Mamed Agayev has been heading the Theatre of Satire, which is one of the oldest, most popular and respectful theatres in Moscow, for 28 years. He worked with famous Soviet actors such as Andrei Mironov and Anatoli Papanov and received numerous awards and titles for his contribution to the development of Russian theatre. Nevertheless, he never forgets his Azerbaijani roots.
BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Question: You became head of the Theatre of Satire during one of the most difficult periods for Russian culture when many artists left the profession and started businesses after the collapse of the Soviet Union. How did you manage to stay in the profession and keep the troupe together?
Answer: I have been working in this theatre since 1979. I came as an intern, and then worked as an administrator, chief administrator, assistant director, deputy director, managing director, and was appointed to the post of director in 1992. I did not feel any unfavorable consequences of the Soviet Union’s collapse. On the contrary, it opened up new opportunities for our theatre because there was no censure and we could keep all of the money we earned and invest profits into the theatre’s development. It is true that many artists started doing business during that period, but if you start to work in such a living organism as a theatre, it is impossible to leave it, regardless of whether you are an administrator, a rigger, a cleaner, or an artist. No one left our theatre for business. It was clear to me that I had to ensure decent salaries to keep the troupe together. I am proud that our theatre currently ranks second regarding wages in Russia. Many actors are acting in films now because it is the easiest way to make money quickly. I am proud that our actors often decline film role offers because they love to work at home, in the theatre, and their salaries are high enough to allow them not to look for extra money.
Q.: On the other hand, roles in films bring popularity. The theatre benefits too because people come to the performances to see some particular actor, no?
A.: I disagree. That was the case about 20 years ago – if someone even played a cameo, it was an advertisement. Now it is a shame. Do you watch modern poor-quality films? I do not. I think that acting in such poor-quality films is anti-advertising for both the actor and the theatre. If the film is good, then it is another issue, but there are very few good films now.
Q.: You have never thought about leaving the profession, correct?
A.: Never! I love my job very much. I work 24/7. Even when I come home in the evening, I continue to think about my work – what I did today, what I did not, what I will do tomorrow, what meetings I will have, and so on. I have never had such thoughts of leaving.
Q.: Is a theatre director first a creative person or a manager?
A.: I always say, and I will continue to say, a person who is not from the theatrical world cannot lead a theatre. A theatre is not a place where you can work from 9 until 6. A theatre director must be a creative person. It is impossible to work if there is no creative tandem between the director and artistic director.
Q.: How do you assess the current situation in the theatrical sphere in Russia? Is it a period of renaissance, stagnation, or decline?
A.: After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was some recession in the sphere – both in economic and creative issues and the number of visitors. We did not feel it in the Theatre of Satire, because people attended our performances thanks to our great actors. In general, people in Russia have always loved theatre as they love it now, and will love it in the future. The love for theatre lies in the genes here. Russian theatre will always have spectators despite all of the foreign films and shows.
Q.: According to statistical data, the Theatre of Satire is one of the most attended in Moscow. What is the secret of your success?
A.: It is important to have a proper repertoire, to put on good plays that our visitors like, and to choose the right artists. We give our anniversary performances every 3-4 years because the spectators want to watch them again and again. I should thank our artistic director Alexander Shirvindt for all of these achievements.
Q.: Do you follow developments in the theatrical sphere in Azerbaijan?
A.: There was a period when the theatres were empty in Baku. I communicate with the directors of theatres and actors, and they say that people have returned to the theatres in Azerbaijan, which is a good sign. I am immensely grateful to the government of Azerbaijan for repairing all of the theatres. They also equipped them with high-quality lighting and sound equipment, which many theatres in Moscow do not have. In the Theatre of Satire, we do it at our own expense. The unfortunate thing is that Azerbaijan and Russia stopped cooperation in the theatrical sphere in 1990. Meanwhile, people still speak Russian everywhere in Azerbaijan.
I was born in Nakhchivan, and then there was only one Russian school there at that time. I visited the place four years ago. The school still exists, and they have also built a new modern building. I was happy, and I believe we should do our best to maintain these connections. In the Caucasus, they say, “A close neighbor is better than a distant relative.” Who is our neighbor? It is neither America nor England, it is Russia. Our theatrical, musical culture is very connected with Russia. We have a lot of things in common. Fortunately, a couple of years ago, student mobility programs were resumed, and 28 students from Azerbaijan are now studying at the Shchukin Theatre Institute in Moscow. I hope that mobility programs for the directors will also be resumed because unfortunately there is a shortage of qualified young directors in Baku.
