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Teatr rasskaza (The Theatre of Storytelling) and Nicholas Sergeyevich Govorov

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When I moved to Manhattan, Kansas in 1999 to begin teaching playwriting and drama therapy at Kansas State University, I met Ariadna Martin, the Russian wife of the Executive Director of McCain Auditorium, at a university reception. She told me she had been an actress in her native land before moving to the U.S. I asked if she had ever heard of Nicholai Evreinov or Vladimir Iljine, two Russian directors in the early years of the 20th century who Phil Jones had identified in his book Drama as Therapy, Theatre as Living as early Russian drama therapists. She knew of Evreinov and was impressed that I had heard of him. After I told her more about drama therapy, she began to tell me about Nikolai Govorov, a director with whom she had worked. As she described his work with “common people,” I realized that he was also doing drama therapy. On June 2, 2004 Ariadna agreed to let me interview her so that I could preserve her impressions of Govorov’s work. What follows is an edited version of the interview.

A few notes before we begin:

The Russian word rasskaz means both the genre short story and also the process of storytelling.

When they were performing, Govorov always encouraged his performers to call the character they performed “I.”

 

 

Teatr rasskaza (The Theatre of Storytelling) and Nicholas Sergeyevich Govorov:

An Interview with Ariadna Martin

 

ARIADNA: I met and worked with Nikolai Sergeyevich Govorov actually twice in my life. The first time was sometime in 1956. At that time I was with him and his group about half a year. Later I had to leave the city and when I came back, he was somewhere else. It was 18 years before I met him again in the fall of 1974, just unexpectedly, in the hall of the Herzen Pedagogical Institute, where he was supposed to give a lecture that evening. I asked him what he was doing then, and he invited me to that lecture and said that he had a new group and was involved in an innovative workshop and that I was welcome to come. So, actually, there were two periods of his work. Different, but, of course, he was always trying to find something new to enrich the technique of his work.

When I met Nikolai Sergeyevich for the first time, he came to the University, where I was a student. Already he was working with a group of amateur performers from different walks of life, you know, people from factories, technical institutes, and so on. He came to the University to enlarge his group, specifically to recruit students of the humanities. He tried to persuade us that he was doing something very interesting. The name of his group was Teatr rasskaza (The Theatre of Storytelling).

Of course, there are many, many short stories in literature and they mostly are written in the form of monologue. An artist or storyteller can stand on the stage in front of an audience pretending that he is the main character of that story, talking about himself. This was the practice of most of the theatres. Often such an actor chooses someone in the audience as his main listener and addresses him. Sometimes this makes the chosen person feel uncomfortable, sometimes quite happy.

Nikolai Sergeyevich’s idea was that the absence of a real social relationship, contact with the person listening to the performer, the isolation of the performer – who only pretends to have that relationship – led many artists to mental illness. You need to tell your story to somebody and you need his or her reaction, which means you need a reason for telling your story; it should be motivated somehow. That’s how you are all involved while you’re telling it: how your story makes sense to you and your listeners. So the listeners were allowed to respond, to say something to the actor, to express themselves.

 

SALLY: How did Nikolai Sergeyevich set up the performance? If he had the storytellers on stage and the listeners all in the audience, then he would have had the old convention of the actor telling the story to nobody.

 

ARIADNA: He put the storyteller in a situation similar to regular theatre, where there could be at least one listener, or more. There was a table or sofa, or whatever, suited to the situation. Some stories included the situation where the storytelling begins. But many did not.

My role in the group at first was, not as much to perform, as to find stories in the literature which had the needed situation. We called it predlagayemye obstoyatel’stva or suggested circumstances. If there was no specific situation in which the story was told, I had to invent a situation for the telling so the storytelling was motivated. I would also make some lines for the listeners to respond to. Nikolai Sergeyevich encouraged improvisation – when the listeners could say something that I didn’t write for them in order to react as in real life – so there was a life-like interaction between the storyteller and his listener(s).

One story I myself presented later on was Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady’s Story” or “Madame N.N.” I put the storyteller, played by me, and my niece, a character I invented, on stage and I told my niece my story. I was a spinster. My niece came from the country to the city to visit me. We were sitting near the fireplace and I looked at her and said, “You look somewhat different. What’s this?” She was sad and told me that she had fallen in love with someone, but her parents were against it because he was not of her class. As we continued talking she asked me, “But where is your husband? Did he die? Or is he somewhere else?” And then I told her my story. To finish the story I invented a maid. After I rang my bell, she came in and said, “The samovar is ready. Shall I serve tea now?”

 

SALLY: So you became one of the characters in the story, telling the story?

 

ARIADNA: Yes. There were different “suggested situations.” In some books the storyteller was the author or narrator; sometimes he was one of the characters. One example, the storyteller is on the train and goes into his compartment. He begins a conversation with his neighbor and then his story comes out. So it looks realistic, psychologically justified.

