“Hello, I am Koko”: Interview with Koko Roinishvili

by Irina Gogoberidze*

Koko Roinishvili. Photo: Alexei Serov, OK Magazine

Constantine (Koko) Roinishvili graduated from the Georgia State University of Theatre and Film, with a B.A. degree in Acting, and later completed the M.A. training program in Drama Directing. He has been associated with the Marjanishvil State Theatre since his sophomore year at the university, and has also acted in several movies and television series.

His most recent performance, Foggy New York, was based on two short stories by O. Henry, “The Gift of Magi” and “A Service of Love.” Initially staged at Rustavi Municipal Theatre, this work premiered at the Georgian Showcase of Tbilisi International Theatre Festival.

Koko Roinishvili’s family is well known in Georgia as a rare unity in which everyone sings. His mother, a celebrated jazz and pop singer, also directs a children’s musical studio. His father sings on stage with the Tumanishvili Film Actors’ Studio Theatre and also performs at home, along with his grandchildren. Koko’s sister, Mariam, is an opera singer and an actress.  However, Koko’s wife, Ani Imnadze, a leading actress in his company, City Theatre, as well as in other Georgian venues, claims she would not dare even to whistle a tune alongside her husband’s family members.

My interview with Constantine Koko Roinishvili began with a joke when I asked him, “Why are you named Koko? Is it because of your parents’ love for Coco Channel?”  “No,” he answered. “When I was a child, I could not pronounce my given name, as it was so long.  The popular diminutive, Kotiko, wasn’t to my liking, so I called myself Koko.  Ever since my childhood, I have been known as Koko!”

Therefore, I will call him by this name today, as the name of the director, Koko Roinishvili, already appears on numerous posters that are visible throughout Georgia.

Everyone in your family either sings or performs on stage. Hence, for you, as the third generation, theatre is a given in your family history, something that has been accessible to and embodied in your sensory perceptions and physical surroundings from the moment you were born. How and when did you decide to study the theatre, and focus on acting in particular?

I was actually dreaming of playing football. I had been training intensively in a football academy, and at age 15 I was chosen for the Georgian National Team.   I later applied to the University of Theatre and Film without any additional thought; at the time, however, I had no idea whether I wanted to be an actor or a director.

You started your career as an actor.

Yes, that is true. When I started directing, I had already earned a diploma in acting. I suspected then, as I now know for sure, that an effective director needs to complete, at the very least, a short training in acting.  This training will definitely facilitate their relationships with actors.

When you began directing, you were already a very popular actor. Even today, any one of Georgia’s state or private theatres would gladly employ you as an actor. From your sophomore year in university up to the present, you have performed in over 20 roles, including Hamlet, in the production of Hamlet directed by Temo Kuprava, Tom, in Bad Boys, by Ray Cooney, directed by Ani Khidesheli, and Poprishchin, in Diary of a Madman, by Nikolai Gogol, directed by Levan Tsuladze, among others.

I don’t know how popular I am, but I most definitely think it is important for a director to go through actor training; this bridge is very important. Actors are not marionettes; on the contrary, they are alive and independent, as shown by Gordon Craig and others, and also by our own lives in the theatre, through our profession and experience. Hence, I had to experience for myself what it means to perform a role on stage as an actor.

And you did exactly that. The Overcoat  by Nikolai Gogol was your first show staged in the Marjanishvili National Theatre of Tbilisi. In my view, this performance represents a serious effort toward the development of your own personal style. Why did you choose this difficult text and author? Why did you want the stage Overcoat for your debut?

Overcoat, Nikolai Bashmachkin.  He is very hesitant, timid and disadvantaged, and then, suddenly, he takes an important step. That’s exactly the way I was – I also took a crucial step forward with my interpretation of Bashmachkin. I somehow identified with him, yet of course I did not want to arrive at the same finale. I wanted to go forward, step by step, and learn and grow. I think that there is always an idea or an overcoat for Bashmachkin, and there is always something else for me.  If you are sure about it, then the idea will push you forward.

Staging Woody Allen’s Kugelmass Episode after Gogol may have made sense at the time, yet it seems like quite a strange choice. I understand that both Nikolai Gogol and Woody Allen comment cynically on everything, but I am wondering what adaptations you had to make in order to create Woody Allen’s character.

First of all, my production is not a remake, as I made various changes. For example, the main character in my performance is a man. Yet, I think that while the narrative raises questions of gender, it also explores the human problem of an unfulfilled and defeated individual who takes a detour and goes someone else. It may be that I see myself in Kugelmass, although we don’t seem to have anything in common. Perhaps he and I have the same traits.

