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Slava Polunin: I Cannot Stand When My Freedom Is Restrained
October 3, 2012 11:34

Slava Polunin in Moscow in 2012

The world-known Russian clown Slava Polunin was born in Oryol Region and went on to tour extensively, including the Arab countries. In 2001 he gave an interview in which he spoke at length about his journey in art, clownery, contemporary theatre, and influences in his life.

Clown is the most spontaneous creature on Earth. When you start restraining his freedom, he loses himself and whimpers like a child. Basically, it means that you offended him deeply. Clowns are very special, and they need a special treatment. Like the lunatics or, I don’t know, like the drunkards or dogs.

Freedom is everything to the clown. The only thing I cannot stand is when my freedom is restrained. I cannot imagine the situation when I have no freedom of choice. Generally, I might never need it. But, when signing a contract, I do never agree not to be free, and I always ask to cross this clause out. I am annoyed with the very fact that somebody dictates me something. This is the reason, by the way, why the majority of clowns take to drinking, being unable to regulate their free zone in the society. The clown cannot stand against the violence, just like a child.

The biggest question for the clown is his mask; sometimes you search for it all your life. You try different ways, different varieties: once you find a piece of make-up, next time – a piece of costume, then – a psychological detail, the rhythm, the walk. Doing that, you can go back to different things. But first of all you’ve got to ‘catch’ yourself.

People always make traditions. But perhaps, in order to live long, tradition must die, from time to time? Once commedia del arte had been all but buried in the sand, then a sudden ‘oops’ – and there came English music hall, Grimaldi circus, then ‘hap’ – all had disappeared again, ‘bang’ – there came French fairs, the pantomimes of the well-known Deburot, the one as whom Jean-Louis Barreau starred in Les Enfants du Paradis. Later it disappeared as well. Then it was revived in the silent cinema. The silent cinema for me is the top of the top of clownery. There was no decent clown who would not leave the stage for the silent film. Like in the vortex, everyone was absorbed by it. But the sound came and crossed out all of them. Thus, after a long period tradition had come to grief again. Two or three comedians did survive, and Chaplin was the greatest among them.

Generally speaking, I do not like modern dramatic theatre, there is little joy I get from it. That’s why I try to visit it as seldom as possible. That kind of acting does not possess you, it doesn’t flow over the footlights. It tickles, yeah, but it doesn’t inspire. I wonder why, but it seems the modern drama theatre still walks on one leg. For some reason Meyerhold, Tairov, Evreinov, Radlov, the stage reformers of the 20s, had so quickly realized those magnificent opportunities of plastic art and began using them. Meanwhile, today’s directors just spit on it.

Carnival is an ideal formula of existence when everything is a theatrical performance and life is a festive occasion. All my performances are easy to arrange by the level of carnival in blood. I love a lot this type of art that I consider unjustly forgotten. It is a powerful tradition. It could provide immense nourishment to the clownery, but nobody is interested in it. I was horrified when I found it out, and jerked to it. Now I have hundreds of books on carnival, I know all about it.

There’s no relationship between what I have studied "officially" and what I am doing now. At first I was a student of the Economic Institute, then of the Culture Institute, a faculty of the Mass Show. But in fact I studied in the library, from 9 am till the closing hour, for 7 years, including a visit to the army. The rector, when giving me the graduate diploma, said: “The fact that Polunin has graduated from our institute proves that there are no eternal students”. I had no particular choice for reading; I read everything as a mean of self-education. I especially loved the Silver Age newspaper files. In the army I fell for Dostoevsky. He is a top of the top for me, too. I was thinking: “You feel bad? Then you’ll feel even worse”. Notes from the Underground was my table-book. With Dostoevsky one manages to keep aloof of their occupation, to observe a process from the side, - this being the only way of life in our country till this very day. Granted, after Dostoevsky I compiled a list of other 100 books I had to read, but he is fundamental for me. Today I have a huge library that is my favorite thing and my treasure. I am like a stingy knight, trembling at it, and I can’t wait to please myself with my favorite book or a book I haven’t yet read. In fact, a pleasure of reading is the biggest in my life. I am like this only because at the beginning I got stuffed and gained such a pleasure of digesting what I have read.

Oh, how I was dreaming to make an ‘aesthetic regularity’ of myself! But then I thought: why the hell do I need it? And I stopped caring about it. I was arching my back, and my wife hit me on it, but eventually she gave up, and this hump became a part of my personage. A count-off point had changed; I began paying more attention to the inward, not the outward. And I said to everyone: “I prohibit any professionalism in my theatre. The main things are the eyes, the atmosphere, my pleasure and the involvement of everyone in my pleasure: it is the touch to the people in the first row, - we are all together”. So we began crushing the wall between the stage and the audience, we began clutching people at the hitch. The more hitches are there between them and us, the more successful the performance is, as I thought. Nobody could guess what had happened: “They cannot do a thing, then why do they possess the audience?” Simply the mood became a measure of it all.

I read one very beautiful story about Meyerhold. In fact, he gave me everything that has to do with the theatre and directing. For all the techniques I know and use, I’m indebted to him. <...> So, once I read in his book that the power of art depends upon the length of a rocker arm, which one shoulder is consideration, another is anarchy and freedom. The longer this arm, the more consideration and freedom the artist has at once, the more powerful is then your piece of art. An Artist is the only one who is capable to spread this arm as wide as possible. So, you need to seek harmony but remember: the more you incline to the right, the more you got to stand to the left. It’s impossible to take one direction without taking the opposite at the same time. The cleverer you want to be, the sillier you got to appear. You may explore the process, the techniques, but afterwards you got to spit on all this to become free and earnest, natural and impulsive, and not think of how you do this or that. Like, for example, Shalyapin. He was a genius and a fantastic workaholic. He worked at the very minutiae of his part, but sometimes he stopped constraining himself and never knew what would be in the end. He flew into a rage and spread his arm unbelievably. So, the more anarchy, freedom, intuition are there, the better, not forgetting, though, about consideration. Meanwhile, Stanislavsky meant it too.

I am fond of my performances until I understand them completely. I like when every single person, upon leaving the theatre, tells a different story. Basically, we’re only agents provocateurs. Our main purpose is to make a spectator create his own world, while a performance is just a pretext to it. When you’re contemplating the performance, it’s impossible to predict for how long it’s going to live. All depends on how long its idea will live in me. At one point you have an awkward feeling that you do not express yourself in this performance, and this feeling may arrive in five years after the first performance, or in fifteen.

Another story to finish with it. It took place in Anapa. We decided to perform a procession, to awake the resting people. The crowds followed us in this procession. We went to the beach, and so did they. We approached the water, and so did they. We went into the water, - and they stopped. We entered the water till ankle, till waist, till neck… finally, till head. We disappeared. Everyone thought we’re going to pop back up. Two minutes passed, three, five minutes – none popped up. They were shocked; they even called for the savers! The trick was that we’ve hidden the aqualungs in the water. This unexpected, unpredictable break of a usual situation releases a great energy… So, if there is water, you got to sink, nothing to do. Generally, an actor or a director is like a child who plays with his own toys. The difference is that their toys are sometimes bigger.

A full interview (the original Russian interview was done by Natalia Kazmina for The Herald of Europe in 2001)

Author: Julia Shuvalova

Tags: Slava Polunin Russian theatre Russian clowns interview  


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