“Madman” Goes Off-Broadway: A Conversation with Ilia Volok of “Diary of a Madman”

Anthony J. Piccione

Last October, I had the chance to review Diary of a Madman, an engaging one-person show based on the short story by Nikolai Gogol, and adapted and performed by the brilliant actor Ilia Volok. At the time, I considered it to be one of the best shows – and certainly the most memorable one-person show – I had seen in 2017. Now, in the wake of its initial run’s critical acclaim and box office success, the show is moving to the John Cullum Theatre at the American Theatre of Actors for an Off-Broadway limited engagement. Recently, I had the chance to speak with Mr. Volok about the ongoing success of his production, and also about his own creative process.

Years after the death of Mr. Gogol, he clearly remains a major source of inspiration to many emerging playwrights in New York.  Judging by my conversation with Mr. Volok, it is clear just how particularly strong his admiration for Gogol is. “His ability to show the depth and the complexity of a common, "little" person is beyond words,” while noting that his “masterful combination of realism, specificity, attention to detail and a heightened reality, as well as [the] humor and drama of it was always extremely appealing to me.”

Yet he also acknowledges the creative challenges that come with taking a great piece of literature, and adapting it for the stage, which he says became easier to approach through his collaboration with acclaimed Russian director Eugene Lazarev. “Working with Eugene was a true gift,” he says. “We share the same backgrounds – both are graduates of the Moscow Art Theater. [We were] feeding off each other's ideas, experimenting, and exploring!” Volok goes on to say that “together we were able to find our own voice to interpret this wonderful material, and that was extremely rewarding!”

The story of Madman is that of Poprishchin, a low-level civil servant who documents his love for the daughter of a higher-ranking public official, and over the course of the show, he gradually falls deeper into the depths of insanity. Having reviewed the show myself, one aspect that struck me was how deeply immersed Volok was in the character of someone who was clearly in a dark state of mind. Yet when I interviewed him, he said that the key to his success was not to actively try and play someone who was dealing with insanity, explaining how “in Poprishin's world, everything is logical. He finds an explanation for everything: Talking dogs. The vacancy of the Spanish throne. His imagination has no bounds. But for the people in the "real world", he looks insane.”

He goes on to explain much of his creative process, in clear detail, as an actor: “The main thing for me is to connect to a material and the character on the emotional, visceral level. Having that connection is like having a foundation for your house. After that, it's a road of trial and error. I consider myself a method actor. There have been plenty misconceptions and different interpretations of Method, but it's quite simple: It is making things personal for yourself. To create and live the imaginary life, by using my own experiences. I work through substitution, putting myself in the circumstances of the character, envisioning as many specific details, freeing my imagination.”

Of course, Mr. Volok is no stranger to bringing a wide variety of characters to life over the course of an impressive career in theatre and film. A graduate of the Moscow Art Theatre School and a member of the Actors Studio, he has appeared in hundreds of films including Air Force One and The Curious Incident of Benjamin Button, as well as television shows such as ShamelessNCISThe Americans and Scandal, just to name a few. Yet when talking about his career, he says he still loves stage acting and screen acting equally, after all these years, before proceeding to quote Stanislavsky: “The main factor in any form of creativeness is the life of a human spirit, that of the actor and his part, their joint feelings and subconscious creation.”

While moving from Off-Off-Broadway to Off-Broadway is certainly an impressive achievement, in and of itself, Mr. Volok makes clear that he hopes that the success of this production will continue to go on, long after this engagement at the ATA is over. “I would love to take Diary of a Madman on a tour, play it at the festivals,” Volok says, “but the main goal is to keep performing it [and] keep it alive!” No matter what, however, this latest engagement is already generating lots of buzz within the independent theatre scene here in New York, and Volok himself will most certainly be kept busy with other projects, as well, as he is already set to appear in two upcoming films: Fakov in America, a collaboration with his friend David Scott; and Hunter Killer, which also features the likes of Gary Oldman and Gerard Butler.

For now, though, audiences are strongly urged to go see the current run of Madman, a show which Mr. Volok describes as “timeless and universal”, stating that “anywhere in the world, people can relate to it. It deals with love, desire, obsession, rejection, hope and broken dreams…”

“Diary of a Madman" runs at the John Cullum Theatre at the American Theatre of Actors from January 17th to February 11th. For more information, please visit www.volok-diaryofamadman.weebly.com.