An interview with the master: Andrei Pronichev

Add to the list

On MAINSTAGE.online you cannot only read the announcements of interesting exhibitions and shows, know-hows presentations, and events reports but also in the near future watch interviews with the most interesting artists of Russian and foreign theatrical and entertainment community. For example, in recent Theatre Forum held in Moscow's Sokolniki Park in mid-September, we were able to arrange a conversation with Andrei Nikolaevich Pronichev, Deputy General Director of the Bolshoi Theatre, Honored Worker of Culture of Russia and the famous theatre master.

MAINSTAGE.online: Recently you were one of the guests in the exhibition Prolight + Sound NAMM at the Theatre Forum. What are your impressions of the Forum and of the exhibition?

Andrei Nikolaevich:  On the whole my impression is really positive. The exhibition is held annually and, in my opinion, every year brings visitors and participants new emotions and possibilities. Despite the fact that people this year became more involved in the middle of the event, my impression is really positive.

MS: Are these events important for the Russian theatre and show industry? 

АN: I think that such events are really important and they have to be held on the regular basis in order theatre can expand and develop in all possible directions. First of all, such events give an opportunity to meet and talk to colleagues from theatre and show-industry. Here people not only get to know more about new products and meet the representatives of the company but also meet new people, exchange new ideas, improve their professional skills at the seminars, listen to the speeches of colleagues, discuss important issues. I believe that communication in our business is a very important part of development, and it is remarkable that such forums exist, and give us that opportunity. Professionals nowadays cannot be bound by his office or theatre, neglecting communication. The Forum and the exhibition is an excellent opportunity to communicate freely about various things, to consult experts, which must be used.

MS: At the forum you and some of your colleagues have voiced the following idea: the contemporary theatre is not about the latest devices and technologies, but is more about experts who are able to manipulate them. Please tell us the career path which a person should follow starting from school to the top of the profession? Where can a young man obtain proper knowledge and education in contemporary Russia? How can a young person get into this interesting and mysterious world of theatre?

AN: Actually, getting into the profession might be very diverse. Every expert has their own way. Many people get into the theatre by accident. One gets a job and stays forever. Following the words of Bulgakov: "No one arranges their work in the theatre usually it happens by accident like being hit by the tram."

I have seen as we attracted professional engineers from other areas, and they remained. I have also seen as the retired military man (as you know they get retired being 45), came to the theatre and assimilated there perfectly well, as they had good technical training and organizational skills.

It is most common when people first come to the theatre, and only after that they begin to improve in their work and are eager to get an education in this field, rather than vice versa. But, of course, there is a system of training future professionals. Unfortunately, it is not as various as we want it to be but it exists, it expands and it performs its function.

For example, in Moscow there is an Art and Theatre Technical College which provides secondary technical education and prepares a variety of theatre professionals. They include sound engineers, mechanics, scene mechanics, illuminators, decorators, and many others. In terms of higher education there is, for example, the Moscow Art Theatre School, and Scrip-writing and Theatre Technology Department of Theatre Academy in St. Petersburg. In addition, the Higher School of the Performing Arts opened recently and works in the Theatre Faculty of Engineering and Technology, which I am managing now. People can get a higher education in all these universities. These educational institutions teach scene designers and illumination designers. There is an opportunity to get distant education, a lot of guys enter with a basic secondary professional training from the Theatre and Arts Technical College, from Art Schools, and we try to give them an opportunity to improve their education at the next educational level.

MS: And how often do Russian theatres attract foreign experts? Or is practical training overseas more developed?

AN: I would not say that foreign internships are highly developed among students, but many of the professors including me had them. For me those internships were an integral part of my job. For many years I worked at the Mariinsky Theatre, had to travel a lot, I visited a variety of foreign theatres and studied their experience at the same time.  We can say that this was my long-term multidisciplinary internship. It was a very interesting experience, in my opinion, this practice had contributed a lot to my own development, and I hope that my colleagues had it, too.

