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Russian Culture Rocks Patti Smith (2012)

PattiReposting of Theater Plus blog No. 175. This was a gift from heaven. Patti Smith includes some Russian-related material in her latest album (2012) so I get to write a Russian culture-related piece about one of my favorite musicians and humans. I’ve been with Patti since 1975 when I saw her perform at the Roxy Club and the Golden Palomino Club in SoCal, among other places. Have seen her many times since, including on her first (I think) trip to Russia many years ago. My wife Oksana, who took the photo above in LA, and I were having a pre-show dinner at the B2 Club where Patti was performing in 90 minutes or so. Down in the corner of the hall I saw Patti huddled with Lenny Kaye and a few other members of her band and team. They got up and walked past us and I said, “Hey, Patti. Good to see you in Moscow!” She smiled that little girl smile of hers. During the show she was her ever feisty self – spitting at the floor and cussing off some of the audience members. My respect and affection for Patti couldn’t be any higher. The photo above, taken by Oksana Mysina, shows Patti Smith in 2009 at a book signing in a Los Angeles bookstore,.

02 July 2012
By John Freedman

Patti Smith recently released a new record — album, CD, collection-of-songs-for-download, call it what you will. She called it “Banga,” and as any net search will tell you, the mysterious title was drawn from a very minor figure in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, “The Master and Margarita.” Banga in Bulgakov’s creation is Pontius Pilate’s dog, a creature so loyal he is willing to wait for his master virtually forever.

But the pull of Russian culture on Smith and her latest music goes beyond this one enigmatic song. According to the singer’s self-penned liner notes accompanying the CD, she wrote two other songs under the influence, so to speak: “April Fool,” which was inspired by the writings of Nikolai Gogol, and “Tarkovsky (The Second Stop is Jupiter),” inspired by the great filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky.

“April Fool” is a jaunty love song that employs several images from Gogol’s works and life.

“We’ll race through alleyways in tattered coats” is a fairly clear reference to Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat,” while “we’ll burn all of our poems” begs to be considered a nod to the fact that Gogol famously burned the second volume of his great novel “Dead Souls.” That work, one of Russia’s funniest and darkest, is conjured in the lines, “We’ll tramp through the mire when our souls feel dead. With laughter we’ll inspire them back to life again.”

An indicator that Smith went deeper than most into Gogol is a line that declares, “We’ll pray to all our saints, icons of mystery.” Gogol, in fact, became increasingly interested in religion and the lives of the saints in the latter years of his life, although this led him to a hardboiled conservatism that probably would not suit Smith’s more liberal, not to say radical, views.

“Tarkovsky” is a beautiful case of kindred spirits coming together.

Smith, a poet and improviser, has often been described as a shamanistic performer, something she confirmed for Russian audiences at Moscow’s B2 club in 2005 and again at B1Maximum in 2008. Tarkovsky, famous for taking days to set up single camera shots, was anything but a spontaneous creator, but there was definitely something of the shaman in him. All his films presented dream states that blurred the usual boundaries of time and space. Ingmar Bergman put it this way: “Tarkovsky is for me the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”

Smith’s song named after Tarkovsky is very much a collection of dream images. In her liner notes she reveals that the song is based on Tarkovsky’s first feature, “Ivan’s Childhood,” and, indeed, the lines, “Black moon shines on a lake, white as a hand in the dark,” could well be inspired by some of that film’s early scenes.

Still, a close listen indicates that Smith watched other Tarkovsky films as well.

Surely her lyric, “The telegraph poles are crosses on the line, rusted pins, not enough saviors to hang,” is drawn from the desolate scene in “Stalker,” where the three travelers to the Zone come to a kind of graveyard of machinery, railroad ties and telephone poles deep in the countryside.

Perhaps her image of a woman waiting “beneath the triangle formed by Mercury and the Evening Star, the fifth planet with its blistering sore” is a reference to the location of spaceship Solaris in the film of that name, where a man unexpectedly encounters his dead wife.

One of the opening images of the song — “Come along, sweet lad, fog rises from the ground” — sounds like a reference to “Ivan’s Childhood,” where a 12-year-old boy creeps through fog and water-laden ground in the middle of World War II. But it could easily be an allusion to many other Tarkovsky films, all of which are shrouded in fogs, mists and vapors.

A line such as “the sea is a morgue,” repeated twice by Smith for emphasis, sends us inconclusively to several films. Does she mean the pond in “Nostalghia” that a Russian writer crosses before dying? Is it one of those swirling water holes shown in “Solaris” to evoke a solar system deep in space? Or might it be the underground river that the stalker, professor and writer must ford in “Stalker”?

