For a century, American theatre students have dreamed of theatre in Moscow, thanks to the astonishing influence of the great Konstantin Stanislavski (the inventor of so-called “method” acting) and his colleagues, including Vsevolod Meyerhold. When the theatre began producing the naturalistic works of the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, it quickly achieved an international reputation for its extraordinary accomplishments in natural acting. Even after the Russian Revolution, the theatre remained relevant, continuously adapting to changing politics and surviving right up to this day as one of Russia’s premiere training institutions, comparable to England’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art or America’s Julliard School.
Every summer, excited American theatre students travel to Moscow for summer intensives at the Moscow Art Theatre, with visions of Stanislavski, Chekhov, and this storied history dancing in their heads.
For these reasons alone, most educated American theatre goers cannot help but feel some excitement at the prospect of seeing theatre from one of Moscow’s premiere companies, particularly when they realize that the director and both actors were trained at the modern Moscow Art Theatre.
But there are other reasons to jump to attention at the prospect of seeing this work. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian theatre world has been fraught with political dangers and controversy. Under Soviet rule, censorship was official and came from the top down. In today’s Russia, however, censorship is officially non-existent. Nevertheless, Russian artists are well aware that failure to play ball with government preferences can result in loss of funding and an inability to work. Every theatre company in Moscow and throughout Russia has had experience struggling with this dilemma.
Two years ago, in April, 2015, the New York Times ran an article with the headline: “Russian Artists Face A Choice: Censor Themselves Or Else.” In that article, there is much discussion about Russia’s laws forbidding obscenity or artistic works offending religious believers. It also discusses the feeling of many Russian artists that Putin’s government was favoring works that put him in a good light, and defunding anybody of whom the government disapproved. Theatre artists in Russia described a situation where they felt they must either censor themselves or lose their funding.
And one doesn’t have to look back to 2015 to see that the situation remains complex.
As recently as last week, the offices of one of Moscow’s leading theatres, The Gogol Center, were raided by police, as was the apartment of its director, Kiril S. Serebrenikov. In 2015, Serebrenikov spoke of his fears that the government was pressuring artists to fall in line with its emphasis on family and religious values or be accused of “betrayal.” At that time, he was quoted in the NY Times: “It’s about betrayal—those who betray are put in the Ninth Circle of Hell, like in Dante.” After the recent raids, and accusations of funding embezzlement, many Russian cultural figures have defended Serebrenikov. One might well wonder, has he been sentenced, extra-judicially, to a metaphorical “Ninth Circle of Hell” for betraying Putin’s so-called values?
All of this, of course, has great resonance for Americans who wonder about a President who demands “loyalty” oaths and seems, to many, to put personal loyalty before the public good, admires Putin, and looks to strong-arming leaders world wide as role models.
Food for thought, isn’t it?
In this context, one cannot help but reflect upon the selected theme for this year’s San Francisco International Arts Festival: “San Francisco—Sanctuary City.” In an essay published in a pamphlet about the Festival, the organizers ask, “. . . to whom does Sanctuary extend and what does it mean?” They go on to answer that it is not just about immigrants, but also about all the progressives, artists, and freedom-lovers who have come to San Francisco over the years, including “people who believe in freedom of expression. . . [people] who joined the Beats, who begat the Summer of Love, who begat Gay Pride and lived through the Aids crisis.”
In short, Sanctuary is for everybody.
As we welcome the Russian theatre artists from Moscow, a place where many feel that the arts are under seige, as well as other artists from all over the world, it is good to remember that we offer sanctuary from a lot of political turmoil, a place where art can can be expressed without fear, and artists can feel welcomed and valued by all.
That’s a good thing. It is nice to feel a connection with the history of 20th century theatre in Russia, from the early days of Stanislavski’s art theatre to the censorship of the Soviet Union to the political pressures of the Putin area, and to remember that art survives.
Stanislavski famously said: “Love the art in yourselves, not yourselves in the art.”
Let’s do that, together.
Welcome to San Francisco, Meyerhold Theatre Center, Russian artists from the heart of the storm. Here you can find sanctuary from politics, and freedom from judgment by the powers-that-be or the powers-that-rebel. We’re glad you are here.
‘One Day We Will All Be Happy’ will have three performances at the San Francisco International Arts Festival on Thursday, June 1, Friday, June 2, and Saturday, June 3. For further information, click here.