We Are Her

On a rainy Friday in autumn, a woman stands at the base of Bascom Hill, yelling at pedestrians as they cross Park Street, “Чего вы смотрите тогда? Нечего смотреть вам!” Bewildered students pause briefly to ponder the tiny frame as she repeats in Russian, “[What are you looking at!? There’s nothing for you to see!]” Although these passersby do not comprehend the words, they quickly understand her message as she continues yelling defiantly. Realizing this performance is not for them, they lower their heads against the rain and continue on.

Kontolefa begins her performance in Bascom Hall
Kontolefa begins her performance in Bascom Hall. Photo credit: Mitch Schwartz

In this way, unwitting UW students became participants in Nicole Kontolefa’s performance of “Я это Я,” a monologue written by Russian playwright Alexandra Chichkanova. The play, whose title translates as “I Am Me,” is a monologue about identity. Kontolefa discovered the play six or seven years ago while perusing a directory of translated Russian plays. She was initially drawn to Chichkanova’s stream-of-consciousness cadence. “That’s the way I tend to talk. There’s a lot of ‘Well, what I mean to say is … No, that’s not what I mean,’” explains Kontolefa.

Kontolefa considered performing “Я это Я” for many months, but “I was always a little nervous to do a one-woman show,” she says. After hearing news that Chichkanova had committed suicide, Kontolefa thought, “The themes of loneliness and who you are to yourself versus who you are to others became really poignant. So I decided I should just do it already.”

Kontolefa (right) brings the audience into her performance
Kontolefa (right) brings the audience into her performance. Photo credit: Mitch Schwartz

“Я это Я” is written simply as a monologue, with no stage direction. Kontolefa has adapted it into an outdoor performance piece. On that rainy afternoon, an audience of eight followed Kontolefa on a short stroll across campus as she recited the monologue. She led them from Bascom Hall, down Bascom Hill and across Park Street, finishing at the Mosse Humanities Building. At times Kontolefa spoke as they walked together. At others she stopped to speak as the group gathered around her. She hugged audience members, berated passersby, played recordings from a tape deck while she danced, and at one point left the audience standing with a walkie talkie at the base of Bascom Hill while she ran halfway up the hill with her own walkie talkie.

Kontolefa on Bascom Hill
Kontolefa on Bascom Hill. Photo credit: Mitch Schwartz

Kontolefa has been performing “Я это Я” in this way for the past two years. She performs primarily in New York City, where she lives, but has also performed the play in Russia. Kontolefa performed “Я это Я” in Moscow’s The Golden Mask Festival and won the Grand Prize at the 2014 Kolyada Plays Festival in Yekaterinburg, which is Chichkanova’s hometown. “People who knew Alexandra Chichkanova were really grateful. They told me they felt like they went on a walk with her,” Kontolefa recalls.

The performance style has also been well-received. “Russians were tickled with the outdoor notion, because they don’t see a lot of out-of-the-box, nontraditional stuff,” Kontolefa explains. Manon van de Water, UW professor of Slavic Languages & Literature and of Theatre & Drama, says of the performance, “I like very much that she took it outside. It was a very good choice that breaks out of the current trend in monologues, especially female monologues. And it mirrors the content of the play—the motif that I’m walking, and you’re walking.”

“My hope is that taking the barrier away between audience and performer will allow the audience to experience what’s being spoken about as opposed to thinking, ‘That’s what she’s going through,’” Kontolefa explains of her choice to perform the play amidst the audience rather than on a stage. She continues, “The audience becomes my ensemble. They become my scene partners. Hopefully this makes the play less heady. So the audience understands it’s not just about me; it’s actually about all of us.”

Photo credit: Mitch Schwartz
Photo credit: Mitch Schwartz

Born in New York City, Kontolefa attended the Moscow Art Theatre School as part of the only four-year international cohort that the school has graduated. She came to the attention of van de Water through John Freedman, theatre correspondent for the Moscow Times. Van de Water then organized Kontolefa’s visit to UW through sponsorships from UW’s First-Year Interest Groups (FIG); Russian Flagship Program; and Center for Russia, East Europe & Central Asia (CREECA).

During her visit, Kontolefa performed twice. She delivered the play in Russian on Friday, October 23, and in English on the following day. Kontolefa also hosted a workshop with van de Water’s course, Drama in Education: Advanced Studies (Curriculum & Instruction/Theatre and Drama 562). Van de Water explains, “Kontolefa’s performance techniques are excellent for conveying more personal stories. They work very well in education, especially for high school students.”

Van de Water, who has lived and conducted research in Moscow, found the Russian elements of the play very charming. The monologue manifests particularly Russian cultural forms, van de Water says: “When she’s talking about food and the endless conversations you have around the table—the art of food, I should say. And the way she describes her books with the endless passages on nature. These are very common, especially in 19th century Russian literature. It was interesting to see how, through these details, the play is steeped in Russian culture.”

Kontolefa taking a break from the monologue to dance
Kontolefa taking a break from the monologue to dance. Photo credit: Mitch Schwartz


Van de Water also recognizes universal themes in the play. “The notion of revelling in the details is a child’s delight,” she says. Indeed, Chichkanova confirmed to Kontolefa that the play requires a youthful spirit. The two corresponded after Kontolefa discovered the play and was planning her performance. “Chichkanova said that the play is meant for someone young on the inside,” Kontolefa recalls of their correspondence. “It is the voice of someone who doesn’t yet have all the worries of adulthood. Who still has a youthful defiance.”

Kontolefa is happy to share Chichakanova’s work with a broader audience than the playwright could reach. In many ways, her performance choices mirror the melancholy in “Я это Я” born of searching for an identity but not quite finding it. “Performing this play is a very solitary thing. I kind of like it. It’s both lonely, and very independent and freeing,” Kontolefa reflects. “The community feeling of creating something on stage still happens, but it’s very fleeting. People sometimes feel very close to me, but in the end they go off and I go off.”

Photo credit: Mitch Schwartz
Photo credit: Mitch Schwartz

For more information on “Я это Я”, visit Kontolefa’s website at youmeandyourfriend.com.