|Select magazine number|
My Father was an Actor
My father, Mykola Panasyev, worked in one and the same theatre — Ivan Franko Ukrainian Drama theatre in Kyiv — for over forty years (he died in 1980). He played alongside such luminaries of the Ukrainian theatre world as N. Uzhviy, H. Yura, A. Buchma, M. Yakovchenko, O. Kusenko and many others. He was what may be described as “a character actor” but his hespian career is a separate subject and here we are more concerned with his thespian charm. He was an excellent story-teller, mostly of a humorous kind. As a child I was often an involuntary witness (for quite some time we — my father, my mother and me — lived in a small room of an apartment that accommodated many other actors’ families) of almost daily parties and I remember that no matter how distinguished the guests were (I was also taken along on frequent visits to my parents’ friends), my father would soon dominate the conversation and make people laugh so hard that some actually wept, and wiping tears of mirth begged to discontinue the stories for a little while to allow them a little respite.
On several occasions he would choose the plumpest lady from among those present, invite her to stand on a chair and conduct a lecture on anatomy, giving descriptions of various parts of the delectable body in dry scientific terms, mixing Ukrainian, Russian and Latin words. I am sure many of the jokes — always told in deadpan seriousness — were of a highly erotic nature which I of course did not understand at that time; besides I was too preoccupied with the beautiful late-nineteenth-century leather-bound tomes full of wonderful pictures about the life of animals that I was given to entertain myself with.
Unfortunately, I did not care at a later date to ransack my memory and write down the stories that I heard my Dad tell, or situations that I witnessed in the theatre during the rehearsals, or at the time when actors rested and had a smoke and traded stories. But some have stayed on the shelves of my memory to gather dust. Once in a while I pick them, blow the dust off and retell them to friends. Many of the stories were not theatre-related but I chose the ones that, date from the nineteen fifties.
One of the stage hands was a big man who had a problem with feet — no matter what kind of footwear he put on his calloused feet killed him. Whenever he could he would take his shoes off and walk about in his stockinged feet, doing whatever he was supposed to do on the stage — putting the props together, arranging scenery, fixing things and much else. The size of his feet would be invariably commented upon — his feet were enormous; besides he had a habit of moving his toes in a manner that provoked laughter. But he never took offense.
When the plays were performed, he would position himself in the wings, and hiding behind a curtain with a hole in it at the eyes’ level, he would watch the happenings on the stage so as to be ready to arrange things for the next scene when the one that was unfolding on the stage was nearing an end. In those times there was no sophisticated stage machinery that allows to change the scenery fast, and everything had to be carried in and out and arranged by hand for each new scene or act. It was done quickly and efficiently because everything was in the state of readiness but still it took time. Not to lose a second, the big-footed stage hand wanted to know the exact time to start moving things around.
During one of the plays in which shooting on stage was required, another stage hand would be stationed in the wings with a long wooden plank, one end of which he would place on the floor with his foot firmly holding it down, and his hand holding the other end. The springy plank would be curved in its middle section so that when released it would produce a deafening noise as it hit the floor boards.
The thing is that stage pistols equipped with a percussion cap to make the noise and some smoke but not to shoot a bullet often failed to make any noise whatsoever. If that happened, the stage hand with the plank would be required to provide at least the noise (dust raised at the impact could go for the gun smoke) which he did by letting the sprung plank hit the floor.
Once the big-foot and the plank stage hand found themselves standing quite near each other behind the same curtain peeping at the stage through two different holes. The dramatic scene reached its climax when one of the characters pulled out a gun and was supposed to “shoot” another character. The pistol failed to fire — and the plank was promptly released. But it did not hit the floor — it struck the big foot. If the man just screamed with pain the scene could have been saved — but he began swearing at the top of his voice — which was loud even when he talked under normal circumstances. His voice carried to every nook and cranny of the auditorium. He was jumping on one foot, holding the other, the terribly aching one, with both hands, while his mouth continued to spout strings of swearwords of the coarsest kind.
At first, the spectators thought it was the actor on the stage who seeing his pistol useless, began cursing it, and were amused and amazed and indignant that such language was allowed in the theatre. When the first shock passed, they all erupted in laughter — and the scene was supposed to be a tear jerker. Well, in some sense it was — only the tears were of unending mirth rather than sadness.
The curtain went down and a long break “for technical reasons” was announced.
