The Theatre of Simple Hearted Actors

Can a person justify himself
not only by submission to a higher power,
but also with his own creative ascent?
Human creativity is not a human demand and a human right
but a divine calling and human responsibility.
God is waiting for a creative act by humans
as a response to God’s own creative act. (Nikolai Berdyaev)

Inclusive theatre nowadays is making attempts at getting into the spotlight and fitting into the general theatrical sphere. Specialists classify it as art brut (French, lit. raw, unrefined art). Currently, inclusive theatre is a noteworthy experiment that fuses together elements of naive theatre, symbolism, and personal creativity.

We talked about inclusive theatres in Moscow and Minsk, ProTheatre International Festival, everyday life of actors and worldwide theatrical tendencies with Alexander Zhdanovich, an actor of Gorky National Academic Drama Theatre.

Alexander, could you please tell those who might not be aware of it yet, what is an inclusive theatre? Is it in demand today and does it have its own audience?

Strangely enough, I heard the term ‘inclusive’ not long ago, although I have been working with the residents of the boarding home in Novinki for over a decade. There is a “Simple-Minded” Theatre in Moscow where people with special needs play. Its name is so spot on that all other terms seem superfluous.
People keep talking about inclusion in general, and inclusive theatre in particular. There were conferences during ProTheatre International Festival in Moscow – a festival that specialises in theatres for people with disabilities – where participants seriously spent several hours trying to figure out the proper name for this kind of theatre: whether it is ‘inclusive’, ‘special’, or ‘exceptional’… Is it really that important? I believe that life is stronger than our deliberations.

Inclusion means getting people with disabilities involved in social life. Inclusion means creating a society where there are no “unwanted” members. In fact, inclusive theatres have existed for a long time, at least in Europe, where actors with disabilities are fully integrated in professional acting careers.

You are the head of Joy Inclusive Theatre and the director of The Little Prince, a play performed by those who live in the boarding home in Novinki. How did you decide to launch this project?

As far as our theatre is concerned, there is also an eponymous theatre studio for children. I believe that we are one single whole. Unfortunately, currently the theatre lacks consistent methodology work, aside from rehearsals and staging of The Little Prince. First, my young actors were sent to multiple boarding home at one moment. Secondly, it is hard to meet regularly due to the fact that I’m always busy.

Of course, we desperately need a professional director and tutor who could work with children from the boarding home on a permanent basis. Although we have put our active collaboration on the back burner, sort of, we have been looking for new alternatives. The residents of the boarding homes take part in the performances of Joy Children’s Studio, which makes their appearances really inclusive.

This is the right way to go, useful for both parties. Children with special needs can hear normal speech and learn to interact with other children. Children without special needs who are wary of socialising with the young residents of the boarding home at first, because they are different, soon enough overcome the barrier, break the wall, and learn to make friends with them. This is where the real joy is!

Do you remember how you first met the children with special needs?

My late wife Ludmila took me with her to the boarding home for children with special needs. To be honest, when I first saw these kids, I wasn’t especially fond of them. I didn’t trust them immediately. I felt the distance but then I was constantly drawn back to them. I started thinking why a busy person and an ambitious actor like me would be so attracted to the boarding home? Suddenly it dawned on me: it was because these special kids accept you for who you are, and there’s no need to mask your true self.

We enjoy going to the woods or sunbathing by the river. Why? Because it is there that we are who we are. The endless stress of the city, the stress of constant communication, of having to adapt and to comply with certain requirements and norms, disappears. Who invented those rules, after all? Similarly, it is easy to be real with the guys from Novinki. They are closer to God, and you can feel happier around them.

I always recall the words of Father Andrew Lemeshonok who said that we need people with disabilities more than they need us. They help us rediscover ourselves. I am grateful to God for having the opportunity to work with such people and to learn from them. These children are just a sunny gift. It is not for no reason that they are called “sunny people”.

Your theatre has a sunny name, too – Joy Theatre.

Yes, our actors are not only sunny but also very talented. Each one of them is gifted differently, of course. Eduard Kovalets is one of the leading actors of Joy Theatre and The Little Prince, and he has amazing acting talents. I didn’t even need to explain to him such exercises as Public Loneliness or Actions with Imaginary Objects. He literally breathes with theatre. He has the courage and the desire to improvise. Not all professional actors possess such burning passion, such improvisation skills, and such an ability to be constantly on alert. The public always feels it.

Joy Theatre has existed for over a decade now. What are the most important, key factors that have to be taken into account when working with people with special needs?