Q.: Do you support Azerbaijani artists and directors in Moscow?
A.: There are some Azerbaijani artists in Moscow, and all of them are my friends. However, none of them have ever asked me for a job. I would like to have at least one Azerbaijani actor in our troupe. If a talented Azerbaijani actor applies for a job, I will recruit them with pleasure.
Q: Do you have plans to stage an Azerbaijani play in the Theatre of Satire?
A.: The problem here is the translation. In the Soviet period, there was a Union of Soviet Writers, which translated all Azerbaijani plays into Russian and all Russian plays into Azerbaijani. Nowadays, it is expensive to perform the translations. Besides, our theatre is specific – we need a satire, which is not easy to find. Many years ago, we staged Nikolai Erdman’s tragicomedy “The Suicide,” where a priest comes to the stage, looks at the audience and says, “People have faith. They do not have anyone to believe to.” Can you imagine what it meant to say such a phrase in the Soviet Union! The performance was banned five times during the Soviet period. Despite this, we resumed it every time, and it drew a maximum capacity audience for 15 years. All of our star actors were engaged in it.
Q.: Is it difficult to work with stars? Stars are often very capricious.
A.: No, I came to the theatre when I was a student. Step by step I grew into a director, and I was already well acquainted with everyone and knew how to talk with them by that time.
Q.: In one of your interviews, you said that your children had chosen professions with no links to the theatre. Did you try to influence their choice somehow? Did you want them to follow in your footsteps?
A.: My father gave freedom of choice to me and my brothers and sister. My older brother is an archaeologist and a professor, my younger brother was an athlete and a coach, and my sister graduated from the faculty of oriental studies in Baku. I gave the same freedom of choice to my children. My eldest daughter and my son chose international relations at MGIMO University, and my youngest daughter studies medicine. All of them received high scores at the entrance exams and got scholarships. I am very proud of all of them. Nevertheless, they love theatre. During school years, they watched theatre performances every week, and even now all of my family attends all of the premieres of our theatre.
Q.: Actors often complain about their profession. Do you agree that it is very difficult to be an actor?
A.: Actors do have a difficult job. But I do not know of any easy jobs. At first glance, the job of a director is easy – we have assistants for everything, but when we finish this interview, 10 of my employees will come and have a problem – theatrical, personal, or a problem with health. I should help them all, and not say no. We will find solutions. No one should cry after leaving my office.
Q.: In Azerbaijan and Russia, you are the only person decorated with the Orders of Friendship. How did you feel when you received these high awards?
A.: I worked in Moscow, and when Vladimir Putin presented the award to me, I was glad that my work was appreciated. However, the decree of the President of Azerbaijan was unexpected and was like a dream. When I realized that the President would present the award, I was ecstatic. I had the opportunity to talk with him for about 15-20 minutes – he is very intelligent and endearing. I was happy to meet such a unique person. Azerbaijan is extremely lucky to have such a president. Therefore, I can say that I was truly happy to receive the order from him.
Q.: You often visit Azerbaijan. Do you have any favorite places in the country?
A.: I love the city of Nakhchivan, where I was born, and I love the mountains, where I grew up. I have built a small chalet in the village of Akbulag, which is not far from there, and I spend about 7-10 days there every winter and summer. This week fills me with energy for a very long time. I have visited all of the regions in Azerbaijan. I often travel to Baku, and I have been to the village of Lahıc three times. Lahıc is a unique place, and it is positively worth a visit.
Q.: Let’s return to the theatre issues. How do you manage to maintain traditions and at the same time stay current?
A.: As a person from the Caucasus, I have to follow traditions. Meanwhile, modern times requires new technologies. For instance, traditionally we built huge stage sceneries, and now there are lighting systems that can create the illusion of scenery on an empty stage. Regardless of whether we want to or not, we have to adapt.
Q.: What does theatre mean for you?
A.: Everything. The theatre is my family, my friends, my relatives…it’s my life.