Years later, Fedor and I were on the festival circuit with our film, The Russian Woodpecker.
Winter, 2013: I have been feeling a little creatively deprived in Kiev during my last few visits, so I decided that I would reach out and try to make some connections in the theatrical community here. So I posted a job on eLance (now Upwork), stating that I was looking for someone to show me the creative landscape of the city. I received a dozen proposals, mostly from Pakistanis, but one stood out. It was from a young woman named Julia, who worked in theater and film and was about to move to Dubai. After a a few back and forth emails, I decided to hire her and today was the result of her labors.I met her at a landmark in the city, and we stood in a light snowstorm waiting awkwardly for my first appointment. It turned out that I would be meeting a young man named Fyoder, who comes from a long line of artistic giants in Ukraine. After ten minutes, a gangly young guy angled up to us. I liked him right from the start, not only because he spent the first 45 seconds trying to juggle his cell phone into his inside coat pocket, averting my eyes and mumbling as I held my hand out to him, but also because he looked like a lopsided lizard, with a stretched out face and a squeaky voice. Exactly like a character from Dostoevsky, although as the day wore on I would find him to be remarkably lively.
We walked for a few blocks toward his mother’s home, where he lives, and he began by launching into a long and extended history of the theater in Ukraine. By the time we reached the front door, he had covered 150 years and highlighted all of the many amazing personalities in the history of the theater in this land, which was tied to that of Soviet Russia. We entered what resembled a large gallery. His mother was slightly plump and pretty. She was also extremely friendly and welcomed us with thick Turkish coffee. The place was full of paintings, some hanging on the walls and others stacked in the corridors, as well as scores of photographs of people from Ukraine’s artistic community pinned to the walls.
We all sat around a glass coffee table and continued the discussion. Fyoder did not seem too concerned with my own interests, and instead began to talk about his work in the theater. It turns out that his great grandfather played an important role in the founding of the National Theatre here and his father is the lead artist of the national theatre of Ukraine. Everyone in the country knows his father, and the avant-garde knows Fyodor as a rising star. You would never expect this from a glimpse of him sitting in a café, as he looks like just another fidgety 27-year-old.His mother brought out snacks and Fyodor continued pontificating on the intricacies of production problems in the country. I only understood about 75% of what he was saying, as he spoke very quickly, and with a lot of technical jargon that was unfamiliar to me. He began by describing the differences between the American and the Russian theater system, the latter of which relies entirely upon a repertory system. In order to understand just how radical the difference is, he reminded me that often when a play was put on in Kiev, It could run for 10 or 15 years, whereas and off-Broadway play generally has a life of several months at most.
He also described how the state pays for the salaries of the theater employees – this is crazy, up to 600 employees at one of the half-dozen main theaters in Kiev – and the theater was required to pay the rest of its expenses, including rent and set design, from ticket sales. This is called the enterprise system. He also told me that each of the 26 District cities in the country has its own classical theater, musical theater, ballet, opera, puppet theater, philharmonia, and a few other theaters. This was standard Soviet fare for every city with more than a few hundred thousand people, and represented a massive state expenditure on the arts.
He told about how the directors of theaters in Ukraine cannot be fired, once appointed to their posts they have tenure for life. However, he pointed out that this did not necessarily ensure vigorous creative output, as a majority of the artistic directors in the country see their jobs as a cynosure and generally sleep as often as they can and do the least amount to put a production on stage.
While he told these stories, he often leapt from his chair and acted out the parts of the various characters. The first time he did this, it was so unexpected that I thought he was leaving the room. Instead, he described how he had cowed the entire costume department at a regional theater by pretending to be insane and when one of the seamstresses complained to the artistic director, he approached her down a long corridor ripping giant red drapes off the ceiling with each step he took. When he finally reached the formerly indomitable seamstress, she crept back into her closet and got back to work.It turns out that Fyodor is also a respected painter in the country, known for his series of Napoleonic portraits. I saw several of them in a gallery book and was extremely impressed with power of his images. As the afternoon progressed, it became clear that he was immensely full of life and ideas and intensity. This was all conveyed through an insanely energetic babbling of unconnected ideas and bursts of laughter that shook his entire body and spread through the room. Meanwhile, while he was telling me all these stories, he bickered back and forth with his mother. They argued about the number of districts in Ukraine, about the monthly wage of an accountant at a local musical theater company, and about the peccadillos of various theater directors. He let her argue with him until the end, when he would end the discussion with a thunderous definitive pronouncement, often while standing and gesticulating, and usually laughing wildly.
After two hours, the doorbell rang and more guests arrived. These people had the good sense to bring a bottle of wine, and they sat down uncorked it and we all shared a glass. I realized what I love so much about the Slavic world at that moment, the fact that a home could be filled at any moment with friends or acquaintances bearing chocolates and wine, and such an act was not looked upon as an intrusion, but as one of life’s greatest pleasures. Unfortunately, I had another meeting, so I took the presents they gave me and their warm wishes and entreaties to return soon, and left into a light snowfall.