On June 13, the New Experimental Theatre of Volgograd, Russia, opens a Russian-language version of A Streetcar Named Desire – at the Cleveland Play House. By then, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater will have just closed a revival of Our Town – at the Omsk State Drama Theatre in Siberia. At the joint behest of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Moscow Arts Theatre, playwright Richard Nelson and his Russian partner Alexander Gehlman will be in the midst of final rewrites on their collaborative piece about the attempted Moscow coup that almost toppled perestroika. And Bob Leonard of the Road Company in Johnson City, Tenn. will probably be still wishing he had enough money to propel him and his small theatre expeditiously to Ufa Bashkiria, where they have recently been invited to perform.Order now
These days, it seems that press releases for almost every regional theatre in the country sport headlines about the coming and going of Russians. Local news cameras in numerous cities follow amazed Russian actors around American department stores as they nervously clutch gift certificates from their publicity-hungry sponsors. Local critics on the theatre beat keep interpreters busy as they write a succession of similar articles about the differences between over there and over here.
In an American’s Russia, it seems, huge companies of dedicated but inflexible actors have jobs for life, respect their totalitarian directors (except when they’ve left town) and fill their massive theatres with young people paying affordable prices. Promised accommodations for worried visiting Americans may or may not materialize. In a Russian’s America, there is double casting out of New York, corporate sponsorship, computerized equipment, aging subscribers and perhaps a few more empty seats. But the food, hotel rooms and shopping are great.
Even in the most frozen days of the cold war, artists from the former Soviet Union were trickling over to American regional theatres. Back in 1977, Galina Volchek of the Sovremennik Theatre of Moscow came to Houston to stage Mikhail Roschin’s Echelon with American actors. Her visit to the Alley Theatre, which enjoyed the backing of the Soviet Ministry of Culture, marked the first time a Russian had been invited to a regional theatre to stage a play precisely as it had previously appeared in the Soviet Union.
But it was the signing of the General Exchanges agreement in 1985 that brought about the first major wave of joint theatrical endeavors with the former U.S.S.R. Mark Lamos of Hartford Stage Company became the first American to direct an American play in the Soviet Union when he helmed Desire Under the Elms at Moscow’s Pushkin Theatre in 1986, becoming a serious Russian celebrity in the process. The Pushkin’s Yuri Yeremihn returned the favor by directing a highly visible production of Alexsandr Chervinsky’s The Paper Gramophone at Hartford Stage in early 1989. Assorted American international theatre festivals invited Russians to participate in the late ’80s, and other directors (including Nagle Jackson and Des McAnuff) followed Lamos’s trek eastwards.
Now that the last vestiges of political opposition have completely disintegrated, the scale of exchanges in the ’90s has become much larger. The Alley’s 1990 production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? played in Lithuania and at the Maly Theatre in what is now St. Petersburg. Around 50 actors from Omsk came all the way to Wisconsin to present Yuri Kim’s Moscow Kitchens last fall, bringing in $70,000 in single-ticket sales in a one-week stand at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theatre. And 30-odd Russians will be in Cleveland for three weeks in June presenting Nikolai Erdman’s long-censored farce The Suicide, as well as Play House artistic director Josephine Abady’s direct-from-Volgograd staging of Streetcar to Ohioans who have been told to expect the least Brandoesque Stanley imaginable.
Especially now that everyone seems to be doing it, what do such expensive exchanges achieve beyond impressive P.R.? These financially strapped times, after all, find many American theatres struggling to make operating costs, and Russian theatres worrying who or what will replace the government subsidies that have, by most accounts, all but dried up. Are there alternatives to simply swapping productions?
The International Theatre Institute’s Martha Coigney argues that these traumatic times in the Eastern bloc are making theatres there fragile, and the real challenge for Americans is to offer aid while staying afloat themselves. “The former Soviet theatres are bereft; they are facing whole different ways of working,” she says. “I get desolate when I think that the U.S. is not going to pay attention.”
Coigney finds it ironic that American exchanges are so popular with Russian theatres, when they probably should be looking to Western Europe. Other Americans share her discomfort at their country being used as a shining example of how to treat the theatre. “We have the most unenlightened cultural policies on the globe,” says Philip Arnoult of the Baltimore Theatre Project. “What do we have to tell the Russians – other than that they are looking too far west?” Larry Sacharow of Woodstock, N.Y.’s River Arts Repertory concurs: “We should definitely not be a cultural model.”
That does not mean, however, that exchanges have no value. For one thing, American companies find them surprisingly fundable. Milwaukee has persuaded a slew of corporations to help support its visit to Siberia. And Cleveland’s Abady, who has found it difficult to persuade local corporations to finance the Play House’s regular offerings, had little trouble signing people up for a visible project like the Volgograd exchange.
One attribute that most American regional theatres have aplenty is management expertise, and there is considerable interest in exchanging management ideas with newly needy Russian theatres, instead of just productions. Last fall, 10 directors from ex-Soviet countries toured Tennessee theatres – including the Road Company. Anton German, business manager of the Maly Theatre, spent time at the Alley last December, picking Texas brains. Led by Milwaukee’s Sara O’Connor, NEA Theater Program head Ben Cameron and administrators from San Diego’s Old Globe, the Manhattan Theatre Club and the Philadelphia Drama Guild found their way to Siberia the same month to discuss issues of repertoire, community relations, employment practices and styles of management. O’Connor says the gathering was the first such conference originated “not by the White House or Kremlin, but by working theatre people trying to solve problems.”
America’s theatres have also been exploring how new Russian writers can be encouraged. According to Otar Djangisherashvili of Volgograd, the disruptive effect of the political collapse is decimating the repertoire, which is why he is bringing a 1928 play to Cleveland. “Writers who used to conform to the system have experienced utter death,” he says through an interpreter. “New writers are still in search of their footing.”
Sacharow has launched a project that aims to provide precisely that, using funding from the USIA and the Trust for Mutual Understanding. The director has paired American playwrights like Len Jenkin and Emily Mann with Russian writers with similar interests, in the hope that the scribes will adapt each other’s plays and provide mutual encouragement. The grant provides for each writer in the scheme to travel to the other’s country, once each. Sacharow is anxious to help the Russian theatres make the transition from “living underground newspaper” to commentator on the brave new world. He expects the benefits to be mutual. “We’ve got a lot to learn from the Russians in terms of their sense of theatre from the heart,” he says. “And it’s a lot easier to get a new play produced over there than it is here.”
The Cleveland and Volgograd exchange has been dubbed “Full Circle,” as it will mark the first Russian theatre production directed by an American to be produced back in the U.S. The same two words are perhaps an apt description of the present state of Russian theatre, as it suffers the pain of reinventing itself and persuading what Djangisherashvili calls “the rising entrepreneurial class” that the art form is worthy of its full support. If it is successful, there will be a lot to tell envious Americans on future visits. For now, Abady is adamant that full-scale exchanges are more important than ever. “They point out to the government of Russia the ability of the arts to create commerce,” she says. “And they show our government that the arts can be a leader.”