Let me begin with a fact that shocked me: 90 per cent of pregnant women who discover during an ultrasound that they might give birth to a child with Down’s Syndrome terminate their pregnancies. I recall reading an article that explained why that was the right thing to do. This is bizarre. Yes, the parents of these children have a tough time dealing with them. These kids demand a lot more attention, time, energy, and patience. Perhaps, they won’t reach certain heights in our society. But it isn’t essential for happiness, is it?

There are successful actors, painters, and athletes among the less able. I even read about these people doing business! If one gives these children enough care and love, they will leave many developmental issues behind. Theatrical art can be very helpful on this road. Look at the actors of Simple-Minded Theatre – they develop verbally and physically to the extent that many of them become professional actors.

Naturally, I don’t have any ready-made recipes on how to work with the less able. I use trial-and-error approach. There are much more experienced specialists who use this method: Igor Neupokoev, the director of Simple-Minded Theatre, or Andrey Afonin, the director of Quadrat II Theatre Studio. One can learn a lot from them. Strangely enough, it is somewhat easier to work with special children than with regular kids. They are more loyal. To them, theatre is something greater than just a game.

Can you please tell our readers more about the directors you’ve just mentioned? Are the Simple-Minded and the Quadrat II a unique cultural phenomenon?

Igor Neupokoev began his career in Minsk as an actor in Cinema Actors Theatre Studio. Then he left for Moscow. Today he is well-known, so to say, in the movement of inclusive theatres. The Lord has led him to these people. There is a remarkable documentary titled Your Turn! about his theatre.

When they started, they faced many hardships. At present they have a place where they can rehearse but they don’t have their own performance venue even today. This is why their performances are usually staged in Courage Theatre. It seems that Igor Neupokoev uses his gut feeling to figure everything out. He simply sacrifices his entire heart and his entire soul to his actors. This is perhaps how they get such results.

The actors who play in Simple-Minded Theatre are mostly people with special needs who grew in families. Their mothers hugely support their children (although they are mature enough). Andrey Afonin, who is the head and the director of Quadrat II Theatre Studio, strongly opposes this approach.

Andrey Afonin is very experienced in dealing with special people. There are about a dozen professional drama teachers in his studio. They work systematically and thoughtfully: the actors rehearse and practise for several hours six days a week. I had the pleasure to meet his guys. They are unique!

Well, he is vehemently opposed to the presence of parents during rehearsals. He believes that excessive care makes their children dependent and turns people who are forty or fifty years old into toddlers. Indeed, the actors in his theatre become independent. They marry and create families. I asked him why he didn’t publish any books. “I’m going to, one day.” We’re still waiting…

Why don’t you invite Simple-Minded Theatre to Minsk?

In fact, not only have we invited them but we are also doing everything we can to find a way for this theatre to perform on stage here. It is going to happen very soon, on May 29, to give you the exact date. Cinema Actor Theatre Studio offered its performance venue to Simple-Minded Theatre. They will stage a performance based on Wrangle of Life and Death, a symbolist play written by Alexei Remizov, a fin-de-siècle author.

Inclusive theatre is not an amateurish undertaking but a serious theatrical subgenre. Best Moscow critics have discussed the development of inclusive theatre as an independent genre in its own right within the international theatrical movement. We may not know something in this world that the less able people do know. Such a theatre can convey hidden the mystical meanings and messages that no other theatre can.

I have watched many plays staged by inclusive theatres, including those from Europe (France and Spain). They emphasise miming and physical theatre approach. They have little in the way of drama. We would like our public to see what Simple-Minded Theatre is doing. The play Wrangle of Life and Death was highly acclaimed during ProTheatre International Festival. It is an interesting, valuable, and meaningful play. The actors really are simple-minded. They don’t act. Theatre is a part of their lives.

As always, money is the problem. Their company isn’t small. We are trying to find the funds for the Simple-Minded to get to the capital of Belarus.

Alexander, can you tell our readers about The Little Prince, the play staged by your theatre?

This performance is not just another interpretation of the famous story but a chance to look at the world differently. It is performed by actors with special needs. These wonderful actors, in spite of their age, will always be children. The children who will never grow up play for adults who used to be children. They want to be loved just as we do but most importantly, they want to love.
The Little Prince is a moving and profound story with a touch of self-irony, a plethora of subtle meanings, and Christian depth.

Interview by Maria Kotova
March 31, 2017

St. Elisabeth Convent