To sit down and chat with Dmitry Krymov over coffee, you’d hardly know that this gentle, kindly, Russian gent was, beneath his collegiate garb and disarming smile, something of a rebel. That is, until he exhausts his limited knowledge of the English language and shifts into the high gear of his mother tongue.
“In theater,” he said through his longtime interpreter Tatyana Khaikin, “I like to play with the expectations of the audience. I want to tell them that life is not what you think.”
Krymov is in town to do just that when he and crew and a cast of Yale School of Drama actors present “The Square Root of Three Sisters” as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas Tuesday through Saturday at the Iseman Theatre on Chapel Street.
As stated in the festival publicity, “The Square Root of Three Sisters” promises to be a remix of themes inspired by Anton Chekhov’s iconic play in which characters talk plenty yet seldom risk anything in pursuit of happiness. Or, as Krymov said over a pre-rehearsal java jolt, he and his gang are “going to show you the other side of the moon.”
Ever since the 62-year-old Krymov — or “Dima” to his friends — was a youngster, he defied expectations. The son of writer/critic Natalia Krymov and theatre director Anatoly Efros, Krymov initially steered clear of both parents’ livelihoods and became a scene designer, and then a neo-expressionist painter. It wasn’t until mid-life than Krymov started exploring storytelling from a director’s perspective, and an unusual one at that.
“My first try in directing was with my students who were artists studying stage design,” said Krymov. “We were called The Artists Theatre. Still, in Russia, they look at us as The Painters Theatre. They should change the tag on us by now, but still — especially the critics — they’re very hard to turn around.
“First they were really happy to have us,” he said. “They were happy to have something new and refreshing, but they were also very happy because they knew they were going to put us on a very specific shelf that they already created for us and they were congratulating themselves.”
“When I’m abroad and we’re bringing our shows on tour and we’ve been all over the place, nobody thinks we’re just immature artists who are actually acting, no. Here at Yale, too, I don’t think that anybody thinks I’m the artist who came in and pretends to be a director, unless Liz is hiding this from me ... because for a year and a half nobody ever mentioned it to me.”
Liz Diamond, the chair of the Directing Department at Yale School of Drama, who happened to sit diagonally across from Krymov sipping coffee, said that she first saw his work during her 2006 visit to Russia, where Krymov’s lab company bowled her over with the group’s adaptation of “Don Quixote.”
“Really, it was more of a meditation or poetic riff on the Don Quixote legend by this small theater company comprised of design and theater students directed by this magician, I thought, named Dmitry Krymov,” said Diamond. “I came home and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was proselytizing the work of this artist. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I had this dream of my students meeting him.”
Diamond’s dream became her reality when benefactors Sonja Berggren and Patrick Seaver gave the directing department a grant in 2014 that made a collaboration with Krymov possible.
“I said, come, we’ll create a studio as much like your studio as we can, and maybe you can use it to explore a new idea,” she said, looking over at Krymov.
Diamond invited second- and third-year directing students to participate. Then Diamond noticed the multiplication of faces in the studio, not unlike loaves and fishes from a much earlier lecture in history.
“What began to happen is that students from other departments began to hear about this amazing thing that was happening,” Diamond said. “I sent an invitation to the entire school saying, come, watch us, not knowing what would happen. By the middle of the week, people were coming, hanging out as long as they could — actors, designers, dramaturges, playwrights. By the end of the week, the whole school had caught the bug. On the final day, when Dima and the directors gave a very informal presentation of the work they created so far, the place was packed.”
This master class, as it was billed, was different from others, Diamond observed.
“Dima began very simply and eloquently, I thought, by gathering the directors together and explaining that he basically doesn’t know how to teach except by making art together with his students, and they generally proceed with a set of questions,” she said. “What is the material we’re interested in exploring? What are the criteria for judging what we’re making when we’re doing our studies, or sketches? The word they use in French is ‘etudes,’ like little musical etudes. He then turned to the directors and asked, ‘What shall our criteria be?’ This was an amazing moment for the directing students: to be actually asked how should I judge my own work? They built a list of words to refer back to, to judge.”
Krymov, who works with performance coach Maria Smolnikova (a highly respected actor in Russia) and designer Valentina Ostankovich, rebels against the customary idea of master classes.
“A person tells you how he does his tricks,” he said. “He doesn’t show you, he tells you. I feel like a charlatan. I don’t know how I do my tricks.
“Then I thought, I’ll just start my process as if I’m starting a new show.”
Krymov described his creative process as a long, winding path.
“Long and not very clear,” he laughed. “It’s a cocktail that was created from different glasses. I can see that somebody left a little bit left in their martini glass. I poured a little bit into my glass that already had some wine. Then a bit of gin, a bit of vodka and then we mix it all up and what will be, will be. We can only really see the result. It’s a strange process.”
Of course traditionalists may scoff at Krymov for not staging, in this case, “Three Sisters,” as is. His admirers believe that Krymov isn’t painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa, but rather showing us the darling dimple on her derriere.
Shaunette Renée Wilson as Olga in “The Square Root of Three Sisters.” Photo courtesy of Lisa Keshisheva
Annelise Lawson, left, and Annie Hägg as Masha and Natasha in “The Square Root of Three Sisters.” Photo courtesy of Lisa Keshisheva