Lee Breuer Shakes Up Shepard in Saratov

Theater Plus blog No. 89. One of the many lucky, unplanned and unexpected encounters I have had over the years was my brief, but fascinating, shared time with Lee Breuer. Completely out of the blue in the fall of 2010 I received a phone call from Valery Raikov, the managing director of the Saratov Youth Theater (ID’d a bit differently below as per Moscow Times standards), who said they needed someone to come down immediately to work on the Russian text of Sam Shepard’s “The Curse of the Starving Class” just days before it was to open. I jumped at the chance and we jumped to work the instant that I arrived in Saratov. It was three days of work heaven as Lee, Maude Mitchell, translators Maria Storozhenko and Yekaterina Raikova and I worked almost around the clock to get the text to where Lee wanted it. That story remains to be told. For the time being, there is the story I told about Lee’s rehearsals. What a great time it was! Above is a photo I shot of Lee Breuer, right, and translator Maria Storozhenko discussing rehearsals of Sam Shepard’s “”The Curse of the Starving Class” at the Saratov Theater Yunogo Zritelya.

05 October 2010
By John Freedman

“See, I turn everything upside down. That’s how I do it,” the director told me during a break in rehearsals.

“That’s not how Sam Shepard does it,” the man went on. “Shepard likes good Irish acting. He likes actors playing the text.”

Just three days before this conversation took place I had no idea I would be sitting in a theater in Saratov, talking to the renowned American director Lee Breuer.

My schedule said I was to get on a plane in mid-October to fly down to see the premiere of Breuer’s production of Shepard’s “The Curse of the Starving Class” at the Saratov Theater Yunogo Zritelya. Fate, however, had something else in store for me.

Valery Raikov, the theater’s managing director, called me last week and asked if I could make a quick advance trip. Breuer, who does not speak Russian and is making his Russian directing debut in Saratov, wanted to get an outside opinion. Rehearsals, which began at the end of August, were going well, but questions were cropping up, too.

Breuer is no stranger to Russia.

“The Gospel at Colonus,” one of the landmarks of recent American theater and now running in its 30th year, played Moscow during the Theater Olympics in 2001.

Last year Breuer’s unorthodox, award-winning take on Henrik Ibsen’s “The Dollhouse” was a featured entry in the Stanislavsky Season theater festival.

Both of those shows were produced by Mabou Mines, a New York company that Breuer helped found.

All of that was buried deep in my memory by the time I arrived at the theater from the airport last week. Rehearsals were under way. Breuer sat far to the right, in about the 10th row, and a few other people were scattered around the house. An actor was preparing to launch into a scene — what turned out to be a rousing, five-minute, 40-second lip-synch rendition of Al Green belting out an astonishing live performance of the famous Sam Cooke song, “Change is Gonna Come.”

“What is this?” I thought.

It has been a while since I have seen “Curse” performed, but I didn’t remember Al Green in there.

That’s Lee Breuer, though, finding in plays what we had no idea existed.

“I want you working on your moonwalks!” Breuer told the actor through a translator. “This has to be like a rock concert on MTV!”

Breuer was all over the camera man, who was shooting the scene from behind the stage so that it was simultaneously projected on a wooden screen. The trick is that we see the actor coming and going, front and back. When his back is turned to us, we see a close-up of his face on the screen. When he’s facing us, we see him wiggling his butt at the camera.

“The camera can’t be static!” Breuer barked at the unseen man backstage. “You’ve got to follow his every move. We’ve got to see him when he’s on the ground. We’ve got to see him spinning around.”

The cameraman, responding by way of the stage manager, whose words were translated into English for the director, objected that the hole in the wall, through which he was filming, was too small to allow for that kind of movement.

“Then make the hole bigger! Make it as big as you need!” Breuer shouted energetically. “I need that camera moving! If you can’t do that, it’s boring! And I’ll have to cut the song!”

They ran through the scene again, and it was like someone had poured gasoline on it and tossed in a match. What five minutes before had been a simple musical number was now an incendiary, emotional blast that came crashing down on those of us sitting in the hall.

I was exhausted when the scene came to an end. “What an ending that’s going to be,” I thought. At least until Breuer came over to chat for a short moment.

“That’s the first scene,” he said. “What do you think?”

I laughed to myself and thought what I often think when I see a production by Lee Breuer: “I sure didn’t expect that!”

Over the course of three more days there were plenty more surprises.

Like seeing the young woman from the dysfunctional family Shepard is exploring suddenly rise up and do a dance on a sparkling chain in mid-air during a dream scene. Or seeing the same character fly, topsy-turvy in slow motion, across the stage, blown to smithereens by an explosion that two-bit bandits had meant for her father.