As for “Banga,” Smith is hardly the first rocker to be inspired by Bulgakov’s novel about a writer encountering Christ and the Devil.

Dating back to December 1968, one year to the month after a new translation of “The Master and Margarita” was published in English, the Rolling Stones unveiled their album “Beggar’s Banquet,” featuring one of their greatest songs, “Sympathy for the Devil.” This was no case of merely putting literature to lyrics, but several of the song’s images — including the classic opening line, “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste” — sound quite like they took their origin in Bulgakov’s work.

Thirty years after the Stones, Pearl Jam in 1998 offered another musical homage to “The Master and Margarita” in the song “Pilate.” Interestingly, Banga appears here, too, though not by name.

That “Banga” is no ordinary hymn to cute pets is clear from the opening words of the song. Here Smith references another Bulgakovian dog without naming him: Sharik from the novella “Heart of a Dog.” She name-checks the full title to kick off her narrative, which explores the dark side of loyalty. “You can lick it twice, but it won’t lick you,” she sneers, later adding, “Loyal he lives and we don’t know why.”

The more Smith throws herself into this angry, chanted song, the more one realizes it is another of the singer-songwriter’s trademark relentless, fury-fueled musical rants — in this case, against the notion of canine loyalty, or “salivating salvation,” as she calls it. Banga, after all, shows allegiance to the Roman judge who put Jesus to death, while Sharik, following an experimental medical operation, was transformed into a mean-spirited and dangerous human.

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New Drama Scion to Take Over Praktika Theater (2012)

IMG_1847Reposting of Theater Plus blog No. 174. This one didn’t last long. For a few seasons Ivan Vyrypayev staged some of his own new plays and oversaw the staging of some others, but his tenure as the artistic director of Praktika Theater was not a long one. He left in between seasons in 2016, which means he spent three years on the job. He now spends more time in Poland than in Russia, as far as I know, where he is in demand as a writer and a director. Praktika, meanwhile, continues to tumble and stumble along as it has more or less ever since it was founded. I took the photo of Vanya above in 2013 at a press conference. My seat was to the side, which is why it looks like Vanya’s nameplate is Filipp Los.

25 June 2012
By John Freedman

Ivan Vyrypayev leaped to prominence 10 years ago when he wrote and performed his own play “Oxygen” during the first season at a then-unknown venue called Teatr.doc.

Last week it was announced that he would become the new artistic director of Praktika Theater as of April 2013, taking over the position from Eduard Boyakov at Boyakov’s invitation. It is a move you have to love, in part because it’s so smart to put such a talented person in such an important position, and in part because there is so much history behind it.

Vyrypayev has grown up, if I may use that term, alongside what came to be known as Russia’s New Drama movement. At times he was part of the movement, at times he distanced himself from it. That in itself is interesting because New Drama was never nearly as neat a term as many would wish.

If we’re going to be really honest, the notion of New Drama was fed to us as a proactive project, a slogan intended to bring into existence that which did not quite yet exist — a whole culture of new writing for the theater.

The term was the brainchild of several people, but the most active in pushing it were Boyakov, Mikhail Ugarov and Yelena Gremina. They founded a festival with that name — the New Drama Festival — in 2002, not coincidentally the same year that Teatr.doc was founded, and a new brand had been launched.

It was enormously successful, if also a somewhat exclusive clique. Right up until the festival died in 2009 because of the proverbial “artistic differences” among the founders, the notion of New Drama tended to split the theater community into groups that were vehemently against or passionately in favor. The former disliked the obscenities, the uncouth characters, the violent or controversial settings that often characterized New Drama plays. The latter loved it for the same reasons, just in reverse. They appreciated what they considered to be the truth and honesty of the new works.

Much of early New Drama was structured around documentary texts — interviews, documents and such. Famously, New Drama rejected the notion of poetry, metaphor and literature in general. Vyrypayev, on the other hand, was always a poet, often using the Bible as his guiding literary light. It was never a clean fit — Vyrypayev and New Drama — but it was advantageous to both. Each could lean on the other for support.

Shortly after Boyakov founded Praktika in Moscow in 2005, he produced the first of what would be several new Vyrypayev plays. “July,” a probing, disconcerting monologue spoken from the point of view of an aging mass murderer and directed by Vyrypayev’s longtime director Viktor Ryzhakov in 2006, was still another play that New Drama aficionados could get behind, but which didn’t really conform to any of the New Drama doctrines. Since then, other Vyrypayev plays at Praktika have included “Comedy” in 2010 and “Illusions” in 2011. His 2004 play “Genesis-2,” originally produced by Teatr.doc and the New Drama Festival, was taken into the repertory at Praktika for several years.

