I recently returned from my first trip to St. Petersburg, my first visit to Russia. I received a CEC/ArtsLink Back Apartment Residency grant to visit "the cultural capital of Russia" to meet the artistic directors and directors, to learn about Russian theatre, and foster opportunities for exchange with my home theatres, La MaMa ETC and La MaMa Umbria International. I was excited for the opportunity. I was also a bit apprehensive.
Let me put this in context. My trip came on the heels of news that a theatre director in Moscow was being harassed because of his association with a popular avant-garde theatre. There was news that gay people in Chechnya are being abused, arrested, and worse, and news that Russia meddled in the US election and controversy over the upcoming film, Mathilda. My friends questioned the wisdom of me taking this excursion in the current environment. But I was determined. I wanted the artists of St. Petersburg to know that Americans are not of one mind about politics, and we are open to conversations about the human condition that supersede the rhetoric of the moment. We are interested in conversations examining art and culture that celebrate what brings us together, and foster greater understanding between people. I was also curious to hear what they are thinking about these days, in light of the political shifts taking place around the world.
During my brief ten-day visit, I interviewed a dozen theatre artists, including directors, artistic directors, producers, puppeteers, and designers. My exploration covered a range of theatres from independent to state-owned, from classical to experimental, and from language-based work to object, puppet, and physical theatre without verbal language. In my research prior to traveling, I spoke to many people who have a lot more experience working in Russian theatre than I do. Their perspectives were valuable because they have a deeper understanding of what's going on in St. Petersburg. So what you are delving into by reading this essay is a neophyte view, not an exhaustive study.
Independent, and State- and City-Financed Theatres
I was interested to hear opinions about censorship and repression in the Russian theatre. What I heard was surprising. Artistic directors running the larger, state-run theatres don't see any restrictions on what they can produce. Yet, some independent directors and smaller theatres feel pressure to avoid certain topics or types of performances. There are laws against using coarse language, but mostly, artists are not confronted with any obstacles if they do use strong language.
Anna Bogodist of the Derevo Theatre said, "Yes, we have it, the law, but people don't follow it. Nobody is really controlling it so we do it quite easily.” Derevo is a twenty-seven-year-old theatre that performs all over Europe, though all of the members are Russian. When discussing the theatre, Anna notes "It's mostly physical theatre, not just dance or mime; a mixture of dance, mime, clowning, etc." The leading director/actor of the company is Anton Adasinskiy. "The system of our group is that the body should be able express what you want to say or think and send this message to the public. We don't speak on stage ever."
Anna further explains:
Derevo has a strict policy in the company: we are not interested in politics, sex, or religion. We don't read newspapers or watch TV for many years. All of us. Too much information in your head influences your imagination, your fantasy. Anton never makes a contract to do a play about what is happening now; he is trying to help you to think, make fantasies, make up the best things in the world.
This type of independent production stands in stark contrast to the state-run or largely state-funded theatres, like the Alexandrinsky Theatre. In my meeting with Alexey Platunov, Head of the international cooperation office at the theatre, he explained the support structure of theatres in St. Petersburg. In Russia, he explained, most theatres are state-financed. There are five national theatres in St. Petersburg supported by the Minstry of Culture: The Alexandrinsky Theatre, the Maly Theatre, the Mariinsky Theatre, the Bolshoi Drama Theatre, and the Akimov State Comedy Theatre. The next level is municipal theatres supported by the city, for which there are many. There is a system of grants that also support independent theatres. "I believe this is the only city in Russia with this program," he said.
The Alexandrinsky Theatre has eighty actors on salary year-round. They get paid whether they are in a play or not. When they are in production, they get additional salary. Actors are secure in their jobs, which they often keep their entire working lives. For outside directors coming in, this could be a problem if the director doesn't want to use actors from the company.
As a state theatre, they are required to present a certain number of productions each year. Most of the repertory is classical plays, but there is some room for experimentation. In addition to the large main stage, there is a smaller space for new writers or new takes on classic texts. I found this to be the case in many of the state theatres. While the Alexandrinsky school has a vital program for training playwrights, their work does not often make it onto the theatre's stages. According to Platunov:
St. Petersburg is not a new way for playwrights, but there are opportunities for new directors…St. Petersburg is a birthplace for directors' creative careers, who try to find a place, but often move to Moscow, where there is a larger theatre scene. St. Petersburg is a big lab for all of Russia. It is a good place to find who is going to be big in five years.
St. Petersburg, Beyond Lev Dodin
I met a couple of the "younger" directors who are achieving some recognition in St. Petersburg and beyond. More often than not, their teacher was the master director Lev Dodin, who runs the Maly Theatre and has a thriving conservatory. Among the directors forging a new path are Semion Aleksandrovskiy and Dmitry Vokestrelov. "I studied with Dodin," remarked Aleksandrovsky, "but I do theatre the opposite way from Dodin. What he did teach me, which has remained in my work, was a deep reading of the text. In class, we read one book for four years, digging deep into the text. It was a good lesson."
Visiting the Maly Theatre, I met with Dina Dodina, who is the international projects manager at the theatre. Lev Dodin had just returned from the US where his company was performing his version of Three Sisters at the Kennedy Center. I did not meet him, but I was fortunate to see his production of Brothers and Sisters at the Maly. (This play has also toured to the US, having a production at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2000 [and also was presented at ArtsEmerson in 2016].) It is one of Dodin's classics. A few years ago, he revamped the production casting a number of younger actors in roles played for years by the previous cast. It is still a vital production—compelling, inventive, and emotionally engaging for all of its six-hour running time. Although we haven't met, I learned a lot from others about Dodin and his work. He taught several of the younger directors I encountered.
