Recently, the Fiction Writers’ House hosted the inclusive theatrical group "Joy" with its popular production of the Little Prince Work is now underway on the staging of a new piece, titled “The Happy Prince”, based on a story by Oscar Wilde.
In this interview with actor Alexander Zhdanovich, the leader of the children’s theatrical studio and the inclusive theatrical group ‘Joy’, we talked about the life and work of this theatrical team.
The inclusive theatre is now approaching its seventh anniversary. Could you remind us how it was conceived and how it started?
The work of the theatrical studio began as soon as the building of the Sunday school was complete. We made an open invitation, and a whole crowd of children of different ages rushed to join the theatrical studio headed by Malyavanych (Alexander’s nickname, translated as the painted clown). Honestly, I had no idea what to do with all of that crowd. Our fist session resembled a bitter battle against the odds (smiles). I had had plenty of experience acting for child audiences, but working with the children turned out to be a much more difficult undertaking. I was inspired by my wife. To her, nothing was impossible.
So, how did you succeed in building a team out of your crowd?
If there was one thing that I realised through this work, it was this. To build a good team, one needs to create a warm atmosphere in the group that will help the children become friends with one another, while also remaining unique personalities. This spirit of cohesion is absolutely critical in the theatrical world, as performing art relies on good teamwork. Talking to the children, I often use the example of mountain climbers who take on the challenge of a difficult peak together and are dependent on one another for their success. Little by little, we created a working theatrical team.
We celebrate our members’ birthdays and take an interest in each other’s lives outside the studio. We adopted a motto that attunes all of us towards cohesion: “let the joy live on!” We also spend a lot of time together doing outdoor activities.
Apart from being good actors, what are some of the other skills that you would like to develop in the children?
Our studio is different from most others in that it was created and has grown under the roof of a wonderful monastery. This has had a great imprint on its mission. We aim to develop in the children a Christian world-view, and we are greatly helped in the pursuit of this mission by the works of literary classics intended for children. We pray at the beginning and at the end of our sessions, we discuss the history of the church feasts and stage theatrical performances dedicated to Christmas and Pascha.
We include children with special needs in our sessions. They also participate in our productions as members of the cast. In the beginning, the presence of these children made some studio members feel uneasy, but this did not last long, and we are all very good friends now. I believe that this experience is a good way of teaching the children compassion and responsibility, as these qualities are at least as important as learning to be good actors.
What is the studio working on at present? What are some of its creative achievements that make you happy?
The most visible outcome of our work is our shows on the stage of the Sunday school. They are equally enjoyed by adults and children alike. Over six years of our existence, we have produced more than ten shows. Some of the shows we staged previously are: “The Golden Key”, “The Redbreast”, and “The Snow Queen”.
We select works that are likely to leave a deep emotional imprint in the actors and viewers, and we approach the selection very seriously. Before staging any work, I always test it with the children. It is always important that any dramatisation that comes on stage is relevant to everyone involved, the teachers, the actors and all the others involved.
What attracted you and the studio members to “The Happy Prince”?
This story by Oscar Wilde has many interesting aspects, including interesting and unusual characters; it addresses the themes of love, compassion and sacrifice.
The first reading of the story is usually very revealing. As we were reading the story, I found that it had many parts that captured the children’s attention. This gives us reason to believe that our viewers will find this work equally moving and thought-provoking. So far, we do not have a complete vision of the production. We are moving forward by trial and error to find the best approach and interpretation of the story.
What does acting mean to the children?
For the children with special needs, it is a breath of fresh air, a chance to realise themselves and fill their lives with meaning through creativity. It is an opportunity for all of us to broaden our horizons and to learn some important lessons for adult life. It teaches us to be good friends and to show understanding for other people, including those who are very different.
And what does acting mean for you? Do you see this as your creative obedience, a kind of service?
I see the theatre as a magical place that can bring together people of different ages and abilities and fill their hearts with love and light.
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For the last five years, the Convent of Saint Elisabeth has been hosting a self-help group, offering support and guidance for the relatives of sufferers from substance abuse. Recently, it also began to work with individuals in co-dependent relationships.