Making Spirit Bright: My interview with Zeliboba's performer


Jun 4, 2017
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Not so long ago, I've managed to both add to friends (mutually, yay!) and contact Stanislav Klimushkin himself on FB - as well as get to know his point of view and the story of how Zeli had been brought to life. He's currently working as a voice actor and an advertiser.
Here's the long-promised interview, finally translated (if there's any mistakes, PM me and I'll either contact mods to help me edit the OP, or post a more polished-up PDF). The original, Russian version already is posted on my blog (if you know the language, head right here).

In your CV on the voice actors portal you mentioned that you got a part in Russian “Sesame Street" thanks to an accidental casting. How many more people was on the casting besides you? What exactly got you interested in the opportunity to cooperate with "Sesame"?

In 1993, having graduated the Gnessinka (Gnessin State Musical College - A. M.), I, along with other students, was taken to MOGTYZ – Moscow regional theatre of the young spectator. Three years later, having played their whole repertoire, I started to feel that I was reaching my professional “ceiling”... Until one day, when one of the actors rushed in our dressing room, shouting, "Guys, there are Americans casting actors for a new TV project!" So I thought, that could be it. :smile:
Besides me, the casting was attended by more than three hundred people, more than half of them being professional puppeteers. So at first I thought I’d have no chances... But then an interesting thing happened – not a single puppeteer had passed. The practical Americans chose the short way, having decided that it’d be much harder to retrain people (which would require, respectively, more time and bigger costs). There was 8 of us chosen (four people for the main cast, and the duplicating four) – like a space-ship crew. As for the interest in working in "Sesame" – I won’t lie to you: the first thing that prompted us to get involved in this adventure was the promised paycheck and a trip to study in New York. (I’d like to remind that back then, it was 1996, everyone partly had to live on casual earnings and in theaters they paid mere copecks. Sure, to create a legend about myself it’d be much more interesting to tell something about a childhood dream, affirmations, or destiny’s signs...) But that was only the beginning! Having gotten in the puppet story, I found myself in a completely different life, which changed both me and my worldview. The chain of events drove me on a rollercoaster for several years (it’s interesting that this attraction is, for some reason, called "Russian" in the US...) – but this, as they say, is another story.

So, the casting’s over, and now there’s Zeliboba, face to face with his future performer. Did they somehow introduce him to you, maybe explained why such a funny name, what kind of character and habits does he have; why it was exactly a tie and sneakers chosen as his personal "schtick"?
People who worked on creating the characters for the Russian "Sesame Street" were an American creative group. Later, it were the local writers and scriptwriters who got involved in the further development of characters and specific features.
Businka was created as a "tomboy" – a bundle of emotions, she often contradicted herself, was constantly getting into solutions to all playground matters with her characteristic hyperactivity – you know, this kind of a "Pippi Longstocking" girl. Kubik was her complete opposite, a "nerd": thoughtful, considerate, cautious, perceiving the world only "through his head". In short, they were a purely female and a purely male person, respectively – without any impurities and distortions! :–) Zeliboba turned out to be a seven-foot-tall child – sheer curiosity, openness and constant amazement about the world!
As for the choice of names – the creative team of the project came up with many different options, but in the end, the final decision was left to the children – they were asked to choose the names of the characters from many pre-proposed ones. And thus were born Businka, Kubik, and Zeliboba. Etymology of the name "Zeliboba" is, sadly, unknown to me.

The "professional ceiling" in the Moscow theater, was, no doubt, not easy to achieve, and each role required a lot of work. Here, you got a Dvorovoi to animate – and a very technically complex one at that: as one of the articles said, "to perform him is only a bit easier than, for example, to fly a plane"! What was the most difficult thing in performing him?
Well, first, the Dvorovoi turned out to be very heavy: total weight of the costume was about 66 pounds! Second, working in the costume was unbearably hot. Working in a pavilion under the lighting, with a huge weight all over my body and with my arm (head) being constantly up, managed to get about 33 pounds off me per one shooting season! :smile:

