Anton Bolkunov: Playing at being an Adult
text Olga Malysheva photo Diana Balayan, Frol Podlesniy, Danil Potapov-polichinskiy
Anton Bolkunov, the set designer for Almaty’s independent theatre, ARTISHOCK, says that if he had not become an artist he would have been a writer or musician. Though recently his work at the theatre has included acting on stage and turning his hand to directing.
For the new season he has been preparing, along with the entire team at ARTISHOCK, for an important event: after sixteen years of performing in a basement the theatre is to have its own stage – the Large Stage.
Professional set designers are rare in Kazakhstan. How did you become one?
“I was not a good student at school, always hiding behind my desk at the back of the class and drawing. My mother suggested I go to art school after the ninth grade just to put me out of my misery. Having looked around and visited all the different faculties, I decided that the theatre department was the one for me. Here I would be taught not only to paint but also to make models, which was the broader education that I wanted. I have been going to the theatre since I was a child, and when I went I always admired the set designs displayed in the foyer. So when I saw them in the theatre department of the art school I knew that this was where I needed to be. Most people who graduated from art school would go on to the Kazakh National Academy of Arts, because even though our art school was very strong, it didn’t have the status of an institution of higher education. So I went too, and studied the same subjects, in order to achieve a higher education qualification. Although at art school you need to take part in a performance to get your diploma, you are still only eligible for a job as a prop master in the theatre after you graduate.
Was this why many of your friends did not go on to work in the theatre?
“Like them, I assumed that I wouldn’t go on to work in theatre because we don’t have many theatres here, this area isn’t very well developed in Kazakhstan. In this country set designers can’t travel for work, accepting invitations to work on performances from a variety of theatres. In Kazakhstan you need to be registered at a certain theatre, and when I graduated such jobs were not available. When I left the Academy I worked as a graphic artist and planned to continue doing this and being an illustrator. Then I worked on an exhibition of industrial sculpture at ARTISHOCK and was offered a permanent job there.
How many performances have you worked on?
“In total, in different theatres, about 25, mainly at ARTISHOCK. In Novosibirsk I worked at the Old House Theatre for two years as a senior set designer, staging three to four performances a year. At the Red Torch Theatre in Novosibirsk, I worked on a performance with producer Sergei Chekhov, and worked with him again on an independent project for the Asphalt Theatre. I also worked in Omsk, on two performances at TOP Theatre. In our Almaty puppet theatre, along with producer Natalya Dubs, we produced a performance of The Little
Prince that sadly wasn’t a success, as the puppets were great and Natalya’s ideas, that we realised, were just super.
In the 2016-2017 season, you also worked as a director on A History of Ugliness. Do you plan to do more of this?
“We have just, in co-authorship with the Engineering Theatre, АХЕ, from St Petersburg, staged a performance about Baikonur for the Astana Art Fest. The directors were me, Maxim Issayev and Pavel Semchenko. Generally, on a project like this, actors come up with plenty of suggestions themselves so that no one individual stands out as the main director. Next season I am planning to stage a performance of Er Tostik. I already have plans to give it the characteristics of film noir, in black and white, meaning that on the one hand I want to make it a Kazakh folk story, and on the other, a dark Western. Er Tostik is not entirely a fairy tale, as no fairy tale is ever simply that. When we were preparing Snow Maiden at The Old House, I listened to the lectures of the folklorist, Sofia Agranovich, about the old world of the Slavs, how the fairy tales appeared and what each one means. Every one had its own logic and sometimes it can be hard to understand and analyse it because humanity has evolved since then. So I am currently looking, from the perspective of a director, at ways to reveal the layers of meaning in Er Tostik, a Kazakh Odyssey.
You mentioned Snow Maiden. Why, in your opinion, did The Old House performance win the hearts of Russian critics and receive a Golden Mask award?
“Snow Maiden won an award for innovation, but I don’t consider it experimental. Maybe drama critics see classical theatre differently, but in my opinion it is a classical performance, even if it is approached in an innovative way, if it is based on a very concrete story. This is classical art in its pure form. It is a clear and understandable performance, nobody leaves it until the end, it is not boring, and it does not belong to the field of experiment. I think Snow Maiden’s secret lay in its successful combination of complicated artistic language with simplicity and clarity. Galina Pyanova’s productions all
have these qualities.
As a set designer you have been involved in the construction of the new Large Stage for the theatre. What features have you added to the project?
“We developed the hall itself, the stage, and the way the light is positioned. We worked on the basis of the very simple idea of a black rectangle, a black box in which you can position actors anywhere and face the play in any direction. The auditorium will be correspondingly mobile. It is also great to have space for a studio there, even though it isn’t big enough, as it’s hard to work without one and we had to rent one before.
Do you work most often with your hands or with your head in theatre?
“I dedicate ten per cent out of a hundred to thinking about the performance, and the rest of the time is spent working with my hands. We don’t have a workshop in our theatre.
Set designers are rare and unfortunately in our country there are not many decorators or property masters. At ARTISHOCK we produce performances that require a lot of energy from a set designer, but these are small performances in relation to large theatres. This year we worked hard on largescale backdrops and sketching boards, for performances such as Constellations, which we put on in our workshop. The work varies, but if we hired a prop master he would do nothing for a month, then work flat out for two weeks without sleeping, then again have a period with nothing to do. So we manage on our own.
Why do you love your job?
“At the age of thirty my job frees me from sitting in an office chair and sorting out paperwork. Instead I can play with toys like a child. I invent things, look at them from every angle, decide how they will work, show people and find how they are liked. This is why I love my job. I get to play at being an adult.”