10 April 2012

A Shortcut to Happiness: "It really is a shortcut to happiness!"

Working at Circa for the first time, actor Elena Stejko talks to drama on the waterfront about returning to the role of Natasha – a role based on her personally – in Roger Hall’s A Shortcut to Happiness.

DOTW: Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

ES: I was born in Russia – the Ukraine, in Kiev. I left Russia 22 years ago; studied acting and directing at Kiev University and then escaped to go to Brazil. I arrived in New Zealand about 18 years ago. I didn’t speak any English when I first arrived, so it took me a while to learn it. My dream was to go back to what I loved to do but with the culture differences found it a bit difficult at first. I taught acting and did some commercial work, and then I became a casting director and did that for 10 years. I did some theatre, as well as Shortland Street and Mercy Peak and short films. And then I did the feature film Russian Snark and I was nominated for Best Actress in New Zealand at the Qantas Awards 2010. And it got a nomination in an American festival – Maverick Film Festival – and the Amsterdam Film Festival as well. And then of course last year I was doing A Shortcut to Happiness in Dunedin at the Fortune Theatre – that was the world premiere. I was awarded best actress of the year for my role as Natasha. I still do lots of teaching – I teach the Chekhov Technique – and I opened the Actors Studio in Auckland. I work as a contracting director as well – I just directed a play with third year acting students.
A Shortcut to Happiness promotional image, featuring Elena Stejko and Peter Hayden.
DOTW: I understand that your character in A Shortcut to Happiness, Natasha, is somewhat based on you personally – can you tell us how that came to be?

ES: I had a phone call from ATC a few years ago, where they asked me if I would mind meeting with Roger Hall about a play he was writing about Russian folk dancing. I met with him a few times and he had a lot of questions about my arrival in New Zealand, my first impressions, the funny stories and how did I fit in in the country. I also introduced him to another Russian woman, so he was able to draw quite a lot from my personal life as well as from my friend’s. Roger attended folk dancing classes afterward, but from our talks he decided to focus the play on a Russian woman and her immigrant experiences and tie in the folk dancing into that tapestry. I did learn dance in the Soviet Union but I wasn’t part of setting up the dancing with Roger – he had another group for that.

It’s so true, as it is in the play, that I had a wonderful time and wonderful memories in the Soviet Union – as it was for many Russian people – because of my exposure to culture and art and what we learned. As a young kid going to musical school, I studied for 10 years, then I went to dancing school – and all of that was paid for by the government. So my memories as a child are wonderful. We went to the theatre, we went to the circus, we saw great art every day.

But Roger asked me a lot about my first impressions In New Zealand, what were the shifts that I had to make to fit in here. A couple of things I remember, when I met some New Zealand actors and my English wasn’t good enough yet, I shared with them everything that I could about my life. And suddenly I was stopped by someone who said, ‘You’re very negative, it’s very difficult to deal with because you are spilling out your guts all the time.’ And this was the first time I started to realize the differences, and what friendship means here in terms of sharing and how much and what it’s about.

DOTW: You’ve mentioned performing Shortcut in Dunedin, what was that experience like?

ES: It was fantastic! Roger lived in Dunedin for a long time, so it was lovely to have the opening there. A wonderful cast, a wonderful director and it received a wonderful response. Roger received his lifetime achievement award while we were there. And for that part, playing Natasha, I got actress of the year.

The play is full of jokes, cross passages, love stories, fun, humour – it’s a real celebration. I would always get stopped in the street by people who would say, ‘Thank you!’ It was lovely and really rewarding to see how it touched people. I had someone who came up to me after a show who said, ‘You know what, I have never been to the theatre before, but after seeing that you’re not going to be able to keep me out of the theatre!’ And having people say, ‘That was so funny! I’ve never experienced that before, I’ve never laughed so hard!’ It really was a shortcut to happiness!

DOTW: Some of your cast members are the same as the Fortune production, while others are new for the Circa production – how has the rehearsal process been so far with the new cast and director?

ES: Peter Hayden, who is based in Dunedin, played Ned at the Fortune and he and I were invited to play the same roles in Wellington, as well as Cathy Downes, who played Janet. Everyone else in the Circa production is new. It has been fantastic – it’s a very different production to what it was in Dunedin. We all knew coming here that it has nothing to do with what we’ve done before. I was really looking forward to creating a very different Natasha here, a very different character. I felt quite privileged to already know my lines and make the choice as to where to take the character. The cast is so funny – it is a very fun rehearsal room, lots of jokes, lots of memories, lots of stories. I am loving it, I don’t want it ever to finish. It’s a completely different interpretation, the characters are different. The director and new people are wonderful to work with. 

DOTW: What can audiences expect from A Shortcut to Happiness?

ES: Lots of beautiful, heart wrenching moments, tears, raucous laughter and jokes. It’s fun! It has everything there to offer, it’s a love story, it has the drama that people can totally identify with: how do we respond to situations, how do we relate to each other, how do we make ourselves happy. There’s a lot of dancing and music.

Natasha coming from Russia is very proud to be Russian and she has to go through quite a transformation to appreciate what New Zealand has to offer. And I think a lot of people can identify with that. I know a lot of Russian people – I directed theatre for the last 10 years for the Russian community in Auckland – and lots of Russian people coming to New Zealand started with that attitude, that in New Zealand they do things wrong and let me bring change and cultural revolution here. When in fact, it’s the other way around. When my mother first came here she said, “Why does everyone smile in New Zealand?’ Because in Russia, people do not smile. It is a much harsher environment, much more face to face, much more confrontational. And this is a clash of the two cultures, and we all can learn the same language of compassion and love and appreciation, but we just come to that from different viewpoints. We have to look at the differences and learn to appreciate. And throughout the play this kind of transformation happens to Natasha.

DOTW: Finally, if you could play any role in any film or play, what would it be and why?

ES: I would love to play a role that is based on a real person from history. A personal story. I have been fortunate enough to act in a Japanese film in which I played a real person, her life from age 35-86. And after that I told myself that is what I want to do, because there are so many ordinary people around us that are real achievers, heros, doing what governments can do and diplomats do for each other and for society. So that’s what I wish for myself, but I don’t have anyone in particular in mind. 

A Shortcut to Happiness opens on 14 April, and runs until 26 May. To book, please call the Circa Box Office at 801-7992 or go online at www.circa.co.nz.

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