Yulia Savikovskaya might be known to many RA+C readers for her witty and sharp reviews of theatre productions, concerts and operas. Few would know, however, that Yulia is also a playwright. Her plays were staged in Moscow, St Petersburg and Bulgaria, translated in Chinese and nominated for prestigious awards. Yulia told us about her past work and future plans and ambitions.

Natalya Kolosova in conversation with Yulia Savikovskaya

Yulia, you belong to those rare people who manage to successfully combine many different occupations and activities: you are a connoisseur and critic of classical music, passionate theatre-goer, author of your own plays, but also a researcher and scholar with a doctoral degree from Oxford. How would you define your occupation if someone asks you at a dinner party?

I describe myself as a writer, dreamer and observer. An observer in me is an anthropologist that has got a degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology at Oxford. Dreamer is my inner creative self who immerses herself in music, theatre and art, and writer is the person who does all the writing to describe the emotions of the dreamer or to relate the dreamer’s experiences in perceiving art. My occupation consists of living in this world and writing about it.

How did you start writing plays?

It was a very interesting experience. It was 2008, and I think my mind had ripened for writing plays, because there was this good combination of financial support from my scholarship and relative freedom, as I was just starting to work on my DPhil dissertation at Oxford. There was some kind of craving for self-expression, and I began to write poetry. I had seen quite a lot theater by that time, both in England and Russia, but I didn’t have any direct connection to it. One day Oxford Union organized an event with Alan Rickman. I made my way to private drinks with him after the main event, as I really wanted to stand next to him, and even felt some kind of infatuation because he was very charismatic. I came back with the idea to write a play about being in love with a person much older than myself and next morning I remember being on the floor surrounded by sheets of A4 paper and writing. I drafted the plot almost in a day. In this play –«A Failed Rehearsal» – such a union turns out to be unsuccessful, impossible, painful, as the young girl suddenly falls in love with her fiancee’s father and everything in this family falls apart. I did it because I wanted to intellectually think this situation over, analyze its potential and slightly crush my naive desire with another decision brought about by introducing a grain of pessimism.

What kinds of relationships and situations do you explore in your texts?

I have been always interested in drama featuring betrayal, illness, death, loneliness – and I explore these topics in my own plays. I guess I pursue the therapeutic effect in exploring these fears and obsessions, as I am not allowed to show them in everyday life.

You are talking about analyzing certain themes and emotions. You have chosen to do it in drama. However, it could have been possible to write an article about them, why is theater as a medium important for you?

The article needs to be scientific and objective, one is expected to have a stock of professional knowledge, links to examples, quotes from other works. I do not possess this apparatus. In the play it is possible to do the opposite of the objectification of one’s emotions – I call it an act of concealment and veiled reflection.

I am a voyeuristic person. I like to watch people. I often dream of having an invisibility hat to sneak into people’s houses so I can observe things without being noticed. The medium of theatre responds to my desire to become many people at once during an experience of observation. It also allows to depart from one’s limited self and one’s own life to explore the imaginary spaces of other emotions and lives.

Let’s talk about autobiographical moments in your plays. For example, your heroine in «Tate Modern» stutters, and I know that you also stuttered for a while in your life. Why did you decide to write this play?

Here it is necessary to raise the question of how much of their own life each artist, musician, or writer chooses to put into art. On the one hand, there’s no need to be afraid to insert autobiographical moments. On the other hand, I don’t want a play to be my “selfie”. Each play has some secret codes. For example, there might be the topic which is very important to me, but it is hidden inside a character, which is not associated with myself, a male or a child. Many characters are a study of some elements of my life and things that deeply concern me, but I would not say that they are directly autobiographical. I am convinced that a biographical account is not just a documentation of what we live through but also things we dream about. In my dreams I experience many fantasy worlds. The plays usually arise from something that has never happened in my real life.

In «Tate Modern» it may indeed seem that the main character is a copy of myself, because she has returned from England and is looking for home, and indeed she has a stutter. But stuttering was simply a smooth a way into the play. I needed speech issue as a secret weakness of otherwise successful heroine. She is not really me and her biography is completely different.

