As reported here yesterday, Monday morning, Woolly Mammoth Theater announced the cancellation of their upcoming festival of work from Russia. The withdrawal of Moscow municipal funds crucial to the collaboration accompanies rising political pressure on artists here in Russia’s capital. Recent reactionary attention signals the newest new wave of challenges to theaters with a long history of crossing state-sanctioned boundaries of truth.
Organized in partnership with the Center for International Theater Development, the festival depended on the Moscow Department of Culture for the vast majority of its funding, said Woolly’s managing director Jeffrey Herrmann. The Department of Culture, which regularly funds international tours for Moscow companies, blamed the funding freeze on US-Russian tensions over recent events in the Ukraine.
Government funding for the arts here in Moscow is abundant, comparatively speaking. In 2013, the city’s Department of Culture provided $1.04bn to theater organizations, according to this budget report. The Department of Culture’s website lists 88 theaters as the current recipients of city support. In addition to these theaters supported by municipal money, 25 flagship institutions—including the Bolshoi and the Moscow Art—receive funding from the federal Ministry of Culture.
In their abundance and variety, these state-supported theaters constitute a crucial public resource. The number of companies alone places Moscow among the world’s theater capitals. The city’s theatrical diversity is multiplied to almost incomparable proportions, however, by the fact that almost all the drama theaters operate on a repertory model of production: home to resident companies of up to 100 actors, theaters rotate their offerings on a nightly basis.
A large, classical institution like the Moscow Art Theater, with a full-time company of 80 actors, two rep stages, a flexible space, and a student theater, maintains over 40 shows in repertoire at once. Shows play up to four times each month, remaining in repertory often for years at a time.
Animating classic and contemporary stories from both Russia and abroad, Moscow’s theaters put audiences in contact with a variety of cultures and eras. This exposure generates a great deal of local interest: the Moscow Department of Culture estimates that 40% of the city’s 11 million residents visited at least one of 16,700 performances supported by city funds.
“Ministry of Culture Warns: Contemporary Culture May Be Dangerous to the Health of Russians.”
In a tolerant political climate, these theaters function as a resource for broadening audiences’ perspectives, providing exchange as well as entertainment. Friction arises when these theaters shelter voices which don’t fit polarized narratives supported by the state. Displeasure from authorities, including one senator’s recent complaint that the Taganka Theater exhibited “insufficient patriotism” after its decision to produce a documentary film festival called “Maidan,” signals that these theaters are doing their job well.
Kirill Serebrennikov, one of the directors invited to the Woolly Mammoth festival, offers a thesis not found in contemporary history books. His timeline-twisting interpretations of Russian classics suggest that Russia’s varied political reincarnations have been mutations of the same moral cancer.
In Serebrennikov’s stagings, the same personalities slide through history with criminal slickness. In The Forest, pleather-clad denizens of the Soviet 70’s easily manifest the petty greed and ignorance which the playwright, Ostrovsky, lampooned in his Tsarist contemporaries. Serebrennikov’s Zoya’s Apartment highlights the impossibility of survival in a political climate fond of quick changes. In one iconic scene, a traveling con man cycles through uniforms—shucking off first an overcoat, then a Bolshevik ribbon, followed by a Tsarist medal, then a Stalinist commendation, and, finally, a Putin T-shirt. Bulgakov wrote the play in the 1920’s; without any costume changes, the final scene, in which secret police brutally crack down on a fashion show, seems too contemporary for comfort.
Conscious of these echoes, Serebrennikov is determined to turn the page in Russia’s history for good. After mounting shows at Moscow’s flagship theaters, he founded the Gogol Center in 2012. Constructed out of what, until recently, was a run-down relic of the Soviet stage, the remodelled Center boasts multiple flexible performance spaces, an art gallery, a bookstore, and a café/bar. The bare-brick walls blast neon-outlined quotes from famous directors about the power, and necessity, of youth to change culture.
Serebrennikov’s Scumbags, which was to be featured at Woolly Mammoth this fall, traces the stories of Russia’s current young people. Adapted from Zakhar Prilepin’s novel Sankya, the play spotlights the “abandoned generation” raised in the chaos and corruption of the 1990’s. Praising the production, critic Marina Davyoda wrote in Izvestiya, “In the case of Scumbags, Russian political theatre has at last come out from the cellars.”
The work of Dmitry Krymov, another director invited to the festival, showcases a stunning visual innovation which often defies conscription to any ideology. Working at the School of Dramatic Arts—a plaster-and-wood space more immediately evocative of an Italian palazzo than a Russian theater—Krymov and his students are mobilizing paint, prosthetics, saxophones, and the occasional live rooster to take a new generation of theater far beyond the bounds of the well-made play.
