I met Irma Vitovska, a true People’s Artist of Ukraine, but in fact only Honoured Artist yet, in a modest dressing room of the V. Vasylko Odesa Academic Ukrainian Music and Drama Theatre. In the evening, it holds a charity play Oscar and the Lady in Red, and before that, this morning, Irma Vitovska had five meetings with her fans: in a library, educational institutions, at the press conference and on TV.
As we’re talking, she is ordering some food, for the first time today, salad – any salad, she says. Neither lobsters with pineapples nor arugula. She gets out her purse – to pay for the order… Neither this dressing room nor Vitovska’s modesty corresponds to the fact that she is one of the most honorable and in-demand actresses of Ukraine.
Irma became famous and admired a long time ago due to the heroine of a ginger sexy young woman Lesia from the comedy TV series Lesia+Roma. However, she has not only played dozens of sophisticated roles in plays and films so far but also has been a producer and volunteer. The actress isn’t indifferent to current problems in Ukraine, she refused to take part in any Russian projects. She doesn’t complain or look for somebody to put blame on. She solves everything by herself.
Opinion talked to Irma Vitovska about where her values were shaped, and who influenced them, about roles which changed her character, about opportunity to feel herself twice as old, about the situation when her granny “came out of her” on stage, about a zone which crosses the whole country and which she doesn’t want to live in, about how we don’t want to hurt each other with painful topics for a long time, about untold important things and unspoken state formation rules, about civil society and a dream country.
Please tell, in what environment your values, which you actively demonstrate today, were shaped. Who influenced your world outlook the most?
Well, naturally, it is Lviv – I spent my students years there. There, a citizen Ms. Vitovska appeared, it happened when I was doing like my third year or so. Before that, I had been reflecting, choosing my path, looking for information. In my third year, I had my nerve shaped at last.
When I moved to Kyiv from Lviv, I found myself not in an actors’ community. Those were mostly writers, journalists, artists. Those who are creating culture today. Those, who took part in Euromaidan.
But sure, certain fundamental things were got in the childhood: those which are on the level of Biblical principles. What I am grateful to my parents and grandparents for is encouraging me to read. I fell in love with books, when I was at kindergarten yet, I read books which were more complicated than children of my age were supposed to read. I was going ahead of the literature program at school. Naturally, it influenced me because books enrich you, make you analyze things. That was what differed me from my classmates: I was always looking for the original reason. I tried to analyze everything. My mom told me that when I was a little girl, I always tried to find this original reason, “Is this wind? What is wind? Where does it start?” It was important for me to find the original reason for everything. That is how my mind is designed. That’s what I still do when I work on some materials, a character’s actions and so on – I do it in my profession. I have to know why it is made this way, not another. I have to find out everything, to trace their life to the very birth and realize how my character was growing up, what their social position, origin, habits, priorities are. That’s how I create my characters.
Have the characters you acted ever changed you? Have they had such a huge influence?
It depends on plays. I’ve acted many characters which were created just for people to have a good time. They are rather entertaining. Of course, there are strong plays which carry certain messages and change people. I have been focusing lately on creating quality content. It is my organic need.
I am keen on complicated content, complicated literature. I always try to implement it in all my projects. And as my heroine says, “A dark candle is much misery.” It is upsetting me much. I can’t do without it already. That’s why it is harder for me to agree to some compromises about content which brings poisonous benefit to Ukraine.
Actors often say that culture is beyond politics. You are demolishing this myth. You were fond of complicated literature and had an analytical mind but decided to be an actress. Why? Did you realize then that you can influence many people via art?
Being an actress is my nature. As soon as I started to study, I realized that due to some artistic devices you can get into the ear of many people and make many useful things. That’s what we are doing: talking about palliative movement, palliative children care. We touch the Chernobyl theme in Stalkers and The Gateway films. It is not only about a man-made disaster as a zone which crosses Ukraine. In the first place, we are interested in answering the question: whether it is possible to get out of this zone? It is about all our pain, our historical and controversial themes, whether we will enter the free world, what generation will manage to do it. We sometimes also play with formats, for example, Aphrodisiacs in the circus. It has also a big meaning about how it is dangerous to fall under the bad and negative influence. It is important for me to speak about it.
For me, theatre is a reflection of society. I love an active theatre. It is important that people come and laugh. But anyway, I try to highlight important things like I do in social theatre.
Today, when the humanitarian sector is so neglected and is funded residually, I realize that our society still doesn’t know what country they live in. We have few motivated citizens who realize fundamental things for the country, for whom personal welfare is on the second place. Apparently, welfare is important, but fundamental things of the civil society are out of question! If such a topic as language, independence, and direction of the country are still discussed and questioned – it is not a mature society yet.