Kugelmass!,  according to Woody Allen’s Kugelmass Episode, Mikheil Tumanishvili Film Actors’ Studio Theatre, Gia Roinishvili as Kugelmass, Nata Berezhiani as Kugelmass’ wife. Photo: Lia Baburashivli

I appreciate Woody Allen’s view of the world.  Although he is very cynical and harsh, he manages to project an immense sorrow that is palpable in all his works. There is sorrow in every human being, yet Woody Allen’s sorrow is masked and muted. I like his movies, and after reading his interviews I became interested in exploring what was hidden behind his cynical personality. Was he concealing a painful experience, or perhaps a disappointment?  As I delved into this research and yet continued to laugh while reading his short story, I realized how deep the pain is that he carries inside, and this is what triggered my interest.

What was it like to work with your father?[1]

I was working on this play during the pandemic. Starting the rehearsal process was very difficult for everyone. Yet I understood during one of the rehearsals that if I did not make the father-son relationship disappear, nothing would work out. It was an extremely difficult step to take. I made very harsh comments to him during one of the rehearsals, as director to actor, obviously, and asked him to stay after the rehearsal. We spoke at length, and it was only after this conversation that I became a director and he assumed the role of an actor.

I know that you work on the text of the performance yourself. And you treat the text very carefully, so that you never lose the author. Do you have someone you trust to edit the text for your future performance?

I work on the text myself, including translations, if I can. Once when I decided to stage Molière’s Doctor In Spite of Himself for Ilia State University Theatre everyone recommended Kethy Kvantaliani to translate the text. I asked her to do it and it turned out brilliantly; I didn’t touch it. The day after I received the translation, we sat at the table with the actors and started reading it. They read the text with such ease that I didn’t change a single word. In all other cases I normally try to work on the text together with the actors, thereby making it more noble.

Doctor In Spite of Himself by Jean-Baptiste Molière, Ilia State University Theatre, Ani Imnadze as Martine. Photo: Courtesy of Ilia State University Theatre

What do you mean by noble?

First of all, I think about how the text delivered and the ideas expressed by the actors will be perceived by the audience.  We have a lot of very good translations; Shakespeare, for instance, by Prince Ivane Machabeli, is cited extensively. Yet many phrases that resounded beautifully at the beginning of the 20th century are outdated and anachronistic today. Therefore, I try to work on the text, to make the phrases understandable, to match them to modern speech but at the same time, I try not to lose the essence of Shakespeare.

You often use one more technique to connect with the text. If you lose something in the text, you bring it back in by other means – by adjusting the lighting, or experimenting with the space, as you did in Kugelmass! The text is often visible in the performance of the actor, as, for example, with Ani Imnadze, who does so well in What Do Women Hide by Marsha Norman. I saw all of these in Ionesco’s Delire à Deux. In The Doctor In Spite of Himself you also have a famous monologue read through plasticity.

 By the way, the latter performance leaves the audience with two radically different attitudes: there are those who say that they laughed a lot and others who say that it is an extremely depressing performance.

This is not bad; in fact, it is a compliment. I, for instance, saw your performance as a representation of our everyday life during the Communist era and more recently during the Pandemic when we were allowed only two hours to go outside. The Pandemic and life in isolation from each other showed us a lot, primarily about the means of resistance and .   .   . 

Survival, yes, a road to survival. During the period of self-isolation we thought that lights were taken away from us and do you see what is happening now, in theatre or elsewhere?

Do you think that Ionesco’s characters survived and stayed together?

They will survive. Tortoise and Snail have to survive. However, survivors differ – there are those who sacrifice themselves and their names are preserved by history and memory. The names of Tortoise and Snail may not survive.

Irakli Gogoladze and Tekla Javakhadze in Délire à deux by Eugene Ionesco, Nodar Dumbadze State Youth Theatre. Photo: Mike Mekh

Is it essential for their names to survive?

No, I do not think so. History saves the names of heroes and geniuses. Tortoises and Snails do not linger. Yet now, when I think about it, I understand that our history needs heroes and therefore, the Tortoises and Snails of Ionesco are heroes as well. Spectators watch and understand Shakespeare when these plays are staged unconventionally. Ionesco put all of these elements into his plays in such an organic and at the same time provocative manner that one-half of the audience comes up to the surface from his invisible space and starts looking for ways to survive, while the other part resists the terror or Ionesco’s text. Many of them will later be able to tell what they were doing at that particular moment.

Alright, let’s return to Molière. The interpretation of The Doctor In Spite of Himself that you staged in Ilia State University Theatre was very successful. It stands out in my mind, especially as it was the first performance I saw after the Pandemic. 

You came for the second time, as I remember.

Yes, I wanted to see it again.

