Contemporary Russian Theatre
A complex set of different and contradictory practices comprises contemporary Russian theatre. First of all, the theatre is almost an exclusive domain of the state. That fact makes writing addressed to the Minister of Culture or President of Russia the ordinary means of struggle within inner conflicts. Another feature is that many of the old state theatres keep their credit only for old times' sake, the times when they were the heart of public life of the Soviet Union. But while the Soviet mass audience of the 60s and 70s chose the serious social and psychological drama, a contemporary Russian middle-aged viewer prefers light entertainment theatre like vaudeville, musical comedy and comic sketches. Some state and private theatres follow this taste seeking better financial conditions.
The repertory theatre system makes an artistic director an autocrat of a theatre, ruling over numerous actors, usually from 40 to 80 people. Directors are often focused on staging Shakespeare and Chekhov above all and a number of performances of their plays always exist at the same time. Distribution of roles often depends on relations between a director and the actors. The usual motto of the state theatres is 'save the traditions', which is often a curtain that hides stagnation and backwardness. This surface traditionalism, popular among the public, is an obstacle to positive change. For example, the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, the oldest drama theatre in Russia, was reformed and modernized by the new artistic director, Valery Fokin. Costume dramas were replaced by bringing up to date the classics and plays of modern Russian playwrights. However, these changes weren't accepted by the mass audience, blaming Fokin for irreverent treatment of traditions.
I discussed these issues with Dmitry Volkostrelov, a new and promising Russian director. He was born in Moscow in 1982. He graduated from the St. PetersburgStateTheatreArtsAcademy, the class led by Lev Dodin, the world-famous artistic director of the Maly Drama Theatre – Theatre de l'Europe, one of three theatres of Europe (with the Odéon Theatre in Paris and the Piccolo Teatro in Milan). In 2006-2007 Volkostrelov was acting there. Then for a few years, he starred in Russian movies and serials, and finally in 2010, as a director, Volkostrelov created three productions which were surprising in their novelty and independent views of modern theatre.
The first performance of the play by the contemporary Belarussian and Russian playwright Pavel Pryagko, The Closed Door, was staged within a workshop of young directors and was awarded "the best performance" of the workshop. Then, Volkostrelov staged the text of the famous Russian playwright Ivan Vyrypaev with Alena Starostina, an actress of the Maly Drama Theatre, reading the text. Finally, in December, Volkstrelov, in cooperation with playwright Mikhail Durnenhkov, released a work-in-progress which appeared in the festival: "The Theatre Space of Andrey Moguchy" (Director Andrey Moguchy is a leader of St. Petersburg's theatre avant-garde). These three productions, based on the plays of modern playwrights, focused on playing the authors' text instead of interpreting it.
Thinking of you, I remember the words said by the protagonist in the movie, "The Social Network", claiming that it's better to create a job than to find one. I suppose these words are applicable to you in a way. You aren't trying to carve out a career by working in a repertory theatre. You just work in your own coordinated system.
Well, in fact, repertory theatre is a very contradictory institution. I've been working for a year in The Maly Drama Theatre, one of the best Russian theatres, and I have no reason to complain. But I am skeptical about the Russian repertory theatre system in general. I know that for many young actors and actresses their creative work ceases by getting a job in a repertory theatre. First of all that's because of a rule: if you want to act in a serious role, you must wait for a long time. Actually, I don't think that an actor must wait. An actor should be in an infinite pursuit. But there are very few places for the creative initiative of actors in most Russian theatres.
However, it is a popular belief that before playing in serious roles an actor should mature.
The fact is that in an ordinary Russian theatre no one matures or perfects himself. Usually it's nothing but routine. The Russian repertory theatre system was actually invented by Stalin. There were only five state theatres in pre-revolutionary Russia. All the others were founded and functioned under private control. It could be, for instance, a local elite that gathered resources and decided to establish a theatre and to invite actors. The actors moved all over the country. Daresay, it was much better and more honest than to depend on the will of one man and to stay in one place all your life. But Stalin's idea was to stop the mobility of actors by unifying the theatre of the country based on the organizational model of the MoscowArtTheatre. This model was brilliant, but only for the one theatre and only for the people who originated it. Also it was quite different from modern practise. All the leading actors of the theatre were its shareholders gaining a profit along with salary. That was impossible during Stalin's Rule. The theatre reflects the condition of the country in many respects. Nowadays the lack of artistic initiative corresponds to the fact that any private initiative is undesirable in our country.
