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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Coffee and conversation with Bohdan Stupka

The famous Ukrainian actor talks about the theater, the cinema, and his students
27 May, 2008 - 00:00

It takes a stroke of luck to nab this famous and incredibly dynamic actor for an interview, considering what he is capable of accomplishing every 24 hours, like flying to a film shoot in the morning and appearing on stage at the Ivan Franko Theater that same evening. Bohdan Stupka’s packed schedule combines two seemingly incompatible things: creative work and administration. His acting in no way interferes with his activities as the artistic director of Ukraine’s leading drama company. As a university professor, he shares the secrets of dramatic mastery with his students. He is also a devoted husband, father, and grandfather.

The following interview took place in Mr. Stupka’s office at the Ivan Franko Theater, with a battery of phones taking turns ringing and the distinguished Stupka pausing to turn them off, while glancing at the monitor screen showing a rehearsal of the play Edith Piaf, Life on Credit . The Franko troupe recently came back from New Jersey after a spectacularly successful tour featuring the play Natalka Poltavka . So the interview began with a discussion of the famous actor’s overseas projects.


“We never leave the international arena,” the actor told me proudly, adding, “Our recent tour of the US was a success. The Franko company had the honor of launching the Ukrainian American Cultural Center in New Jersey. Our tour got very good media coverage. The audiences liked our version of Natalka Poltavka, and the cast, and they invited us to come back. We have tentative agreements for performances in Washington and our foreign impresarios are proposing a tour of Canada.

“On May 23 we staged another international project, the play Edith Piaf, Life on Credit, which is dedicated to the legendary French singer. The director is Ihor Afanasiev, a native of Kyiv, the former member of the Ivan Franko Theater, who is now based in the US. This musical was written by the noted Ukrainian poet and playwright Yurii Rybchynsky. The compact but very expressive production design is by Valentyn Kozmenko-Delinde. The music was created by the young singer and composer Viktoria Vasalatii, arranged by Anatolii Karpenko.

“Vasalatii and our actor Tetiana Mikhina (our audiences remember her spectacular performance in Natalka Poltavka) are rehearsing Edith Piaf. Much has been written about this famous singer. Our production recounts how she embarked on her creative path and her first success, when the critics started writing about a new French star. This production is taking shape with difficulty, although we have experience with musical dramas. Afanasiev and audio engineers Oleksandr Plisa and Oleksii Kitel used modern technology. The cast sings and dances, so the audience has to hear their voices, so proper audio effects are required. I believe that our musical is popular with all age groups, including those people who listened to Piaf during her lifetime and those who first learned about the “French sparrow,” the legendary prima donna of French chansons, from our production.

“Our next project is The Life and Death of Dr. Faust. The rehearsals are being supervised by director Andrii Prykhodko. The premiere is scheduled for October. This is a philosophical story about Mephistopheles, or Lucifer, who once sat on the left side of God, and who lures Dr. Faust into signing an agreement and selling his soul to the Devil. The original story was written by the English playwright Christopher Marlowe back in the 16th century, but modern audiences are very affected by its dramatic depth.

“My cherished dream is to include in our repertoire a play dedicated to the Ukrainian romance. This genre is forgotten today, and some music specialists even claim that it has disappeared. But I want to remind everyone that it does exist and fits our fast-paced life beautifully. I have discussed the topic with the leader of VV Oleh Skrypka (our colleague on the Natalka Poltavka project, with his fiery impersonation of Vozny, the government official, and his arrangements) and Prof. Oleksandr Zelinsky of the Lviv Conservatory, who has a huge collection of Ukrainian romances.

“What I have in mind is not a musical soiree but a full-fledged performance, with an interesting libretto. For example, a love triangle, a gripping intrigue — in other words, a dramatic plot intertwined with great music. The stage director, Oleksandr Bilozub, is working on this now. We have a strong troupe, a close team of actors who can sing, dance, and play various instruments. They will be able to reveal their talents in such a production. I want the script to include such splendid Ukrainian romances as “Hutsulka Ksenia,” “Oi ty divchyno, z horikha zernia,” and other melodies. By the way, there will be no prerecorded soundtrack: the actors will sing to the accompaniment of the Franko Theater’s orchestra conducted by Volodymyr Hdansky.