And you survived?

Effortlessly, as I already knew that Molière was waiting for me. What was the working process like and why did you choose this play?

The beginning was very difficult, but I also wanted to stage this play very much. I started to think, to try the words on my tongue, to build the scenes in my imagination. At the beginning it wasn’t working out at all, and I felt that it was not what I wanted to say.  Then, after reading the beginning of the play for the hundredth time, I changed everything I had done up to that point. I realized that these people who enter the stage are not characters; rather, those who enter the stage are characters that will later personify characters. This is when I calmed down and understood how to build this performance, and what kind of finale to create. I hope Molière will forgive me for changing slightly the ending of his play. The text demanded it from me. A tyrant may go away, but he never goes alone; he takes someone with him.

So, you made the ending kinder? 

On the contrary, Molière ends the play lightly, and I understand his rationale: it was impossible to do otherwise at that time. This is probably why his Tartuffe has an altered ending. We know that the first draft was different from the final version, and we know what remained from the first draft. He could not cross certain boundaries during the reign of Louis XIV, yet the play still has so many subcurrents, codes, and mysteries. This is why I think that Molière would have liked my ending.

Doctor In Spite of Himself by Jean-Baptiste Molière, Ilia State University Theatre, Irakli Chkhikvadze as Sganarelle, Nodar Dzotsenidze as Lucas, Aniko Shurgaia as Jaqueline. Photo: Courtesy of Ilia State University Theatre

Since 2019 you have staged six or seven very successful performances in different leading theatres of Georgia. Nevertheless, you went on to create your own theatre venue, and you have opened the City Theatre in one of the most representative Tbilisi suburbs. Can you explain why you did this? Perhaps you wished for independence and your own space?

Yes, I definitely craved independence.

And who was taking it away from you?

No one! I do not know any artist who does not want to be independent, and if there is an artist who does not, then he belittles his art. Be it a great artist, musician or director, no one can work without their independence. With City Theatre, the idea came first. As its slogan says “In the beginning was the idea and the idea was the City Theatre.” To tell you the truth we took this step blindfolded, and today we are happy that we did it without thinking.

Let’s move to other geographic dimensions.  How do you see and think of yourself within the European theatre context Approximately eighty percent of what you have staged and performed is European drama.

Above all, we are a very diverse nation, with a lot of ethnicities and linguistic groups. I think that the Georgian theatre has a chance to become a driving force and set a tone in some way. We live at the crossroads of the East and the West, so we can share our knowledge of Eastern culture with the Europeans and vice versa, we can share our knowledge of European culture with the East.

Tell me what you would share with Europe.

I have never staged a performance outside Georgia! I haven’t even thought about this at all. I have thought about many plays but I do not know which European play I would choose to stage in Europe. On the other hand, I know exactly which Georgian play I would stage in Europe: The Stepmother of Samanishvili by David Kldiashvili.[2] I think that this work could become an iconic landmark of our country. I have never read a tragicomedy of such dimension anywhere else. Tell me of any other instance whereby the birth of a child is a tragedy, not a joy.

Where does Georgian theatre stand today?

I would say on the road of development. I think that we have pushed off and after a long period of stagnation, we have taken a huge step forward. Even though there were wars, revolutions, loss of territories and so on, starting from the 90s until today, many good performances have been staged, and it is a pity that these performances could not find their course of life, and no one else knows about them, as traveling outside of the country at that time was impossible.

How will all these trends develop? Do you think they will lead to a new theatre, new realities or new genres?  Or will the Pandemic and self-isolation bring us back to the audience?

The Pandemic brought the audience back to the theatre. If nothing else befalls us, if the war does not explode again, we will be able to discover a lot in the theatre. Georgians can invent and experiment, you know.

In today’s Georgia you can say whatever you want, you can travel, wander from theatre to theatre, go wherever you would like, and read whatever you would like. What does freedom mean for you?

I considered the wandering of the directors, as you call it, a problem before, but today I think it is beneficial. They are looking for something new. The only development for the Georgian Theatre is free wandering and peace. The experience showed us that theatre can only develop in freedom, and if we have ever created and written something of value, that has always happened during periods of peace and freedom. I have often tried to imagine what we would have been able to preserve in literature, architecture, theatre and other forms of arts if Georgia had had long periods of peace and stability.

We were still able to preserve a tiny bit and that gives us strength today. You mentioned that theatre-going has increased tremendously. What is the reason for this?

I think it comes down to lack of interaction, the fact that nothing alive was around us during the Pandemic. We were all boiling in the same pot. It’s what I was saying about Ionesco: we all turned into Tortoises and Snails, we wanted meaningful communication, and the theatre became the means to achieve this aim. Firstly, you interact with the actors on stage, and then, during the intermission, you go out and meet people. 

