– DCTS writer Robert Duffley is currently studying at the Moscow Art Theater in conjunction with the Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University. –
The Russians are not coming. Monday morning, Woolly Mammoth Theatre announced the cancellation of their upcoming festival of work from some of Moscow’s most innovative artists. The latest line of communication cut by rising tensions between Russia and the US, this festival is a great loss. Especially now, Washington has a lot to learn from theater in the Russian capital.
Scheduled for this fall and months in the making, “The Russians are Coming! A Festival of New Radical Theatre from Moscow” was meant to bring to Washington four shows and 90 artists from Moscow’s leading theater troupes. The centerpiece of Woolly Mammoth’s 35th season, the festival was slated to include work from the Dmitry Krymov Laboratory, the Gogol Center, Praktika Theater, and the Meyerhold Center. The cancellation came as the Moscow Cultural Ministry froze funds previously committed to the tour in the wake of recent events in the Ukraine.
In yesterday’s press release, Woolly Mammoth artistic director Howard Shalwitz stated, “Reports from our colleagues in Russia are bleak, with news of arrests, intimidation, and fear for the direction their country is heading in.” Shalwitz cited the funding freeze as a symptom of increasing anti-Western sentiment and political volatility.
The view from Moscow: mounting political pressures on theatre companies
This announcement brings close to home the rising difficulties for arts groups in Russia, most of which depend on state or municipal funding. Recent radicalization has led to increased scrutiny of Moscow theaters, and to threats of reprisals for those artists thought to be inciting political or religious dissent on the state’s dime.
Though the official censorship bodies of previous eras have been abolished, and socially-engaged theater has thrived here in recent years, conservative groups have recently called for more stringent guidelines about who receives funding. In an article published last Thursday, the newspaper Kul’tura slammed the state of current theater, naming twelve contemporary playwrights as particularly offensive. The article condemns state support for “obscenities, pornography, and … worthless shamanism disguised as innovation,” and rails against plays depicting Russia “as a dull and hopeless country.”
(The whole article, translated by Moscow Times theater critic John Freedman, is available here.)
So far, such extreme statements remain only threats. The Ministry of Culture decided in early April to drop the declaration that “Russia is not Europe” from a newly-drafted policy statement called “The Foundation of State Cultural Politics.”
In a televised “open conference” April 18th, [Russian president Vladimir] Putin distanced current pressures from more stringent measures taken in Russia’s political past. In response to a caller’s insistence that artists are facing increased pressures to toe state lines of morality and decency, Putin answered, “Nobody’s grabbing them and throwing them in prison, sticking them in camps, as happened in 1937.”
The freezing of funds unites these internal pressures with increasing tensions specifically between Washington and Moscow. All four productions continue to play on Moscow stages, and planned tours in the UK and Australia will likely proceed as planned.
In losing this festival, Washington will miss much more than four productions. Political pressures have shuttered a window to another theater capital at a time when cultural exchange offers access to more rounded perspectives than those found in journalism or diplomacy. These perspectives are urgently needed in both Russia and the US, as a clear perception of the Russian public threatens to disappear under a deluge of stories about radicalism and xenophobia.