Not belonging is a normal state of affairs for any intelligent person.
The following interview was originally published in Benji Knewman Vol. 2.
Vladislav Nastavshev, or Vlad, as his friends call him, is a theatre director educated in Saint Petersburg and London who has staged critically acclaimed productions in Riga, Moscow, and Saint Petersburg. He is sometimes called the “new Hermanis” in reference to Alvis Hermanis, director of the New Riga Theatre, who has received much international praise and is something of a celebrity in terms of social awareness. Yet apart from certain directorial qualities and the fact that they both work for the same theatre, little unites them – their theatrical language, view of life and opinions differ on so many levels. Vlad’s tool is a magnifying glass. I can imagine him spending hours studying a butterfly or an old book trying to reveal something inherently hidden. Similarly, he can point the glass to people to observe seemingly insignificant changes in their facial expressions. Most commonly, though, he puts himself in front of the glass – his inner life that then appears, extrapolated, on stage and touches his viewers and critics.
Referring to the Russian poet Mikhail Kuzmin, you once said that perhaps the most important things in life are things like what one had for breakfast or the temperature of the white wine. Instead of dealing with global and abstract problems you rather go into details of human relationships and seemingly minor everyday events.
Yes, it’s true. Listening to you I realised I want to calm down. Often we have so many things around us that make us nervous, events or news that make us worry and lose both ourselves and our balance. I don’t even remember how it began. Once in London, I was on my way home; I was very upset, though I don’t remember for what reason. But I remember what I saw on the way. Close to my house I saw a wonderful blossoming tree. It was very early in spring. No other trees had blossoms; their branches were bare. And I remember that tree and that it had so many blossoms. It was indescribably beautiful. And thanks to this tree I suddenly felt better. However, it wasn’t anything exceptional – it was everyday beauty. I didn’t have to go to a museum, or listen to classical music in order to get that feeling. It took me just five seconds to feel present there and then.
In other words, you don’t need a general concept or a ‘big’ idea to be able to listen to yourself.
You see, problems begin when you stop seeing yourself in time and space. Going outside, smelling the air – it serves this purpose, gives a clear notion of who I am. For example, the news of the political situation in Cuba doesn’t provide me with any understanding of who I am or what I want.
At the present moment the Cuban-American relationship is experiencing a thaw, the long-awaited liberalisation.
Yes, yes, I know. That’s why I mentioned it. Soon there will be no Cuba. Whereas there will always be different nuances of white wine, or a smell of a blossoming tree, there and then. It brings everything together, creates a sense of context.
A tree in spring, wine temperature, or the form of a glass – can it become a departure point for a performance? Like an idea that pops into your head.
Well, at this point we could stop talking (both laugh) and never talk again – never (goes on laughing). You know what? If you think about it – if you really think about where it comes from – it could make you stop speaking altogether. Yes. The answer is yes. Let’s say it gives you a chance to listen to yourself, I guess.
For example, I like to think, not even think, but just be, in a bathroom, just have a bath or a shower; feel the water running. Because it’s…because the bathroom has this sort of vacuum.
Being cut off from the rest of the world?
Yes, it’s like you’re in the middle of nowhere, naked and vulnerable. The water runs almost through you. Now as I think about it…I never rush the time I’m in a bath. I really cherish these moments. I’ve never liked to have quick showers just to wash yourself, and then off you go. On the contrary, I’d rather be late, but I will, as they say, take my time. A bath – not a lake or the sea – is the best body of water to fish for ideas. I call it fishing. What else. There are times and places when it’s possible. And there are times…
…when ideas bite?
Yes, there are times when they do, and times when they don’t. And a bath is the place where they do. For example, this one time I was lounging in a bath; the water was running, and I was thinking, “what could I stage in the Riga National Theatre?” Which play? Which material? I had some ideas, but there always seemed to be something wrong with them. And then I remembered Dostoyevsky, ‘The Idiot’; I remembered how we did it at school in Saint Petersburg. All these thoughts came to me when I was in the bath, and I suddenly realised there are so many things that tie me with this material. And not just the material itself; whether I wanted it or not, I had to live with it for many years because we were doing it. No one at school had asked me if I wanted to do ‘The Idiot’. The book just became a part of me. There are many things that bond me with this novel – love, the first impressions of the world of theatre, my place in it – all these things happened as we were working on it. And so I’m in this bath, and suddenly everything appears to me as if it were in four dimensions. When you dip into water you dip into yourself.
