New Voices in a Shifting Age: Recent Russian Drama and Theater
Russian society "emerges through its culture," noted John Freedman, author and theater critic, The Moscow Times, and Visiting Artist, Department of Theater Arts, Towson University, at a 27 October 2008 Kennan Institute seminar. "You find what really is going on underneath through the writers, the painters, and the musicians." According to Freedman, the past three decades witnessed remarkable developments in Russian drama, an evolution that has transformed Russian theater into one of the country's most exciting and important art forms.
Freedman described three distinct periods in recent Russian theater history. During the 1980s, Russian theater suffered though a period of general neglect, when real life and politics turned out to be far more interesting than what occurred on the stage. During the 1990s, despite persistent claims concerning the death of Russian theater, several new writers and directors emerged on the scene. Freedman specifically cited the rise of Olga Mukhina and her 1996 play titled Tanya-Tanya as a critical turning point in the rebirth of Russian theater. Oleg Bogaev followed Mukhina's success with his play The Russian National Postal Service, which also brought a new city—Ekaterinburg—onto the Russian drama scene. All of sudden, Freedman observed, people were looking for new plays.
The 2000s continued this extraordinary renaissance of Russian theater, with plays tackling such relevant topics as the generation gap, the increase in violence in Russian society, alienation, and remembering the past. Innovative new theaters, along with new sources of funding, also appeared in the 2000s. Freedman described the important role of the Moscow-based Playwright and Director Center in the revival of Russian drama. Founded by Aleksei Kazantsev and Mikhail Roshchin in 1998, the Center has served as one of the major catalysts in the change of attitudes towards Russian drama. The Center not only discovered a new generation of writers but also a new cohort of young directors committed to staging modern contemporary drama, as opposed to the classics. The Center also brought a new generation of actors and spectators to the theater. Freedman observed that the Center attracts a particularly young crowd that traditionally does not attend the theater.
A second important new theater opened in 2002, Teatr.doc, that also appealed to a younger audience. Teatr.doc is a theater of "verbatim" (i.e., documentary) theater. It works with new texts largely based on real life interviews covering a wide range of topics. Freedman remarked that Teatr.doc reminded him of the movement in the 1880s of "going to the people," when Russian intellectuals deemed everyday life to be the locus of Russian culture and attempted to reconnect with it. Teatr.doc brought real spoken Russian to the stage, observed Freedman, thereby breaking down the literary approach to Russian theater of the last 80-100 years.
As for developments in Russia's more established theaters, Freedman noted that Moscow's Malyi Theater remained largely unchanged both in terms of its style of performance and its selection of plays. The Moscow Art Theater has kept up with the times, argued Freedman, mainly due to its more commercially oriented repertoire. Outside of Moscow, Freedman highlighted Ekaterinburg and Togliatti as major new centers of Russian drama, with St. Petersburg still lagging behind as a representative of Russia's more traditional approach to theater.
Freedman noted that many controversial topics that cannot be heard on television or in other open forums (other than the radio station Ekho Moskvy) are freely discussed in the theater. According to Freedman, if one is not interested in the arts and drama, and instead follows politics only through the Russian media, then one misses an extremely important forum for the dissemination of dissenting views. Although Russian theater played a similar role during Soviet times, Freedman emphasized the important distinctions between the two periods. Present-day Russian drama possesses a new face, a new style, and a new language, and it does not have to rely on Aesopian communication as its Soviet predecessor did.
Freedman claimed that the Russian state generally overlooks the comings and goings of Russian theater, with a few notable exceptions. Freedman described how Putin's government tried to force the theater community to sign a petition condemning imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, holding out the prospect of additional funding as an incentive. Even though the state rarely inserts itself into internal theater affairs, Freedman recognized that nevertheless, most funding for Russian theater still comes either from federal sources or local city governments. Therefore, while contemporary Russian drama addresses various socially relevant issues, Freedman speculated that audiences might not perceive Russian theater as "making politically provocative statements or putting on politically provocative productions."
Russian drama once again stands on the cusp of significant change, noted Freedman. What one sees now is the beginning of a convergence between experimental and traditional theater. Freedman stated that although it remains unclear how this development will impact Russian drama as a whole, playwriting now stands out as the most important literary genre in Russia today. Print runs of plays are sold out in a matter of weeks. "There is something about the dramatic form that suits the times," added Freedman, concluding that for this reason young writers will continue to gravitate to drama for the foreseeable future.