“Our creative portfolio is bulging. Nazar Stodolia will be staged by Yurii Kochevenko. We plan to stage Gogol’s Marriage on July 1, 2009, to mark the writer’s anniversary. Kozmenko-Delinde will work on this project.

“ The Man from la Mancha is no longer one of our future projects. The thing is that Petrov, the director, had in mind a very expensive production and refused all cheaper alternatives. We couldn’t afford this and had to cancel the project. Regrettably, funds are being channeled into election campaigns (we’ll have early mayoral elections in Kyiv in late May). Our politicians never have funds for the theater. We also had to postpone our joint project with Gregory Hlady (the Ternopil-born Ukrainian actor Hryhorii Hladii, who lives in Canada), who wanted to stage Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors at the Franko Theater, but he is busy with his contracts abroad. I am convinced that the title of this play will appear on our posters sooner or later.”


Among this season’s most popular performances is stage director Ihor Moiseev’s updated version of Irena Koval’s play The Lion and the Lioness (about the celebrated couple Leo and Sofia Tolstoy), in which Stupka brilliantly impersonates the Russian literary classic, with Polina Lazova starring as Sofia. This play, which was first staged by the Molody Theater in 2001, was transformed into a more brilliant rendition on the stage of the Franko Theater, sparkling with drama, mysticism, farce, and tragedy in a tour de force portraying “life with a genius.”

Stupka and Lazova are captivating on stage, as they portray two strong personalities caught up in one of life’s confrontations. Each is right in his or her own way. Where does the truth lie? Who is to blame for Tolstoy leaving home in his twilight years, whereupon his family fell apart? This play makes audiences reflect on things. No one is left indifferent because it is about things that never change: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Stupka doesn’t need any makeup. He doesn’t wear a beard to look like the famous classic, yet the instant the actor appears on stage, everyone in the audience believes that he is Count Leo Tolstoy. Even people who know about his drama-filled life and its outcome hold their breath while hanging on to the actor’s every word.

According to Stupka, the organizing committee of the Lublin- based drama festival is interested in The Lion and the Lioness and would also like to include the plays O Solo Mio, Family Life, and Hysteria in its lineup (the latter play is no longer part of the company’s repertoire). “If we can raise the funds, we’ll travel to Poland this July, because the festival’s organizing committee wants us to stage a new production that is compact in terms of stage props and cast. Well, The Lion and the Lioness and Family Life have precisely this format. I also have an offer to perform in Gdansk. They want to launch their own Walk of Fame, so I’ll have to attend the ceremony and leave my footprints for my Polish fans. Then they want me to act in a play that same night. Well, I can’t help being in demand. I thought that The Lion and the Lioness would be interesting for the Polish audiences, but again the problem with this tour is money, so I’ll have to look for sponsors. If I can’t find any, I’ll go alone, walk around Gdansk, leave my footprints in the Walk of Fame, and go back home.”


For the first time a Ukrainian pavilion was set up at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and a Ukrainian film night was held. Between May 14 and 25 six films were screened, including Oleksandr Kiriienko’s Illusion of Fear, Robert Crombie’s Sappho, Aleksandr Shapiro’s Casting, Mykola Mashchenko’s Bohdan-Zynovii Khmelnytsky, Roman Shirman’s The Cool Story, and Oles Yanchuk’s Bishop Andrei. Although Stupka plays the role of the Professor in Sappho, he did not attend the festival. Why didn’t Ukraine’s top actor go to Cannes?

