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Interview of Lidiya Vovkun, a theater actress
Lidiya Vovkun is an actress who played the leading — or actually the only — role in a play, Emily, recently staged at the Molody Theater in Kyiv. She also happens to be the wife of Vasyl Vovkun, the current Minister of Culture and Tourism of Ukraine, and a well-known theater and gala events director in his own right. Ms Vovkun was interviewed by Yevhen BUDKO, Mizhnarodny Turyzm senior editor.
I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
May we begin with the play Emily? It is based on life and poetry of Emily Dickinson, one of the remarkable American poets of the nineteenth century… But we live in the twenty-first century. How do Dickinson and her poetry relate to us in Ukraine today?
There are thoughts in ideas in the play Emily with which I can fully identify, and I do hope that through my presentation of them to our audiences, they will enter people’s consciousness too. Besides, the play was presented to the theater-goers not only in Kyiv — it was performed at the festivals in Mykolayiv, Lviv and in Lithuania. And it was well received everywhere. The spectators’ reactions everywhere show that the public relates to the messages of the play. And I can tell you that theater-goers of today are very demanding and discerning.
As far as I know, most of the people in Mykolayiv talk Russian rather than Ukrainian. Your play is in Ukrainian…
The art of drama has its own specific language. When the play carries a spiritual message and true thoughts and ideas, then even if you don’t quite understand the words, you still can get the main message. Incidentally, in Lithuania, among the people who came to greet me and thank me after the play was over, were some Mexicans… In my student days, I saw a play performed in Georgian by the Shota Rustaveli Theater from Tbilisi — I did not understand Georgian but understood the message perfectly all right.
When what is happening on the stage is not an illustration to something but is the message itself, when the actors are good enough, then the theater magic begins to work and something which is the central message of the play, emerges. And it is what is appreciated by the audience.
But isn’t a theater play a sort of deception, something that is contradictory to truth?
Turn it around — what if all those things that surround us in everyday life are illusory, a deception, and the truth is in what our soul feels?
Do you find some parallels in your life and Dickinson’s life?
Everyone has their own unique biographies, but I did see a lot in this play that I could so easily relate to. If I did not, I would not agree to play the role. I find so much in Dickinson’s life and poetry that is very close to me.
Could you be more specific?
“Know thyself” — she wants to do it, and I do too. Emily says in the play, “Here I’m sitting, holding that twig in my hand, rhythmically beating the time with it, and thinking why I have been created like I am, and what I am… This moment in time gives some variants for my existence on the stage and in life….” Or another quote, “I wish I could be swallowing the rapidly flowing transience slowly…” (Smiles).
Emily of the play is close to me in the way she views the world. She’s all the time in search of her true identity, her soul is not at rest. She’s lived through a lot that determined her choices but she’s not been lost in them. She experienced losses and lack of recognition, and then there was such an upsurge of spiritual uplifting that she no longer needed any recognition.
My thoughts were — to what spiritual heights can your own or somebody else’s accomplishments, or other personalities bring you up as a person? The image I was creating on stage was the result of the lessons I’d learnt.
Who are the persons in real life whom you are particularly grateful for what you are now?
My parents — they are my best teachers. They are ordinary people who by their honest farm labor, by their life in harmony with nature, by the purity of their hearts made it impossible for me to walk the wrong path, and encouraged me to explore this world and create something good in it…
When I went to the village where my parents live to greet them on the occasion of their golden wedding anniversary, I performed a one-actor play, Moya lyubove, ya pered toboyu (My Love, I’m in front of you), which is based on Lina Kostenko’s poetry. I had a great desire to perform for the villagers, and they said it was the best gift my parents could get from me. Now I want to perform Emily there.
Are you sure they will be able to relate to it?
Yes, they will! There are many people of high intellect and rich inner world among the villagers who can easily relate to lofty spirituality… To describe the generation of my parents I’ll quote Lina Kostenko: “The last fairy tale in the world sits in front of the icons…” Their appreciation is the honest truth itself, and it is the most precious… After that play based on Lina Kostenko’s poems, I asked my mother whether she had understood what it was all about, and she said, “Of course I did! It’s about love and about God.”
What’s your attitude to fame?
I’ll reply with a quotation from Emily Dickinson: “Fame is a tragic thing — it gives Power for a minute — it warms up somebody insignificant who did not know the Sun — and whose name goes into oblivion shortly after.”
All right, if not fame then — isn’t recognition necessary to be heard?
In fact, Emily wanted recognition but it did not happen during her lifetime. But now, almost a century and a half later, Emily Dickinson’s poetry is known in many countries of the world. That’s the fame for you.
It takes a lot of hype in Ukraine to launch actors, but not many actors in Ukraine can afford it.