Or seeing both the girl and her brother turn into zombies stalking the stage as if they were escapees from “Night of the Living Dead.” Or seeing a sleazy attorney waltz onto the stage for the first time — a dead ringer for Elvis Presley, replete with sweeping hairdo and immaculate white jacket.

For the moment Al Green has been pushed aside, and now it’s the velvety, Las-Vegas-tinged voice of Elvis pulsating from the speakers. “It’s now or never / Come hold me tight / Kiss me darling / Be mine tonight…”

“How’s Elvis look?” Breuer asked me later. “Does that work?”

Did that work? Was Elvis king?

Breuer would have been better off asking me about the scene where Elvis leads a stage full of losers, drunks and thugs in a butt-wiggling dance as they exchange threats.

Actually, best he didn’t. By that time I was laughing too hard.

Lee Breuer’s production of Sam Shepard’s “The Curse of the Starving Class” plays at the Saratov Theater Yunogo Zritelya on Oct. 12 and 16 at 6 p.m. Tel. 7 (845) 226-1541.

Russian Answers to American Theatre’s Questions

Theater Plus blog No. 88. American Theatre magazine used to do a cool thing – posting interesting and sometimes provocative questions on their Facebook page. I think that practice fell by the wayside for some time, but I’ve noticed it has come back recently. Anyway, in response to these questions I always used (and continue to use) every opportunity to plug great Russian theater artists and writers, still unfairly unknown in the West. But some of the questions went deeper than just “who or what”? I put together a collection of AT questions and used them to write the blog you see below – there’s more than a little confession in what follows. Above: I snapped my wife Oksana Mysina holding up a just-purchased copy of the September issue of American Theatre magazine in a New York cafe.

28 September 2010
By John Freedman

American Theatre magazine has come up with a clever ploy to keep people interested in what it is up to in between issues. Every few days they post a question on their Facebook page and encourage their fans, of which there are 7,874 at this writing, to respond. I have not done so because my experience in Moscow is hardly comparable, and it would not mean much, to the magazine’s general readership.

On the other hand I have been itching to get in and have my say on a few topics.

So here they are ― my answers to a few questions posed by American Theatre over the past weeks.

Do you practice the “10-block rule,” which says you shouldn’t discuss what you thought of a play until you’re 10 blocks from the theater, lest someone involved or related overhear you?

I practice the get-home-alone-and-safe rule. Not because I don’t want anyone to overhear what I have to say, but because the instant that I walk out of a show, I don’t know yet what I want or need or even have to say.

This is an extremely intimate moment for me. For another hour at least, I remain in a state of open confusion and am highly receptive to anything ― any word that I hear, any glance that I see or offer myself. If someone says anything to me, or if I let myself formulate thoughts that are not yet clear, I find that this becomes a roadblock when I sit down to write.

I once attended the theater with Hedy Weiss, the theater critic of the Chicago Sun-Times. Hedy is a garrulous, friendly, bubbly person. Just as the lights began to dim, she turned to me and said, “Don’t think anything of this, but when the show ends I will bolt out of here. I will not say good-bye, and don’t say anything to me.”

I loved her for that, and I think of her every time someone runs up to me after a show and asks me breathlessly, “So! What did you think!?” At those moments, if looks could kill….

“Somebody once said that when you’re making theatre, your goal should either be to make people laugh so hard they wet themselves or cry so hard they can’t speak — but either way you end up with water.” From director Art Manke, in the new Denver Center Theatre program, talking about his production of “The 39 Steps.”

It’s a nice image ― reducing an audience to a puddle. I like it and I agree. A “dry” audience is one that hasn’t been touched. What’s the point of inviting people into your theater if you aren’t going to reach out and touch ― and pinch and punch and tickle ― a little?

Who does the theater belong to?

A difficult question. And answers will be very different in different cultures. In Russia I would say theater belongs to whoever is bold enough to seize it. After all, this is the way in Russia, a country that loves a strong hand. I hadn’t thought of that connection before, but I think it’s legitimate. As regards theater here, it can belong to the producer, if he or she is determined to wield control. It can belong to the director, as it often has over the last century. It can belong to the actor, as it did in the 19th century and, to some extent, does again in the present day. (Oleg Tabakov at the Moscow Art Theater, for instance, has turned that art house into a showcase for popular actors.) In some respects, it can belong to the audience.

Has a play ever profoundly changed your mind about something?

About politics? No. About morality? No. About aesthetics? Yes. My own opinion of my life? Yes.