I don’t know when and where he started Teatr rasskaza, but at the time I met him in 1956 he belonged to a so-called Palace of Culture – in Leningrad there were many Houses of Culture and four Palaces. At one of the Palaces we’d get together twice a week in the evenings. He knew how to keep strict discipline. You were not supposed to miss a session without a serious reason. You could not be a smoker. He got the room there for rehearsals and conversations. He did not call them lectures, but he told and taught us a lot about the history and the theory of the theatre, including curious and witty anecdotes about theatre life. In the Palace there were two auditoriums, one with a big stage for professional artists and ensembles, and a small one for various amateur groups working in the Palace, including regular theatre groups, singers, dancers, even a circus. Our group was performing on that small stage before an audience. People really loved to work with Nikolai Sergeyevich. Everyone was very enthusiastic; he simply infected everybody. There were mostly young people, but some older people, too. And the audience loved this theatre.

He, himself, was really brilliant and enthusiastic. You know, sometimes it seemed that if you looked at him, he had something demonic in him. He was lean, relatively tall, with beautiful long fingers and black, just burning eyes…. So enthusiastic!

When I met him later, he continued working on the idea that theatre should heal people. He actually called his method “the theatrical way of developing a person’s social behavior.” He helped people to be social, not shy, lonely, depressed, apathetic.

 

SALLY: So he used theatre to make connections between people.

 

ARIADNA: Yes, to make connections, to allow them to articulate their thoughts and feelings. Often people did not talk to others because of shyness or because they thought they didn’t know anything interesting, that nothing interesting happened to them. They thought they were not able to improvise anything, so he encouraged them to tell a story written by a writer. He said they first should read the story and then try to tell the other people in the group.

He told us some stories of his success, his achievements, during the past years: how one very shy working man finally became the center of attention of his colleagues because he became able to learn by heart a lot of stories by Leo Tolstoy: large excerpts from books like War and Peace and Anna Karenina. The man would later tell the stories to his colleagues while working and they would happily listen to them. Nikolai Sergeyevich encouraged people, but he never expected them to learn a story by heart from the very beginning. He’d say, “Read it. Try to tell as much as you remember. Don’t be shy. Don’t be ashamed that you tell it wrong – just go on, the next time it will be better.” And he encouraged you to do this time after time, as long as you needed. And finally, you learned the piece by heart.

 

SALLY: So he would say, “Don’t memorize it.”

 

ARIADNA: Right. Don’t memorize it. After a while the story would be somehow memorized indeed – and if you forgot part of it – you would continue it in your own words. Of course, he’d say, after a while you can re-read the story again. During the sessions where people would be very, very timid he would say, “Just read a paragraph now. Then put the text aside and try to retell it.”

In the 70’s he had a sort of forum room, a round room with raised seating, like an amphitheatre, at the Bekhterev Mental Institution (referred to as Békhterevka colloquially). It wasn’t very big and many of his group members were actually patients at this mental institution. He had a group of about 30 people. Outsiders like me were also welcomed. Attendance varied from 23 to 30. And Nikolai Sergeyevich’s work with them turned out to be a healing work. The floor of the amphitheatre served as our stage and everybody was supposed to participate in the work – there were no outsiders who just looked on. He had these sessions on Sundays from 10 till 10. Of course, we got some breaks and people usually went for short walks or to eat in the café or to eat what they brought with them, but we worked there the whole day.

He would start his sessions with asking everybody present to write on a slip of paper just a few lines of dialogue, three or four lines without any given background, involving at least two people. Sometime just two lines were enough. He’d say, “If you cannot come up with anything, just maybe you can remember something.” One participant came with lines from a poem by M. Lermontov where a boy was asking his grandfather about the war with Napoleon – just one question and one answer. A smart way out, wasn’t it? Each person would write as many copies of the dialogue as there were participants in it and give these copies to people of his choice. Those people would read the dialogue to themselves, then aloud for the rest of us. In other words, the actors would perform it just the way they felt, not knowing anything about the background. Of course, when someone reads something, the listeners get some psychological impulse or some indication of how to react.

 

SALLY: It’s almost impossible not to put emotion into what you read and not to project some kind of relationship into a dialogue.

 

ARIADNA: Absolutely. Especially, if the first performer gives a certain impulse, the other people catch it and get involved. Nikolai Sergeyevich did this with all the participants. Then the second stage of work began. Nikolai Sergeyevich would ask someone to volunteer to be the leader in making up a story. If no one volunteered, he would choose someone. That person could choose a number of dialogues – five or six probably – from those freshly written. The leader had to start thinking how those dialogues would fit in his story. He could choose anybody to act in his improvised story. He could even make changes: if in the original presentation of a dialogue, a man and a woman read the parts, he could instead cast two women or two men. He would ask the chosen actors to perform all those five or six dialogues first without any giving any background just to see what they came up with.

