want genuine human encounters and that it can happen under any circumstances if there is a will and openness. The Spanish ensemble was very impressed by the reception, but we were also surprised seeing the emotional heat of the audience. Luckily, the next day they were able to perform the show.
The guest play of the Finnish National Theatre on the Sachalin islands was a similarly important event on the island never visited before by a foreign ensemble. The fact that we were able to make this Theatre Olympics such an important international event, especially within the framework of the Year of Theatre, made many people interested in theatre. However, I would like to emphasize that the intense and extremely inspiring encounter with the representatives of theatre arts was equally important to us. It is completely different to watch a show or listen to a discussion with a grand master on the Internet, or to meet them live, look them in their eyes, really experience their art and exchange information personally.
– In the history of Theatre Olympics since 1995 it has never occurred before that the festival is organized simultaneously in two different countries. Why did you choose the “parallel organization”?
– There is no special concept behind that; the reason is rather practical. Before the decision was made that St. Petersburg would host the Olympics in 2019, Tadashi Suzuki indicated his intention, too. Based on that we felt that the festival this year might become even more special if the programme was conducted in parallel in two countries, since this never happened until now. According to the principle of reciprocity, we had guest appearances in their place and they had guest appearances in Russia; and there were some theatre professionals like Robert Wilson who appeared in both countries, especially since the slogan of the Theatre Olympics this year is “Building bridges”.
We live in an era where people and countries are opposed sharply by political, economical and social events. I am convinced that one of the most important tasks and opportunities of arts and the theatre within is to create the “bridges of understanding” at the level of people and nations that give us opportunities to maintain the dialogue even in the hardest times. In this sense, this harmonizes with the idea of ancient Olympics since it is well known that during the Olympic Games wars were officially suspended by the enemies. Only because Olympics had a special, sacral importance. Similarly, culture and theatre are capable of making peace even between the fiercest enemies. Basically, we are all sensitive human beings with feelings, beings with a heart and soul, even if our heads are filled with all sorts of dreadful and blurred thoughts and ideologies. And theatre is able to trigger direct emotional effects, find its way to our hearts and is perhaps the only channel that can keep us together. It can be narrower or wider, but it still exists! So, I think that theatre is the only chance we have. Unfortunately, we cannot count on getting to the insight by all kinds of diplomatic manoeuvres or some enlightening of the human mind that it is over and we cannot carry on like this. However, culture still gives some reason to hope that even if we are far from each other, we still understand and feel each other on some level.
– The play called Rocco and His Brothers, directed by Attila Vidnyánszky, in the programme of the Theatre Olympics this year tells the story of a family moving from the country to the city; a rootless family facing a completely different culture, mentality and way of life. On the other hand, in the performance the manifests of the artists and thinkers of the 20th century appear expressing their rather radical relationship to human existence. What do you think of European civilization from the point of view of 21st century arts?
– In my opinion, European civilization is currently in a state of degradation, especially concerning its fundamental values. It may even be unaware that it is actually burying the extraordinary rich aesthetical, historical and emotional heritage it has accumulated. While we Russians, even Dostoevsky, used to say in the 19th century that we have to strive towards the West, because – despite all our criticism – Europe is still Europe and we have to learn and take an example from it, now I could not say that any more. Of course, one may argue that there are interesting theatres, exciting performances and good movies there, and it is a fact. But I feel Europe is degrading on the whole because it is voluntarily giving up everything it has accomplished through hundreds and thousands of years. Moreover, it is doing so without being aware that it is forcing on itself a completely new way of life, new moral rules, new communication forms, and, in the same breath, basically eliminating everything it created. So I am quite pessimistic in this respect. Furthermore, this phenomenon does not only concern Europe, since there are many people in our country as well who like this attitude, agree with this mentality, and are going down this road for various reasons. I think this is bad because denying the foundation our culture is built on is very dangerous. This is the wrong way, similar to cutting off our arms, first one, then the other one, and in the meantime living with the conviction that both are still there. This is a delusional disorder, when someone pathologically believes that something exists when it, in fact, no longer does. Nowadays, this is a very widespread phenomenon, especially in the thinking of today’s politicians, which practically means a complete separation from reality. So I have the feeling that now the West is in a state of delusion, in a very active way. Of course, do not get me wrong, I do not believe either in wearing peasant´s sandals or an old garment. There is much delusion in our country as well, and the main delusion here is the conviction that the possession of nuclear weapons creates some kind of balance.
