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Fedir Stryhun, actor and theater director, interviewed
In December 2007, the National Academic Ukrainian Drama Theater in Lviv named after M. Zankovetska, marked ninety years of its existence. The Zankovetska Theater is one of the leading theatrical companies in Ukraine. Since 1987 it has been headed by Fedir M. Stryhun, a versatile actor and later a prominent director. The theater and the plays it stages bear an impact of Stryhun's personality and his policies.
Listening to Fedir Stryhun talk is like listening to a recital from the stage. He looks like a Cossack of old, his temper is artistic and fiery, his nature is poetic. All of these features make him the right man for heading a Ukrainian theater. He played over 200 roles, most of them leading (Shakespeare, Reinis, Moliere, Kotlyarevsky, Karpenko-Kary, Ostrovskiy, to name but a few of the playwrights in whose plays he appeared; among the characters he played were Richard III, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Mazepa, Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky). Fedir Stryhun appeared in many films as well, playing roles that made both the films and the characters memorable (Propala hramota; I v zvukakh pam’yat’ vidhuknetsya…; Zaporozhets za Dunayem; Dudaryky; Kaminna dusha).
At the age of forty, Fedir Stryhun was awarded his first prize (of which there were quite a few to follow); at the age of 48 he became head of the Zankovetska Theater. The list of the plays staged under his directorship is too long to be presented here, so only some of the playwrights and authors on whose works the plays were based, will be mentioned: T. Shevchenko; L. Kosten-ko; M. Kulish; B. Lepko; W. Shakespeare; F. Durrenmatt; L. Ukrayinka; O. Kobylyanska; M. Kropyvnytsky (notice that most of the mentioned authors are Ukrainian).
F. Stryhun was interviewed by Natalya Kosmolinska.
You were born in a village in the land of Cherkashchyna — how does a village boy become an actor? An occupation quite exotic for the countryside.
I can’t say for sure when I fell in love with the theater. Singing was very popular in my family. My father was the bandmaster of a brass band, and I was exposed to brass orchestra music at a very early age. The whole atmosphere of my family must have encouraged theatrical and music interests in me.
But you didn’t choose to be a musician…
I did have an ambition to become a musician. Probably, I could have become a good singer. When I was in elementary school, I sang in public from stage. I was of a short stature and I would sing standing on a chair. It earned quite a considerable local popularity — a singing child prodigy. And I respected my fellow villagers for the interest they showed in my singing. But when in my adolescence my voice began to change, I continued singing — which, of course, I should not. And I did some considerable damage to my voice. I regained later most of my singing ability but it was never the same as it used to be. I even had an intention to study at a music conservatory. I did not. There was a time when I wanted to be become an artist — I think I did have a talent for it… Among the subjects I took at school I liked history, geography, literature but I hated math, algebra and geometry. My math teacher would tell me, “All right, Fedir, I’ll give you a passing grade — I see perfectly well that you’ll never master math.” And he did. I loved him for his understanding my problem.
But when did you feel that theater was your calling?
I can’t give you an exact date but it must have been my impressions of the celebrations and rituals of the religious feasts that affected my soul profoundly when I was still a child. I remember well my first Malanka (traditional rituals and celebrations at the Feast of Epiphany and Baptism of Christ) when the celebrants wearing all kinds of bizarre costumes came to our house singing a song — I still remember that tune!..
I liked to be around at places and at the time when there were gatherings of people, singing, exchanging stories. In those times we did not have any television, or even radio, and people gathered in houses which were bigger than the others; women knitted, embroidered, told stories — and sang. I remember my mother and my aunt singing so beautifully! This memory of songs, rituals, feasts gradually produced in me an overwhelming desire to perform, to be part of a staged event…
When did you appear on stage for the first time as an actor?
I was eight and played a role in a Ukrainian drama Day sertsyu volyu, zavede v nevolyu (If You Give Your Heart Free Rein, It’ll Get You into Trouble). The company was made up of amateur actors from our village… At the age of fourteen I recited Shevchenko’s poems from stage. I must have read them really well because some women in the audience wept. I myself felt trembling inside from emotion the poems evoked. It was probably a decisive moment — the magic of the words recited properly causing a profound emotion! You want to do it again and again!
This emotion has been living in you ever since, hasn’t it?
It has indeed… We lived through very hard times — war, famines, but through all the hardships the spirit was kept high… My elder brother would read aloud from Shevchenko’s Kobzar (a collection of poems — tr.) on cold winter nights with all of us huddling around a stove. I think it was the only copy of Kobzar in the village — a hefty tome it was. And it went around the village, from family to family, with people reading aloud from it… Among other books that made rounds among the people of our village were collections of plays and other works by Karpenko-Kary, Kotlyarevsky, Skovoroda… After the war, schoolchildren who had already learnt to read went around the village and read books to those of older generations who remained illiterate. People, regardless of age and social position in the village, listened with a great attention. And thanked us, boys, warmly. I was one of those who went around the village reading books to people. All of these things were contributing to my wish to become an actor.
Did you decide to study at an actor’s school after completing your secondary education?