Have you ever run into a critic who gave you a bad review? Paint the scene for us.

I have to turn this question around, of course, since there are people I have criticized who must run into me from time to time. But what sticks in memory is something slightly different. Here is the scene: I am working at my computer. The phone rings. I wince. I always wince when I am working and the phone rings. I answer the phone, because I always answer the phone, even when I am working. I hear an unknown voice asking to speak to me. I identify myself and the person says, “I just read your review of my latest show and I want to thank you.”

But this isn’t the story yet.

The story is this: These are directors whose work I have criticized, sometimes severely. The first time it happened I was flabbergasted. The second time I was curious. The third time it happened I began to realize there was something to it. A critic can disagree with a director, even strongly, but there is a way of disagreeing with respect and understanding. It’s quite surprising what happens if you succeed in doing that.

Have you ever enjoyed a play more upon later reflection than when you were watching it?

I don’t know if “enjoy” is the proper word, but I certainly see a play better in the first few hours after watching a performance. Theater is a living art, in which live people on a stage seek to affect live people sitting in a hall. The impact of that act cannot possibly cease to have its effect once the curtain closes. You take a show out the door with you and you take it home to bed with you that night. The better the show is, the more it refuses to leave you alone.

“Criticism begins not in knowledge but in ignorance. You can’t prepare for a new ballet, a new dancer, a new play, a new work of music, a new trend. Expertise won’t help you with the new; but an open mind will.” What do you think?

This was a fairly controversial statement, as it turned out. But I strongly agree with it. I think the worst critics are those who are loaded down with knowledge and all of the rules about how things should and should not be done. It is a critic’s job, in my opinion, to wipe the slate clean ― to the extent that that’s possible ― when you walk in the theater’s front door. Every work of art deserves to be perceived and understood on its own terms. You can’t do that when you walk into the theater loaded down with the terms of everyone else who has come before. When you find yourself sitting in the hall comparing what you are seeing to what you have read, witnessed, heard ― or, at least, when you let those impressions take control of what you are watching in the real moment ― you are already losing contact with the work at hand.

Comedy is a form of truth-telling, not a diversion from weighty matters of the day. Discuss. What part were you born to play?

That is surely what comedy would be in a more perfect world. Although that’s not why I’m answering this question. I just want to say to any directors out there that I am your King Lear. You can reach me through this newspaper.

Stillness speaks louder than movement onstage. True or false? Discuss.

Let’s put it this way: Less is quite often more. One of the most powerful performances I have seen in recent seasons was Alexander Porokhovshchikov playing the old father in Biljana Srbljanovic’s “Locusts” at the Pushkin Theater in 2008. For the most part, the actor sat motionless, expressionless and wordless in a chair, the incarnation of a riddle with a ghastly outcome. But he was the center of the whole performance. I heard later that the director, Roman Kozak, had offered the actor any of the roles in the play he wanted. Porokhovshchikov chose this one because, reportedly, he knew that it could be the most expressive of them all. It was.

Can scenic design make or break a show?

Boy, can it ever! I have seen shows utterly buried under the hubris of a designer. The first that comes to mind is Mikhail Mokeyev’s production of Heinrich von Kleist’s “The Prince of Homburg” at the Et Cetera Theater in 1998. Yury Kharikov, no matter how famous and how award-laden he was, simply buried this show under the most extravagant, irritating and anti-theatrical costumes I may ever have seen. I walked out of the theater and I had no idea what had happened there. All I could recall were costumes that bounced and ruffled and rustled and bloomed so aggressively that the actors ceased to exist.

Theater Great Is Gone, But Legacy Is Just Beginning

Theater Plus blog No. 87. One of the great Russians of his time. Alexei Kazantsev. His contribution to Russian culture was enormous. He was there at the right place and the right time with the right idea and the right tools to work it. It was a pleasure and an honor to be a witness. The theater he created, the Playwright and Director Center, for about a decade one of Moscow’s most important playhouses, ended up falling by the wayside. It is now being resurrected by Vladimir Pankov (it’s something of a coincidence that he is discussed in the blog below), but it will be a completely different theater this time. It will draw its roots from Kazantsev’s work, but it will be an entirely independent entity. None of that darkens what Kazantsev did in his time. To get a feel for what that was, read on… Photo above: Alexei Kazantsev, second from left, is flanked by actress Oksana Mysina (far left), playwright Lyudmila Razumovskaya, and John Freedman in the literary offices of the Maly Drama Theater in St. Petersburg in 1998.

21 September 2010
By John Freedman

I’m not good with dates. So for those who are sticklers about anniversaries this article is decidedly late.