– Based on the manifestos in Rocco and His Brothers it is edifying to observe that the avantgarde programmatic text from the first half of the 20th century expresses the absolute conviction that art is able to influence reality, while latter manifestos rather suggest the resignation that the world cannot be changed by art. What can we say in the 21st century about art and theatre: is it really able to influence reality or is this also just a “delusion”?
– It can influence people, and the world is made of people. But how many people… well, I think that only few. At the same time, it can give real experience, at least when we are speaking of outstanding works of art, like for example the new movie of Lars von Trier (The House That Jack Built). However, I generally don’t think that a performance or a movie would change the life of masses. It might be possible in the case of one, two, maybe ten persons, but this has always been like this. Although in some historical situations it is imaginable that theatre sets something off, motivating people to make sacrifices and stand up for something. I remember for example when I was directing The Government Inspector by Gogol in 1980 in Łódz, I suddenly noticed at the final rehearsal, attended mostly by college students, a burst of applause and reactions you would not expect related to The Government Inspector. But actually, this audience had already been in a state that any pretext would have been enough to start a rebellion. Since I did not at all understand the reaction of the audience, somebody told me that “this is a political performance, isn’t it?” And I did not understand where he had got the idea or where politics was in the piece. Of course, this was a satire, but I would never have thought of considering it as some kind of political manifesto. A few months after I left, the rebellion broke out and Solidarność (Solidarity) was founded. Thus, the situation had been ripe well before; you just had to throw a match among them to start the fire. So in such situations, theatre may become a specific stage for change and provoke serious processes. We had a similar experience during Perestroika in 1985 when the renewal of theatre harmonized with the political situation. So, theatre cannot make a change – but it can make contact.
– In 2001 the location of the Theatre Olympics was Moscow, why St. Petersburg now? Is there any competition involved in this?
– Although since the founding of St. Petersburg there always has been some kind of cultural rivalry with Moscow, in this case it is not about that. The 2001 Theatre Olympics in Moscow was an all-inclusive Gesamtkunst event, but its venues were limited to one city only. For the first time in the history of the Theatre Olympics, a country has repeatedly been given the opportunity to host it, so it was only natural that the organization of the programme would be related to St. Petersburg in the framework of the Russian Theatre Year of 2019. But the festival now does not include only St. Petersburg but other Russian cities as well, especially in the far east region, like Magadan.
– What does such an event mean to a city and a country? How can the “benefits” be felt?
– Like any event of international significance, the Theatre Olympics can also set in motion the creative energies of a city or even a country. Of course, this can have direct economic benefits, too, like an increase in tourism, but I think that the long-term cultural-social impact of such an event is more important. The fact that a country or a city becomes an eminent location of the world’s cultural life for a while, may mean a serious inspiration for cultural life, especially for the younger generation. And it is especially thrilling that this year we have included farther regions of Russia to host the Olympics, which has invigorated the intellectual and cultural life there, too.
– Until now, only large countries have hosted the Olympics. Hungary expressed its intention for 2023, too. You are a member of the organizing committee of the Olympics: do you support this idea? Is it not biting off more than a not too large country can chew?
– We have had first-hand experience this year in that organizing and carrying out such a large event is an extremely challenging task both from an economic and a logistic point of view. Obviously, it is not a coincidence that mostly large countries and cities with serious infrastructure have hosted it until now. However, I think that this is not the main criterion, since neither Delphi nor the venue of the 2016 Olympics, Wrocław, are large cities, like the theatre centre built by Tadashi Suzuki on Toga. I consider the cultural traditions of a country or a city and the dynamism of their theatre life much more important. From this point of view, Hungary and Budapest may be a suitable venue, since there I feel the artistic and creative energies essential in organizing the Theatre Olympics.