In short, Vyrypayev’s plays have formed the backbone of Praktika’s repertoire for most of the theater’s life. While many of its plays have come and gone without making serious impact, Vyrypayev has always been there to support the theater’s reputation and box office flow.

But Vyrypayev, who turns 38 in August, brings more to his future job than just cachet as a prominent writer. He has also made significant forays into cinema, directing and scripting his own films “Euphoria” (2006) and “Oxygen” (2008), both of which were noted for their inventiveness and individual style. Vyrypayev’s next film, “Delhi Dance,” is scheduled to open at the Rome film festival in October 2013, according to a press release from Praktika.

Vyrypayev’s appointment continues what is now looking like a slow, but inexorable movement of New Drama participants into positions of power in Moscow theater.

Boyakov, who will relinquish his position to Vyrypayev next year, is now devoting himself full time to building the new Polytheater located in the Polytechnical Museum. Ryzhakov, who was Vyrypayev’s director for many years, is now completing his second year as artistic director at the Meyerhold Center. Ugarov, who gave Vyrypayev his first serious break, is artistic director at both Teatr.doc and the Playwright and Director Center.

Oleg Menshikov Takes on Russia’s Repertory System (2012)

IMG_4317Reposting of Theater Plus blog No. 173. Some thoughts on the Russian repertory system, which has been under fire for nearly two decades now, and Oleg Menshikov taking over the Yermolova Theater 5 1/2 years ago. I don’t know if Menshikov ended up being the reformer he sounded like he would be when he took on this job, but he did build a nice small stage, spiffed up the foyer and the large hall, and took a few chances here and there with material. He’s more or less settled into the routing repertory life now, having brought life to an nearly lifeless theater, but not breaking any molds, either with strategy or material.

18 June 2012
By John Freedman

Few topics in the Russian theater world make people lose their cool more quickly than a discussion about the future of repertory theater. The received opinion is that this system, one in which a theater is perceived as a home and everyone who works in it is family, is outdated, broken and needs a complete overhaul. More than a few simply want to rip it down and throw the whole thing away.

Not long ago I was asked to speak about American theater before a group of some 30 future theater leaders. During a question-and-answer session afterwards I was asked what I, with my American background, thought of the repertory system. Being one to relish a good controversy and knowing the probable expectations of this crowd, I chose to bait them a bit. I said something to the effect of, “You know, the one thing Russian theater is admired most for in the world is the repertory system. People come here from the United States and Europe and they salivate with jealousy at what the Russian repertory system can provide — the building of an acting ensemble, the extended rehearsal time it makes possible, the ability to run a show longer than a few weeks…”

I never got any further. Within seconds 60 fangs were out and I began to feel like someone’s imminent dinner.

I mention this because, for all the foaming at the mouth, I really don’t hear many making well-considered suggestions about how to proceed practically with the reform of Russian theater’s infrastructure. You hear people talk about a contract system for actors and directors, you hear lots of talk about getting rid of bad actors and directors, you hear about closing down state-funded theaters. But, until now, at least, you really don’t see anybody actually doing anything constructive about the problem. You rarely hear serious talk about preserving the good along with excising the bad.

Maybe that has changed.

Many in Russia were shocked in early April by the announcement that the matinee idol Oleg Menshikov had been named artistic director of the — let’s be honest — moribund Yermolova Theater. Menshikov, 51, is Russia’s biggest box office draw in both cinema and theater and was probably the last person anyone would expect to take a job like this. He has had enormous success with his own private production company, the 814 Theater Association, through which he has produced shows for himself and, on at least one occasion, for others.

Even more than surprise, however, was the skepticism that greeted Menshikov’s taking on the new job. The actor’s celebrity status, in the eyes of many, precluded his being a legitimate candidate for a hard and serious job. On the contrary, however, the actor-turned-artistic director began to emerge as a rather hardcore reformer.

“Repertory theaters,” Menshikov said on the “Na Noch Glyadya” (Looking Towards Night) television show in April, “are no longer necessary in their current form.” He added that he has taken on the task of running the Yermolova in order to “renew the relationship” that state theaters have to the state and to those who work in them.

Indicating that he is not interested in creating a “theater-home,” he declared, “I want to create a theater of professionals.”

(These and other comments on the situation at the Yermolova Theater may be heard from the 20- to 30-minute mark in the video above.)

After two months of silence following his appointment at the Yermolova, Menshikov last week spoke publicly about his plans for the future. And it turns out that his radical, but measured, approach is still fully intact. After viewing 90 percent of the theater’s current repertoire, he decided to close approximately 80 percent of its shows. Furthermore, he has no plans to engage all of the actors in the theater’s company.

“A troupe of 75 for a Moscow theater is too much,” he told newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets on Thursday. “I can’t give roles to them all. People are going to have to be prepared for that.”