On the other hand, the reasons compelling me to choose this topic only came together during the first two weeks of September. Ultimately, what concerns me is less the fact that Alexei Kazantsev died three years ago, on September 5, 2007, than the fact that the work this playwright, director, producer and theatrical activist did over the last twenty years of his life continues to transform and grow.

I dug back into my dusty photo albums and found a shot of Kazantsev, my wife Oksana Mysina, the playwright Lyudmila Razumovskaya and myself taken at the Maly Drama Theater in St. Petersburg in 1998. What a different theater world it was then!

Kazantsev was still months away from opening the Playwright and Director Center in Moscow. New plays were still rare and unwanted guests on Russia’s stages. Almost all of the major theaters in Moscow were being run by artistic directors who began their careers in the 1950s or 1960s, if not the 1920s (Valentin Pluchek at the Satire Theater) or the 1930s (Yury Lyubimov at the Taganka Theater).

With apologies to James Brown, we can say it was an old, old, old man’s world.

Kazantsev was 61 when he died. He was days from turning 54 when he founded the Playwright and Director Center, and he was about 48 in 1993 when he launched the journal Playwright, which began forcing the Russian theater world to admit that contemporaries were writing interesting plays. Regardless of his age, everything Kazantsev did was connected with, and drew on, youth ― his own and that of others.

Now, I ran a preview of the upcoming 2010-2011 theater season in the real and virtual pages of this newspaper about two weeks ago. And in that piece I pointed out that the coming months promise a rich selection of new works by major contemporary writers. We soon will witness new productions of plays by the Presnyakov brothers, Ivan Vyrypayev, Yury Klavdiyev and Pavel Pryazhko.

For all intents and purposes, none of these writers existed when Kazantsev opened the Playwright and Director Center in 1999. Every one of them, each now a major force in contemporary Russian theater, owes a deep debt to Kazantsev. It was Kazantsev who refused to accept the status quo, who flew in the face of the received wisdom that no one was writing plays worth staging.

The Lyubimovka play festival, which ran from Sept. 4 to 12, and attracted international attention for its presentation of more than 40 new works by famous and unknown writers alike, is a modern version of the old Lyubimovka festival that Kazantsev himself ran in the 1990s. Its current artistic director, Yelena Kovalskaya, as well as her predecessor, Yelena Gremina ― to say nothing of all the writers presented there ― are indebted to Kazantsev.

On Wednesday last week Vladimir Pankov unveiled his latest production, a reinvention of Yury Klavdiyev’s “I Am the Machine Gunner.” (I will publish a review of this on Thursday.)

Pankov, whose SounDrama Studio is now one of the most popular and innovative companies in town, essentially began his professional career as an actor and director at the Playwright and Director Center in such now-legendary shows as “Plasticine,” “Oblom Off” and “Red Thread.” Klavdiyev debuted in Moscow in early 2006 with two plays opening simultaneously at two venues, Praktika and ― where else? ― the Playwright and Director Center.

I remember discussing Klavdiyev twice with Kazantsev. The first time, we were sitting in Kazantsev’s study at his home. This would have been 2005, probably early in the summer. Kazantsev was talking about the growing number of new plays that unknown writers were sending him. He was concerned that everyone seemed interested in copying the formula of gritty, down-and-dirty writing that had been popularized through Vasily Sigarev’s “Plasticine” at the Playwright and Director Center.

“But there’s this new guy from Togliatti,” Kazantsev said. “And I think he’s the real thing. He’s very strong. Very off-putting in some ways. But very strong. Yury Klavdiyev.”

The second time was during a late-night call from Kazantsev following the premiere of Klavdiyev’s “Let’s Go a Car Awaits Us” at the Playwright and Director Center on Feb. 27, 2006.

I must say as an aside that Kazantsev had a habit, if not a tradition, of calling me at exactly 11:45 p.m. Whenever the phone would ring at that hour, I would invariably say to my wife ― “It’s Kazantsev” ― and I invariably would be right.

I must also say that I hate having to talk to directors, or anybody else, about shows before I have had a chance to write about them. It’s what makes me run out of theaters after the curtain drops like a scalded cat, head down like a panicked thief. If this says something unpleasant about me, so be it.

I mention this because Alexei Kazantsev also always called me at 11:45 p.m. on nights when I attended premieres at his theater. He unquestionably knew I was in attendance, even if I was sure I succeeded in slipping out unseen. God knows I tried. But nothing missed Alexei’s careful, watchful eye. He always wanted to know my reaction and I always dreaded having to give it ― even when it was positive, which it usually was.

This night the conversation quickly took a different turn.

