An Engagement in Yelets

The first year of the Theatre of Nations project in support of theatres from Russia's smaller towns (there are over nine hundred smaller towns in Russia, and to date there are no official statistics on their working theatres) is coming to an end.

Theatres from Rybinsk, Tuapse, Novoshakhtinsk, Prokopyevsk, Velikiye Luki, Balakovo and Yelets have already taken part in this program.


Continue Do Not Forget

The workshop's model is a simple one. A participating theatre receives several dozen contemporary plays. Theatre management chooses three-four plays and distributes the parts. Theatre of Nations and Oleg Loyevsky, the program curator, provide the theatre with young directors, voice coaches and movement instructors. Afterwards the rehearsals process begins in a storm and onslaught mode. In a span of several days (the entire program is only a week long) directors and actors must not only learn to trust each other but also to create a sketch of a production that can be shown in front of an audience. The only allowance -- the actors are permitted to peek into the text. Admittedly, though, many of them didn't take advantage of that right. The audience here is given the role of Roman patricians, who decided the fate of a gladiator by casting a simple vote with their thumbs. The audience members are given three pieces of paper: "Needs more work", "Leave everything as is" and "Forget this nightmare". And they are given the right to express their opinion as soon as the show is over -- eye to eye. The people having thus spoken, the theatre management gets to decide which productions will remain in the repertoire and begins to look for funds in order to invite a director to finalize the production, to pay royalties to the playwright and to cover production costs. Oleg Loyevsky assures, however, that there are plenty of opportunities to receive grants from the Ministry of Culture, which has programs aimed at supporting young playwrights and directors. Just so long as the will is there -- the primary driving force and the primary shortage. The efficiency coefficient of these workshops sometimes reaches one hundred percent -- every single sketch survives to its premiere.


Moscow's Older Brother

In the Nikon Chronicle the city of Yelets is mentioned earlier than Moscow (and that means that its construction began before 1146). The capital's quiet older brother "stood... on that fateful boundary, beyond which... lay wild, unfamiliar lands", and was among the first to "breathe in the storm, the dust and the cold of the menacing Asian thunderclouds... the first to warn Moscow of the impending disaster and the first to lay down its life for it". Ivan Bunin, the author these lines, studied at the Yelets gymnasium, and now a local university bears his name. Mikhail Prishvin, another famous Yelets resident, studied here a little bit after Bunin. And one of Prishvin's teachers was Vasily Rozanov, who called Yelets his "moral" homeland. Tikhon Khrennikov, composer and chairman of the Union of Soviet Composers, is buried in the yard outside his home, in accordance with his expressed wish to be laid to rest in a city where he experienced nothing but love.

The spirit of Russian provincial past with one- and two-storey houses (local developers build houses that don't stand out from the overall architectural ensemble, -- the Muscovites could stand to learn from them), with numerous temples and monasteries (the Soviet power demolished them, but thirteen of the thirty-three managed to escape destruction) persisted in Yelets to such an extent that film crews flock here to film the "Russian spirit". This is where Andrei Smirnov's "Once Upon a Time There Lived a Simple Woman" was shot. Admittedly, though, the Yelets residents who played extras in the movie don't get to see themselves on the silver screens -- movie theatres offer the endless "Star Wars", betting on a tried and true success. Theatre playbill appears to be equally "safe" -- mostly comedies and children's plays. Add to that the forced closure of the local Benefis Theatre, which stems from the size of its small cozy auditorium (because of the small number of seats it is not profitable for neighboring cities to perform here -- their guest performances do not pay for themselves), and local actors find themselves locked in a vicious cycle. It is no wonder then that they threw themselves headlong into the Theatre of Nations experiment like Ostrovsky's Aksinya into waters of the deep. As that wild week came to a close, having watched each other's productions, they suddenly rediscover their colleagues and themselves. And one would think that nothing could be more terrifying for them than to bury these productions they had already created.

The People's House building, the current place of residence for Yelets' Benefis Drama Theatre, celebrates its centenary this year. Nina Zarechnaya, who came here in third class with educated merchants, did not perform in this building. Her most likely stage was in the theatre building on the Manezhnaya Street that was burned down by Red Army soldiers, who were trying to warm themselves there in 1919. That means that for several years Yelets had not just one but two theatres. This is where Prov Sadovsky's acting career began; this is where Mikhail Shchepkin, Maria Yermolova, Galina Fedotova, Fyodor Shalyapin, and Sarah Bernardt performed. This is where Ivan Moskvin and Vasily Kachalov read "The Lower Depths".