I knew I wanted to become an actor but I was not at all sure how one became an actor. Then I read in a magazine about “a theatrical institute.” I went to Kyiv to investigate. The year was 1956. I learned what I was supposed to do at the entrance examinations and returned home. I did some odd jobs, and then I landed a job of director of what was called “a culture club”. It was known that I could sing and play the accordion. Plus, my father was elected manager of the club when he had returned from the war. All of these things contributed to my being elected director… Incidentally, the Germans who occupied our village during the war — and much of Ukraine too — used the building as stables… I just loved my new job — I immediately began to organize an amateur theatrical company. We performed Ukrainian classical plays and every night it was a full house. The hall was literally packed with people. There were many who stood outside peering through the windows. I went to the town of Cherkasy to see plays staged by a professional theater to get an idea how it should be done properly. I even wrote several plays myself — now I understand how naive and immature they were.
But did you go back to Kyiv to try your luck at the theatrical institute?
I sure did. I loved my years of studies there. In those times the institute was situated at the end of the central street of Kyiv, Khreshchatyk. When I happen to visit Kyiv, I pass by that building which housed the institute and give myself totally away to sweet reminiscences. I remember even the smell in that building — it was a very pleasant smell, smell of bread. There was a bread store on the ground floor. Most of the time we, students, went around hungry, and the smell of fresh bread rising from the store and permeating the building was contributing to making us even more hungry… In fact, smell plays a very important role in my life. I remember so well the smell of freshly shaved wooden planks, the smell of wood shavings, of paints from the time when our “culture club” was being repaired after the war.
What did you like about Kyiv in particular?
Oh, many things, but the most important things, of course, were my studies and being able to see plays at theaters. I also went to museums a lot. I absorbed culture like a sponge. There were some plays that I saw many times.
Do you remember which?
One of them was Zhyvy trup (Living Corpse) by Leo Tolstoy. It was performed at the Lesya Ukrayinka Theater. When I felt particularly nostalgic about my village life, I would go to the Franko Theater to see the play Oy ne hody, Hrytsyu (Hryts, Don’t Go There!). Watching the play I felt as though I took a trip home. I was probably the only student at that time who could identify a play by just one line offered as a test. Professor Volodymyr Nelli was my idol. He directed the staging of several plays at the Lesya Ukaryinka Theater and I changed my allegiance from the Franko Theater to the Lesya Ukrayinka Theater. Professor Nelli was an extraordinarily erudite person and a great teacher, tall, always impeccably dressed. I majored in acting but at one point I decided I wanted to be a director rather than actor. I told Nelli about my decision to change my major but he talked me out of it, saying “If all Stryhuns studied directing, who would do the acting?” Later, after I worked for some time at a theater, I felt I still wanted to study directing. And Professor Nelli once again talked me out of it, saying “You can’t really learn anything new here. Work at the theater, and if you do feel you want to become a director, you’ll easily become one. The theater will teach everything you want to know about directing.”
You worked for some time at the Russian drama theaters, didn’t you?
I did. I did not know Russian when I entered the theatrical institute and it took me a couple of years to learn it well enough to speak. Professor Nelli advised me to read Russian authors aloud, paying close attention to all phraseology and ways of expression. However, when I was in Moscow once and watched a play by Leo Tolstoy, I realized that I would never be able to pronounce and say things the way the Russian actors did it. At the same time, I realized that they would not be able to say things right in a Ukrainian drama, no matter how well they knew Ukrainian. It’s not a matter of language or traditions; it’s a matter of emotions. Lord God has created us in such a way that the soul of each nation is different from the soul of all other nations. To get a deep understanding of poetry, prose and drama of a nation one has to penetrate very deeply into the emotional world of that nation. Anyway, I ended up working at Ukrainian theaters where plays were staged in Ukrainian.
What motivated your decision to come to live and work in Lviv?
In the 1960s, big cities in Ukraine were highly Russianized, and you could hardly hear Ukrainian spoken in the streets or in offices. But when my wife and I came to Lviv on a visit we heard Ukrainian spoken everywhere, even at communist party offices. We noticed that the better a person was dressed, the better his or her Ukrainian was — in many other places of Ukraine it was the other way round. Very soon we realized that Lviv was a natural place for us to live in — and we have stayed.
Photos by Taras Valko
and from the archives of Fedir Stryhun
A still from the film Propala gramota (Lost Letter);
famous actor Ivan Mykolaychuk (left) and
Fedir Struhyn (right).
A scene from the play UBN directed by
Halyna Telnyuk at Mariya Zankovetska theatre;
Zenon as played by F. Stryhun.
A still from the film Na Ivana Kupala.
A still from the film Kaminna dusha (Stone Soul);
actor Anatoliy Khostikoyev on the left,
next to him Fedir Struhyn.
A scene from I. Karpenko-Kary’s Suyeta (Vanity);
Ivan as played by F. Struhyn;
Matyusha — F. Struhyn’s son Nazar Stryhun.
Lidiya Vovkun, an actress, Vasyl Vovkun,
the Minister of Culture and Tourism of Ukraine and
a theater director, Kateryna Yushchenko,
the First Lady of Ukraine, Mariya Mykolaychuk,
a singer, and Fedir Stryhun.
F. Stryhun and his wife Taisiya Lytvynenko,
an actress and her husband’s Muse, in Paris.[Prev][Contents][Next]