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The Arts

Drama Splice

Recent Towson University theatrical conference wants to break contemporary Russian playwrights onto American stages

Caroline Reck as Zina in Tanya-Tanya.

By John Barry | Posted 5/20/2010

Is American theater ready for living Russian playwrights? That wasn’t the only question on the minds of the 50-odd directors, organizers, producers, actors, and others who spent the May 7-9 weekend shuttling between the Burkshire Marriott Conference Hotel and the Towson University Arts Center during the Towson New Russian Drama Conference, but it was, undoubtedly, the elephant in the room.

For three years, Towson's Russian Project—a collaboration between the university's Department of Theatre Arts and the Center for International Theatre Development (see: "The Russians are Coming")—had been shuttling playwrights and translators back and forth from the United States to Moscow and Moscow to the United States. Now, Philip Arnoult, the white-bearded head of Baltimore’s CITD, was handing out DVDs containing English versions of 26 scripts by 14 Russian playwrights, the final product of years of efforts on the part of American translators to prepare them for the American theaters.

Four full-length productions ran during the conference itself, offering samples of living Russian playwrights. The productions had been drawn from plays Towson University produced over the past year, including Olga Mukhina's Tanya-Tanya, Yury Klavdiev's Martial Arts, Vyacheslav Durnenkov's Frozen in Time, and Yaroslava Pulinovich's The Natasha Plays. Also included was a staged reading of Maksym Kurochkin’s The Schooling of Bento Bonchev.

By day, audiences were treated to a series of plays, followed by post-show discussion. By night, over vodka shots and long conversations at the Towson Marriott, the assembled company—many of them producers and arts directors from theaters around the country—wondered, aloud, if there was room for a new type of theater in the United States.

Towson had been pretty clear about its mission. During a previous interview with this writer, Philip Arnoult explained the goal of this cultural exchange succinctly: “In five years, I want to hear the voices of these playwrights on American stages, in Americans’ mouths, and listened to by American audiences. This is going to be the first step.”

So here they were: regional theater directors who would have to take that first step. And they searched bravely for what one director called “the points of contact” between Russians and Americans: the cultural contexts that might cause American theatergoers to catch the buzz of New Russian theater.

For Touchstone Theatre founder Bill George, who came to attend the conference from his hometown of Bethlehem, Pa., that was a hard call. Europeans and Russians, he noted, have used theater to define themselves culturally on a national level. As for Americans, “I don’t think that’s ever going to happen,” he said. That would make it harder to excite an American theatergoing audience to latch on to the enthusiasm of foreign playwrights finding their voice in post-Soviet Russia.

To facilitate that contact, the walls were pasted over with cultural context, thanks to the dramaturgical efforts by Robyn Quick, a TU Department of Theatre Arts associate professor and coordinator of the theater studies program. The idea here was to turn the nebulous term “New Drama” into something American audiences can hook their fingers in.

In academic terms, New Russian Drama is almost impossible to define. It’s the punk rock of Russian theater: a gritty form of documentary-styled playwriting that emerged in the 1990s as a new breed of playwrights suddenly focused on telling it like it is. It started in tiny theaters now celebrated as the CBGB’s of Russian theater, and it inspired a DIY attitude toward playwriting. Instead of playing instruments, young Russians started pounding away at their keyboards, coming up with quick and dirty work about subjects such as HIV, drugs, and the war in Chechnya. It was mocked by the major labels—the big theater companies—until, as the movement spread, it became the next big thing.

But it was, of course, the next big thing a decade ago—which is one of the primary challenges of the New Russian Drama conference. The young playwrights are moving into middle age, and the ones who are still around are, in some cases, trying to avoid being buttonholed as “New Drama."

The 37-year-old Vyacheslav Durnenkov is a large presence with combed-back blonde hair and a tight grip. He also speaks no English. He had little background in the theater when he began playwriting—instead, he wrote plays about other workers in the car factory where he worked in Togliatti, the Russian Detroit. His first productions, in 2000, were strictly New Drama. But Frozen in Time—which played the conference—reflected a technical maturation to the point where the aggressive, in-your-face attitude of New Drama had been largely abandoned.

The 35-year-old Yury Klavdiev, the other playwright at the festival, has more of a rock-star appeal. His visual panache alone—with a gap-toothed grin, long-haired, bearded, and a carefully curled mustache—places him in the pantheon of idiosyncratic Russian writers. He also comes from Togliatti, where he spent “about a decade” as a reporter covering the city’s notorious gang wars before turning to playwriting. He also claims some involvement in gang underworld, which has certainly added sparkle to his résumé. Their two plays, and their own conversations at post-show talkbacks, suggested two approaches to creating “contact” between American and Russian theater.

Durnenkov's possible appeal to American audiences might be empathetic. His Frozen in Time—about a small Russian village that two con men try to turn into a sort of living museum—was striking in its conventional structure. And both he and director Peter Wray acknowledged a strong debt to Eugene O’Neil with the play’s sprawling, family-oriented plot. In the post show talkback, audience members appeared unsure how to approach it: as a Russian play that Americans would go to because it was easy to digest, or as a play that gave Americans the chance to understand the peculiarities of Russia itself.

Francis Cabatac in Martial Arts

Klavdiev was less coy about his relationship to the United States. His Martial Arts, about two children caught in a drug war, was—despite the somber subject—a shameless and exuberant celebration of American pop culture. The over-the-top incorporation of Quentin Tarantino's martial-arts techniques was a driving force in the play's choreography. Director Yury Urnov, Towson's director in residence, was anything but self-effacing: using midgets, flashing lights, smoke machines, and hip-hop, he turned Arts into a nightmarishly comic vision of a society recreating itself in a strange pastiche of pop culture.

“When I finished school,” Klavdiev noted in a post-show discussion, “the very first American videos were making their way into the country. I would see Terminator, Predator, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th. When Tarantino came, I thought it was the second coming.” Klavdiev’s bizarre, freakish vision of post-Soviet reality, however, suggested a curious view of American pop culture seen in a funhouse mirror.

Klavdiev’s Martial Arts appeared to be generating the strongest buzz among the conference attendees. While it’s impossible to measure its success yet, if he does actually make it to American stages, a strange twist could bring New Drama to the United States. Instead of using it to learn about Russians, Americans might want to use the Russian dramatists to see their own pop culture mythologized with the strange mix of childish naïveté and dark humor. Take Sergio Leone, mixed with Dostoevsky, and put it on a stage as Tarantino might. That may not be what Klavdiev himself intended, but, in a demand-driven economy, it might be what sells.

All photos by Robyn Quick.

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