You are one the people I least understand in terms of how, from a relatively mundane existence, you derive what then appears on stage. I have an impression that you harbour in yourself the Large Hadron Collider that helps reach an extraordinary aesthetic intensity for which you are known. Can you tell me again how you arrive at what then appears on stage?
I just told you how I came to doing ‘The Idiot’. If we keep the fishing metaphor, I can say that when I come to understand that I do a certain job, I cast the net and wait to see what I have. Then I just structure everything, but I still think it can be compared to fishing. It’s a certain kind of openness, which involves just waiting for something to happen. I don’t even wait, I just cast the net. Of course, there are obvious things that work, like the premier, ticket sales, calls from the marketing department. But I have to be able to make myself open to ideas. I can even say it’s a question of will, something intentional. It just happens on its own. So I wait until it gets into my net, and then just translate it into the language of theatre; this means that what happens to me, what happens around me, makes the material. The closer the premier, the more intense the process becomes.
Listening to artists, it sometimes seems that that their work involves more, infinitely more, than they themselves can verbally express. It shows that the creative process is something artists themselves cannot fully grasp. They cannot comprehend it conceptually.
How much do you think you understand your own creative process?
Without a doubt, for me it’s always a discovery. I mean, what I create and what there is in the end. It’s always something unexpected. It often happens that when a production has already had its premier, I would watch it and suddenly discover something new. As if to say, Oh, this is interesting! At the moment of production there’s no question “why”. At least I’m not the person who calculates everything in advance.
When did you first begin to feel you had a certain creative impulse?
I remember well how when I was a child I tended to withdraw into myself. I would sit and feel myself floating away, until my mom would come into my room to say that dinner was ready.
Yes, exactly, it was daydreaming, and the strangest thing about it was ending up somewhere else. There was this time on a bus…I was deep in my own thoughts, and the bus was completely empty. A ticket officer came checking, but she went straight past me without even noticing me. She didn’t ask me for a ticket, and I only realised it when I returned to reality. It works, it materialises. I feel I disappear also materially, that is, other people can’t see me. They look straight through me. I believe in such things. It’s like meditation.
And then you realised your meditation, or daydreaming, could be transferred onto a stage. How did you come to think that your life of the mind is worth making public?
You know, since I was a kid, my parents, especially mom, would always try to make me feel special. She always told me I was special. I don’t know where she got this idea. Every mother sees her child as special, it’s quite obvious, but she would constantly repeat it to me. Until I started to believe it. We can have a long conversation about education and meeting professionals and watching others act, but I’d always have this feeling I could do better.
I read some responses to your work on Twitter. People often use the G-word, that is, they call you a genius, often sounding exalted – “the biggest event in my life”, “inerasable impression”, “my soul is shaken”, etc. Perhaps this way they say more about themselves than you. And yet, what do you feel when you get such praise?
Well, it’s…nice, of course. You answered your own question. You asked a question and then answered it; maybe you should write a feature instead of this interview, because you understand it better.
I doubt that.
No, it’s true. Your questions are very clever, coherent. The important thing is, you can answer them yourself. So, was this nice for you to hear?
Now you know how I feel.
(Laughs.) Excellent! I sense a minor theatre production is being born here. But there was a reason I asked you about the acknowledgement. In the ancient world, theatre was a communal event, something that involved all citizens and had a social and therapeutic function. I’m not sure what it is now. But it’s clear that what makes an actual production different from rehearsals is the presence of the audience. How important is it to you to know what impression your work leaves on viewers?
I think that the coming-together, the community factor still remains. I just asked myself a question: can theatre be counted as an art? Is it art? Or is it a social phenomenon? It’s a reason for people to be involved in a common situation, to experience something together. I tend to believe it’s more of a social event; there’s more socialising than art.
What distinguishes theatre from a demonstration where there’s also a stage?