I also want to note that, in general, the level of Russian experts might be compared with the background of international experts. Such internships are more important for an exchange of experience than for scientific needs. All advanced domestic theatres operate at an international level and they actually don’t need to attract foreign experts. Directors, illumination designers, video designers all over the world surely come, and technically, technologically we speak the same language, and have no problems with communication. 

MS: In general, in your opinion, as a true master of the theatrical world, how strong are Russian theatres, in comparison with foreign ones in terms of equipment, contemporary technologies, and experts?

AN: Modern Russian theatres are not inferior to the equipment and technology of leading Western theatres. But it should be noted that this level has been achieved over the past two decades. During the Soviet era the situation was completely different, the theatre was closed, and new technologies never put into practice. But they still could do wonderful, spectacular performances, what I mean is that a difficult life can give a certain push to development because they had to use wittedness to fulfill the tasks but the lag was still obvious. In Russia there were little theatres with good equipment, and it was very noticeable.

In the last two decades there has been a significant leap. There were a lot of renovations of many Russian theatres. Many new, modern buildings were constructed. And today largest Russian theatres are well technically and technologically equipped and might be compared with leading Western spots, neither European nor, especially English and American.

Why am I singled out American and British theatre? Because they have always followed their own way, and even today they still have their own ideology. American and British spots (except MET or Covent Garden) were constructed in such a way that technical equipment was minimized there, so they use hand-applied mechanics. 

Russia mainly follows European traditions. And in Europe Germany is considered to be a trendsetter in the sphere of theatrical technology because all leading theatre and technology companies are settled. All our new or reconstructed theatres are equipped very well and every year more and more successful theatres, we can be proud of, appear.

MS: Today, many theatres open new scenes, build new spots, and, as everyone knows, it concerns old and largest theatres in the country. Why does this happen, in your opinion? Old scenes are not able to cope with the challenges of contemporary theatre, are they?

AN: It is natural. Equipment and technical possibilities of the theatre are getting old. In general, a life cycle between theatre reconstructions can be different, but once in 30-40 years a reconstruction must be made in every theatre for the world and technology develop. Usually it means that theatre has to meet the standards of quality of the performances. Therefore, theatre reconstruction is a natural and continuous process. I took place within Czarist times and Soviet times. For example, the reconstruction of Bolshoi Theatre was held in the 30s of the 20th century. It was the last biggest reconstruction before the great work, which was carried out in this century ended in 2011. The historic scene of Mariinsky Theatre was reconstructed in the 68-70s of the last century, and modern equipment of that time was installed. So, it proves that reconstruction is useful and important for a life of every theatre, and it depends on many factors, first of all, of course, on financial issues and on effectiveness of a theatre. On the whole the historic scene of Mariinsky Theatre needs to be reconstructed and it is just waiting for a suitable moment.

MS: At the Theatre Forum your colleagues presented a modern system of 3d-modeling, which has been invented for the Bolshoi. Could you share your impressions of this system? What is its practical and artistic value specifically for your theatre? Are there any analogs to this system in the world and in Russia? Do you know any theatres, where this system is successfully used? 

AN: Many theatres use something similar. We actually managed to create not only a 3d-modeling system, but a complex (including hardware and software package) for model performances which help scene directors and designers in play preparations and in testing all the technical and artistic solutions. I think this product is really interesting as far as it was made together with Bolshoi Theatre. This complex is really important for us. Two plays have already been made with the help of this complex. Scene designers worked hard to verify all the technical aspects for staging "The Damnation of Faust". Now the work is going on for the performance of "Manon Lescaut." I think that this complex will be widely used by many scene designers. This complex isn’t always needed, not for all the performances but in case scenery, mechanisms and performers should work together, for crowd scenes, scenery manipulations, it may be of a good use. Many errors can be eliminated during the planning process, in front of the computer. One can look at the scene from different angles, from any position, and see how well the scene interacts with modeled actors. It might open new horizons for the director.

