Why put off until tomorrow what you can do today? I mentioned earlier today that I would soon dig up a text that Nikolai Kolyada wrote about the playwright Alexandra Chichkanova. He wrote it especially for Nicole Kontolefa and Nicole’s production of Alexandra’s play I Am Me. I encouraged Kolyada to write the piece, even though he was reluctant, and I translated it. Kolyada wrote a beautiful and pained text, and Nicki responded immediately when I sent it. I think her words, plus her quoting of some words that Chichkanova once wrote her, offer an important viewpoint on this marvelous event that was Nicki’s performance of I Am Me. As such, I offer below three texts as a sort of unit – Kolyada’s text, Nicki’s response, and the introduction to Alexandra Chichkanova and her work that Nicki had asked me to write. A little bit of a look behind the scenes here. One I think is of great value. The image above is a promo postcard that Nicki made up for her performances. That, of course, is she in the photo.
“Sashenka,” by Nikolai Kolyada
Translated by John Freedman
She came to study with me when she was 16. For 14 years I guided her through life and kept her beside me. I taught her to love theater.
The only thing I couldn’t teach her – and I only understood that at her funeral: I didn’t teach her to love life and value it more than anything in the world. She wasn’t able to do that, she couldn’t hold on.
She was much more than an employee at my theater, more than my director’s assistant. She was more like my daughter.
A year has not yet passed since her death. My entire theater is still in shock. We all talk and do what we do but Alexandra constantly is everywhere with us. She appears in the dreams of many and everybody comes to me to tell me their dreams. She hasn’t appeared in a single dream of mine. Her soul knows what I would say and it fears me.
“I am me,” she said and she went and did what she thought she had to. It was her choice – to leave this life.
On the day of her funeral I gathered all the actors and I said, “We can’t fall apart, we must keep playing our shows.” We played “Hamlet” that day. I performed on stage as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father and I carried the dead Ophelia away in my arms. I carried her away, rocking her in my arms like a little baby. I carried away Alexandra.
She is no more. I am me. You are you.
Treasure who you are. Love yourself.
-Nikolai Kolyada, September 1, 2013
September 3, 2013
This is heartbreaking. I imagine this was very hard for him to write. I am going to think about the best way to present this to respect his feelings, Alexandra’s work and life and the experience of the play as it stands now. His final words remind me of something Alexandra wrote me when we were writing back and forth about the play a year and a half ago. They are below [given originally in Russian; translated by me for this web publication]:
“I wrote a play about loneliness, about how a person is simultaneously negligible in a vast world, yet, at other times, very important for oneself and for those who are around, and about how it’s necessary to appreciate every moment in life, to remember every second in one’s heart. About how valuable every little human soul is, every little WORLD!!!!!”
This has been a kernel for me in playing the piece.
Thank you for contacting Kolyada, thank you for being another person to share part of this journey with me. It has been a great experience for me to work on this piece. I have learned a lot about myself in the process. I hope you get to see it one day.
A Few Facts about Alexandra Chichkanova:
A Translator’s Notes
Written on or about September 3, 2013
By John Freedman
When you know very little it is best to commence with the basics. In the case of Alexandra Chichkanova let’s begin with the fact that she was the author of at least fourteen finished dramatic works.
At least one of those was a film script – “Alles.”
At least one was a radio play – “The Final Kilometer.”
At least seven of her plays were printed in anthologies published by her teacher, friend and employer, the famous Yekaterinburg playwright, director and educator Nikolai Kolyada. Her play “The Book of Fates” took second place in the Eurasia play competition in 2003 and Kolyada used it as the title play in an anthology he brought out the next year. (He also chose “The Final Kilometer” as the title piece for a second collection published that year.) Her play “The Little Cuckoo” was given a workshop production at the Kolyada Theater in 2008 and it was produced at the Na Valu Theater in Volokolamsk in 2011.
What are we talking about here? Success? Failure?
Neither, of course. Nothing of the sort.
We’re talking about a woman striving to make sense of her life, to find herself in often hostile surroundings, all the while exploring with disarming honesty her personal weaknesses, fears, hopes and, perhaps, dreams.