Today, we have an extremely polar society, we have been divided again into two camps which, as a minimum, insult each other. And during the war of new type which is on now in the country, it is especially dangerous.
Dangerous, especially when the war isn’t finished and there are no solutions offered to settle many issues. In fact, many experts didn’t have media access to society. Frankly speaking, we haven’t worked well with an educational goal. In the first place, because we were afraid of hurting each other by touching old wounds. But I guess we should have done it. To preclude our enemies from speculating. It is not a territorial belonging issue, these are values, world outlook, taste issues. We don’t have modern quality content for the young generation, it is not elaborated. But there is the need. We don’t have any Ukrainian-speaking film content. It is a chronically neglected problem. But I guess we can correct it if we make science, education, culture leading fields.
Culture, science, education have been declining for a long time. We can’t return everything we’ve lost in a moment. However, we should strive to do. But very soon – on April 21 – the Presidential Election takes place – and voters who supported different candidates will live in one country. What values will manage to unite us again?
Because we should have united and settled things earlier, basing on the most important issues which, not depending on win of any of the candidates, will remain unchangeable: it is, in the first place, Ukraine’s security – apparently, Ukraine can’t be left alone one on one with the aggressor, we have to cooperate. Of course, we need a civilized corporation where human rights are appreciated and the state is designed for citizens. We have to determine that the Ukrainian nation doesn’t have any other maternity countries, viz. the status of the Ukrainian language has to be established by the law, nobody, except us, will create a Ukrainian-speaking content for us, nobody will develop our language. This territory is nothing without the Ukrainian language. We can’t let it go on being a museum, primitive territory. We should modernize it to make it competitive in any field where Ukrainians are present.
We should definitely come to an agreement with national minorities. So, nothing would endanger the development of their languages as well as Ukraine’s sovereignty. We have many Greeks, Hungarians, Bulgarians here… I’m not saying we must give everything to Ukrainians and forget about others. I mean our national agenda isn’t developed properly: I still see neither good Ukrainian slick magazines nor entertainment products on TV channels…
We have many prisoners of out of date information. We haven’t even had a normal dialogue during these years. Just to discuss all the hot buttons. It is a failure of the humanitarian sector. And the conflict is longstanding. Any theme we discuss raises a conflict because we haven’t discussed it properly yet. And now we reap the fruits of it.
People are constantly wrapped in bad news. Many people don’t just see the perspectives, don’t see changes. And not only because there are none of them, but often because they are beyond the media space. But changes are happening. How many musical bands have appeared! How many films we started to shoot. Cinematography and theatre have finally started to develop. There are also reforms, they are being implemented slowly but in every field.
What doesn’t the civil society have to do to make changes to keep on developing?
The civil society has to control everything. Why do only activists protect important issues? Why doesn’t community unite around a problem? Why are people so passive?
We have to realize that the state is “I”. We should start simple – if you want to have something – just act! We should teach to save the environment from childhood. And pupils should study in well-built modern schools. We have to do it by combined efforts. The authorities have to look for investments, create jobs, the possibility to travel across the world. We don’t have the right to isolate ourselves from the world. We have to develop. And we can’t turn back. I don’t think anybody is against it.
But the point is that we have many offended people who are not motivated to travel this path of changes. Motivation is a conscious civic stance: to travel this path. The disaster is that I’m not speaking about any of the candidates now, that people can’t give reasons for their choice. Because this choice is often emotional. They can’t give any reasons because they don’t know the fundamental laws of state formation. How can you choose if you don’t even know the Constitutional powers of the president, they don’t even read candidates’ agendas. Even if we chose Jesus Christ, everything would be bad, you see? The point is that people are waiting for miracles and don’t want to be responsible for anything. That’s why they choose those who promised more.
We should make the right to vote conscious for citizens. It is a new path, but at first, we have to understand what our problems are. I realize that it is late to discuss it. We should have already done it and started to build communication with the world. I don’t have a recipe what we should do right now. I aspire that we’ll realize the financial elites thing because nobody needs the risk of chaos.
Actors are often afraid of old characters as they are getting old. We can see how a grown-up woman plays a young girl. You have the opposite situation: you have played in theatre and a film the role of aunt Prisya who is twice as old as you. How did you agree to become old?
How did I agree? I am a clever actress, I realize that I not only have to act a woman but also act the essence, a national heroine. Because aunt Prisya is a national hero, in fact.
What helped you cope with this controversial role?