It has to do with whether you can afford to do an art house production on a big stage and whether these 500 or 800 people are willing to participate in an event that cannot be decoded right away. This is what I mean. Often a big production is left with what it can handle, like musicals, or comedies.
And yet, how responsible do you feel for what an impact the production leaves on the viewer?
You know, I never forget that theatre is also entertainment. And the last thing I want is to bore the viewer. People coming to see the production is a director’s biggest motivation. When I work on a production I try to keep the viewer in mind, I think of what should happen; I can’t just zone out and float somewhere far away. That’s quite dangerous – you begin to feel your power over viewers and forget about them, thinking they will be able to connect to the production automatically, that they’ll be impressed just like that. I think it’s a rather dangerous position for an artist. I mean, you can disappear altogether and won’t be able to come back.
No one will expect you back. (Both laugh.)
Yes, exactly! There should always be some humility before the viewer. At no point can you afford to feel you’re above the viewer. Especially if we talk about theatre as a form of socialising. In contemporary art you can afford to do whatever you like, also because contemporary art isn’t an alive a process as theatre is. It’s an object; it’s been made, and it will remain as such. Whereas in theatre you inhabit the same mutual space as your viewers.
And that’s what makes it different from art or cinema – in theatre, everything takes place in real time. You have to take that into account; otherwise they’ll feel like they’re talking to someone who is high while they themselves are sober.
That’s not a good thing; and most importantly it’s boring for both parties. (Both laugh.)
You see, when I work I try to create a combination of impulses. Speaking broadly, it’s one big provocation, and the more sophisticated it is, the more powerful the impression.
When making a production do you think of someone in particular, or the public in general? Do you have the perfect viewer in mind who will be able to understand you the best?
It’s more about a range of viewers, because viewers are as different as people are different – some are more sophisticated, others are more crude. A mise-en-scene has to have several levels – the bigger the conceptual load, the better chance the viewer will be able to read it. Then comes the question of the dramatic frame. In other words, what the viewer will be mostly challenged by. For example, there can be a nude body; the fact that there is a nude body on stage can work. It makes the viewer flit.
Having seen your work, I have an impression you are interested in two things. On one hand, it is cruelty, even brutality and violence. On the other hand, it is fluctuating relationships, psychological details. Is it true, and if so, do you think violence and sophistication are two sides of the same coin?
Yes, you’re very right. Theatre is based on the concept of conflict; there must be a conflict. Everything begins with it. It directs the energy, creates a plot. And sometimes a conflict reaches the level of insanity, something that you may not have experienced in your life. It’s like life in a nutshell. Often you can live a whole life within just an hour.
Like the act of drowning or jumping with a parachute.
Yes, or committing a murder; or taking yourself to an extreme level of consciousness. In daily life we often pretend, hide behind a mask of decency, but during a rehearsal you’re forced to drop the mask, almost bare yourself, and even become aggressive. Violence and sophistication – it’s a very precise definition.
Isn’t it the case that when you’re working on a production, you become so involved in it that you realised you’re working on the production as much as you’re working on yourself; maybe even creating a different person? And a premier is like a little death of the previous “you”, self-destruction out of which a work of art is born.
There’s something in what you say. There was time when I would agree with you completely, but now I keep a little distance from what I do. I think it’s due to experience, because I no longer need to completely identify with what already happens without me. I don’t have to have scandals or be cruel to actors to get what I need, because they already believe me a priori. It wasn’t the case before; no one knew me, and actors had no reason to believe me; so I had to “act out”. But now people know me, at least in Riga; the circle is quite narrow, so there’s no need for that.
But people do still think I am a violent director, although it hasn’t been the case for a long time.
But it used to be true?
It used to be true, but now it’s a cliché. I want to make a public statement by means of this interview and say I am no longer a violent director, I don’t torture actors; those times are in the past.
You mentioned the narrow circle. But you’ve spent many years in big cities. You’ve studied drama in Saint Petersburg, and then went to London to study directing. Why these cities? What is the most valuable thing you brought from there? Did you think of Saint Petersburg as an actor and London as a director?
How beautifully said!
