Russians have been taking to the streets all year. On Feb. 4, somewhere between 35,000 to 250,000 people – accounts vary wildly in a country with a state-run media – protested in Moscow for fair elections. Two weeks later, protesters formed a 10-mile human chain around the city to demonstrate their desire to see Vladimir Putin defeated in the upcoming presidential election. The dramatic staging of these displays makes sense – in Russia, the line between politics and the theatre has always been thin. And Maksym Kurochkin, an important figure in both, will spend the days leading up to the election in Austin as the featured playwright at the second New Russian Drama Festival.
Graham Schmidt, founder and producing director of Breaking String Theater, started the New Russian Drama Festival last year to bring people like Kurochkin – who came to prominence in the Nineties as part of Russia's New Drama movement – to Austin as a way of sharing his love of contemporary Russian theatre with Texas audiences. This year's festival features the U.S. premiere of Kurochkin's 2011 play The Schooling of Bento Bonchev as well as staged readings of three of his other plays and a discussion of Kurochkin's work with a pair of experts from the University of Texas. "Max is a household name in Russia," Schmidt says, which makes his presence in Austin at a significant point in Russian history – protests like the ones occurring now seemed impossible even as early as the start of the Arab Spring – a unique opportunity for people to not only learn what's happening on the ground in Moscow and St. Petersburg at the moment but also to understand the very different role that theatre plays in Russian culture compared to the U.S.
Kurochkin, Schmidt says, "is advocating for an opposition candidate to emerge who can come to the fore and replace Putin," something countless people – Russians and otherwise – have called for. "The difference," according to Schmidt, "is that his voice counts. It'd be very hard for me to see anything other than a very narrow audience responding to a similar call from [American playwright] Adam Rapp."
Significance for theatre makers in Russia extends back centuries, from Alexander Pushkin – sometimes characterized as "the Russian Shakespeare" – to Anton Chekhov and Konstantin Stanislavski and to the new Russian dramatists such as Kurochkin, Olga Mukhina (whose Flying had its U.S. premiere at last year's festival), and Yury Klavdiyev. Schmidt believes that the theatre's continued relevance in Russia is due in part to the way that Russian culture was structured during the Soviet period. "People didn't go to church," he says. "So you got the same feeling – of being in the same place, with other people – from the theatre. There was a transfer of that moral authority from the priest to the director."
And also, of course, to the political leader – whether it be Stalin, Khrushchev, or Putin. "Russia is a very top-down, paternalistic society," Schmidt adds. "They respond to the idea of a strong, male visionary leading them." Like Kurochkin's involvement, that's another parallel between politics and theatre in Russia. "That's one of the differences between Russian theatre and American theatre. Russian theatre was always a place where theatres emerged around geniuses and guiding directors who were seen as the visionary fathers of that house."
There's no visionary father in the anti-Putin movement that's emerged since the legislative elections in December. Russians don't like to take their cues from the West – a message Kurochkin filmed for YouTube urged Muscovites to follow in the footsteps of the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine rather than Occupy Wall Street or the pro-Western Arab Spring – but this movement does mimic those in the way that it's organized. "It seems to partake of the same collective spirit as the Occupy movement does – no single leader, more dispersed and widespread," Schmidt says, though he cautions that he hasn't been back to Russia since the movement started.
Schmidt's background as an enthusiast for Russian culture and a frequent traveler to the country informs much of what the New Russian Drama Festival is about. It's a love affair that started for him when he went to study abroad in St. Petersburg as an undergrad at UT in 2005. "I've been there, in total, for 18 months. After I was there for a study-abroad semester, I came back and staged a student production of Uncle Vanya. Then I had an opportunity to get an MA in Russian Studies at UT and spent half of that time in Russia."
While he was there, he fell in love with Russia's New Drama movement, which began in the late Nineties and early Aughties, in the wake of what the fall of the Soviet Union had done to the Russian theatre. "The theatre community was in a state of disarray," Schmidt explains. "You went from 100-percent state subsidies to almost nothing, and the theatres were struggling just to continue to stage plays. The classics were being staged over and over, and it was a very safe repertory. Then this class of playwrights started emerging. Max was one of them; Olga, whose play we staged last year, was also one of them. They took the name for themselves: 'New Dramatists.'"
This is part of what's so important to the New Russian Drama Festival: Not only is it the chance to see contemporary work from another continent and to dialogue with the leading proponents of that work – besides Kurochkin, Moscow-based theatre critic James Freedman is also making the trip to Austin – but it's an opportunity to see what's at the forefront of Russian theatre at this very moment. The Schooling of Bento Bonchev, the fully staged production that Breaking String is producing, with Schmidt as the director, premiered in Moscow in 2011. This isn't an overview of a movement that's been going on for years or a chance to catch up on some work that's done the rounds at Edinburgh or in New York – this is some of the most important Russian theatre of the moment, tied into a rejuvenated community in a culture with one of the world's most important theatre traditions – all occurring right here in Austin. "It's superfresh," Schmidt says. "What's going on in Moscow now, it's not just playwriting. There are visionary directors and set designers now. It's all happening."
And, of course, what's happening in Moscow – and the rest of Russia – right now is tied intrinsically to the political movement that's arisen in the past few months and which has seen members of the theatre community become heavily involved. While The Schooling of Bento Bonchev isn't an explicitly political play – Kurochkin is wary of using his work as explicit agitprop, Schmidt relates – it's still the product of a person who's something of a moral leader of the movement. It may be a love story, but Schmidt reminds us that "it's written by someone who is reacting to the world around him, in which all of these events are taking place. Everything that's happening now is in the context of the political events."
All festival events take place at the Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo. For more information, visit www.breakingstring.com.
For all the heady talk about revolts and protests overtaking the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg, Kurochkin's play that premieres at the New Russian Drama Festival is actually something of a romantic comedy. Directed by Graham Schmidt, it finds the Belgian student Bento (Jesse Bertron) living in an alternate future where "love" is an outdated superstition, studying at an American university, and getting his world shaken up in a way that's every bit as cynical and Russian as one might hope.
This play of Kurochkin's appears to be receiving its first performance of any kind in English in this reading directed by UT English professor and Shakespeare at Winedale director James Loehlin.
Kurochkin's signature work, presented here in a staged reading and directed by actor Liz Fisher (Uncle Vanya), sounds about as autobiographical as a play with anthropomorphized characterizations of its three titular vices can be. Vodka, Fucking, and Television all vie for the affections of the protagonist (cleverly named "the Hero"), who just wants to be left alone to write his plays in peace.
"We have the dean of Austin theatre in Robert Faires," festival organizer Graham Schmidt says of the Chronicle's Arts editor, "and John Freedman, who's an ambassador of Russian theatre to the West." And they'll be joined by Kurochkin, who may be the most important contemporary playwright in Moscow. Together, they offer a unique opportunity to hear two important critics discuss the state of the avant-garde and fringe theatre in their respective cities.
A conversation between Elizabeth Richmond-Garza, a UT associate professor of English, and Thomas Garza, an associate professor of Slavic and Eurasian studies, places the work of this influential Russian dramatist in the context of his country's current social and political activities.
The winner of the NYC-based Internationalists' 2011 Global Playwright Contest, Dancing, Not Dead, has been performed as either a staged reading or a full production around the world since late August – in Berlin; Moscow; Bucharest, Romania; New York; the Hague; and now Austin. This staged reading, directed by UT graduate student director Daria Davis (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), sees the Moscow-based, American-born Freedman leave behind the critic's analysis for a politically-charged piece of globally relevant drama.
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