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09.28.2004 11:23

drama_ festival St Petersburg Times

By Galina Stolyarova

Staff Writer

Photo by Alexander Belenky / SPT

A group of U.S.-based theater professionals visiting St. Petersburg's New Drama Festival this week has expressed confidence in Russia's fragile contemporary theater scene and hopes to build artistic bridges from here to America.

The New Drama Festival, which runs until Sept. 26 in the Lensoviet, Baltiisky Dom and Osobnyak theaters and the city's Academy For Theater Arts, features performances by experimental troupes from Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Perm, Tolyatti and Kemerovo as well as by foreign counterparts from Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Serbia, Germany and Iran.

The festival, a project within Russia's Golden Mask theater organization, is designed to give the stage to daring, up-and-coming young artists. This year marks the third such festival and the first time it has been held in St. Petersburg.

Philip Arnoult, director of the U.S.-based Center for International Theater Development, is leading the delegation of American visitors to the festival as part of his center's Russian-U.S. Theater Initiative.

Arnoult has spent the last several years involved in a similar initiative in Eastern Europe, and came into contact with the Golden Mask organization in Russia during that time.

His work connects American theater producers with new directors elsewhere, and, here in Russia now, with new plays.

"We need to really start this conversation, and it is a project that works," he said. "The same things that I am doing here for the next four years I did for the last six years in Poland, Hungary, Romania and a little bit of Russia, and out of that came 23 major productions in the American theater."

In Russia, Arnoult's project is mostly focused on new directors and playwrights, meaning those that have come to prominence since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its theater culture.

Arnoult intends to visit St. Petersburg frequently in the next two years to continue a U.S.-Russia dialog which has already nurtured some successes.

For example, Moscow director Kama Ginkas took his rendition of Anton Chekhov's "The Lady With A Lapdog" and several other plays to the U.S. and has become a huge success.

Mark Bly, Senior Dramaturg at Washington's Arena Stage and Arnoult's partner in the project first saw Ginkas's "Lapdog" in Moscow several years ago, but at the time didn't speak Russian. Nevertheless, the dramatist said this week, he understood every moment.

"I knew that the director had a great deal to give us in the United States, and I had a faith that it would work there just as it worked for me," Bly said.

Bly describes the production as very physical and as establishing a very close relationship between the actors and the audience.

"In the U.S. there are audience's perceptions and preconceptions as to 'what Chekhov is about,' and Ginkas's dislocates all that thinking to the point where the main actor at some point was talking to the audience in a very presentational way, not at all in Chekhovian psychological way," Bly explained. "And I think that, more than anything else, helped the work to have a life here. It is very aesthetic, it is very abstract and yet it reaches out to the audience."

The plays of Chekhov, who died 100 years ago, are, however, well-known in the international theater world. How interested are American audiences in contemporary Russian drama and what can the two cultures learn from each other?

Marc Masterson, artistic director of the Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville, Kentucky, and another partner in the American Theater Initiative points out that U.S. audiences are accustomed to contemporary work, and it is difficult to get them interested in classics.

Ironically a majority of Russian theater companies refrain from staging experimental, cutting-edge plays, opting instead for reliable old classics to fill draughty auditoriums and empty coffers.

American theater has always been a playwright's domain as opposed to the Russian theater, where the director is the king. In Russia the vast majority of theaters are state-owned and large - both in terms of the size of the theater space and the numbers of actors - while most American companies are private and small. The rules of the game can be very different.

Kate Ryan, a playwright associated with New Dramatists in New York and a member of the American delegation, said that in the U.S. a playwright has the means of communicating creatively with a director. Russian writers are now only finding such a language.

"Also, in the States, we writers have full control over the piece, and lines cannot be changed and taken out without our consent," she said.

Linda Chapman, associate artistic director of the New York Theater Workshop, believes that Russian contemporary theater is reminiscent of the American scene in the 1960s and '70s "when there was an explosion of new ways to think about writing theater."

"It seems like everything is possible for Russian playwrights now," she said. "There is a huge variety: they touch on social issues as well as an interior exploration. Political, religious, and poetic writing is happening on so many different levels."

"As for Russian plays," Masterson added, "if they speak to a universal human truth, they should be able to transcend the culture successfully."

See Stages for New Drama Festival listings.


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