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Rate of Exchange

Why the Russian connection matters to Austin theatre

By Robert Faires, Fri., Sept. 21, 2012

Time was, cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Russia were all the rage, and an all-star Porgy and Bess playing Red Square or the Bolshoi Ballet on Broadway generated headlines. Nowadays, however, such cultural swaps get so little play that you might well imagine they've gone the way of the Berlin Wall. But they still exist, and one is having a notable impact in our own city.

In May, Austin was one of four stops in the U.S. for a small group of theatre managers and artists from Russia exploring American performance and methods for making it. The cities they visited – Baltimore, San Francisco, and New Orleans being the rest – were all far from the theatrical mecca of New York, just as most of the home cities of the Russians were far from Moscow: St. Petersburg (northwest, on the Baltic Sea), Moscow/Perm (the latter northeast of Moscow near the Ural Mountains), Yekaterinburg (880 miles east of Moscow), and Omsk (west of Siberia and just north of the Russia/Kazakhstan border). The very deliberate idea behind this Center for International Theatre Development project was to go beyond the obvious cultural capitals and give artists making theatre outside them a chance to see and discuss how their specific cities influence the ways they work.

The Russians got an earful: more than 120 hours of performances, rehearsals, and sessions with 140 artists. In Austin alone, they met with 18 different companies and individuals (one of them this writer). Much of what they heard, based on their comments in CITD's final report for Beyond the Capitals: NOT the Usual Suspects, was about community – American theatre makers' desire to engage with and serve their communities. The remark by Natalya Druzhinina, director of Real Theater Festival in Yekaterinburg, was typical: "I was deeply overwhelmed by how much artists want to serve their society and how much the society embraces its artists." That has inspired the Russians to look for ways to, as art manager and translator Maria Kroupnik writes, "more actively engage audience with arts and transform it from spectators into participants." They'd also like to replicate Austin's collaborative and cooperative nature; the participants make admiring references to Jenny Larson and Salvage Vanguard Theater's shared space/shared labor model. For a theatre culture still laboring under the Soviet legacy (heavy state funding, emphasis on classical texts, separation between artists and audience), an atmosphere of mutual aid and support, with artists working together, is a radical – and very appealing – approach.

But this project is no one-way street going from the U.S. to Russia. As John Freedman, Moscow-based journalist and co- creator of the project with CITD founder and director Philip Arnoult, notes, Americans have much to gain from this, too – not least a sense of how to treat theatre as art, as opposed to entertainment, how to bring "a real seriousness, a real commitment, to the work" in the tradition of Russian theatre. And there's the opportunity to engage with a theatre culture finding its voice in the midst of national political strife (see "Raising Their Voices," above).

For Austin, that's of great value, because, as curious and creative as we are here, we suffer from a certain insularity. We don't listen to as many different voices as we once did (before everyone started writing plays themselves), and we don't seek out as much work from other places as we could. We also don't generate much theatre rooted in social and political issues, and a connection with contemporary Russian drama – where that's becoming more and more vital – might show us why that matters. Relationships developed through Beyond the Capitals and Graham Schmidt's New Russian Drama Festival give Austin a connection to the larger world and a chance to learn something about another part of the planet that it otherwise wouldn't. And that might, of course, influence the kinds of theatre that gets made here – a significant and, yes, newsworthy exchange indeed.

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