Fire Destroys Famous Saratov Youth Theater (2012)

DSCN0378Reposting of Theater Plus blog No. 187. At this point, I suppose I could have skipped over this blog. But, as the Russian saying goes, you can’t toss words out of the song. And this account about a fire at the Saratov Youth Theater was, and remains, a part of the story I told about Russian theater for many years. Furthermore, this event – the fire that seriously damaged the theater – was eventually used by local authorities to replace the then-managing director Valery Raikov, who had done an incredible job of turning this relatively small regional theater into a serious house of art. And since I have written in some detail about Raikov and his work, this is a necessary, if unpleasant, coda to that story. When this piece ran originally, it had a link to a video of the fire at the theater. That link is now dead. Above I provide a photo I took of a Lee Breuer rehearsal at the theater (Lee is in the green shirt) – it shows, in part, the stage that was damaged by the fire. Furthermore, I only have my final draft of this piece – not the actual published copy – so I don’t know the exact date it ran.  

By John Freedman
[Mid-October 2012]

Authorities in Saratov on Thursday opened a criminal investigation into the fire that virtually destroyed the Saratov Youth Theater. It began on the building’s roof during a performance on Oct. 2 and burned for some 14 hours before firemen could completely douse the flames. During the early morning hours of Oct. 3 the theater’s roof collapsed into the space containing the stage and auditorium. By the time the fire was extinguished, little was left intact but support columns and walls, and the theater’s distinctive façade.

450 spectators and employees were evacuated safely from the burning building.

Early speculation about how the fire began centered on shorts in electrical wiring, the burning out of electrical lamps, or even a possible accident involving young people who, apparently, occasionally climb onto the theater’s roof for recreation.

According to an account on the RIA-Novosti website, no specifics about the case have yet been made public. The agency’s unnamed source merely said, “A check of the reasons for the fire is complete. Based on that, a criminal case has been opened due to signs of criminal activity as stipulated in the codex in regards to the destruction or damage of property by negligence.”

For the time being the theater will continue performing some of its productions on a new small stage that was opened a few blocks away less than a year ago. The Russian federal government has pledged 300 million rubles to the reconstruction effort. Contributions to a ruble fund established to help the theater replenish costumes, sets and props may be made by accessing a special page on the theater’s website.

The Saratov Youth Theater, officially 95 years-old this season, although the building itself was erected in 1905, is one of the most active and innovative houses in the so-called Russian provinces. It has worked with many top directors from the West, including Lee Breuer of the United States, Paolo Landi of Italy, Matthias Langhoff and Jean-Claude Fall of France. It regularly holds workshops intended to discover and develop new writers and directors. Some of those young artists, such as Dmitry Volkostrelov and Dmitry Yegorov of St. Petersburg, and Georg Genoux of Germany, have had their works included in the theater’s repertory.

I have had numerous occasions to write about the theater in this blog space, including this overview, this account of Lee Breuer’s production of Sam Shepard’s “The Curse of the Starving Class” and this report about a Shakespeare workshop.

In an emotional interview given the day after the fire was extinguished, the theater’s managing director Valery Raikov spoke with pride of the way theater employees put evacuation drills into action. “The competent and simultaneously dynamic evacuation did its job. No one was injured in the emergency, not a single employee, not a single spectator.”

Raikov also lamented the loss of history that the fire caused. “It was a huge misfortune that the fire destroyed our beloved stage, a stage that has been a home and a place of spirituality to so many generations of actors. Although, to be honest, everything that was saved yesterday cannot be divided into what has spiritual value and what does not. Every piece of paper was dear to us, every photograph priceless.”

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