The third stage of the process began when the leader chose someone to be a listener and started creating a story from the dialogues. He presented a motivation for why he was telling this story to this particular listener. The rest of the class along with Nikolai Sergeyevich became the audience. The leader usually gave some kind of background about the characters in the story: who they were, how they were related, and so on, so the actors performing the dialogues in the story could adjust their attitudes to the leader’s concept instead of how they might have performed them when they read them together for the first time. He would start the story and continue it up to the point when he thought it was time to include the characters with the first dialogue. He le them say their words and if he chose to continue himself from this point, he could participate in one of the dialogues and interact with characters in his story or he could let the characters continue the dialogue, improvising on their own. He would listen to their improvisation as long as he thought it didn’t break his original conception. Then he could interrupt them and continue his story, now actually including something new that came up in the improvised dialogue. What the storyteller says forces the actors to actively interact during the improvisation. This is a creative act, just on the spot: both the characters and the leader can change the conceptions they held in the beginning. The storyteller needs to be especially alert all the time.

Here is a curious story about being a storyteller/leader. A young man (the leader) told a story about his mother. He himself also was a character in the story, a high school teenager. He said to his listener that his mother was divorced. He had formed indeed a basic idea of his story from start to finish. Before he started the story, I read the dialogue given to me, which said that his mother asks him, “Son, do you remember that I told you that I wanted to introduce you to my friend, don’t you? He said, “Yes, I do.” I, as the mother, replied, “Okay, he’s here now. So we can do it right now.” He said, “Okay.” And when the man came in, the son (the storyteller) desperately exclaimed, “Sergei, is it you?! How…?” He looked repeatedly at Sergei and then at me, and almost screamed, “Mama?! You know one another?!” That was in the dialogue. Something, a certain conflict, was already present in the dialogue which he recognized. Some people who worked there for a long time and were quite experienced knew about the “right” beginning which makes the whole story. All the conflict is there.

 

SALLY: Yes, it is all there. And anything could happen, but it’s a big mystery, the drama unfolds for you.

 

ARIADNA: I need to go back and explain one thing. Before starting to improvise the drama-story, the participants just read the dialogue first without having the background conceived by the storyteller. But the words and lines already hide something of what we feel somehow. There was an interesting psychological situation with myself in this instance, how in the course of preparation and the future playing I changed what I felt myself as a person, not only as a character. First, before the storytelling started, I felt somewhat awkward. I opened the drawers in the desk on the stage and looked for something, not knowing for what. I found a comb and picked it up, thinking I would use it myself. But his hair looked messy and was standing up, so I mechanically tried to comb it and make it lie down, which irritated him enormously. He was, you know, just furious with me. [Ariadna gestures and makes a facial expression to express the son’s feeling as if to indicate the attitude, “You are being so fussy!”]

 

SALLY: [speaking as son] “Oh, mother!”

 

ARIADNA: Yes, something like that. Then when he started the story, he gave some fuller background for himself and me. He said to his listener, “But don’t think that she’s an unhappy woman and you have to sympathize with her. She’s a very strong woman and she herself can sympathize with anybody in a situation similar to hers.” Maybe after noticing my uncomfortable behavior, he decided to add these words about my being strong. I’ll tell you, IT HELPED me, unbelievably!

You know, the night before that Sunday I had a very bad, quite sleepless night and I came to our session very tired and didn’t know what I was going to do. At first I even thought of refusing to participate in this improvisation, but the storyteller said about me, “She’s a strong woman and she can take care not only of herself, but of anybody else around.” It just poured into me in an instant – all the strength, all the self-confidence, and everything. And the next time when we were in the right part of the story, I didn’t behave awkwardly, felt no confusion or embarrassment. I was just very proud of what I was doing and then he said suddenly, “Sergei?! Mama?!” He looked lost and frustrated, but I remained calm and self-assured.

Everybody was listening like that – with full attention, but for some reason we were not able to find a way out. I thought of two or more ideas to solve this situation – to untie the knot of whatever was happening in the scene – but my son would say something else to take away from me the opportunity to straighten things out. In his role, he chose to be a stubborn boy. And it seemed the audience liked it.

But Nikolai Sergeyevich thought it was taking too long and finally said, “Stop.” I said, “No, no, please,” and everybody else also said, “No, no. Please, let them go on.” But Nikolai Sergeyevich said, “No; it will have no end.” Then someone said, “But let her tell what she meant.” I said that I was just going to say that Sergei and my husband knew one another because they were at high school together, but I hadn’t revealed it at the beginning of the scene because of everything else that was happening. It was very, very emotional. Everybody liked it. Nikolai Sergeyevich was so sorry that he interrupted us. He said, “That was a good conclusion.” And the “son” said that he had thought we, Sergei and I, were both betrayers, we were hiding from him that we knew one another, but actually Sergei didn’t know that his young friend was my son.