There had been a bit of a commotion that night when Kazantsev called Klavdiyev up to join the curtain calls. A woman sitting in front of me had angrily muttered to a neighbor that “people like that should not be allowed on stage!” Kazantsev heard similar observations.

Klavdiyev, you see, although quickly becoming a highly respected playwright, was ever faithful to his deeply iconoclastic nature. His hair was coiffed in a Mohawk-type cut, and it was colored some shade of violet or pink. It seemed he had metal studs and heavy chains hanging from every corner of his clothing and exposed skin.

It was quite a sight. Here was the moment when the days of the sartorial playwright with the ascot tastefully fitted around his neck came crashing up against the modern world. At least in Russia.

Kazantsev was furious. That is, he was furious at those who had criticized Klavdiyev’s appearance.

“Who gives a damn what he looks like?” Kazantsev said heatedly. “What’s that have to do with anything? The guy is a talented writer!”

That’s what Alexei Kazantsev was all about: discovering and nurturing talent. Everything else was so much chaff.

The legacy that he left Russian theater is staggering.

Kazantsev published, championed or produced virtually every important writer who has appeared in Russia over the last decade. Through the Playwright and Director Center, he gave kick-starts to the careers of numerous young directors who have now assumed celebrated careers in theater, television and film. He helped educate a whole new generation of spectators who are interested in whatever is new and challenging.

As the current season gets underway, three years after Kazantsev’s death, the evidence of his influence on Russian theater only increases.


Taking Russian Drama to Extremes

Theater Plus blogs No. 86. This is a Lyubimovka spinoff video blog. American playwright Erik Ramsey was in Moscow with his friend and colleague David M. White for the Lyubimovka festival in Sept. 2010. While they were there I pulled a few strings and got them into a couple of Moscow shows outside the festival, one of which was a new production of Yury Klavdiev’s play I Am the Machine Gunner. The video you can watch below shows Erik as he talks primarily about that production. I took the photo of Erik above as he prepared to deliver a lecture/workshop in the art of dramaturging for a Lyubimovka audience at Teatr.doc.


13 September 2010
By John Freedman

Few discussions stir as much fire, smoke and hot air as one that the Russian theater community has been having for the last decade about the so-called “new drama.”

What is “new drama”? What does it entail? Who is writing it? Who is not?

Erik Ramsey is an American playwright, and he knows a new play instantly when he sees one. A new play, he told me late last week, is one that has been written recently.

In a more serious vein, however, he points out that time is necessary to understand any cultural phenomenon. “We won’t understand this period for another 20 years,” he said.

Ramsey ventured out on his first trip to Russia last week to attend the Lyubimovka playwriting festival, which concluded on Sunday. Each fall Lyubimovka presents dozens of new Russian plays by famous writers and unknowns alike. Passionate, opinionated audiences cram into the tiny basement hall of Teatr.doc, where the festival takes place, to hear play readings and take part in discussions with the writers, directors and actors.

Ramsey ― who, as he puts it, does not speak Russian yet ― explained that it is “fascinating” to watch plays in a foreign language. Part of the reason, perhaps, is that the notion of writing and developing new plays is anything but foreign to this playwright. He is one of the leaders of WordBRIDGE, an American playwriting laboratory that seeks out unpublished, unproduced writers of promise and helps them develop their craft.

A professor at Ohio University and the author of two textbooks about theater, as well as of numerous plays that have been developed at such institutions as Victory Gardens in Chicago, the Cleveland Public Theater and the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theater, Ramsey has little trouble recognizing quality when he sees it.

In any case his enthusiasm for the unexpected became apparent after he attended a rehearsal of a new production of Yury Klavdiyev’s “I Am the Machine Gunner,” which opens Wednesday and Thursday at theProject Fabrika complex. Directed by Vladimir Pankov and produced by Pankov’s SounDrama Studio, the production will take a play originally written for a single actor and break it into a piece performed by eight or 10 performers.

“It’s so different from what I ever imagined the script could be,” Ramsey explained. “It almost frightens me in some ways to see a play taken to such extremes.”

All of that for Ramsey adds up to a show that he imagines will be “fantastic” and “mind-blowing.”

Ramsey’s thoughts about Pankov’s production also led him to a comparison with an American production of “I Am the Machine Gunner,” as directed by David M. White and produced by Generous Company of Baltimore. Ramsey saw an early workshop of the play at WordBRIDGE and he calls the “controlled and specific” American version “completely different” from the one that opens in Moscow this week.

Ramsey talks about this and more in a video that I shot outside of Project Fabrika. Click on the image below to hear his comments.