“It was a small part and I didn’t see Sappho. In fact, it’s not the kind of project that I would want to present abroad. You have to go Cannes with a good production, and I wouldn’t want to be just a delegation member and go through the movie star routine. I’ve been there (Bohdan Stupka and the Polish producer Jerzy Hoffman showed their historical blockbuster With Fire and Sword in Cannes — T. P.). Sappho is just a trifle, nothing to write home about. On the one hand, it’s good that Ukraine can make an appearance at such a prestigious film festival, but on the other, the program leaves much to be desired. Ukraine’s filmmaking industry is just starting to awaken from its lethargic sleep, so they brought what they had to Cannes. Masterpieces are not born every year. Making a really good production is easier said than done. These kinds of productions are not like varenyky that you can make every day. I’ve been abroad a lot, so I don’t know what’s cooking at the Dovzhenko Studios. I have no offers in Ukraine, but I have some from our Russian and Polish neighbors.


“I just completed the sound recording for Taras Bulba and now the director, Volodymyr Bortko, is doing the editing. I watched the dailies, and I thing it’s going to be a gripping movie and no one will be ashamed of it. The premiere is scheduled for Nov. 4 in Moscow. While the negotiations with Oleksii Petrenko and discussions were taking place about Gerard Depardieu playing the role of Taras Bulba, with film director Viktor Hres brandishing his script, a former Kyivite by the name of Volodymyr Bortko, who is one of Russia’s leading film directors, produced his own version of Gogol’s Taras Bulba without much fanfare.

“I was honored with the lead role, although the work was very difficult. The shooting took seven months and it had an adverse effect on my health. The battle scenes were shot in winter, when it was bitingly cold, and in summer, when it was scorchingly hot (+35-37 o C), we had to wear chain armor, ride our horses, and fight. I was injured and wasn’t sure I would be able to ride a horse again. But then I remembered the training I had undergone when I was in Hoffman’s With Fire and Sword. I got back on my horse and took off. It is true that Bortko forbade me to do any stunts and hired a very good stuntman.

“The director was very demanding. He knew the plot inside and out and what had to be done (the script was written by Volodymyr Bortko and Igor Matiushin; the stunt coordinator was the American Nick Powell). I would say that Taras Bulba is an authorial film. If Bortko didn’t like something, I had to do a retake. He is a very complicated character, but we found a common language. Almost every night we discussed what we had to do the next day. I offered my ideas and Bortko listened carefully. Sometimes he agreed, but at other times he would say, ‘No, Taras Bulba is a Ukrainian samurai who is prepared to be killed in combat!’ The scene with Bulba being burned at the stake was hair-raising. In fact, I barely survived it because the wind came up and the flames almost reached my face. I made the sign of the cross and kissed the soil of Kamianets-Podilsky, where the shooting was taking place. Thank God, I wasn’t injured.

“The plot of the film is based on Gogol’s same-titled novel, plus a couple of extra scenes. The film is set in 1545, when the names ‘Russia’ or ‘Rus’ did not exist, there was only Muscovy. This film is about our forefathers, and I have a monolog that lasts four minutes. This is unprecedented in cinematography except for Simonov, who played the title role in Peter I and also had a long monologue, but his was shorter than mine. Bortko placed lines from Bulba’s monologue at the start of the film: ‘... to love as the Russian soul loves, is to love not with the mind or anything else...but men...speak scornfully with their tongues...’ Then come the credits: Taras Bulba, Nikolai Gogol, the producers, the cast, and so on. If this monolog were in the middle of the film it would sound drawn-out, but at the beginning of the movie it is very gripping. There are very dramatic. You have bloody scenes, like the murder of Andrii, the execution of Ostap (sensitive people should close their eyes or leave the movie theater). The battle scenes are very true to life, with the sound of bones breaking as horses’ legs are shattered by bludgeons and their riders slaughtered. Horrible! But this is how it was in the Middle Ages, and the film reflects these realities.”

