Built on scenic, typhoon-lashed hills at the tip of a peninsula jutting into the Sea of Japan, Vladivostok was never a typical Soviet city. Home port of the Red Navy’s Pacific Fleet, it was closed even to Soviets from other regions until its official opening Jan. 1, 1992; yet because of the thousands of wandering merchant marine officers and seamen, more of Vladivostok’s residents had probably visited Western countries than those of any other city in the empire. Today, however, the once-disciplined sailors have turned Al Capone-style “businessmen,” chasing after money and power in right-hand-drive cars imported from Japan.
Ten company members from San Diego’s Blackfriars Theatre rode into Russia’s new Wild East late last summer – as the first American performing arts group ever to visit far eastern Russia – with Beth Henley’s fierce comedy of American pioneer life, Abundance, and Romulus Linney’s moving one-act about the great Russian poet, Akhmatova. In addition to Vladivostok, the plays also toured last summer to Khabarovsk, a city on the Chinese border, with Abundance’s Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright along for the ride.
And through the seemingly anomalous and always demonstrative theatre communities of the two cities, the Americans were immersed in the complexities of life in today’s Russia. Though by economic measures the cities are comparable to Tijuana, this is still the land that produced Chekhov and Stanislavsky, where even philistine borderline businessmen consider theatre a central part of cultural life. In fact, most of both the host theatres’ sponsors belong to this new-monied set. The Americans got a long look at a distinct theatrical culture which – with the self-assured signals of U.S. culture jamming the post – Cold War airwaves, and increasingly desperate financial pressures on Russian artists – runs the risk of being consigned to the proverbial dustbin.
THIS TOUR REUNITED the cast of Blackfriars’ critically acclaimed 1991 production of Abundance, led by actor and producer Allison Brennan and director Ralph Elias. In Vladivostok and Khabarovsk these typically peripatetic American theatre professionals had a close encounter with the power of the Russian collective.
Actor Kim Bennett explained: “The lead actor of the Khabarovsk Youth Theatre asked me how many theatres I’d worked in and I told him between 60 and 70 over the past 15 years. He had worked in his theatre for 20 years, and had never worked with any other. It’s like playing on a team – it’s not all about individual stars.”
Company member Erin Kelly cited the security of the collective as a key to the unrestrained theatricality of Russian acting. “I think in the United States we need to get some of that largeness back into theatre. In America we’re too often limited by appropriateness and believability,” she said. Actor Linda Libby suggested that the Russian acting style “corresponds to their largeness of spirit in all areas of life.”
Allison Brennan played the title role in Akhmatova, which she says the company approached “with some trepidation as to whether it was presumptuous of us to perform a play about a great Russian poet there.” The company also worried that the one-act was too short to appear on its own program, and supplemented the evening with a reading by Russian actresses of Akhmatova’s poem “Requiem” and a discussion period with audiences. But despite these qualms Brennan says the Linney one-act was received warmly and produced a “huge impact on Russian audiences,” especially given that the one-act was only added to the program in May, on the suggestion of a Vladivostok theatre manager who was concerned that Abundance alone wouldn’t fill enough seats (a fear which proved unfounded: the company filled the large 1,000-seat theatre to capacity for each Abundance performance there, and the four Akhmatova performances in a smaller venue sold out before the Americans arrived).
THE AMERICAN COMPANY was also astonished at the technical differences in the theatres they visited. There are no stage managers as we know them in Russian theatres: the technicians attend rehearsals and learn their parts the same way the actors do. In Vladivostok, the company faced the forbidding task of teching the show in a day and a half, with two technicians who spoke no English and had to run the lights from a 200-dimmer board, with each light on an individual dimmer. For Elias careful coordination of the lighting and sound were extremely important for the episodic Abundance and, he says, the results were impressive. “The collaboration with the technicians was amazing,” he recalls, “and bonds developed between the two companies.”