Probably, the play which is the most autobiographical, even painfully so is «The Goddess». The life of its character Agnes seemingly has no factual similarities with mine. But her painful perception of life, her loneliness and her desire to change other people are very self-referential. The desire to explore such things that are most painful and challenging, even frightening for me, is the real motivation for writing a play.

I have noticed that you have very interesting dialogues in plays, and often a small number of words is used. They remind me of Beckett’s plays. Who influenced you in your writing?  

I have several favorite authors — Chekhov, Pinter, Meterlink, Ibsen who are known for their mastery of the short but powerful expressions. I had to work hard to achieve such brevity as my first plays were rather wordy. Eventually I realized that the less text there is, the more internal links there are for audiences to discover.

I have several favorite authors among those who can do it extraordinarily, and they are all well-known — Anton Chekhov, Harold Pinter, Maurice Maeterlinck, Henrik Ibsen. I began to thin my texts out, moving to such plays as «A Leak» or «Sharynny Stut» (there is no translation to this, as it is an invented language), where there are either scraps of words or a non-existent language. I find it very interesting, I would like to experiment with words further. I have a children’s play «Funarolls» where characters can speak with parts of speech only (suppose one can only say «dog» and the other can only say «runs»). It is only through holding hands that they together can say the sentence «dog runs». It is very interesting for me to explore and see what kind of space and what new relationships are formed between these words. Such approaches might remind you of Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, the mid-20thcentury writers of absurd theatre. At the same time there are connections with Tom Stoppard, whom I admire for his ability to explore the world intellectually in his own unique way.

I do not want, however, the brevity to strip my plays of sensuality and eroticism. I want to write about sexual desire, about hidden and concealed things, about inner eroticism, about fantasies. Works of similar to those by Tennessee Williams or Frank Wedekind are very inspirational here.

Could you comment on the productions of your plays?

My first production was in a school theatre studio in Moscow, and I only found out about it a year later. My play «A Failed Rehearsal» was staged then, as the director found my text in a virtual theatre library run by Sergei Efimov. The director never informed me about the production, he changed and shortened the text and introduced his own bits and changed its title. The performance was a great success and was covered in the special issue newspaper, which I found very interesting to read. I watched it later on the video, but the fact that I was not invited to the performance was disappointing. I also think that the choice of the plot might not be the best for schoolchildren. Mind you, it is about the love between a young woman and a man 20 years older.

The second production was the staging of my play «Tate Modern». Together with director  Oleg Dmitriev we started a crowdfunding campaign and raised 200 thousand rubles to make it happen. It was performed on Chamber Stage of Maly Dramatic Theatre, and many of my friends in St Petersburg came to see it. I really loved the tripartite colour scheme (red-green-blue) that was chosen for its set, as these are the main colours that our eyes transform into the whole colour range, and it was important for the play.

The third one was «The Goddess». The Bulgarian director Vasilka Iordanova translated my play and staged it, naming it ‘The Dead City’, and I was invited to its premiere in Sofia. It was an interesting experience, and a chance to see some Bulgarian theatre in Sofia – I saw different performances every day.

Victor Savchuk, the London-based Russian director commented after reading «The Goddess» and «Tate Modern» that they are more suitable for the Russian-speaking public in London as they are not as experimental as some of my other plays. But I hope the others will also find their viewers eventually.

Lots of things link drama and music – the structure of the play, the musical alignment of the text. Is music relevant in your texts?

It is often said that plays are relatively easy to translate. But imagine the situation when it is important for the author that the word «kho-ro-sho» (good or well in Russian) is made up of three syllables. And the sense of the sitation or an exchange is in the length of the word, in its exact sound. What happens when this play is translated then? When I write, I always want to build the text that way, so that there is something musical and therefore unalterable in the fact that you expressed your thought or emotion in a particular way with specific words. Meaning is created not by what the words signify, but by the duration and intoning of the statement. It is always difficult to do in the text.

