Scriptwriter Yevgenia Abeluk and Media Communications students Ksenia Andreeva and Anna Mishanina, who performed in the play, discussed the making of the production and its relevance for today’s viewers.
The idea for the poetic performance was born at the HSE Project Laboratory for Studies of Yury Lyubimov’s Work and Director’s Theatre of the XX-XXI Centuries. The performance was based on exclusive variants of poetic compositions by Andrey Voznesensky and correspondences between the theatre and inspection organs (including the Department of Culture of the Moscow City Executive Committee, the ministries of culture of the RSFSR and the USSR, the district committee of the CPSU, and even the Central Committee of the CPSU) that researchers of the lab discovered.
The premiere of Yuri Lyubimov’s play took place in 1970 with the participation of Vladimir Vysotsky, who gave his first onstage performance of his song ‘Hunt for Wolves’. The production earned high praise from audiences, but after three performances it was banned by the censors.
The new performance represents an attempt to rethink the poet and the director’s dramatic work, as well as to understand why the production did not please the Soviet censors. The project received a grant from the HSE Student Initiative Support Centre as well as support from the Voznesensky Center (founded by Leonid Boguslavsky, son of Andrey Voznesensky’s widow). The premiere of the play, which featured HSE students, took place on January 29, 2021.
It was interesting to take a closer look at the play, because this is the only performance by Lyubimov that has not been staged again since being banned. At that time it was a struggle to stage any performance—Soviet theatre censorship was much tougher than literary censorship—and Lyubimov is perhaps the only director who knew how to maneuver these barriers and get his performances onto the stage. However, despite this, Protect Your Faces didn’t make it.
Some time ago, lab expert Elena Leenson and I discovered what appeared to be one of the first versions of the text of the play in the archives of the Taganka Theater. It is interesting that at RGALI (the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art), I did not find a single version of the text at that time, despite the fact that there is a very rich Taganka Theater archive there. However, I did find a large number of documents about the history of the production and the ban of the performance.
The text of the play itself was fascinating to me. I saw Voznesensky in a new light—as a dramatic writer. It was clear that the story of Faces, how it was staged and then banned, was a story that needed to be told. And since we have the play, we can accompany the story by showing fragments of it. So then we had the idea that it would be great to involve students in the project. This was early 2019, and at that time the Foundation for the Development of Dramatic Art of Y. P. Lyubimov provided support, thanks to which it was possible to invite Yuri Lyubimov’s student, director Daria Denisenko.
I applied for the Project Fair, and about 60 students from different faculties wanted to join us. It probably seems crazy, but we decided to take all of them. The students completed an excellent school: classes in movement, stage speech, and lectures on the history of the Taganka Theater. It was hard work, and 34 students reached the final stage of the project. In June we showed ready-made scenes in accompaniment with my story. Everything happened in the assembly hall on Basmannaya; a lot of people came to see it, not only students and teachers, but also directors, and even fans of the old Taganka—everyone very warmly received the not-fully-baked production.
And in the summer of 2020, something fantastic happened. A man contacted me, who introduced himself as the son of an aid to Ekaterina Furtseva [a famous longtime Soviet official who served as the USSR’s Minister of Culture from 1960-1974 — ed.] and said that he had a script for the play Protect Your Faces. As it turned out, the version was nothing like the one we had; it had been significantly reworked by the poet. It was the censored copy, or more precisely, a copy of it. The red pencil marks indicating what the author and director needed to cut therefore looked black. I purchased the text. It was not an insignificant amount of money, but it was very important material.
Meanwhile, the students involved in the previous project wanted to continue their work, so they drafted a project proposal, submitted it to the Student Initiative Support Centre competition, and received a grant. This allowed us to invite Daria Denisenko again to work on the production, and also to pay for costumes and theatre programmes. We made a completely new original script, which included both Voznesensky’s poems and documents revealing the censorship of the work.
The Voznesensky Center was very interested in our project. Since this time the task was more difficult—staging a real performance—we decided to hold student auditions. We recruited 11 actors. And the end of September, we began our intensive work on the production: the students underwent theatrical training, I gave lectures about the work of Voznesensky and the poetic boom of the 1960s. In the end, it turned out to be a performance that received the serious attention of journalists. We really want to show it at HSE whenever possible. The Voznesensky Center has a small hall, and we would like the production to be seen by as many students and teachers as possible.
This performance is just as relevant to today as it was in the 1960s. For example, Voznesensky's text mentions the Hong Kong flu that was raging at the time. Therefore, the Taganka actors in the famous photographs of the performance, taken by Henrietta Perian, are wearing masks, as we are today. This is what the play’s title, Protect Your Faces, is in reference to. But this is its superficial meaning. The main message of the play is that you have to remain human, whatever the situation. Lyubimov’s performance ended with a very interesting mise-en-scène: the actors carried out a huge mirror, turned it towards the audience. Seeing themselves in the mirror, the audience understood that the exhortation to ‘protect your faces’ was addressed to them. We all understand very well how important it is to remain yourself today.
At the Project Fair, I was looking for something that overlapped with my interests and that would give me more than just some course credits. So I came to the audition. From the very beginning, it was understood that we were not actors. We learned stage plastics, did voice training, and learned about the history of the Taganka Theater. We first saw the script about two months later. We were not told what to do, we just staged scenes on a variety of topics, and then somehow gradually they entered the performance—it was our joint work with the director.
On the day of the audition, I had four classes, so I was running behind and was one of the last people to show up. It was really nerve-wracking. They filmed us, asked us to sing (and I have no voice at all), and the casting committee that evaluated us seemed very strict. Therefore, at first, getting course credit was my motivation for participating in the project. A lot of the students there had backgrounds in theatre: some had even applied to theatre schools, so it was a bit easier for them.
We had a lot of trainings and rehearsals. Now I practically live at the Voznesensky Center. Even friends and relatives do not really ask where I am. After the exam session, I returned to rehearsal with the feeling that I had missed it. I would like to continue acting.
In terms of the production, we tried to adapt it to the present day: the characters don’t live during the time of repression and the Thaw, but today, and in our time the topic of losing one’s ‘I’ is also very relevant. Even the text of the play begins with the words: ‘The action takes place in 1970 and outside of time.’ The story is cyclical: it is like a circle on water, and we exist in this circle. It seems to me that this performance is about the struggle of the mechanism of power with the creator, the master; it is about the difference between a free creative principle and a destructive structural machine.