Alexei Fedotov, author of the play. He has autism
Narcissus and Christopher is a play about “a different person”, as they are called here. “Special people” also act in the production: they are diagnosed with “autism”, “Down syndrome”, mental illnesses and mental retardation. The studio they work in integrates both actors with and without these diagnoses. “This was we are able to create a social model where everyone is needed and active”, says director Andrei Afonin, head of Krug-II theatre studio. A play can help “special people” find themselves, and help us understand them.
Last year, Narcissus and Christopher won the Protheatre special theatres competition. The festival is not being held this year, but that is not going to stop the play from going on.
…When I first came to the Krug studio, creative chaos reigned. Heads of rag-tag figures where unlatched from their bodies, boys sat on the floor with an open tool box mending the heads. The girls would rub the soles of their ballet slippers with resin to keep them from sliding, and would get advice from the director on how to tie a white scarf to keep it from being a distraction while dancing but also have it look good. The studio’s participants, congenial and open, came up to meet me, bragged about their stage costumes and asked, “Well, what do you think, don’t I act well? What about me?”
After half an hour, Aleksandr Dovgan, playing the role of Christopher, seems no longer like a disabled person, but rather a talented actor with fantastic movement.
There are two people playing the part of Christopher – a boy and an adult, since the story takes place in the present and past. To tell the truth, there are three Christophers, since the real Christopher is the author of the stories about this little boy, Aleksei Fedotov, and he tells his life story in it. Aleksei has autism. “Well, that is to say he had it”, the director points out. Aleksei used to have trouble reading a text out loud: three other kids would come on stage with him and read the text out loud together. Now he does just fine by himself, while these same guys have switched over to sign language, depicting what he is talking about, creating an emotional, physical lay out of the narration.
…During a rehearsal break while the studio kids make themselves a little lunch in the tiny kitchen at the Strogino Centre for Children’s Art, I asked Aleksei to talk about his stories and how he composed them. He does not look at me in the eyes, as he is shy around strangers. “Christopher doesn’t like to go to school, and his mom didn’t take him there”, he says. “Aleksei can’t tell you that Christopher is really him”, Lera, a fellow studio participant, chimes in. The name of the main character is taken from a novel called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon about a young child with autism, just as goes for several other characters, such as Mr Shears. There are glances made alluding to Chukovsky’s Doctor Aybolit and Tolstoy’s stories. A large part, however, comes from his very own impressions. “Yes, that’s me”, Aleksei says in confirmation and becomes a little more talkative. “I have a lot of stories. Christopher goes to the conservatorium and meets my music teachers. And at the Russian Institute for the Theatrical Arts he meets the actors Yevstigneyev and Smoktunovsky. And what’s more, no matter where he goes, he always ends up in the police station. His family wants him to get him a job as a guard, while he wanted to exhibit his pictures at the Central House of Artists.”
Aleksei has been telling stories to others for many years, but people just took them for being part of his illness; it was only in the studio where people would actually listen to him.
The second main character in the play – Narcissus – is beautiful and lucky, boys carry him on their hands and girls come running around to dance with him. When Christopher randomly finds himself in a group of dancers, everyone starts booing him: “Get lost!” They grab Christopher by the arms and legs and force him to repeat Narcissus’s dance moves like a puppet. Then Narcissus pushes Christopher on the floor.
Narcissus has people to talk to. When I dance with girls, I talk with them too. Christopher, however, doesn’t have anyone to talk to, and he needs to. That’s how I understand it”, says Pavel Zhuravikhin, who plays Narcissus, in explaining to me what the play is about.
But Narcissus banishes those who are enraptured by him. Narcissus finds happiness when he sees his own reflection in the mirror and remains by himself to fancy over himself. As for Christopher, he finds happiness when he runs away from the huge rag-tag figures of his mom, doctor, policeman, Mr Shears and is finally by himself. “Sonya and Christopher sat on the porch and drank tea, while mom stood there and said, “So that you die!”…When it was raining, Sonya slept with Christopher and covered him with her wing and sang”. Sonya has two prototypes: the sister of one of Aleksei’s friends from his childhood and Sonya from the studio who brought attention to his stories, began to pick his brain about them and the low and behold you have his play. At the beginning she played Sonya in the play.
Christopher is, of course, a typical hero. “Aleksei calls the autistic Christopher”, says Andrei Borisovich. The main character in the play is not necessary autistic, but rather a generalised character of “a different person”. A different person who also feels fear, loneliness and needs affection just like everyone else.
Besides Aleksei’s text “from the author”, there are almost no words. Words in this play are something strange and evil. Words are fragments of phrases: “A child’s crying”, “Yea, he’s pretty strange”, “Just calm down”. Everything in the play is expressed through motion and dance. Dmitry Korshunov, nicknamed Uncle Dima in the studio, choreographed the dancing. “We rehearsed it so much that it’s already in our blood”, says 9th-grader Aleksei Knyazev, a participant in the “dance of the kids”. The play has been in the studio repertoire for two years now. “This is the seventh version”, says Andrei Borisovich. The play became longer because of new scenes and the actors changed. Now, Sonya is played by the red-haired Anya Aleksina. Anya, a high schooler, says that she came to the theatre studio after she saw the play as a member of the audience.
“Is it hard to work with such a group of people?”, I ask Anya. “It’s easier than usual”, she says with a smile. “Here, you don’t let yourself think that you are better or worse than everyone.”
The play’s final scene gives hope. Sonya and Christopher are sitting at the table in a round, warm light while pouring each other tea, and then raise their palms to the air and to the sides, depicting either a growing tree or a blooming flower. The “special person” stops being closed within himself and opens up to the world, because he is no longer alone.
“I am a diverse person”, “I am motivated person”, “I am a normal person”, “I love all dogs”, “I don’t like it when I am sick”, “ I like to go walking in the rain”, “I love my friends at the theatre”, the actors say on stage. Then they ask the audience in gestures, “What do you love?”, and freeze while pointing their fingers out in the hall.
At this point, the audience is crowding by the stage, giving the actors flowers.
— “What’s most important in our studio?”, Andrei Borisovich asks after the rehearsal on the eve of the performance with all the actors gathered together by his chair expecting a pep talk.
— A good attitude? — Someone suggests.
— Do you remember what last line Aleksei says?
— Friends at the theatre! —everyone guesses. And Aleksei Fedotov stands there getting all red and smiles.