In a melodrama a woman enraged by her husband’s admission of unfaithfulness, was to run to a desk in one of the drawers of which the husband kept his handgun, pull the drawer open, grab the gun and shoot him, not fatally though. He was supposed to be wounded and be nursed back to life by the enraged wife who tempered justice with mercy.
Once, when this scene was played out, the actress after hearing the confession of infidelity, rushed to the desk, pulled out the drawer and discovered no gun. She pulled out all the other drawers which also proved empty (one contained the remains of a sandwich). As the time passed the tension began to slacken. The husband patiently waited to be shot at, but the pause had to be filled with either action or words. The actress cried out in desperation — quite real by that time — that there was no gun where it should have been. The husband answered quietly that he had suspected she might resort to violence and hidden the gun in a different place.
“So where is it now?” the desperate wife asked.
“I won’t tell you, of course”, the husband answered — all of it, as you understand, completely impromptu. Those who watched the scene from the wings must have alerted to the unexpected situation developing on the stage and someone was sent to look for a gun. But the dramatic nature of the scene was of a kind that required immediate action. With a blood-curdling scream the wife rushed at her husband and knocking the unsuspecting actor down, she began strangling him with her hands.
“Die, bastard, die”, shouted the wife. The frightened actor who hurt himself rather badly in an unprepared and unrehearsed fall, began struggling and calling his wife names but a moment or two later he stopped and started producing terrible gurgling sounds in his throat. In real life the actress and the actor were husband and wife on the verge of a divorce; shortly before the play kicked off she surprised her husband flirting with the barmaid backstage.
The audience was greatly impressed by “the stark realism” and powerful acting. The curtain was brought down; loud — but appropriate — music was turned on and actors and stage hands rushed to the rescue of the “dying husband.” The wife who was a big and corpulent woman did maul her husband — who was a puny little thing — badly enough, and what with the fall he had taken, the interval was much longer than it should have been, but since in the next scene who was to be lying in bed with his wife solicitously taking care of him, he did not have to try hard to show how ill he was. In fact, he could hardly speak.
The couple happily made up their quarrel afterwards.
In a historical play, one of the characters was exposed as a traitor and the man who did it was to mete out punishment himself. After an exchange of angry words, the good guy was to pull out a long pistol of the kind used in the seventeenth century and shoot the rascal. There was to be no fighting — the traitor was supposed to have enough decency and courage to die heroically without trying to save his miserable life. The actor who played him was pot-bellied and short and the righteous warrior was a tall handsome man with a flowing mustache and wearing replanted clothes with a wide embroidered belt into which the pistol was stuck. On his other side hang a sabre, a real one, which was supposed to stay in its scabbard.
As you may have already guessed, after all the right things were said — incidentally in rhymed verses — and the traitor prepared to die, the pistol refused to fire and there was no one in the wings to help with producing the right sort of noise badly needed on stage. After pulling the trigger, and failing to extricate any noise or smoke from the pistol, the accuser threw the pistol at the traitor. The pistol, thrown with a considerable force, caught him right in the midriff and doubled him up. But it was not enough — he had to die. So the indignant warrior pulled out his sabre and brandishing it advanced on the horrified man. He, holding his aching stomach with both hands, began retreating in the general direction of the orchestra pit. The warrior cried out in a terrible voice, “Stand still, coward!” but the traitor did not and continued to retreat.
“Hold it! And die like a man!” bellowed the warrior, making signs for the traitor to stop and look back. But he interpreted the signs wrongly and made another step backward. By now he was at the very edge of the stage and the warrior, not knowing how to prevent the traitor from taking a tumble into the pit, held his advance but continued to brandish his sabre. The sight was horrifying indeed. “In the name of God — I order you to stand still!” The voice was trembling with so much emotion that the traitor made another — fatal — step backwards. And disappeared into the dark pit where the orchestra sat and watched in impotent horror and fascination what would happen next. The musicians must have suspected something had gone wrong but were not quite sure it was not a new way of playing the scene.
Luckily for the petrified musicians he fell not on any one of them but right onto the biggest kettledrum, producing a terrible sound at the impact and breaking through the skin. The actor on the stage cried out in an anguished triumph, The scoundrel fell through straight to hell! And the poor traitor got the clue and stayed where he was without making any attempts to extricate himself from the insides of the drum. The musicians, miraculously inspired, got the clue as well, and struck Dies irae (“God’s Wrath”) from Verdi’s Requiem. The spectators broke into wild applause.