Admitting that Russian labor laws will not allow him to fire actors outright, he declared that only those capable of entering into “creative collaboration” will retain full salaries. Those who are not, in his opinion, will have their salaries reduced to 30 or 40 percent of the current level. His clearly stated assumption is that in time the actors who don’t fit into the revamped theater’s plans will begin leaving of their own volition.

Menshikov’s plans seem to be nothing less than to carry out a full remaking of the Yermolova Theater.

The theater building, located at the south end of Tverskaya Ulitsa just across Manezh Square from the Kremlin, will be reconstructed and renovated, and a new small stage will be opened. November will see the unveiling of a new emblem incorporating the image of the great Russian actress Maria Yermolova, for whom the theater is named. Also that month, Menshikov expects to begin premiering no less than eight new shows — four on the main stage and four on the small stage. Among them are Oscar Wilde’s “The Portrait of Dorian Gray,” Alexander Ostrovsky’s “The Snow Queen,” Anna Yablonskaya’s “Pagans,” and a show called “One Very Small Drama” based on works by Anton Chekhov.

Menshikov himself will not direct or act in any of these shows, although according to one account in Moskovsky Komsomolets, he does plan to move three shows of his own production company — “The Gamblers,” “1900,” and “Wind Orchestra” — onto the Yermolova stage.

Skeptics remain, of course. Writing on the news page of Mail.ru, theater critic Grigory Zaslavsky suggests most curiously that Menshikov has never done anything of value through his production company and adds, “Why suddenly, why on earth was it suddenly decided to entrust him, above all others, with this theater located in such a sweet spot? It’s incomprehensible.”

Menshikov himself has repeatedly said there is no guarantee of success. “Everything we do is a risk,” he said during the “Na Noch Glyadya” program.

In fact, what emerges from this developing story is a picture of someone not flailing at the sacred cow of Russia’s repertory system, but actually looking to reform and reinvent it.

The Politics of Humor and Creativity (2012)

IMG_3145Reposting of Theater Plus blog No. 172. My post below came about largely because of a woman who became one of Oksana’s and my favorite friends – Tatyana Gubarkova. You see her in all the photos I post today. She was a delight, it was a delight to run into her always, as we almost always did when out attending protests. She is one of the reasons why these protests were so enjoyable – she, like so many Muscovites, turned a need for political expression into a holiday. I cover the topic below. Here I would like to add a few more words about Tatyana. Just a year ago we received an email from her. It said: 

Dear Oksana and John!
I wish you the best for all the holidays: New, Old, Chinese and every stop from there: all the years in February, March, April, September, October, November.
Success to you in everything you Begin, Continue and End! All the best of everything and MUUUUUUUCH – much LOVE!
Always with you
Tatyana with the white ribbon

The “white ribbon,” of course, is a reference to the symbol of peaceful protest that appeared in Moscow in 2012. It was quickly attacked and ultimately destroyed (as a symbol) by the authorities. Tatyana, like some others I know (my wife continued to keep a white ribbon on her purse for years), clung to it long after it was no longer “fashionable.” 
It was not long after receiving this New Year greeting from Tatyana that we received a letter from her daughter informing us that Tatyana had died. We were shocked, horrified and deeply saddened. I still feel the loss of this wonderful, warm, funny, energetic, wise woman. In fact, as I looked over her last note before translating it for this repost, I realized she was saying good-bye to us. We did not know that, but see what a beautiful, loving farewell she sent our way. 

For the record (apologies for such a long intro today), here is the Facebook post I put up April 10, 2017, after learning of Tatyana’s death: 

Oksana and I received a terrible letter from Yelena Markevich, the daughter of one of our favorite people in the world. Tatyana Gubarkova has died. Tanya was smart, funny, happy, talented and witty. We all first met on contemporary Russia’s D Day, Disaster Day – May 6, 2012, the day that the Russian govt. chose to begin crushing dissent. With all the crazy stuff going on around us, Tanya stopped us with her bright smile, her friendly face and the hilarious cartoons she wore on sandwich boards over her shoulders. We stopped and talked like old friends, and we ran into each other constantly over the years, greeting each other each time like old friends. Because, before long, that’s what we were. We looked for Tanya every time we went out and we usually found her. What a joy that moment always was. You can see that in some of the photos here. Tatyana Gubarkova died today and I can tell you that gray Moscow has gone grayer still. For Oksana and me Tanya was the face of real Moscow, a Moscow we loved, a Moscow we felt at home in, a Moscow that had its arms wide open for everyone. We will always associate Tanya with the best that Moscow had to offer. She was a real human being, one capable of keeping your faith in humanity at a healthy level. Farewell, Tanya! You are in our hearts forever!

