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In Russia's 'New Drama,' Chekhov Is Out, Grit Is In

A scene from Yury Klavdiyev's play, "The Polar Truth," at Towson University Theater (photo: Kate Bateman)
For the past decade, a dramatic revolution has been brewing in the tiny basement and studio theaters of Russia.

There is now a small but significant coterie of gritty, alternative theaters that eschew the mainstream Russian classics -- Anton Chekhov and the like -- and are dedicated to producing only new, socially relevant plays by young playwrights.

In a country much maligned for its harsh restrictions of the press and free speech, this new brand of gritty, low-budget theater has been attracting attention for tackling social and sometimes political issues that nobody else will.

It is plays like Yury Klavdiyev's "The Polar Truth" or Maksim Kurochkin's "Vodka, F**king, and Television" that are at the fore of this revolution.

Klavdiyev's play, for examples, tackles an issue Russian authorities have been loath to address: the country's growing epidemic of HIV/AIDS. Based on a series of real-life interviews with HIV-positive Russians, the play depicts the lives of three people infected with HIV and their struggles as outcasts from society.

A scene from Maksim Kurochkin's play, "Vodka, F**king, and Television" at Towson University (photo: Kate Bateman)
Kurochkin's provocative play, as suggested by the title, explores one man's degradation by three common Russian vices -- vodka, promiscuity, and TV -- while managing to reflect on the political and social landscape of a Russia under the influence of Vladimir Putin.

Both plays opened quietly in 2006 at Teatr.doc, which has become one of the most important studio theaters in Moscow. Kurochkin, a Ukrainian playwright, describes the plays as a reaction to both the Russian theatrical establishment and Russian society as a whole.

"The main goal is to revive a type of theater than can change people, that can transform them in the space of an hour and a half," he says. "We haven't had a chance to see such theater lately. I'm interested in theater that is dangerous for society, that is destructive and brings transformation."

For A New Society, A New Drama

This "dangerous" theater style, sometimes referred to as New Drama, took root with the fall of the Soviet Union, and coalesced when playwright Aleksei Kazantsev opened the Playwright and Director Center in Moscow in 1998.

The goal at the time was to showcase the work of young, adventurous, and unproduced writers as an alternative to the mainstream theater that favored the classics.

Kazantsev's model took hold, and within a few years, a host of other small, underfunded theaters sprang up to foster new work -- including Kazantsev's center, Teatr.doc, and Moscow's Meyerhold Center.

Outside of Moscow, the theater run by director and writer Nikolai Kolyada in the city of Yekaterinburg has received a lot of attention from scholars and critics, as has the Minsk-based Free Theater of Belarus, which is considered so radical by the government that it can barely perform within the borders of its own country.

With nudging from supporters both inside and abroad, the West is finally taking note of the New Drama movement.

Philip Arnoult, the director of the Baltimore-based Center for International Theater Development, has been instrumental in arranging for a host of New Drama plays to be performed in English at Maryland's Towson University as part of an ongoing yearlong program. Arnoult says the movement's diversity is one of its best features.

"It's almost impossible to umbrella," Arnoult says. "It is not 'new Chekhovian' work. It doesn't have a thread of magical realism in it. It's an exceedingly eclectic set of voices that almost defy any label, other than that they're new and contemporary."

Under The Radar, Over The Censors

Many have noted that one particularly exciting aspect of this theatrical revolution is that the social and political nature of the work is going largely uncensored by the authorities.

Theater director Yury Ournov, who has long supported the work of Russia's up-and-coming playwrights, says the theater is a good place to be political because they are still generally low-profile:

"Well, theater is kind of a happy place for [politics]," says Ournov. "Because I think authorities don't really pay too much attention to that because it's small and it looks very local. I actually don't think it is small and local, but it seems like they do. And that kind of gives more freedom."

John Freedman is the theater critic for the English-language "Moscow Times" newspaper and is one of the foremost experts on Russia's New Drama movement. He argues that these plays successfully evade the attention of authorities by not being overtly political. Instead, he says, they present a more subtle social commentary.

"You're not getting plays about Putin. You're not getting plays about the clampdown on the media. You're not getting plays that are actually taking the government on full force," Freedman says. "These are plays that are dealing with problems like alienation among young people, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide. So you're getting plays that are dealing with social issues, and those plays are having resonance among a relatively small but important circle of intellectuals who are interested in theater and drama."

That has not always been the case. Ournov, who is in residence during this year's festival at Towson University on a U.S. government Fulbright Fellowship, is quick to remember March 2005 protests led by politicians and conservative youth activists against the Bolshoi Theater's premiere of "The Children of Rosenthal," an avant-garde opera they derided as "pornography."

Ournov says that authorities do pay attention when the plays reach bigger stages, meaning writers who tackle political issues may remain largely limited to small underground theaters.

Even so, Kurochkin, who claims that he has never written a "political play," insists that he does not feel the pressure of government censorship when he writes. "Apart from my own inner censor, no one prevents me from saying sharp and daring things," he says.

Western Fascination

This relative freedom is one of the aspects of the New Drama movement that has grabbed the attention of theater professionals in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Years of work by Arnoult and Freedman, among others, to spread the gospel of new Russian playwriting has finally come to fruition, with a host of Western festivals bringing the plays to new audiences.

The Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon
In addition to the Towson University project, the small London-based Sputnik Theater Company has organized what they call the country's first Russian theater festival. In addition, the renowned Royal Shakespeare Company from Stratford-upon-Avon has organized a festival including new Russian work that they have dubbed the "Revolutions Season."

All three of these festivals will consist of full productions, readings, and workshops aimed at introducing a large volume of this work to audiences at once.

Arnoult has hope that New Drama's coming-out party in the West will signal the permanent addition of Russia's newest stars to the list of artists recognized by non-Russian professionals.

"My guess is, in the next five years, I'd be very surprised if there wasn't a discernable [New Drama] presence in the American professional theater, both in New York and around the rest of the country," Arnoult says. "That if you were talking about this in five years, people would be able to mention and to note three playwrights or four playwrights that would have been seen and heard here. I'd be very surprised if that didn't happen."