Why such choices? What did these cities give you?
It was a coincidence. I had relatives in Saint Petersburg, whereas I went to London because since I was small I’ve been quite good at English. But a person is created by impressions, especially those experienced in youth. Saint Petersburg was interesting because it was in a way going to the source of the theatre tradition taught in Riga. Also, Russia is my ethnic home, although after spending five years there I realised I have little in common with Russia. As they say, enough is enough. Now Europe! And so I went to London.
Do you have more in common with London than Saint Petersburg?
With London it’s similar, but in a different way.
I am always followed by the sense that I don’t belong anywhere. Whether it’s Petersburg, London, or Riga. I actually think that not belonging is a normal state of affairs for any intelligent person.
Probably the only place a person belongs is a coffin. (Both laugh.)
Exactly. But seriously, any sense of belonging is dangerous; it’s where fascism begins, or nationalism, in its moderate form. There’s nothing as sweet as the sense of belonging, whether it’s belonging to a sports team, a group of colleagues, or family. One of my favourite writers is Guy Davenport who had a collection of short stories about belonging. You see, it’s an indescribable feeling to realise that you’re not alone. It’s as true as it’s not – the realisation that we die alone and spend most of the time of our lives alone.
If you didn’t belong in Saint Petersburg and London, you probably don’t belong in Imanta, the Soviet-style suburb of Riga where you now live.
I’m not uncomfortable with the place where I live because I was born there. I don’t understand people who leave the place they were born. People who move to the city centre, rent an apartment with high ceilings, parquet, and old stoves, beautiful windows and doors, and who imagine they now belong there.
But if you don’t belong anywhere, isn’t it better to still not belong, but at least live comfortably?
I feel I’m tied to my neighbourhood by some sort of a mission. I once had an idea to tour Riga’s suburbs with New Riga Theatre productions because people live there too. Those who live in the centre often forget about that.
Isn’t it that because you live in Imanta you can avoid the self-indulgent petit bourgeoisie who live in central Riga?
Of course, I always have an escape route. It’s very important.
Why did you choose as your means of transportation a fixed-gear bike, the most “hipsterish” of all means?
(Laughs.) Again, I’d like to use this opportunity to publicly confess that I have a relationship with my bicycle. I wouldn’t say it’s sexual, but there is some sensuality, tactility to it. I find it hard to part from it. I like what the guys from the MIIT store do, and they make fixed-gear bicycles. It’s not that easy to come to appreciate this bike. You know, when I was a teenager I couldn’t get myself to appreciate impressionists; I had to go to the library again and again, study the reproductions to learn to see their art. To appreciate a fixed-gear bike – it takes effort. Only after some time you realise how cool it is to have no brakes; that riding without brakes makes you more attentive to the road and what’s around you. It allows you to see yourself in time and space – it’s what we talked about earlier. You can’t brake at once. You calculate the moment you’ll have to brake. I took my bike to Moscow when I was there to stage a production at the Gogol centre. I would ride on the brutal streets of Moscow; I crisscrossed the entire city centre without brakes – it was great.
You describe your bike as if it was a poem, a delicate thing to which you have an almost sensual addiction. It reminds me of what many people say when they describe their relationship with your songs. They say they’re exceptionally delicate; they manage to tap in, as if with the tips of their fingers, into a certain atmosphere that resembles the poetics of Mikhail Kuzmin. I know people who claim to not be able to stop listening to your songs; after the show the songs stay with them for a long time. What do you feel when you know that other people become addicted to your songs?
Of course it’s nice to hear this. It doesn’t make me less lonely; my loneliness is still with me. But I’m glad about that. Apparently, the decision to make my songs public wasn’t wrong. I must admit that I myself am addicted to these songs, and largely it’s thanks to Mikhail Kuzmin and his poems, which the songs are based on. It’s a little strange, like a spiritual séance. As if he were present, he made himself felt. Maybe this happens to some special people after they die. I wish I could make my singing almost like a physical event – perhaps this is where this addiction comes from, because there’s no way to distance oneself; there’s just no other choice. You just listen, and that’s it – it hits you. I actually think it’s the main task of an artist or a director to hit the right spot.