How should the theatre maintain the interest of the audience?

As Aristotle said, the theatre itself has to make the audience more compassionate. It has to hurt the audience, irritate them, and make them angry. This is what the audience needs, and that’s why they go to the theatre.

The audience is the agent of socialization.

Theatre in its essence is still the same.

Music also serves this purpose as well, to bring people together.

You’re right, of course. Music has always been a unifying force, even during the Pandemic. There was music and the theatre was no more.

Nothing can match the live performance of music or the theatre. I will repeat the question – what is it that the theatre must do in order to keep the audience coming back? What kind of performances should we stage?

I think it must be those that trigger compassion in the audience. The audience has to leave all their pains inside the theatre. I don’t think that the theatre is a curing establishment; rather, I think it is more of a painkiller. Theatre can make you think, teach you, calm you and most importantly, show you what you can and cannot accept.

So, it will either cure you or make you think.

Yes, and this is exactly what I was thinking when I was staging a performance about violence. I hope that at least one person will think about violence and how to fight it after viewing my staging of What Do Women Hide by Marsha Norman. The most difficult thing for an assailant is to see their own self in the performance and say, I am like that too! If someone does that, then the performance is successful.

What Do Women Hide, according to Marsha Norman’s the Laundromat, City Theatre, Ani Imnadze as Alberta and Eto Aleksashvili as Didi. Photo: Marina Karpiy

How do you design the musical components for your performances? What triggers a melody for a scene?

There is a lot of music in my life and also in my performances. I can hear music embedded in the very first memories I have of myself. My father loved classical music and opera, a bit fanatically, I think.  My grandfather, on the other hand, would always play Georgian folk music for me. My mother liked jazz. Since my early childhood I have been surrounded by all genres and forms of music. I dare say that I am rarely surprised by any form of music and if I am, it is usually something very new, like something that was performed for the first time yesterday and I missed it because I was too busy.

As for my performances, a lot of music is already included in the table rehearsals; I prefer it that way. Later, I remove some tunes or cut them short. The actors remain in tune, and follow the rhythm, feeling and musicality. I feel that music actually helps the actors, and I always try to do whatever helps the actors.

And finally, let’s have a few words about the City Theatre. I visited your theatre and seen that you are well established there. Whatever is done there is yours, and whatever is not done there yet does not seem to bother you.

This is a theatre that was created by a group of friends. The theatre, however, emerged from the confines of our group to become a theatre for everyone. The way I see it, the City Theatre belongs to everyone, because art is for everyone. Our aim is to gather a lot of people, but I don’t mean a large audience; I mean a large group of artists.

We don’t need to prove anything. Yet we still hope to do and say something new, and not only from the Georgian sociocultural context. I think we are the East-West Divan, which suggests that we can and must do what we can in the here and now. And to make this possible, we have to be together.

P.S. Koko Roinishvili has always written the texts of posters and advertisements for his own performances. I will end this interview by quoting a synopsis of his very first performance:

“The Overcoat” is my first performance which I am staging in the world that has become immense. I am looking for ways to communicate with people so that I am not alone, and I chose the theatre for this purpose. I will try to tell you what I think and then listen to you – this is my aim, and this aim is one means of survival. My performance is about exactly this goal, survival! Hello, my name is Koko.

The premiere of the first independent performance staged by Constantine (Koko) Roinishvili was held on 20 November 2019.

Good luck, Koko Roinishvili!

NOTE: The interview was translated from Georgian by Natalia Tvaltchrelidze


ENDNOTES

[1] The title role in Kougelmass! was played by Gia Roinishili, celebrated actor and co-founder of the Film Actors’ Studio Theatre (1974), father of Koko Roinishvili.

[2] David Kldiashvili is a famous Georgian writer of the 19th century whose novels and plays deal with degeneration of the nation’s small gentry and impoverished peasantry. His novel The Stepmother of Samanishvili (1897) focuses on a young man, Platon Samanishvili, who travels with the aim of finding a suitable wife for his father.  In particular, he searches for a childless woman twice widowed to ensure that after marrying his father she would not bear children and thus, have no legal claim to his inheritance. 


*Irina Gogobéridze is a Vice-President of AICT/IATC, freelance critic, translator from French; Order of Arts and Letters (France); former vice-director of the Rustaveli National Theatre; founder and president of honor of Union of Theatre Critics of Georgia; founder and president of the Georgian Section of AICT since 2010; author of critical publications in different Georgian and European media; organizer of many tours of theatres abroad, exhibitions etc.

Copyright © 2023 Irina Gogoberidze
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