The American Theatre of Actors is one of the LAST of the great “experimental” theaters in NYC still standing and is still run by its founder, James Jennings. Mr. Jennings – every season – picks a production to extend or advance. His criteria is what is has been for nearly 50 years. A powerful piece that opens the audience’s mind; featuring artists who have earned the right to be called just that… artists.
He is now the producer of Diary of a Madman, featuring Ilia Volok who, as the story goes, came to this country from Kiev with $300 in his pocket and no command of English. Today he is a prominent film actor having worked with Robert Downey, Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Harrison Ford (several times), to name a few.
Mr. Volok adapted Nikolai Gogol’s dark story, Diary of a Madman, into a one-man show that – after an astonishing run in one of the ATA’s studio theatres has now been moved up to Off-Broadway status and will begin a month long run at the 150 seat John Cullum Theater.
The story speaks to all of us about being ignored and abused by those in power. Diary of a Madman centers on a low-ranking civil servant who yearns to be noticed by a beautiful woman, the daughter of a senior official and how something like the class system is stopping him from simple happiness. Nikolai Gogol’s dark piece as re-imagined by Ilia Volok portrays the everyman’s quest for individuality in a seemingly indifferent, urban city.
The play mirrors the players as Jennings has spent his life opening his doors to young artists, helping them find visibility and individuality in a tough city with lots of competition. Volok came here a total unknown and triumphed over adversity. And even the play went from a studio run to prominence.
Tell us YOUR story, Mr. Volok. What kind of journey did you take to get here?
My life took an unexpected turn when after being a professional athlete (3rd place at the world championship in rowing with the Soviet Union team in Italy), and on my way to become a rowing coach, I left my native Kiev (Ukraine) to audition for one of the most prestigious acting colleges-the famous Moscow Art Theatre School. To the complete surprise of my friends and relatives, I passed a rigorous competition (200 hundred contestants per one spot) and was accepted to study under the direction of one of the top stars of Russian theatre and cinema – Alexander Kalyagin. Upon graduation I was invited to work in several top theatre companies the Moscow Art Theatre being one of them. But once again i changed the direction of my life, and with $300.00 in my pocket, without any knowledge of English, I came to America to pursue my dream of being a working actor. The first jobs that came along had little to do with acting.I was cutting sandwiches and flipping chicken at a restaurant, and working at a cemetery as a funeral service attendant where i enjoyed quiet surroundings and fresh air (later I was promoted to selling cemetery plots). But soon after i got my acting break in the movie Hail Ceaser, playing opposite Samuel Jackson, Robert Downey Jr. and Michael Anthony Hall.Although being thankful to a pretty successful career in Hollywood(over 150 film&TV credits), The passion for theater has never left me. And that’s the reason I’m in NY with the Diary of a Madman….
How do you – as an actor – prepare each night to do this demanding role?
Every time before I go up on stage it feels like I have to cross this gigantic ocean in this small boat… Over the years I have learnt that no matter how turbulent and unpredictable the ocean can be- you should trust your boat! If you do so- it will bring you to a shore. In other words- trust yourself, your skills, your experience, your sense of inner truth.
What is your philosophy on the performing arts in general and here in America – at least the East and West coasts?
I think the great thing is that regardless the fact that in the US there is practically no financial support to the arts by the government, Artists are still finding the ways to create and to bring their passionate dreams into reality! I truly admire that!