By the way, good thing that you mentioned it was exactly 66 pounds – both articles I happened to stumble upon long ago said that the weight of the costume was "more than 33 lbs", one also mentioning that "the head alone weighted 15 lbs”. THIS much is, indeed, a thing worth kudos. I just shake your hand and tip my hat to you!
Well, the head in fact weighted about 15 lbs, plus the huge shoes – each about 11 lbs. So the whole thing was indeed pretty weighty!
As for controlling the blue monster – many still believe that there was a small hole in the costume, through which the puppeteer could see what was going on on the ground. For example – try to put on a hefty fridge box, cut a tiny hole in it, and then take small objects, run around the site and not to step on smaller characters? :- ) Of course, everything was quite different. To my chest was attached a tiny monitor with a small screen, which was fed a picture from three different cameras. Thanks to these cameras, I could understand my position and the location of my shooting partners.

These three cameras were also built into Zeli’s body, or were outside?
The cameras were on the site, so that I could see myself from different angles (and the overall picture was flipped mirror-wise at that). I worked in total darkness, focusing only on the picture on the monitor.

Training alone is not enough – getting along with the character himself is just as important. Did you two manage to get along fast, or were there some hitches at first?
The initial training took me more than a month in New York, at the Jim Henson Studio, where we were taken to study. But the training alone in fact wasn’t enough – a lot more important was to breathe life into sixty-six pounds of plastic, fabric and leather. I learned to walk, talk and move all over again…

And a couple more words about the character. In the same summary you mentioned Zeliboba as your alter ego. Which of your personal features you managed to give him? Were there probably some you got from him?
That was the hardest of all – I had to"get the child out of myself". I must say, the character turned out to be quite symbiotic: his weight, height and appearance changed my physics; I'm enlivened him with my emotions. After some time, we just kind of merged… :smile:

How, in your opinion, the Dvorovoi spirits measure age: in years or in centuries? I’m just curious: what if Zeliboba’s "five years old" is actually our five hundred years – what with him being so well-versed in vintage things (like the phonograph) and classic poetry? I mean, he only learns to read and write – but goes to see his grandpa and grandma by himself; he often has his head in the clouds and fantasizes about stuff – but sometimes quotes rather serious, typical “book” quotes. He’s kind of balancing between being a chipper young man and a rather sharp-witted boy.
I think Zeliboba’s "age" is a mere dramatic convention. Zeliboba is more like a state of mind. Sometimes we had to work with pretty half-baked scripts, so we had to improvise within the outline of the plot – fortunately, we were very lucky with the team…

Now, about the actual series being shot. I was told once that they start with a rehearsal only with the puppeteer and then shoot the episode already with Zeli, and the children actors know it well. But, from what I remember, in the series there are also children who are guests. Did any little guest ever get upset about the allegedly "fake" Zeliboba?
For me, it’s been a mystery how children can separate a human from a character they perform! Resting in the breaks, I used to partly get out of the costume. Children ran up to me and talked not with me, but... with Zeliboba’s head that was still on my arm! Try to experiment – take a puppet in your hand and start talking to the child in character, and be sure – even seeing your face and that it’s you talking (and not the puppet), the child will still talk to the puppet. That's really some “voodoo”! :smile:

No wonder at all, I am a child myself (even my passport disagrees, whatever) and most of the toys I understand even without words. :smile: I asked just because of an incident in the fourth season – when one girl burst into tears exactly because “Zeliboba wasn’t real”…
This never happened in my practice. :smile: Children are well aware of this being a pretend game, but it’s much more interesting for them to support this game. Maybe to some kid it might’ve seemed like a "broken pattern"... When I, myself, realized the fact of death at the age of six, for me it was a total catastrophe!

So, three seasons in a row are successfully filmed, and then the Dvorovoi and his performer each go their own way. What would you personally thank Zeliboba for – I’m sure there must be something worth gratitude?
I’m actually a gloomy and rather depressing person by nature/ Finding joy in the simplest things is an art that I still continue to learn. :–) Zeliboba gave me the opportunity to get back to my childhood, and at the same time – to get a good salary (for those times). Seriously though – I can say that these were probably the happiest times in my professional life. It was a pleasure to do what makes you jump up every day like a scalded cat and rush to the shooting pavilion!
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