Moscow is deeply sadder, darker and more lonely without Tatyana Gubarkova in it. 

13 June 2012
By John Freedman

There is a woman I keep running into at all the political rallies around town. Her name is Tatyana, and every time I see her she is swallowed up by colorful, satirical posters that she wears front and back as a sandwich board.

For the opposition rally on Russia Day, Tatyana pulled out all the stops. On her back she wore a series of pictures of President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev pasted over her own paintings and ragged lettering. The text declared: “Awake! Do Not Let Down Your Guard! They Want to Rule Forever!”

For the front half of her statement Tatyana dipped deeper into the shared cultural consciousness.

Against a background of various Putins apparently burning in hell and wearing the incongruous combination of a Nazi SS uniform and the medieval Russian crown of Monomakh, Tatyana enigmatically wrote “Mene, Tekel, Phares” and followed that with “You signed your own sentence yourself, Little Zaches!”

Now, I know E.T.A. Hoffman’s “Little Zaches,” the tale of a horrible, mean little man who takes over a kingdom and destroys it. But I’m not too proud to admit that “Mene, tekel, phares” sent me scrambling to learn what many others already know. This is a phrase from Daniel 5:25, which usually reads “Mene, tekel, upharsin” and is translated as “numbered, weighed and divided.”

All of which means, more or less, “the jig’s up, dude,” “the fat lady has sung.”

Tatyana is hardly alone among protesters who rely on humor and knowledge to get their point across.

One protester at the Russia Day rally was clearly a fan of Mikhail Bulgakov. You may recall Bulgakov’s novel “Heart of a Dog” as the story of a street mutt who is transformed by a medical operation into a nasty, cloying, unruly and evil human being named Sharikov. Thus one of the posters I ran across on Tuesday: “Sharikov is alive and he is working as Putin.”

Talgat Batalov, an actor who plays an Uzbek Jimi Hendrix in the hit play “Light My Fire” at Teatr.doc, is always wearing a wry smile on his face. And he was wearing it again Tuesday as he peered out from behind a poster he brought to the rally.

Batalov’s poster consisted of an actual photograph showing a regal Vladimir Putin, known to his friends by the diminutive “Vova,” being presented with what appears to be an emperor’s cloak by President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan. Batalov underscores the event in the photo with the words, “Vova! Welcome to the club!”

For those who don’t know, Karimov took office in 1990 and has ruled with an iron fist for 22 years.

Some protesters are admirably laconic in their use of humor to drive a point home.

As we strolled up Strastnoi Bulvar on Tuesday I spied a young man holding aloft the simplest of posters. Two words on a blank page: “Putin Fuhrer.”

The Nazi connection in protest images seems to be growing of late. One man I spied in the crowd held on high a sketch of Putin, in which the Russian president looked suspiciously like Adolf Hitler. Beneath the portrait stood the words “Das ist Stabile.”

Simplest of all was the poster one woman prepared out of a blank piece of white paper. It was attached to a stick and below it she attached the words, “Simply a white poster.”

White, of course, has been adopted as the unofficial color of the political protests that have taken place since December.

Perhaps my favorite of the day was a huge pink cutout of a mask that I spied at the end of the march on Prospekt Akademika Sakharova.

It was accompanied by no words, although no one, surely, had trouble understanding the symbolism. As everyone participating in the rally knew well, Putin just days ago signed into law new regulations for protests. Aside from increasing fines for violations more than one hundredfold, it also banned the wearing of masks.

Thus the appearance on Prospekt Sakharova of the oversized mask, behind which there was no human to fine or arrest.

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Today’s Theater News is Tomorrow’s Theatrical Oblivion

MassSubbotinReposting of Theater Plus blog No. 171. I have a whole cache of these old books written by Vladimir Mass. That’s thanks to Anna Mass, his daughter, a good friend. I absolutely love them – they’re gorgeous. Even if the plays inside them (usually one-act potboilers on political/social themes from the 1920s) don’t matter anymore, the spectacular publishing does. If I were at home, and not on an island, as I currently am, I would scan and show you some of the the others. Now, how’s that for an empty promise? Kinda like the promise of these plays way back when. Soon to be ignored and forgotten.

05 June 2012
By John Freedman

Anton Chekhov is the one who put it on paper in its simplest form and, thus, made it something of a cliché: theater needs new forms.

In “The Seagull” the young Treplev utters a phrase to that effect as he prepares to show his family and friends a play he wrote. It’s a weird little drama that makes his mother, the famous provincial actress Arkadina, mockingly mutter something about decadence. But the notion that theater cannot survive without change is eternal, and it has been possible to hear Treplev’s words about “new forms” uttered in every new age since Chekhov wrote “The Seagull” in 1896.