Here are some more facts.
Alexandra Chichkanova took her own life on December 6, 2012. She hung herself. Eleven days before her 30th birthday.
She was born in the tough, dirty, industrial city of Nizhny Tagil – famous for its metal works and its playwrights (the award-winning playwright and film director Vasily Sigarev is just one of dozens of playwrights to emerge from Nizhny Tagil). In the late 1990s she migrated to Yekaterinburg, the capitol of Russia’s Ural Mountains region, to study playwriting under Kolyada. She graduated from his course at the Yekaterinburg State Theater Institute in 2004 and was immediately hired to work at his theater.
She did lighting, she did props. She cleaned up, she answered phones, she took care that visitors had a chair to sit on – I was once one of them. She was Kolyada’s director’s assistant and when she died she was officially executive director at the Kolyada theater.
She was much more than that, however. In the early morning hours following her death Kolyada posted a cry of love and anguish on his live journal page:
“Mama! Welcome to the heavens my beloved child, my beautiful little girl Sashenka.”
“Mama! She was a daughter to me, I loved her so much, Mama!”
What can we know about another person? A Russian phrase states it well,
“Another person’s soul is but murk and shadows.”
What can we know about Alexandra Chichkanova’s life now? Her Facebook page, which remains open to this day, gives a few raw hints. She liked two films – “Toy Story” and Xavier Dolan’s “Les amours imaginaires.” She liked the Polish singer Natalia Grosiak and the Yekaterinburg band Kurara. She liked two TV shows – “The Simpsons” and “Lie to Me.” She liked one game – Angry Birds. She liked to bicycle.
Shake your imagination a bit and you can draw a few conclusions from these facts – very few…
If we really want to know something we come back to where we began: Alexandra Chichkanova’s plays. This is where we can find her now, the delicate, sensitive, searching, vulnerable witness of life’s details. Many of Chichkanova’s plays were one-acts. She had a brevity about her even in her work. “I Am Me,” first published in 2004, is a monologue teeming with minuscule observations, twists and turns.
Chichkanova’s plays are usually set in harsh, even forbidding surroundings. Her characters possess little and expect little more. The tenderness that exists in them is Chichkanova’s own. Her play “Antiques” takes place in a cramped, cold, messy, airless apartment. There are, however, little stuffed animals everywhere. That is a sign of the author’s presence. In “I Am Me” Chichkanova’s warmth and generosity come through in the tone of her voice, her turn of diction. She fills her text with repetitive, seemingly empty, conversational filler. It starts out in mid-sentence:
“…So you’re walking along, you’re walking, I mean I’m walking, me, that is, I’m walking, walking along, down the pavement, walking on. It’s summer, dust gets in my eyes and I’m walking along, going along straight on ahead, right on ahead right next to the road. I’m walking on one side of the road and over there, on the other side the road… it’s a road like, well, a road like any other.”
But, of course, it is not a road like any other. It is a road that only Alexandra Chichkanova, a Russian woman born in the deep Russian provinces in the late 20th century could have found and could have walked. It is a road dotted with historical, national, local and personal details. It is filled with peculiar local buses, bleary-eyed passengers, thoughts about soldiers of mythical proportions, the cultural memory of World War II, last kisses, first manifestations of heroism, mysterious walls, libraries, literary characters, the joys and frustrations of reading, and – most of all – how all of that fits into the crooked, wobbly but undeniably individual framework of one particular woman’s life.
“I Am Me,” for all its superficial aimlessness, is a play of great intensity and drive. This character is always, always, always headed somewhere. She is compelled deeply, from within, to move onward, to look, to see, to draw conclusions, to make sense of what she encounters. It doesn’t matter if or when such attempts fail. It is in the act of trying that a human life – one, single, individual human life – comes into sharp relief.
Nicole Kontolefa’s performance of “I Am Me” is a milestone. It is the first performance of any of Alexandra Chichkanova’s plays outside of Russia and outside her native Russian language. With this production, Alexandra Chichkanova rises above the life she lived in the Urals and begins to address the world. Don’t doubt that it is anything less.