Here, except acting skills, I have to know the hot buttons of a person in time. I just pull them from my unconscious. Even when aunt Prisya talks primitively and shortly, I put there vibes of horror or vision, or cynicism, and then I colour the situation. And viewers catch it. And what about appearance – it is a technique. I play without greasepaint in theatre, it is a plastic technique. I have to understand the tempo and rhythm of old people, their certain delays, how they turn, how your body lets you down but you hold it. I have a good education, my teacher was Bohdan Kozak. That’s why I don’t think there are any questions to it. It was harder to fill her with the content and convey certain knowledge through her. Knowledge about what she says even if she says some casual things.
Has aunt Prisya got a real prototype?
I guess I used reactions of my grannies. Aunt Prisya in theatre is rather my father’s mum – Ivanka, and in the film, it is granny Nadia who came out of me there. I just used her moves, gestures, reactions, laugh for some reason.
But this role is a jackpot, in fact. Every good actor dreams about it: to play a role like that. To play it when you are young, have the half of life ahead, and play such a hurt hero: strong, fancy, charismatic, aunt-uncle, absolutely gender neutral, I mean she takes male functions on her. But in fact, it really was so after the war. So, it was interesting to play this heroine.
I have already seen myself as an older woman. But I hope I will have a hat, blonde hair, and an umbrella. If I live to see that if they don’t destroy me. Yes, now I can see how I would have got old if I had lived in hard times.
Do you feel sorry that your acting is the only good thing in some film projects, and this way, your work isn’t appreciated properly, because people don’t want to watch this film?
Are you speaking about Secret Diary of Simon Petliura? I have collaborated with the director Yanchuk since the times when virtually nobody made films in Ukraine. And he shot The Undefeated, The Company of Heroes and he invited me to every film. There is the thing as collegial ethics, you should realize, that a personality… I knew that it was his aesthetical vision. I know him as a director, how everything works. I tried to revive what we had: we always think of what we can give
On the other hand, this film also has its own audience. Don’t say it’s too bad because elder people are used to such a presentation. In East and South People liked the film. These are us who look at it differently.
The personality of Petliura was very controversial to them (the Supreme Commander of the Ukrainian Army and the President of the Ukrainian National Republic during Ukraine’s short-lived sovereignty in 1918–1921, leading Ukraine’s struggle for independence following the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917. Petliura is considered a controversial figure connected with the pogroms of Jews during his rule of the Ukrainian National Republic. However, he is known for his contribution to Ukrainian culture). It was rather an educational work. People in the East and South discovered this personality. Moreover, this personality lets them come up to him several times. Because at first, Petliura is a theatre critic, we can make a film through this. And when he was leading the garrison – it was a theatrical garrison. It is more interesting to watch than just a personality which is shown at the very beginning. But it is an aesthetical vision of the director. Of course, it hurts me because I wanted to do it another way. But viewers should find a story in this aesthetics. So, it’s better if I revive something there than it just will be thrown away.
Do you also listen to a director at the theatre? How do you get on professionally with Derzhypilsky, for example?
We get on great! We are kums (the term in Russian and Ukrainian for being a godparent of someone’s child, or when a person is a godparent of your child – ED). Yes, I am very happy about that. We are very productive kums.
He is extremely catharsis-prone. The point is that he can make you feel an emotion which then gives birth to a thought. He, as well as I, likes complicated topics.
Oscar and the Lady in Pink, for example, is, in the first place, an educational work about palliative children care. It is an important social issue. It is very important for these people not to be isolated. We raise money at plays. It is the example when theatre can be a tool of influence on a hot button of society. It is a good example because we map a route from west to south of the country and back. It is extremely important to me. Two days ago, we had the play in Lviv, where we had a good house, we raised 3 000 USD in one night.
Ukraine you want your son to grow up in.
I want the country which will be attractive to tourists. I want there to be no difference between how citizens of France, Germany, Britain and we live. I want children to be able to live there, there and there and feel comfortable everywhere. I want the country to be for people, I want the country where environment, ecology, culture, science are leading in the world. I see that Qatar spends 500 000 000 USD for an interactive museum. Estonia, which also used to be a colony, might become the first country to conduct a brain transplant. I want to live in such a country! I don’t want to have war, look for enemies and destroy the otherwise-minded. I don’t want to live in a zone, I don’t want those zones to exist at all. And I want all these for Russians too, I want them also to know that all people are equal, all people can have a good relationship with their neighbors. And that they can’t merge others, they have to do themselves, and people in towns and villages should live as good as people in cities. Do I want too much? Is it unfair?
Interview by Svitlana Bondar
Photo by Dmytro Zhuravel