There were also times when Yelets had no theatre at all. Thus in 1948 the theatre that held out even during the war (the only time the theatre was inactive was for a few days during the Nazi occupation and another couple of months, when the building was used as a temporary hospital) was closed with a simple stroke of a bureaucrat's pen. The hilly Yelets turned out to be less convenient than the flat-terrained Lipetsk for the construction of a giant factory and thus became "unviable". The theatre troupe was transferred to the city of Dzerzhinsk. In the early 1990s, in spite of the universal collapse (after all, merchant thirst for thoroughness is not easily destroyed), the city leadership began searching for ways to open a theatre in Yelets. A Russian troupe from Alma-Ata, which, in turn, was running away from anti-Russian attitudes in its homeland, was chosen for that task. And it was thus that in 1993 Yelets got its very own Benefis. If it weren't for bad luck, as they say...


Pandas, Drug Addicts, Competitors, and Brodsky

Four plays were selected for further work -- Yaroslava Pulinovich's "Endless April" (Pavel Zobnin, director), Danila Privalov's "Five Twenty-Five" (Radion Bukaev), "The Story of the Panda Bears Told by a Saxophonist Who Has a Girlfriend in Frankfurt" by a Romanian-born Frenchman Matei Visniec (Valeria Surkova), and "The Grönholm Method" by Spanish playwright Jordi Galceran (Giorgi Tsnobiladze), a play that is already well-known in Moscow thanks to the very same Theatre of Nations.

All four plays had no problem getting a full house, and the post-presentation discussions turned into shows in their own right. Twentieth century through a prism of the history of an old Saint Petersburg apartment; a love story of two suicidal drug addicts (mothers of growing teenagers were the most ardent proponents of this production); nine days of the body bidding farewell to the soul; and a job interview, harsh like the Judgment Day and twisted like a detective story. These themes quickly inspired the Yelets residents, who have been starving for a "new word". Naturally, stage designs for these productions were created by picking and choosing things that fit the best. For the sake of "Panda Bears", however, the local props department has outdone itself and sewn a giant (and perfectly proportioned) head of a panda bear for the last few seconds of the finale. Incidentally, this play -- an algorithm for getting used to death, the gradual renunciation of all things earthly (from being part of the rat race to one's own corporality) -- became practically a hit at the workshop. And so, four different directors divided between themselves nine evenings in the same theatre. And the result was a wonderfully harmonious production that found room in it for Homeric laughter, lyricism, tragedy, and humility.

Yaroslava Pulinovich's "Endless April" is the best play of the four (and, consequently, the best sketch). It was born out of Andrei Moguchy's project that brought together several playwrights and directors, broke them up in groups of two, boarded them in an old empty apartment on the Petrogradskaya side, and invited them to create short productions that would be tied to the apartment ("A Location in Search of an Author" project). A student of Nikolai Kolyada from Omsk, who had recently celebrated her twentieth birthday, Pulinovich put together a poem about the collapse of the unique St Petersburg milieu. Settling workers in the apartments belonging to the intelligentsia; paralyzing fear of admitting to having once had a cook; Soviet mésalliances; a baby rescued during the Leningrad blockade, a baby who very well may have been Brodsky;... and a sweeping degradation of subsequent generations of people born out of those mésalliances from the overpacked, communal old St Petersburg apartments, filled with mysteries and pale light. All of that was written and recreated with utmost care and accuracy. Director Pavel Zlobin decided to play out his sketch in the rehearsal hall, where light hits the windows like in St Petersburg. All the junk that was found in the theatre served as "stage sets" -- dolls, suitcases, sleds, penny whistles, part of a bed... "We barely even rehearsed, it seemed. Spent all of our time collecting props," laughed the actors. An amazing diagnosis made along the way -- the older generation received the young writer's play with a great deal of enthusiasm. The younger audience, though, took offence at the treatment of the youngest female character (even the playwright -- her coeval -- denied her sympathy) -- the protagonist's granddaughter, who doesn't know her parentage, confuses Dostoyevsky with Brodsky, plans a party in the midst of a blockade... yet who still longs for her roots even in this unsightly manner.

The Theatre of Nations workshop easily brought together audiences for a full house and, in a good way, stirred the hearts of everyone. It let actors of all ages experience once again the feeling of youth of their student days, of maximum creative workload -- they were literally in tears when they were bidding goodbye to their guests. It gave the audience (not yet accustomed to a literature-centric theatre) new subjects and themes. And it had once again proven that there is insatiable hunger for both.


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