And for those who enjoy a bit of backstage mystery: Look in the video for the shadow of a man circling around Erik and me throughout the chat. That is David M. White, who was recording me recording Erik. You may yet see his video appear on the ‘Net.

Know that mine is the original. All others are imitations.

Festival Is Host to New Plays, Free Expression

Theater Plus blog No. 85. For the longest time the turn to September was the sign that I was about to get back to work following 100+ Moscow theaters doing their thing. But before I could get to that, I would go through the real gates to the season – I would attend parts of the Lyubimovka Festival of Young Drama. Lyubimovka meant the season was about to happen. After a month or so off, I’d find myself in Moscow, at Teatr.doc, surrounded by a sea of faces, familiar, famous, friendly and brand new. It was always an immersion project. The Lyubimovka folks (at that time, Lena Gremina, Mikhail Ugarov, Yelena Kovalskaya) threw more at the city than any city could possibly take. The organizers themselves couldn’t possibly keep up with everything they had in store for about a ten-day period. And when you, like they, would make a hard choice and skip something because you had to have time to breathe, the first thing you would hear the next day was “WERE YOU HERE TO SEE WHAT HAPPENED YESTERDAY?!?!?!” and you’d grin the grin of chagrin and say, “No, what happened?” Fortunately, I was at enough of those great days that I have my own great memories. The short blog that follows here was not the first time I had written about Lyubimovka for The Moscow Times by any stretch of the imagination. It was my first blog, and it’s a bit flat, I’m sorry to say. But it is what it is. And it does bear witness to the power of Lyubimovka. I write a few words about Mike Packer’s play“tHe dYsFUnCKshOnalZ” which, thanks to its presentation at this festival went on to a very successful production at the big Sovremennik Theater. Above (and below) is my photo of poet Andrei Rodionov reciting his poetry during the reading of a play called “Squatters” at the Lyubimovka festival 2010.

06 September 2010
By John Freedman

It has now become a tradition that Moscow’s theater season begins with a daunting dose of new drama. This year, according to Yelena Kovalskaya, the art director of the Lyubimovka playwriting festival who spoke briefly at the festival opening on Saturday, there will be some 40 plays read and performed over a nine-day period. For those whose math is as bad as mine, I’ve used my computer’s calculator to determine that that comes out to 4.44 plays per day.

That is a lot of plays.

And there are a lot of playwrights and directors who have come in from around the world to see what Kovalskaya and her team are up to. Mike Packer and Noah Birksted-Breen are coming in from England, David M. White and Erik Ramsey from the United States. Each will present his own work even as they observe presentations of new works by both famous and unknown Russian writers.

Packer’s “tHe dYsFUnCKshOnalZ,” a piece about a punk band originally staged at the Bush Theatre in London, will be read in Russian translation on Monday at 5 p.m. at Teatr.doc, the seat of most of the Lyubimovka events.

Birksted-Breen, White and Ramsey will participate in a panel discussion Wednesday about new play development in the West at the Institute of Media, Architecture and Design, otherwise known as Strelka, at 14 Bersenevskaya Naberezhnaya. The starting time for that discussion is noon, and it is expected to run about two hours.

All of this adds a distinct international flavor to the current festival and implies that the event is growing and maturing. Nevertheless, Lyubimovka’s reason for being is the open forum that it gives to Russian writers and the field of Russian drama.

This year, the schedule includes new plays by a large number of major Russian playwrights. Mikhail Durnenkov and Pavel Pryazhko presented new works on Sunday. Yaroslava Pulinovich, a hot young writer from Yekaterinburg, will see her new play “Disappeared Without a Trace” read on Tuesday at 3 p.m. Other important writers making appearances are Vadim Levanov (“Gerontophobia” on Wednesday at 5 p.m.), Maksym Kurochkin (“The Schooling of Bento Bonchev” on Wednesday at 9 p.m.), and Yury Klavdiyev (“Ruins” on the festival’s final day, Sunday, Sept. 12, at 3 p.m.).

Yelena Gremina’s “One Hour Eighteen,” a bold documentary drama about the case of attorney Sergei Magnitsky who authorities allowed to die in prison before he came to trial on what many feel were trumped-up corruption charges, was a featured performance Saturday evening.

But the heart of Lyubimovka every year is the discovery of unknown talents and the development of new projects involving important artists from other fields who are taking their first steps in the genre of theater.