Yes, we have a lot of good theater actors but they are known to a limited number of theater-goers. It pains me to say it, but it’s true. And it concerns not only actors. We have to do something about it—– the Ukrainian nation must have its own creative elite, its own actors, directors and performers who should have fame and recognition. Unfortunately, so far, it’s mostly Russian and American performers who are well known in Ukraine, rather than Ukrainians.
Could your husband be of any help here?
It’s not what a minister can do. We all of us must be “motors,” show initiative, and the minister of culture should encourage us and show the way. Vasyl Vovkun, in his capacity of a theater and gala events director, did his best to bring the efforts of creative people together, but if it’s done in a bureaucratic way, it just leads to complaints and attempts to get money for certain individual projects.
When and where did your career of an actress begin?
It was ages ago, in the Olga Kobylyanska Theater in the city of Chernivtsi.
What kind of education did you have?
I studied at the actors’ department of the Theatrical Institute in Kyiv. Incidentally, my husband also graduated from the same Institute, the same department. Upon graduation, he was sent to Chernivtsi and I followed him there though I could stay in Kyiv and work at the Molody Theater.
Where are you originally from? Not from Kyiv or Chernivtsi?
I hail from the village of Bilyn in the land of Volyn. It was only at the Institute that I learnt what the theater was really all about. The desire to be an actress, to act in plays seemed to have come from nowhere — it just came, and that’s all there’s to it. I would not want to do anything else in life… The decision to devote myself to the career of an actress came easily and lightly, it was dictated by something inside me. And I was lucky to have my decision encouraged and supported by the wonderful person, Valentyna Solonenko, who headed a drama hobby group in our village. She still works there. She had organized that drama hobby group shortly before I decided I wanted to be an actress. Once she took me to the city of Lutsk to perform at an amateur drama festival, and my performance did not go unnoticed. When I graduated from secondary school, I learnt that there were actor-training courses in Lutsk conducted by actors and directors of the local drama and musical theater. I attended these courses, graduated cum laude, and went to Kyiv to try to get admitted to the Theatrical Institute. I passed the entrance exams with flying colors. I seemed to have found myself in a fairy-tale world. I was surrounded by nice people, everyone wanted to help. I saw the direction in which I wanted to move, nice and clear. I knew I was on the right way.
But when I started working at the theater, I discovered that not everything was fairy-tale like — there was a measure of falsehood in relations among the actors, envy but also support. The times when I started work were not easy either.
What about your husband? Did he have his share of problems to overcome?
Yes, he did. He has always done what his conscience and creative impulses told him to do. He nursed an ambition to help build up Ukrainian creative elite who would support the spiritual ideals. He was a nonconformist and in the soviet times any sort of noncomformism was frowned upon — in fact, he could get into a big trouble. There were even attempts by the authorities to put pressure on me. They said, “Lidiya, look you’re a good person, but your husband is no good…” All such attempts to break us up failed, but I developed a dislike for people in general. Later, I realized I had to get rid of this dislike because it became a hindrance for my development.
God leads us. He shows us the way and now I know for sure that it’s the way of love, and nothing else.
What kind of memory have you retained of your time in Chernivtsi?
I spent sixteen years in Chernivtsi and I remember those years as being mostly a very nice time for me. I socialized with many of the local intelligentsia — artists, scientists, poets, singers and actors. I think, I know most of those who formed Chernivtsi’s creative elite then. I felt there was a great creative energy, something I have not felt to such an extent anywhere else. Chernivtsi is a rather small town, but it produced quite a lot of excellent performers and pop stars. Incidentally, one of the best known among them was Volodymyr Ivasyuk, but I did not get to meet him. But I did meet his sister and we became friends.
Why did you come back to Kyiv then?
My husband felt that creatively he was like a fish thrown out of water. Serhiy Proskurnya, theater and film director, invited Vasyl to come over to Kyiv and to create a new theater. And we did go to Kyiv. It was in 1999. The new theater, Bud’mo, was indeed founded. We lived through very tough times — no place to live, no place to have rehearsals, but all the obstacles were overcome, and my husband was tempered by all these trials.
After attending performances at Kyiv theaters, I chose the Molody Theater to work at. My decision was made when I saw Stanislav Moiseyev’s play Don Juan based on Moliere. I just loved it, and the acting of Stanislav Boklan and Oleksiy Vertynsky, who are now my colleagues, impressed me greatly. Watching their performance, I realized I wanted to work at that theater.
How does it feel to be the wife of a well-known director and now a minister into the bargain?
Earlier, he belonged to his creative work rather than to me. Since he became the minister, he belongs neither to me nor to his creative work. I liked the earlier arrangement better. But I do believe he’ll be all right.
At home — are you a bone-wary bohemian actress or the mistress of your house and family manager?