When he does comment directly on history, Krymov focuses his talent for startling juxtaposition onto the contradictory nature of brutality. Opus No. 7 (recently seen at St. Ann’s in New York city) re-enacts the persecution of Shostakovich with vicious absurdity. The participants in a pious Holocaust memorial become, after intermission, KGB agents operating a towering puppet of Mother Russia. She forces the composer to dangle by the fingertips from a giant wooden piano and, eventually, pins a heavy medal directly through his heart.
Not a member of Woolly’s festival lineup, the most politically scandalous production in town continues to be Konstantin Bogomolov’s fast and loose adaptation of An Ideal Husband, which premiered last fall at the Moscow Art Theater. Over its four-and-a-half hour run, the show bombards Wilde’s plotline (and its audiences) with images from Faust, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Chekhov, and thinly-veiled personalities from contemporary Russian politics.
In one particularly iconoclastic scene, Chekhov’s Three Sisters makes a cameo. Having finally made it to Moscow, the sisters sit in a trendy downtown club with Mabel Chiltern. Slumped over their cell phones, they drawl the famous refrain, “we must live, must work.” Then they take cocaine and dance to blaring hip-hop with thugs decked out in Sochi tracksuits.
Last November, the production was disrupted by “orthodox activists.” The protestors jumped onstage mid-performance and shouted denunciations of the production’s “hideous blasphemy.” Once staff and audience members realized they weren’t part of the performance, the activists—who have also targeted performances by detained punk rock group Pussy Riot—were escorted offstage by police.
As Russia’s climate radicalizes, such politically-engaged theater has attracted denunciations seemingly out of an era many thought dead and buried. The front page of April 12’s issue of Kul’tura newspaper proclaimed, “Ministry of Culture Warns: Contemporary Culture May Be Dangerous to the Health of Russians.” Continued in a two-page spread, the article goes on to list the names of playwrights, directors, teachers, and critics thought to be dangerously obscene, unpatriotic, or incendiary. Bogomolov is third on a list of offending directors. (John Freedman’s translation of the article’s introduction is here, and the whole Russian text is available on Kul’tura‘s website here.)
Krymov and Serebrennikov—as well as Svetlana Zemlyakova and Yury Muravitsky, the two younger directors invited to the festival—escape nomination to these particular lists. But they have not been immune to outrage. The Moscow Times notes that, in the run-up to the Gogol Center’s opening, Serebrennikov received threats, and the theater’s managing director was attacked. And those named by Kul’tura include Krymov and Serebrennikov’s colleagues, with whom they share audiences and stages.
The crisis in the Ukraine has served as a lightning rod for increased scrutiny of figures in the arts. In March, Russia’s Ministry of Culture called for artists to sign an open letter supporting Russia’s actions in Crimea. On April 10, several current Ministry of Culture advisors were replaced with individuals who signed the letter.
Entering an uncertain age when, in Moscow, gold cathedral domes glimmer between billboards, and furriers jostle KFC’s for sidewalk space, politically-engaged Russian theater artists are helping to trace the origins of today’s contradictory culture, and to articulate where it might be headed. With this aim, they are the heirs to a Russian theater tradition which takes its luminary capabilities seriously. Historically, many of the innovations shared by Russian artists with the world stem from a drive to join the theater’s aesthetic aims with civic responsibility.
Through the last century’s seismic shifts in government and culture, groundbreaking theater here has always provided a clearer view of the Russian national consciousness than the latest government press releases. Chekhov’s debuts at the Moscow Art showed the uncertainty and ennui of pre-revolutionary Russia. In the twenties, Mayakovsky and other writers dreamed aloud of a new, revolutionary consciousness. In spite of great political pressure in the Post-Stalin years of thaw and stagnation, directors like Yuri Lyubimov and Anatoly Efros (Dmitry Krymov’s father) pushed the aesthetic and spiritual limits of Soviet life.
It is an immense pity that the current representatives of this conscientious and innovative tradition won’t be able to show their work in Washington this fall. Given their own commitment to engagement coupled with aesthetic innovation, Woolly Mammoth would have been an ideal host to the current generation of leading Russian artists.
Most importantly, we can understand that to blame current difficulties solely on political forces in Russia gives radicalism too much credit. It’s a lesson taught over and over again by censorship: if works of art didn’t speak so powerfully, governments wouldn’t rush to silence them. In response to and—just as importantly—in spite of government pressures, Moscow’s theaters are conducting a process of self-interrogation and self-definition which, in its best examples, refuses to cede an inch of truth to ideological approximation.
Whether in the neighborhood of the White House or the Kremlin, that’s an ideal worth defending from both reactionary perspectives and political maneuverings. The capital of any tolerant country would be proud to host, and support, artists wrestling so tenaciously with their national history—and its implications for the future.
– DCTS writer Robert Duffley is currently studying at the Moscow Art Theater in conjunction with the Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University. –