During the last year, there was a controversy whether ths state should continue to finance theatre. What's your opinion on this?
First of all I am sorry for the provincial theatres. A theatre is sometimes the only place to meet and discuss serious topics in a town. The tax benefits for donation to the theatre could save these theatres. Just like in the U.S.
Speaking of the periphery, you obviously distinguish between St. Petersburg andMoscow and other parts of the country.
Not only that, I feel the great difference between them: St. Petersburg is very provincial in this respect. The main advantage of Moscow is the number of festivals, representing theatres and actor companies from all over the world: the Chekhov International Theatre Festival, the International Festival of Contemporary Art "Territory", the New European Theatre Festival and the New Drama Festival. Also, the "Dramaturgic Workshop" and the National Theatre Award "The Golden Mask" are important events. The artistic life in Moscow is more active than in St. Petersburg. Though the quality of the production is sometimes lacking, there are some high-grade theatres. For instance, the Moscow Art Theatre with Oleg Tabakov as artistic director, the Moscow Young Generation Theater, the Peter Fomenko Studio theatre and some others. But there is no theatre movement of full value in Russia. I mean there is no large-scaled phenomenon comparable to the modern Polish theatre or elsewhere. There is a prevalent lack of interest in new drama—not only with regard to new drama, but the thinking, in general, is bland and unconcerned. I feel the stagnation – both in the country and the theatre.
People of my generation who love the theatre are mostly influenced by the performances of their favorite actors, gestures and all. They sometimes don't pay attention to meaning of a play.
That's not surprising as the great majority of plays staged nowadays deal with life in general and man in general instead of contemporary and contemporary people. They neglect the important changes in the human mind. And another problem is that often the performance is delivered well but the deep sense of it is missing. And only a rare master like Lev Dodin aims to affect a viewer and make him think about what he sees. I can't be satisfied with a performance where an audience sits back and rests. The audience must work!
Your goal is to serve that aim?
Well, I like to create a performance contrary to expectations to make the audience interested and to make them actively understand.
Do all the viewers really change like this?
Of course not. Some of them go away criticising. There was an entry in the visitor's book of The Closed Door, consisting of the one word: "Nonsense". A man who reacts like this just isn't ready to speak about his life and the world around him. Please remember that popular demands in the theatre are often reduced to a simple pattern: to entertain and not to upset anyone. The European audience is different. It is more inclined an inner sense of masochism.
I'm on no account a revolutionary of the theatre. I agree with the ideas of the existence of the European theatres staging performances as close to the 19th century ones as possible. They continue their national theatre traditions. Unfortunately, the Russian theatre has lost many of its traditions. For me, the traditions of the Russian theatre are connected with the Maly Theatre in Moscow, the plays of Schepkin, the drama of Ostrovsky. This natural growth was stopped by force by making a fetish of the achievements of the Moscow Art Theatre. The irony is that the great reformer of the theatre, Constantin Stanislavski, was a man of constant change. This was the sense of his fascination. It's absurd to dogmatize his heritage as well as his method . As with any other theatre system of the 20th century, the epoch changed too fast to create a tradition. Tht's why I don't connect the Russian theatre with Stanislavski's method. It's just an artistic language that could enrich an actor. Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando used this method and acted well. Nonetheless, that's not a reason for making universal rules from the applied method. This trend is in conflict with the main vocation of the artist – to change every time, to be Proteus.
What audience do you address by your staging?
While working on a performance, we think of the target audience least of all. Still I suppose that our staging interests the public that doesn't visit theatre at all. I mean the nice young public, who read Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida and watch lots of art films. These people once visited a standard dull performance and from then on they are sure that the theatre can't be helped.
On February 2, 2011, Dmitry Volkostrelov was awarded the 'best drama director' for his staging of "July", by the famous modern Russian playwright Ivan Vyrypaev. The Saint Petersburg theatre award for young "Proryv" ("Breakthrough") is a presitigious honor, juried by critics, directors and actors.
Photos - Alexey Knyazev