In the second decade of the 21st century, we are living through an era when the search for new languages, new approaches and a new aesthetic is particularly intense. From the minimalism of many directors working at Teatr.doc to the painterly inventiveness of Dmitry Krymov we find styles of theater that strike us as somehow new or, at least, fresh and unusual.

There is nothing new about being new, however.

This morning I picked up a little booklet published in 1924. It has a beautiful color cover — it’s the one on the right above — and it is called “On How the Sexton Got in Trouble, or, On How Peasants Can Get Water for Their Plowed Field.” It is a short play written to be performed by peasants in post-revolutionary Russia in the fields or, perhaps, in barns. Chances are there had never been theater in the fields and barns of Russia’s farms before this time. If there had been, it certainly was not done like this.

Red Virgin Soil publishers put out a whole series of booklets — this one is numbered 253 — that were intended to help the government bring theater and new ideas to the people. The final page lists other plays available and concludes with the information that these publications may be purchased in “all bookstores and in railway stations.” I guess someone assumed, or, perhaps, hoped, that peasants heading out to the fields by train would pick these little books up and start planning theater seasons to go along with their harvest seasons.

Most intriguing of all is a small article at the end of the book, “How to Perform the Play.” This essay by Leonid Subbotin, who wrote the play with Vladimir Mass, is — if we hold our tongues in our cheeks for awhile — a treasure trove of methods for seeking “new forms.”

“The main thing while working on this play,” Subbotin declares flatly, “is not to be embarrassed. That’s the main thing. If what needs to be done is clear, then do it boldly. If it’s not clear, it’s absolutely pointless to shout and wave your hands.”

Is this the Stanislavsky method condensed into two phrases?

Subbotin continues: “You must understand the meaning of every word and pronounce each word faithfully. This is called ‘finding the proper intonation.'”

Finally, the author concludes, “Besides the characters’ clear pronunciation and behavior, their actions must also be clear, expressive and understood by the spectator. You must avoid frequent, small, incomplete actions. Let’s take the scene where the angry peasants attack Alexei. This should not be done in a way that chaos reigns on stage. The task on stage is not to attack Alexei, but to show how he was attacked. Spectators love seeing action on stage. When people’s thoughts and emotions on stage are transformed into action and movement — that is theater.”

Subbotin and Mass wrote at least six such playlets together, many of them anti-church, all addressed to peasants. Mass also wrote some on his own (see the cover at left above, “Who Helped the Peasants, the Agronomist or God?”) as did numerous others, whose full names cannot always be ascertained — A.S. Abramov, Kutin, Nikiforov, S. T. Semyonov, Alexander Neverov and N. Goncharova-Viktorova.

I mention them all because only Mass left much of a mark in the history of Russian theater’s search for new forms. As pathetic as it may be, the others’ last stand in history may well be their inclusion in a list in this semi-jocular, semi-informative blog. I could never be the one to deprive them of that last, sweet taste of glory.

Vladimir Mass, born 1896, was a comic playwright and poet who was highly active in the 1920s. His collaboration on plays, screenplays and satirical fables with the famous playwright Nikolai Erdman not only made him popular, it gained him arrest and exile in 1933. Their script for the first Soviet musical “Jolly Fellows” in 1932 forever put them in the first ranks of Soviet screenwriters, but their wickedly barbed, politically-tinged verse fables were so daring that both men were arrested and exiled even before the Great Purges began. Mass returned to Moscow at the end of the 1930s, and until his death in 1979 continued a successful career writing light comedies, often in collaboration with Mikhail Chervinsky.

For the record, Mass and Chervinsky’s libretto to Dmitry Shostakovich’s opera “Moscow, Cheryomushki” has been in repertory at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theater since 2006.

For his part, Subbotin (who is no relation to the contemporary director Olga Subbotina) was a fascinating figure who spent his entire life toiling in the sphere of amateur theater. In the 1920s and 1930s he was an editor at the journals “Country Theater” and “Kolkhoz Theater.” He was instrumental in creating the first peasant theater in Moscow in 1923 and wrote a book called “The Drama Circle in the Country” in 1925. Born in 1889, Subbotin was killed at the beginning of World War II, probably in 1941.

Nobody now remembers the once-pioneering plays Mass and Subbotin wrote together. It makes you wonder: What will happen to the innovative theater we rush to see today?

Painter Nicolai Fechin Returns to Russia (2012)

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Reposting of Theater Plus blog No. 170. An opportunity to wallow in childhood memories. Always a pleasure. But not without pulling in the connection to Russian culture. Pictured above: Nicolai Fechin’s painting “Joshua Trees,” one of hundreds of paintings that the Russian-born artist completed in the Southwest of the United States. This could easily be a scene from the locale where I grew up.