I tried to do this in a play where the familiar language just does not exist – when the usual meaning is lost it is easier to hear the music among the words. It seemed to me that if someone would stage it, I would have to explain to the director (with the help of the existing story line, as I also wrote it) what was happening there. The viewers will understand the plot not through words, but through the intonations, pronunciation, musicality of the language and pauses between words, and the rest could be left to their own interpretation. It would be like watching a show in a language you don’t know. It seems to me that this is a good idea for an opera, because for opera it is very natural to direct the attention of the audience through the musical phrasing and intoning.

You are talking about your play «Sharynny Stut». How did its idea come about?

It is a play about an impending catastrophe where human creatures can only survive through clutching to each other as family units. As some of them die, the others have no choice other then substitute the gone members with the new one, forming new units. And all the inhabitants of this world talk in their own invented language

I just saw this story in my dreams and invented its own quite simple language. Wile none of the words really exist they are not nonsense or gibberish and I know the meaning of each of them. «Stut» is a process of waiting – a noun or a gerund from «stut’ – which is a combination of Russian words with meanings «to stand» and «to freeze». Sharyn is a city where my characters want to get, almost like in Kafka’s «The Castle», so Sharynny is an adjective meaning near Sharyn. The whole play is about 4 characters, which we could with some kind of generalization define as mom, dad, grandmother and child, and their chekhovian longing «To Moscow! To Moscow!». But in a very Beckett-ian tradition they never get where they want.

Do you think about how your texts will affect the viewer?

When I am writing I have no idea how my texts and their productions will be perceived, I am just grateful that people spent their time seeing them. I do not think about what and how I should write in order to be successful or acceptable. Even when being commissioned to write a play, as it happened with «The Miracle of Christoph», I use all my freedom as a playwright.

There was one review of «Tate Modern» in which I was accused of not thinking about the viewer. I guess it is really hard for me to think about it or predict the reactions. I am a fan of semiotic theory of perception, where everyone shapes the reality by perceiving it. It is impossible to create it for somebody in advance. If I think about someone specific when writing the text, I will write another play.

What are your plans for the future?

A lot of things are happening. I had a very difficult transitional stage when I submitted my dissertation in November 2017. I also had some personal reasons for transformation, I had to reinvent myself from scratch. It was the start of the new stage for me, the period when the ideas and texts are brewing and coming together.

I have finished my doctoral research at Oxford and recently had a very festive graduation ceremony at Sheldonian Theatre where Oxford students officially get their degrees. Now it is time to write all those plays that have been nesting in my head. One of them (perhaps inspired by my research) is to compare two eras – Russia before the collapse of the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia. It will be done through the perception of a person who lived in the Soviet regime as a child and could not stand the competition, insecurity, the disappearance of ideals and values, the need to earn money that came with the break-up of the USSR. The first part of the play will be staged in the Soviet kindergarten the second part will be in a sanatorium for people with nervous and mental illnesses. The setting of both will mirror each other.

Another thought isto explore the time that Felix Yusupov, the Russian duke involved in a murder of Rasputin, spent in Oxford. He studied here for several years and founded the Russian society.  I want to write a surreal play about his relocation into the body of an Oxford student from Russia, Dmitry Serov (by analogy with Dorian Gray), in order to try to influence the fate of modern Russia from abroad.

What other activities inspire you? What things are you involved in currently?  

I am inspired by the beauty of the world. The more moments in my life of intense perception of beautiful counterpoints in this life, the better. I am the person who is constantly looking for the new experiences.

Music plays a huge role in my life. I have been writing articles on classical music for about three years now. I wrote about classical music concerts in Oxford and after I moved to Lonfon on November 2017 I immersed myself fully into the classical music world, which I know quite well from my childhood. During the last year (2018) I wrote about 50-60 reviews of classical music and there were times when I went to concerts every day. I also took many interviews with conductors, performers and composers. I am collecting materials for a play about music and about the essence of the creative process in it, as it seems to me such plays haven’t been written yet. I attend concert rehearsals, I meet people, I roam around London, Moscow and St Petersburg in search for things that will appease my aesthetic hunger, my longing to discover the beauty of this world in its multiple, unexpected facets. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so I am constantly training my perception, and I lead what one would call an existentialist, very intense existence. I would try to put everything I lived through recently into my new plays: in different forms and under different guises.

To read the scripts of Yulia’s plays please follow the link