I do cook whenever it is necessary, but it does not prevent me thinking about loftier things… And I enjoy the company of my eighteen-month old grandson Andriyko greatly.
Do you, like a true Ukrainian woman, order your family about?
No, I don’t! But sometimes I hear complaints that I do (Laughs).
Your husband can be given commands by the president, prime minister — and you?
Only on rare occasions! My husband has a very powerful personality and it is very difficult to give him any commands. But from time to time, he asks me to criticize him. He does not like it when I do it, but then, once in a while he would say, “Come on, don’t pull any punches, give me a piece of your mind, please do!”
What gives you the best relaxation?
Nature. I just love trees, birds, water, soil, and I — like so many other Ukrainian women — enjoy working in my vegetable garden at the dacha. I grow onions, garlic, dill and other green things. We go there whenever we can. Vasyl and I do everything that should be done at the dacha by ourselves, so everything that surrounds us there has been done by our hands. Our dacha is our small private world…
Poetry has always been my good friend that helped in many difficult moments of my life. I considered the remarkable Ukrainian poetess Lina Kostenko to be one of my spiritual guides who taught me a lot about creativity. Another quotation from Lina Kostenko: “My dear, beloved enemies, I must declare a liking for you. If there were fewer of you around, then one could slide into apathy.” When I began reading Kostenko’s poems, they were not yet published — the soviet authorities prevented their publication. I copied those poems into my secret notebook. I still have it. My heart and soul understood the message of Kostenko’s poems perfectly well.
Are there any places in Ukraine that you would like to show visitors to Ukraine?
There are, of course, such places! One of them is the Lyubart Castle in Lutsk in the Land of Volyn. It has been restored and now all sorts of literature and art events are held there — and mock knight tournaments as well. The Shatsky Lakes are a natural wonder surely worth paying a visit to. Lesya Ukrayinka (Larysa Kosach, 1871– 1913, prominent Ukrainian poetess and culture figure — tr.) described scenic Ukrainian forests in her poems — go to Lisova Pisnya, a place not far from my native village, to see Ukrainian woodland in all of its pristine majesty. The museum dedicated to Lesya Ukrayinka in the village of Kolodyazne is worth visiting too — it will help you to understand better why the forest was one of the sources of inspiration for this poetess…
There are so many wonderful places in Bukovyna! In the city of Chernivtsi there are so many buildings which are architectural or historical landmarks. Among the most attractive sights are the local University, the “drunken” church (called so because of its unusual architectural features), a building in the shape of a ship — just to name a few landmarks. One has to see all of them — words are useless...
In Kyiv, it’s Volodymyrska Hirka (a park with a monument to St Volodymyr in it — tr.) that I like best. A tiny skveryk (a very small piece of land with several trees, a flower bed and benches) in Prorizna Street is one of my favorite haunts. I often passed through it on my way to the classes at the Theatrical Institute. Recently, a monument to a Turkmen poet was put there, and once, when we walked through that skveryk, Vasyl said, a pretended complaint in his voice, “It should have been a monument to me.” We could not stop laughing for quite some time!
Have you been abroad?
Yes, I have. My husband and I, we usually go together. I think our first trip abroad was to Yugoslavia. We were quite young then. Our parents gave us money to buy furniture for our apartment — but we bought a tour to Yugoslavia instead…
Recently we went to America to visit our friends there. Some of them live in New York, others in Seattle, Washington, so we crossed the USA from east to west. The air in Seattle seemed to be so fresh and clear. Anyway, it was different from what I’m accustomed to in Ukraine. It’s probably because urban civilization emerged there, in the New World, later than in Europe. I was greatly impressed by the American changing landscapes. And I discovered there’s a place in New Jersey which is called Ukrainian Village!
By contrast, London seemed to me to be overcrowded with people, too crammed with history and old things. Of the cities I’ve been to I liked Prague and Budapest best — great architecture, highly esthetical.
My impressions that I get from my travels depend greatly on the circumstances of the trips and on my mood — I see the world through my mood.
What kind of things are you looking for in the places you visit?
Space, a lot of space. Again to quote Kostenko: “A lot of space — so you won’t get hurt bumping into things! And something simple and basic — like grass. And something divine like music. And words — or at least one that has an immortal meaning.”
Photos are from
Lidiya Vovkun’s personal archives
L. Vovkun as Elizabeth in the play V moyim
zavershenni pochatok miy (In My End Lies My
Beginning) based on J.C. F. von Schiller’s drama
L. Vovkun as Emily in Emily by William Luce.
L. Vovkun in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler.
L. Vovkun and her husband at an exhibition of items
from the Vovkuns’ collection.
Lidiya and Vasyl. 1985.
Lidiya and her grandson Andriyko.
Vasyl Vovkun, Svyatoslav Vovkun (son) and