28 May 2012
By John Freedman

As stories of relationships go, this one is small. But I’m too big a fan of paradox to ignore it.

I grew up, as I enjoy telling people, in a desert. The Mojave Desert is a huge swath of dirt, tumbleweed and Joshua trees that covers portions of four states in the southwest of the United States. My particular stomping grounds were in the far west corner of the Mojave in a dusty Southern California town whose propitious name, Apple Valley, was a ruse dreamed up by developers trying to entice unsuspecting investors to buy up multiple-acre lots of dust and cactus.

It was a great place for a kid to grow up — clean air, blue skies, empty spaces as far as the eye could see. As long as you stayed clear of the rattlesnakes and Black Widow spiders, you didn’t have a care in the world. My best friends were ants (I preferred the little black ones to the big red ones because they struck me as being more, well, refined, than the brute reds), horny toads, lizards, tarantulas and butterflies. These fascinating creatures were among the only living things within a couple miles of our house.

Now, we had a neighbor down the road, a wonderful man by the name of Ellsworth Sylvester. His wife Agnes was my teacher in fifth grade and I loved her dearly, too. But I’m using Ellsworth today as my tenuous link to the Russian-born painter Nicolai Fechin. Bear with me.

Ellsworth would occasionally gather up a truckload of kids and drive us out to a place called Dead Man’s Point. We never thought about why it was called that. It was just one of the coolest places around, way out at the edge of town. Dead Man’s Point consisted of a small but beautiful outcropping of sandstone rocks that jutted and rolled skyward like billowing clouds from the sandy desert floor. This for us was a marvelous, even sacred place, for here Native Americans — we revered and referred to them as Indians at the time — had once camped and lived. Ellsworth would bring us here to teach us about the history of the land that we now occupied. And while he told us stories we would hunt for arrowheads and sometimes find them. Every find we made put us in direct contact with the people and the times of which Ellsworth told.

Nothing at this stage of my life in the early 1960s could possibly have indicated I would ever have an interest in Russian culture. That would not come until much later. But there is one curious thing that came flooding back into my mind last week when I saw that the Tretyakov Gallery had mounted a retrospective of Nicolai Fechin’s paintings. At some point many decades ago — the exact moment is lost forever to history — I was given a catalogue of exquisite paintings of Native Americans and Southwest American landscapes. Most of the paintings were done in New Mexico, but a few were done in the Mojave Desert — specifically in Joshua Tree, California. All were done by Nicolai Fechin.

I, fascinated by everything to do with Native American culture, remember being confused by the paintings. Many were so deeply impressionistic that to my ignorant young mind they disappeared into a chaos of lines, patterns and colors on the page. I don’t think I ever thought about the artist’s origins. And I don’t know what I thought about Russia or Russianness at the time — most likely nothing at all — but I doubt I would have considered this artist Russian. He also wasn’t American, though.

American painters of the Wild West were usually photographic in their detail. That American desire to be clear and accessible and realistic is usually strongly apparent in paintings of cowboys, Indians and the land they shared and fought over. There was something else going on in Fechin’s paintings, something that I found alien and seductive all at once.

Over the years I ran across Fechin’s name from time to time. When I first encountered him he was considered an obscure, though respected, painter. Now, over a half a century after his death in Southern California on October 5, 1955 (16 months after I was born), he is recognized as one of the most distinctive painters of his time. His teacher, the great Ilya Repin, once called him the “finest painter in Russia,” according to the Artrussia.ru website. Americans claim him as American. Russians claim him as Russian. His former home in Taos, New Mexico, is a museum that promotes his legacy in that region. According to an article on that museum’s website, the largest collection of Fechin’s paintings is located in the Fechin Center in Kazan, Russia, where the artist was born in 1881.

For the record, Fechin’s name would be written Feshin if transliterated today. But the artist, escaping the dangers of post-revolutionary Russia in 1923, arrived in the United States at a time when few gave much thought to such linguistic obscurities. Thus, Fechin it is in English.

I continue to be amazed by the small but significant way that Fechin’s biography dovetails with my own from my pre-Russia days to my post-U.S. life. Not many people, even in the United States southwest, live in adobe houses. I grew up in one in Apple Valley and Fechin bought and maintained one in Taos. One of Fechin’s canvases, “Joshua Trees,” was made just 100 kilometers from my childhood home. I now live just one kilometer from the Tretyakov Gallery where the exhibit “Nicolai Fechin. On the 130th Anniversary of his Birth” runs through July 29. In some ways, it seems like an old friend has come back to visit me. Again.