Aleksandrovsky told me, "Dodin doesn't make a distinction between actors and directors [in class]. He teaches everyone as a director. You are always inside the group; as director or actor, you are not outside. As a result of this training, I won't ever ask actors to do something I would not do myself."
Aleksandrovsky decided to take his work outside the confines of the theatre building and bring it into the street. His company Pop-Up Theatre's latest work allows the audience to experience multiple environments simultaneously, using soundscapes that you hear through headphones while you are having a contrasting visual experience. His recent sound piece, which is currently being presented at the Venice Biennale, involves hearing what you would hear at the Pushkin Museum in Russia, while you are walking through a different museum in Venice.
He says, "There is a gap between what you see and what you hear. I want you to participate inside the show. I leave a gap that needs to be filled by spectators. The creative impulse is to work with the performance to fill it with you."
These days, Aleksandrovsky works both within and outside of the "system." He lived for many years in Israel and was part of a youth theatre there. He takes jobs at some of the larger state-run theatres and does his own independent work, often using nontraditional spaces like his recent piece Other Cities. "In Russia, we would like to feel ourselves as European; but we are always pulled toward Asia, toward old ideas. We are always in change. We don't have stability. We have regret, some jealousy."
State Supported Theatres
Vera Biron, who runs the Dostoevsky Theatre and Museum, believes that the government doesn't care about culture. "We don't feel any restrictions or censorship. If we made all kinds of patriotic plays about WWII, they would get support from the government much quicker. But the government doesn't care about culture. Before it was much better; now they are just sleeping."
Biron has reached out beyond the country's borders for support in the past. She got help from the Norwegian government for plays based on the lives of Ibsen and Strindberg. She directed a performance called Tolerance: Fairy Tales with Accent that was based on fairy tales from different nations. Well-known actors performed it off and on for four years. One of her Ibsen productions went on to win a "Best Interpretation of Ibsen" from the Norwegian theatre community.
Ruslan Kudahsov, artistic director of the Bolshoi Puppet Theatre, remarks:
We are not quite like usual puppet theatres; not puppets for children. They can be dramatic, plastic theatre, object theatre, visual theatre. We have our own theatrical language. Our students get a compulsory classical education, but we give them time to experiments as well. We teach classical puppet and marionettes. The first class of directors is now happening. There are only four well known directors of Puppet Theatre in St. Petersburg.
One of the better known puppeteers is Yama Tumina. I was fortunate to see her recent production which has already won several awards. It concerns the story of a family raising a child with Down's Syndrome. The performance I attended was filled with kids and they seemed completely engaged by the show. Since one of Yana's own children has Down's Syndrome, the play has particular resonance for her. Her husband is the puppeteer who manipulates the puppet that represents the child. "Puppets can play what people cannot sometimes, because it's a different world," she remarked.
Andrey Moguchiy is shaking things up at The Big (Bolshoi) Drama Theatre. He arrived four years ago after running his own company, Formal Theatre. The Bolshoi is one of the most important, state sponsored theatres in the city. Founded in 1919 after the revolution, it was organized by the famous Russian poets Alexander Block and Maksim Gorki. It was called the Gorki Theatre. It has gone through many changes, from a Royal theatre to an artists' center to a company headed by Georgy Tovstonogov for thirty years. It was the main theatre in the country. After he died in the ’80s, they didn't fill his position immediately. They just continued to show the same repertory that they had been doing for decades.
When asked about how censorship affects his selections of plays, Moguchiy stresses:
No censorship for now. No pressure on the artistic program. You have planning, but normally it's a financial budget which we have to follow, but not an artistic program. It is said we should have four to five premieres, opening nights—the artistic program is only my decision. It's also a question of money. We have 780 seats we have to fill in the theatre.
Novikov Victor Abramovich, Artistic Director of Komissargevskaya Theatre, another large, older theatre, agrees:
No oppression from the Ministry of Culture at all. We can do whatever we want. We could do satire if we wanted to. The last play we did was by Tomi Janezic; he writes a lot of satirical plays. There are 100 drama theatres in St. Petersburg. We have a company of 250 people; fifty actors on yearly salary. This is a Russian tradition, but it is not easy.
Surviving as an Independent Company
One of the companies that managed to survive as an independent company is the AKHE ("Engineering") Theatre. Two fine artists, Maxim Isaev and Patel Semchenko, discovered that the canvas was not enough space to express their artistic ideas. They wanted to extend their vision to three dimensions. For thirty years, they have been exploring their own form of visual theatre, "theatre of an artist," not acting or connecting with a drama; images mostly.
Getting back to the subject of artist repression, Isaev said that artists cannot do anything they want. "There are a lot of forbidden things. We don't talk [explicitly] about the subjects of religion, or sexuality, or politics. Our last performance was called Democracy—we had two big barrels filled with oil; we put ourselves in the barrels, made pictures, while a small record player was playing [a recording of] Putin speaking in a distorted voice. You can't do that in a State theatre.
It's not only because of regulations; it's in the brains of the people now; there is darkness, because most of the population supports this. Artists don't say what they want to say because they are afraid. There are only three political activist artists in all Russia who are doing direct political, anti-government work, and they have to be ready to be arrested for this.
We heard about this performance that was closed because of something against the Orthodox Church; someone sent letter to Justice court and they closed the show. There was a trial for the director. But artists have to do this kind of a thing; it's the only reason to be an artist.
I came away from my experience in St. Petersburg with great hope for a continuing conversation between Russian and US artists. Almost everyone I spoke with was interested in further discussions of collaborations and exchanges. I saw productions I would love to see presented in the United States and was inspired by some artists who have much to share with other theatermakers about their process of making art. I look forward to continuing the conversation.