Speaking about the analogs, they certainly exist, but it is believed that our complex has progressed more than those analogs which are known to us. We have made our complex to a specific theatre and for a specific scene. Using the computer, you really get to Bolshoi Theatre and see a full model that allows build and play your performance again and again testing it as a director, as an engineer, as a scene designer. Many errors can be eliminated before the play has gone into production. Our complex can allow save a lot of money. What is more, many moments can be played in the computer and save a lot of money because the additional repetition may be substituted by a performance which can bring cash to the box office.  

MS: What other modern technologies are used in the Bolshoi Theatre, with which the theatre has received fundamentally new opportunities to work on performances? 

AN: This talk can last forever, and Bolshoi Theatre is not a single example. One shouldn’t think that Bolshoi Theatre in Russia is ahead of all, and the rest are falling behind. But today many theatres apply modern technologies. They include videos of a very different quality: visual effects, mapping, light effects based on the video, they include modern materials: fabric, plastics, etc. There are many possibilities, and not only has our theatre had them. But the main thing that Bolshoi Theatre got and that allowed us to meet build the highest modern standards in making performances is actually a renovated building, huge space, good equipment and good technical capabilities.

MS: What kind of world spots did impress you more in terms of their modern technical equipment or anything else? 

AN: I was able to visit and work in many places. And, of course, in different periods different spots impressed with different unusual solutions. For example, in the late 80's, I first went to the Metropolitan Opera, and he struck me with its size, with the quality of their work and with a professional staff. For the first time in my life I was able to see the modern grand opera and it could not be impress me. I was struck by many German theatres, which have always been very well equipped.

One of the most interesting moments in the history of theatre architecture was the reconstruction of the English Royal Opera Covent Garden. When we got there, I immediately had an impression that this is an innovation in the theatrical architecture. They neglected the classical scheme, which has prevailed for many years, and it built something completely different, a technical solution of the theatre with a large number of scenes. Since it was an absolute know-how, this solution amazed me being simple and unusual. Subsequently, this system spread, on a similar principle Opera House was built in Copenhagen, the Millennium Centre in Wales. And I can say that this idea has been largely used by me and my colleagues to create a new technology project of the Mariinsky Theatre. Of course, it was a bit reinterpreted for the needs of the Mariinsky Theatre, but on the technological basis of Covent Garden solution.

By the way, what was really stunning in Covent Garden is their ability to reconstruct in real conditions the center of historic buildings. You cannot but admire their success. Naturally, each theatre is reconstructed on the basis of the available conditions. For example, the British Royal Opera developed to different sizes, and Madrid's Royal Theatre went under the ground, because it is situated in the middle of the square and cannot grow to different sides. Bolshoi Theatre faced the same problem during its reconstruction. In my opinion, colleagues who planned and designed the reconstruction solved this problem correctly by using the depth under the theatre and using free space in the historical neighborhood, expanding the theatre from the back of it.  This allowed the theatre to bring air to the performances and get new design opportunities.  

MS: Do you think that in the nearest future domestic and international theatres will experience fundamental changes, or anything that might happen has already happened?

AN: Of course, we will see a lot of changes. Progress cannot be stopped. There are new materials, new technologies, new opportunities, and new equipment. If we talk about the technical development, I can bring an example - the theatre used to have hand-operated flying bars, then electronic flying bars, with simplified our work but also made it more difficult. Those bars needed to be fixed to make them move smoother. So we invented how to use DC motors. And then, frequency converters were invented and changed the situation radically and theatre got an opportunity to work on the level. So, if computer technologies do not stop developing, the theatre won’t either. Another issue is that in different areas of the theatre technologies are changing at different pace. For example, in the fields of light, sound and video the change is very rapid, but the mechanic is more conservative, because such equipment is usually fixed and it was designed to serve many years.

MS: How do you see the future of the theatre?

AN: I would like to see the future of the theatre, where the spectaculars go to the performances because they're interested in it. I would like to see the theatre where experts in theatre technology, who are engaged in the creation of the show, can surprise and delight the viewers.  This is the main thing that was supposed to be in the theatre of the past, should be preserved in the theatre of the future. 

Olga Tsoi