So that was the way that Nikolai Sergeyevich was working in his workshop. He developed creativity in people and first and foremost self-confidence. Later I realized that most of his very intelligent, intellectual, very smart people who seemed to be the core of his group were actually all from the mental institution; they were his patients! They attended his workshop and they helped him because they liked it and were quite enthusiastic.

 

SALLY: And were they currently in the institution?

 

ARIADNA: Most had been released. A few were still there, but nobody talked about that.

 

SALLY: And those that had been released were willing to come back… how wonderful.

 

ARIADNA: And some people would come, like me, from somewhere else, and some who knew him from a long time ago. After all, I had known him from 1956.

Once, after we met again, he told me that some years before a TV producer became interested in his work. So his group showed this man three different pieces. One was a story by one of the writers that was not improvisation. I don’t know about the second. After seeing the third piece, the TV producer said, “Oh, this was the best. You probably worked very hard on this one.” And Nikolai Sergeyevich said, “That was all improvisation – right now, on the spot.” Nobody could believe it.

These sessions started, as I said, at 10 o’clock in the morning and we began with writing the dialogues and the centerpiece was this sort of improvised performance with the leader. Then after some rest we were supposed to sit and write what we thought about it – no matter how many pages, the more the better. He always collected our papers for his archive. And then we all discussed it. Nikolai Sergeyevich liked how the people in his group performed; he was not focused on the acting, but on what they tried to do with the story, especially with the conflict in it – how they tried to solve it. He always emphasized to us, “You see what you’re doing. You try to do it morally, humanely, in the best ways.” If there were any hints of the opposite behavior on the part of the participants in the story being performed, then during the discussion, the rest of the people would point it out with dissatisfaction. He used to say that this was a very good way to educate people about how to behave. And he called this theatre – probably in translation it would sound very heavy and awkward – theatrical methods of activization and enhancement of social behavior of a person. Certainly it helped to change, to improve personality.

Besides this didactical part, when we had discussion, we were also supposed to talk about the process of performing itself: how the beginning was done and how the story and the characters developed, like analyzing the play and performance.

 

SALLY: It seems that because people were able to just allow the emotion of the story to come to them that they must have felt very safe in the group. What did he do to create that feeling of safety and trust?

 

ARIADNA: Safety – that’s exactly what he cared about. Nikolai Sergeyevich told us that we should never laugh at anybody if they did something wrong. Of course, we could smile and somehow encourage people and just be friendly and supporting all the time. Earlier on I spoke about his recommendation of what to do if the actor didn’t remember the story they were telling. But I didn’t say that part of his Sunday sessions were sometimes devoted to storytelling of the writers’ own personal stories, especially for those who needed to learn how not to be shy and needed to become articulate. In other words, he alternated the sessions’ programs from Sunday to Sunday. Another part of his sessions, an hour or two, would be devoted to talking. He told us of some experience with theraputical theatre in the West, about European experiments. Of course, I heard from him about Nikolai Evreinov and his “Theatre for One’s Self” and “Theatre for Others.” He also knew many, many interesting stories. Sometimes he would tell us wonderful stories about old writers and actors. And I remember that he told us that while he was never able to remember a single foreign word, he could read any book of any philosopher and would know it by heart right away. He even helped some university students who were in the group to pass their exams. He would just walk one evening with them along the streets, almost like those philosophical walks in ancient times, and tell them about the history of philosophy and the basic concepts from various philosophers of particular periods so the young men would pass their exams easily.

 

SALLY: Much of what he was doing is what today we would call drama therapy. He was helping people to find and tell their own stories. He would start out with a story that they knew and then allow them to get to their own stories and to make up stories, too.

 

ARIADNA: You know, those storyteller-leaders, they made up stories just by improvising and so logically, so interestingly, using just the material which came… from nowhere, only a few disconnected dialogues they chose from those which were written by us before their eyes. It’s creativity.

 

SALLY: The highest form, because you are spontaneously creating in the moment with other people.

 

ARIADNA: And Nikolai Sergeyevich developed their creativity. People who worked with him become so confident, self-assured… and respecting of the other people as co-creators.

Almost 30 years have passed since I left Russia, and here you are asking me about him! My husband opened for me a web site and what we found first was his obituary. He died May 9, 2002 at the age of 81. It was sad to read that, though I really suspected that by this time he might no longer be alive. But what was really comforting and made me happy was to know that he was finally recognized. He even had his own center called “Nikolai Sergeyevich Govorov’s Center: Adaptation and Development of the Individual.” It became a serious business. Who would even think! The news just made my day