The shooting was done in Khotyn, Kamianets-Podilsky, Kyiv, Khortytsia (Ukraine), Warsaw (Poland), and St. Petersburg (Russia). A number of stuntmen were hired (from Ukraine and Slovakia), and there were thousands of extras. The main characters speak Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian. Bortko put together a gorgeous cast, including Ihor Petrenko (Andrii), Volodymyr Vdovychenko (Ostap), Ada Rohovtseva (Bulba’s wife), Yurii Beliaev, Vladimir Ilyin, Mikhail Boiarsky, Boris Khmelnitsky, the Polish actor Magdalena Mielcarz, and others.

Stupka said that he didn’t have any problems working with his fellow actors. He knows Petrenko from the film A Driver for Vera. He met Vdovychenko when they worked on Taras Bulba. “These guys are ambitious and show symptoms of folie de grandeur,” the actor noted with a smile. “At the outset, when we went to St. Petersburg to read the script, I invited my ‘sons’ to have supper with me. In the relaxed atmosphere, I made them understand that we were a team, and that I would be their ‘father’ for the duration of the shooting. Ada Rohovtseva was superb as Bulba’s wife, although her role was a small one. There is an interesting scene with Taras and Yankel (a Jewish Ukrainian theme). Yankel is played by Sergei Dreyden, a former Kyivite, who now lives in St. Petersburg. Movie buffs remember his role as from Vladimir Mashkov’s film Daddy. Bulba saves his life, and Yankel later comes to his assistance when Ostap is in a bad way and Taras has to travel to Warsaw.”

The film will appear next year in Russian. Will there be a Ukrainian-language version, which Bortko dreams about? That is still up in the air. According to Stupka, Ukraine has to purchase the film. He did his best to persuade producer Oleg Kogan, but the situation is not as simple as meets the eye. Russian film distribution representatives are in Ukraine, so arrangements have to be made with them. These are “technical matters,” but they have to be resolved as soon as possible. First, the full-length film will be screened, and next year it will be broadcast on television (Bortko plans a four-episode series).

“It was interesting working with Krzysztof Zanussi,” Stupka said. “We did Serce na dloni in Kyiv and Warsaw. Since then journalists have written so much about this picture and me that I am amazed. Some even wrote that I am a millionaire. How could I be one?”

Perhaps because you are the oligarch in this movie?

Right, but they write about me as an actor, not the character I play.

Anyway, you can be a millionaire on the screen.

Well, if my dreams were to come true, I’d rather be a billionaire. In this film I am a millionaire with cardiac disease, who wants a heart transplant. His doctors find a donor for me, a healthy but suicidal young fellow, who cannot carry out the act. The oligarch has an aide, who is a chatterbox. The plot is so convoluted that in the end the boss gets this big mouth’s heart. There is also a love theme. In other words, this film is a black comedy. I speak Polish in this movie.


For the past few years the Ivan Franko Theater has run a studio at the Karpenko-Kary National Cinematography and Television University headed by Bohdan Stupka. Perhaps some of its 26 graduates will one day become as famous as Amvrosii Buchma and Natalia Uzhvii. Stupka treats his students as though they were his grandchildren. He teaches them, takes care of them, and yells at them now and then. He rejoices in their successes and shares their failures, convinced that he failed to explain something clearly.

There are interesting individuals among his students. Not long ago they visited Zanussi in Warsaw, where they lived at the renowned Polish producer’s estate, watched his plays, and attended his master class. On June 16 the students will stage Chekhov’s Seagull at the Ivan Franko Theater (directed by Kozmenko-Delinde). Four Nina Zarechnaias and three Treplevs will take turns acting on stage. The first performance will take place at noon, the second show will be a matinee, and at 6:00 the best of the best will appear on stage.

In July the studio performers of the Moscow Art Theater will come on tour to Kyiv, and Stupka’s pupils will tour Moscow this winter. All the arrangements have been made. “Our students will show how Chekhov should be performed at the alma mater,” Stupka said.

By Tetiana POLISHCHUK, The Day