Walking and Laughing with Artists (2012)

IMG_2701Reposting of Theater Plus blog No. 169. Another fun day and another fun memory. Can’t imagine this happening now. Today we are all exchanging the news that the embezzlement charges against theater director Kirill Serebrennikov have been doubled, and that tomorrow the prosecutor will ask to keep Serebrennikov and the other defendants in the case under house arrest or in jail for another three months. What a difference six years make. Still, as bitter as the present may be, these memories of  witty Muscovites coming out to make themselves be heard and seen six years ago remain wonderful.

20 May 2012
By John Freedman

“Moscow does not believe in tears” is not just the title of a film that once won the foreign film Oscar. It is a phrase that, perhaps, characterizes Russia’s capital city better than any other combination of six words. Moscow is a tough town. You don’t mess with Moscow. Moscow will bury you. That kind of thing.

If you’ve ever lived here you know how true that is.

But reputations, like laws, are made to be broken. If only just for a few moments at a time.

Saturday, May 19, was the target date for the second low-key political protest masquerading as no political protest at all, which took place in the course of a single week. The first was the Writers’ Walk on May 13 which drew upwards of 20,000 people. That was a decidedly non-violent response to violent measures that the authorities repeatedly took against protesters in a week of events beginning the day before President Vladimir Putin‘s inauguration on May 7. Saturday’s march was called by the city’s painters, sculptors, animators and graphic artists. It did not draw nearly the number of people as earlier protests have – I would guess that around 2,000 showed up – but size here isn’t the point.

The Artists’ Walk, dubbed the mobile museum of contemporary art, provided some of the most amusing 90 minutes this city has enjoyed in some time. All those crazy artists with their crazy smiles and inspired, fruitcake exhibits – balloons trapped in a cage, a six-foot wooden fish, a motoring machine with all kinds of crazy moving parts, a purple spiked throne, a plastic man trapped in a plastic, computerized world – simply made Moscow smile.

This was humor and fun at its sublimely silliest. Moscow doesn’t believe in tears? You’re damn right. It believes in laughter and mirth.

Wit has emerged as a major component in the current socio-political dialogue. Russians are proving themselves to be the possessors of an extraordinarily inventive sense of humor. Whatever dark and ominous decision the Russian authorities toss at demonstrators and common citizens these days, the response is invariably a veiled – or not-so-veiled – thumb to the nose and a big laugh.

During Saturday’s march I frequently found myself walking next to an artist who had created an oddly lovely purple rattan chair. It featured two heads extending out of the chair back, suggesting something to do with the official Russian seal of the two-headed eagle. Projecting upwards from the seat were a series of long, sharp spikes. The artist, always speaking in a friendly, engaging manner, repeatedly asked passersby, “Would you like to take a seat on the throne?” “Try out my throne of power if you like!”

Everybody laughed in response to his invitations.

Was this an artist’s moment of solidarity with President Putin, who now finds himself in the position of metaphorically occupying a seat like this for another six or twelve years? Or was it an attempt to ridicule anyone silly enough to put himself in a position like that? I don’t have the answer to that. Art is never about answers. It’s always the questions that count. Plus our emotional response.

What I can say definitely about this sculpture is that it made people laugh. As did the little sculpture of two fish playing piggyback – an unmistakable reference to the official “tandem” of Putin and current Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. And as did a young woman who turned herself into an angel by building herself a healthy set of wings out of scraps of colorful paper, photos, newsprint, post-its and the like.

Occasionally the policemen stationed along the route smiled and waved to the crowd passing them by. They were courteous and helpful. A time or two the crowd awarded them with applause. Grateful that the policemen were not chasing anyone with truncheons raised, the members of the march were remarkably law-abiding, honoring most (if not all) of the “don’t walk” signs they encountered.

The march began inauspiciously on a tiny lane called Bobrov Pereulok. When I arrived, almost exactly at the starting time of 6 p.m., the street was littered with artists, policemen and photographers. The motley crew of professionals began to move in fits and starts as the artists encountered difficulties wheeling their contraptions over uneven pavement, broken sidewalks and high curbs. As fun as it already was, it looked a bit pathetic at this point. As if no one really cared.

But a curious thing then happened. By the time the little group had traversed 200 meters and reached the first major street crossing at Bolshaya Lubyanka Ulitsa and Rozhdestvensky Boulevard, I looked back to see a significant gathering of people. Another 600 meters later, when we passed through Trubnaya Square and moved onto Petrovsky Boulevard, the winding snake of people before and behind me was impressive indeed. Moscow had turned out again. This time to walk and laugh with its artists.

For those interested, I posted a gallery of photos on my Facebook page.

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