Lyubimovka kicked things off Saturday with a reading of “Squatters,” a new work created mostly by filmmakers. This is a piece that takes a look back at the perestroika-era phenomenon of artists taking up illegal residence in abandoned buildings around Moscow. Research and technical work on the text was done by Ivan Lebedev, a film editor; Vsevolod Lisovsky, a documentary filmmaker; and Ilya Ovchinnikov, a journalist. The play itself was written by the popular screenwriter Nana Grinshtein. Her credits include scripts for the films “Piter FM” and “Plus One.”

“Squatters” consisted of dialogues and monologues involving several painters who lived in a sort of commune in an abandoned building on Bolshaya Polyanka in the years 1989 to 1993. But it was the participation of poet Andrei Rodionov, who interrupted the flow of dialogue to recite many of his poems written on themes paralleling those of the artists, that gave a sense of real life to this enterprise.

Rodionov is a powerful and convincing reader of his own work. If you have never seen him perform you canwatch a video of him reciting one of his poems, or see a video of him backed by the musical group Okraina.

In fact, many of the spectators, who were invited by moderator Gremina to take part in a free discussion of the play afterwards, stated that while they found the play lacking in any number of areas, Rodionov’s poetry was the work’s saving grace.

But, as was pointed out by Gremina ― one of the founders of Teatr.doc, which is the perennial host of Lyubimovka ― the whole point of the festival is to take chances. To present works that are still in development, that may still be half-baked and far from ready. To encourage people with all kinds of backgrounds, aesthetics and opinions to participate and make their voices heard.

This is a recipe that has helped numerous unknown writers take the leap from obscurity to prominence. It is also the recipe that has maintained a forum for free and open Russian voices to be heard by anyone who makes the effort to listen. That in itself makes Lyubimovka one of the most important and influential events on Russia’s annual cultural calendar.


Martha Coigney Recalls Marilyn Monroe and More

Theater Plus blog No. 84. This one is bittersweet. We lost Martha, one of the world’s great theater people, a year or so ago. Born in 1933, she died in 2016. I came into Martha’s orbit late in her life and thanks to Philip Arnoult, one of her oldest friends and biggest champions. I stayed at Martha’s fabulous apartment on Central Park East several times as I came through town with various trains of Russian writers or actors in tow. Martha would put us up in one or more of her rooms, always insisting on pulling out the sheets and blankets and towels herself. Her trusty Lola, seen with her in the photo above, was always there to pull on a sock, lick your face or give you a furry hug.  That nighttime view of Central Park from Martha’s two windows will be with me forever. I would stand there and drink them in for several minutes before going to bed. The blog below serves dual purposes. The video blog is of Martha’s experiences with Russian theater – primarily with the great actor Mikhail Tsaryov. But for the print part of the blog I stuck to Martha’s stories of working at the Actors Studio in the 1950s, particularly her encounters with Marilyn Monroe. 

30 August 2010
By John Freedman

If just one person were chosen to serve as American theater’s prime link to every other theater tradition in the world, it surely would be Martha Coigney. Martha was an employee of the International Theatre Institute, or ITI, for 37 years. For 35 of those years she was director of ITI/US. She became president of ITI/Worldwide in 1987, taking over from the renowned Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka and continuing in the position until 1995.

The stories from Coigney’s life are studded with an amazing array of heroes and heroines. When working as assistant to Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio in New York in the late 1950s, she once washed dishes with a helpful Marilyn Monroe, and she occasionally exchanged small talk with Paul Newman. When asked what Karl Malden was like in real life, she smiled, shrugged her shoulders and said, “Just like he was on screen. A fine, solid man.”

The Monroe story deserves to be told in more detail.

One of Coigney’s many tasks at the Actors Studio was to stop students who arrived late for class from entering the room until the first break. Monroe, whom Coigney recalls as a “lovely, sensitive woman that Hollywood typecast terribly,” was invariably among that group.

Elia Kazan, the director conducting Monroe’s class, resolved to make an exception for the popular Hollywood actress. “When Marilyn arrives late, just let her in,” he once told Coigney.

“I can’t do that,” Coigney told him. “I can’t make everyone else sit and wait and let her go in alone.”

“Just do it,” Kazan said.

But Coigney would not. When Marilyn invariably arrived late, Coigney would open the door, let Marilyn in and then invite the rest of the late students to enter with her.

This caused Kazan to have a private talk with the actress.

The next morning Coigney arrived at her usual early hour to open the studio and get it ready for the day’s work. A few minutes later Marilyn Monroe showed up.

“What are you doing here so early?” Coigney asked in surprise.

“Kazan said he knew I would never come on time,” Monroe explained. “But he said, ‘Can’t you come early instead of late?’ So here I am.” After a pause, Monroe added, “As long as I’m here, is there anything I can do to help?”

“Sure,” Coigney said, “you can help me wash the dishes.”

