On September 17, 2020, the Russian theater world lost an extraordinary personality, Igor Neypokoyev, aged sixty. Igor was a religious Orthodox Christian who created the “Theater of the Innocents”—a theater group comprised of people with Down’s Syndrome. It was a real phenomenon. He was able to bring out these people’s talent, with a result that was heartwarming for both the actors and the audience. Orthodox journalist and wife of Archpriest Vladimir Vigilyansky, Tatiana Vigilyanskaya, remembers this unforgettable man.
I met Igor fifteen years ago, when Fr. Tikhon (now Metropolitan) first conceived a novel Sunday School format. Pink-cheeked cupids with wings on elastic bands, cliché pictures reproduced year after year on the Christmas trees of every parish had in Vladyka Tikhon’s opinion long ago outlived their usefulness and no longer fulfilled the main mission of Sunday school: to arouse in children’s hearts feelings of compassion, mercy, generosity, and magnanimity—all those qualities that characterize true Christianity. Vladyka decided to turn to the greats for inspiration and lofty thought. Shakespeare, Pushkin, geniuses for all times and all nations—that is who could become a bridge for children to fathom the depths of the Gospel.
“What are children concerned about from age ten to twelve?” Vladyka pondered. “They are concerned about the theme of fatherhood; parental authority means very much to them, they look at their parents with emotional admiration and observe every movement of their souls. “King Lear”—that’s who will touch their hearts with compassion. And what is important for teenagers, age fourteen to sixteen? Love. Love that is lofty and pure, like the love in the “saddest story in the world”. “Romeo and Juliet” will teach them the highest manifestation of this feeling being born in them. And what is on the minds of those age eighteen to twenty? Honor, loyalty, defending the truth to the death. “Hamlet”, Prince of Denmark will make their hearts fertile and cultivate in them that subtle sense of right and wrong.
That is what Vladyka thought, and we parents supported him with all our hearts.
And so, in order to create this most non-standard theater in the most non-standard Sunday school, Vladyka called upon the most non-standard director—his friend from the cinema institute, Igor Neyupokoyev. When we came for auditions, we didn’t yet know anything about him.
Our Vanya [Ivan] was the littlest participant in the auditions. Only six years old. Children age six to eighteen came out in their turns to read verses aloud to a modest man with a gentle smile. No one was afraid or felt any doubts; Igor was so amiable that he took away any tension even from the shyest actors. Vanya also came out. The children read mostly positive poems, but Vanya solemnly, almost in a base voice, tragically roared, “No one plants crosses on mass graves, and their wives don’t wail over them there…”
“That’s our king!” Igor suddenly interrupted him. “He’s a real King Lear!”
That is how Vanya became the youngest king in the history of theater. The daughters were eleven, thirteen, and nine. The show was magnificent! “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” It reached the audience so deeply that many in the hall were wiping away their tears. I am sure that this experience did not pass Ivan by; he is now twenty-one. In any case his cultural preferences, or as they say today, codes, were definitely formed under the colorful influence of Shakespeare, Vladyka Tikhon, and that unique childhood experience.
We parents were completely surprised when other, non-standard, actors were pulled into another play, Hamlet. The scenes where the Danish prince uses naïve wandering actors to reveal the crime of his uncle and mother were played by the actors of the “Theater of the Innocents”. These were people with Down’s Syndrome. We spent many wonderful hours together with these people and their parents. Thanks to Igor, we saw a completely different world, a different facet of the human soul. No one could put it better than Igor himself:
“They are filled with some kind of boundless love. These actors amaze you with their artless manifestation of feelings—mainly emotions of the moment. The emotions that ordinary people hide or mask. We are touched by such feelings in pictures by Bruegel. And it turns out that those people on the stage are us, only without the masks. As an actor, I learn from them. I can strike a false note, not catch the right tone or state, and be superficial. But they simply don’t know how to lie. They are absolutely pure and fresh, these eternal children. On the one hand, according to their psycho-physical givens they are not actors at all—poor memories, slow reactions, distorted body shape, speech defects… But on the other hand, they have a naked psyche. They can give a head start to any actor by their expressiveness and emotionality. It is sincerity in its pure form.”
Truly, their sincerity, openness, and amiability were amazing. So, Vanya and I come to a Saturday rehearsal. “Oh! Dear king!” says the nice-looking Vlad with a lisp as he hugs Vanya. He hugs him not formally but long and sincerely. This warms you to the depth of your soul. Then somewhere in the corridor a middle-aged man tugs at your sleeve. He turns out to be the son of actress Ea Savvina, and starts reciting poems, and not simple ones (I can’t remember whose, but the complexity of perhaps Mandelstam), but I remember perfectly that it sent chills up my spine. And all these unusual people, so needed by us but absolutely unknown to all, where brought out of the shadows and into the spotlight by that amazing man, Igor Neyupokoyev.
I was extremely interested in the director’s work with people with Down’s Syndrome and took an interview with him, which was published on Pravoslavie.ru. I designated a meeting in the House of Artists, left the children with mother, and rushed off. Igor was late and got lost. I was nervous and upset, because my day was planned to the minute. But when Igor arrived all in a sweat from hurrying, as always with his gentle smile, and I turned on the dictaphone, I forgot about all my troubles. Pouring over me was his absolutely beautiful Russian speech—bottomless meaning and the language of a virtuoso. There was no need to edit anything, just transcribe. The first interview was on the actor’s craft and the meaning of art in the Russian church milieu, and the second was about the phenomenon of Down’s Sydrome actors.
We hope to translate these interviews in the future for the readers of OrthoChristian.com.
Vanya and I will never forget this man who was not of this world—his purity, kindness, modesty, and enormous talent.