Monroe happily joined in cleaning plates and glasses.

It was during this stint at the Actors Studio that Coigney acquired a great love for actors. She has been known to be sarcastic about directors and suspicious about writers ― but I have never heard her speak of any actor with anything less than love and affection.

One actor Coigney remembers with particular affection is Mikhail Tsaryov, one of the most famous actors of the Soviet era. Tsaryov, whose name can also be spelled and pronounced “Tsarev,” began his career in the 1920s in Leningrad, but first achieved fame in Moscow in the 1930s as one of Vsevolod Meyerhold’s top actors. He joined the troupe of the Maly Theater in 1937 and remained there until his death in 1987.

Tsaryov for many years was one of the most prominent theater administrators in the Soviet Union. He twice was managing director of the Maly and was the theater’s artistic director from 1985 to 1987. He was chairman of the Russian Theater Union, better known as VTO, from 1964 to 1986, and he was president of the Soviet branch of ITI from 1959 until his death. It was in this capacity that Martha Coigney often crossed his path.

She remembers him as a strong, honest adversary when in negotiations and a charming man in off-hours. “It was like what Margaret Thatcher said about Gorbachev,” Coigney explained to me during a chat on Thursday. “We can do business together.”

She has fond memories of Tsaryov’s 80th birthday, which coincided with an ITI congress in Paris in 1983. Coigney had glasses of champagne brought in to surprise the actor, and she recalls him being moved to tears. He was quite “bouleverse,” she said.

But it was, perhaps, a meeting with Tsaryov during the Six Day War in 1967 that made the biggest impression.

All of the world’s ITI representatives were gathered in New York when the war broke out in the Middle East. This prompted Tsaryov to say, “We meet at what could be the end of the world. But we make peace. We are the diplomats.”

“That got a huge laugh,” Coigney now recalls, “but it was true.”

In fact, Tsaryov’s comment helped convince Coigney that she had found her calling. At that time she was preparing to begin seeking another job, but ITI’s mission of reaching out to the world “one artist at a time” was too important for her to ignore. It is a mission to which she remains faithful to this day as the organization’s Honorary President for life.

Click on the picture below to hear more of Coigney’s remembrances of Mikhail Tsaryov. The conversation was recorded in the living room of Coigney’s New York apartment, and on occasion her beloved and proud poodle Lola put in an on-screen appearance. The Tony award that Coigney and ITI/US were given in 1998 is visible at the end of the video.


Theater, Social Commentary and the Paradox of Moscow Traffic

Theater Plus blog No. 83. A video blog with German journalist Thomas Irmer. Thomas is – or at least was – a frequent visitor to Moscow and his insights are always fresh and interesting. 

18 August 2010
By John Freedman

I recently found myself sharing conversation with Thomas Irmer, a German journalist and theater critic, at a symposium called Art and Place in rural Massachusetts. The two-day program of panel discussions, films and theater performances was held at Double Edge Theater in the small town of Ashfield.

Moscow, however, was never far from our thoughts.

Irmer, who was born and grew up in East Berlin and frequently writes for the respected journal Theater Heute, was in Moscow in May to cover the opening of the Chekhov International Theater Festival. In this case he was there in the capacity of filmmaker, to shoot reactions to the world premiere of Frank Castorf‘s production of “To Moscow! To Moscow!” This was a co-production of the Volksbuhne in Berlin and the Chekhov Festival. Soon the production will go on to performances in Vienna and Berlin.

“To Moscow! To Moscow!” split Russian audiences down the middle, with many screaming bloody murder and others calling the work brilliant. It is a combination of Chekhov’s play “Three Sisters” and his story “The Peasants.” If you read German, there is an online version of Irmer’s print piece about the production.

Irmer noted that the performances at the Mossoviet Theater in late May were a fine example of a “cultural clash” that juxtaposed a Russian audience seeking traditional theater with a German director who was interested in Chekhov as a “muckraker” and a purveyor of “social grotesque.”

But that isn’t all that Irmer noticed while in the Russian capital. He also made some astute and humorous observations about “the paradox of gridlock and speeding that is one of the dynamics of Moscow today.”

Finally, Irmer pointed out that some of the best sources of information about Russia in Germany are think-pieces written by well-known Russian novelists, such as Viktor Yerofeyev, Vladimir Sorokin and others. He calls this phenomenon a throwback to the tradition of Russian writers composing social commentary for newspapers in the 19th century, only in this case the pieces are being written expressly for a German readership.

To hear more on these topics, click on the picture below to watch my chat with Irmer, which was filmed in Double Edge Theater’s barn workshop.