Author: suther1

Russian theater is nothing to rush through

Last month, I did the typical Ole thing and studied abroad for Interim. The class was a study of Russian theater, viewing 21 plays in both Moscow and St. Petersburg over the course of the month. Before this trip, I certainly did not recognize the importance of Russian theater, and I had never heard of any Russian theater artists apart from Stanislavski and the two Chekhovs (Anton & Mikhail).

Actually, some part of me thought that the history of Soviet control on arts would have been enough to seriously cripple theatrical development, rendering contemporary Russian theater behind the times or immature. But after a month sitting before Russian stages, my mind has opened up to the beautiful and incredible artistic world of Russian theater.

One of the most significant aspects of Russian theater involves its relationship with the government. In Russia, almost all theaters are state-sponsored, which means that theaters can charge much less per ticket than U.S. venues. And because the average Russian can easily afford a theater ticket, almost all of them consistently go to the theater.

There is also a dark side to state sponsorship, however, in that the Ministry of Culture retains quite a bit of control over the theaters. For example, the Ministry of Culture has periodically evacuated controversial theaters over “bomb threats,” and forced theaters to stop showing productions deemed offensive or overly critical of the government.

But censorship has also become an integral part of the nature of Russian theater. Many artists in Russia believe that it is actually why their theater is so inventive; playmakers reason that if they want to broach contentious subjects, they must find ways to do so indirectly in order to escape the grasp of the Ministry of Culture. Consequently, not only was I wrong in my condemnation of Russian theater, but I criticized censorship, which is central to the success of modern theater.

Another aspect of Russian theater that I appreciated was the general attitude toward the text. Russian directors often take scripts or literature and make bold, new decisions. They subtract the things they deem unnecessary and often add in their own bits. This happens in the U.S. to be sure, but not nearly as much as in Russian shows.

For example, we saw three shows from director Yuri Butusov, who has a habit of adding incredibly loud music and messy stage elements (i.e. water, ink, paint, piles of furniture, etc.). He had an especially interesting take on Anton Chekhov’s play, The Seagull, in which the actors mixed up the order of the show and played certain scenes multiple times. Butusov himself even jumped in at certain points to dance centerstage. His style slapped me across the face and commanded me to pay attention to the stage activity, even though I could not understand the text.

Another example: the set of Hamlet at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg was comprised of stadium bleachers facing away from the audience. The show only lasted an hour, but included characters running up and down the bleachers and through the audience at incredible pace, and a significant change in the mood of certain scenes from the traditional play.

I long for the ability to be able to direct a show as moving as Butusov’s, or as radically different as the Alexandrinsky’s Hamlet. I believe that stories are meant to be kinetic and changeable, as theirs were. It is fascinating to see new takes on old plays. Perhaps there are no new stories, but there are as many ways to tell a particular story as there are people in the world.

I think the reason we go to the theater is to see how a story is told rather than the story itself, and the Russian habit of telling stories in distinct ways is admirable. Butusov’s production of Flight had scenes in it that were not even mentioned in the script. But they told the same story that Mikhail Bulgakov did. The storytelling was what kept the audience engaged.

I took inspiration not only from directors, but from actors as well. The actors we saw were incredible and behind their talent lies a long process of education and training. Actor training schools are widespread, and they are very involved. Actors take courses in academic regions as well as specific theater classes. But at the end of this process, students do not possess the training to take on professional, well-paying jobs. They have been trained as actors and have gambled on their success in the field. The courage to take this plunge is admirable, and encourages me to begin my own acting career.

However, at the end of the day, the question remains: is Russian theater better than American theater? I answer no. Though there are many benefits to Russian theater, there are also downsides.

For example, Russian theater is built on the repertory system. Every theater at any given time has somewhere around 20-30 shows rehearsed and ready to perform. Every night of the week, each theater shows a different play, usually with a set monthly schedule. This can be incredibly exhausting for theatermakers, not allowing actors or technicians much free time at all.

That being said, it is a tad problematic for me to judge two entirely different cultures in that way. I do, however, want to note the differences and wonder what could transfer between the two.

I recommend learning Russian, booking a ticket to Russia, visiting some Russian theaters and sitting back to wonder at the magic of human expression, and the different methods of storytelling that exist. But if you have no intention of following my suggestion to explore the world of Russian theater, perhaps you can at least you can say you have experienced it vicarously through me.

suther1@stolaf.edu

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Theater not bound to stage, also found in nature, self

Tripping across the crunchy pebbles, I stubbornly refused to pull my phone out of my pocket to act as a flashlight. I slowed my pace, feeling the atmosphere of awe so present around me. Loathe to make more unnecessary noise or disturb my friends’ stargazing with the bright light of my phone, I slowly fumbled my way to an open spot. Sitting down on the gravel, I was instantly, acutely aware of every sharp point and uncomfortable edge of stone that pressed into my legs. But tonight it was worth it. Tonight I would not complain and shift uncomfortably. Tonight I would settle into my seat, strain my neck looking as deep into the sky as I possibly could, and observe the phenomena of which I had only been made aware 20 minutes prior. Tonight I would get to watch the total lunar eclipse.

The atmosphere on campus was quite special. As I walked from Regents to my lunar viewing spot, I passed a huge number of people gathered on the quad, all gathered in hushed reverie. For the most part, nobody was moving, and all were looking upwards. Though the scene was strange, one only had to look up at the moon to join the crowd in silent contemplation and understand the hushed voices and upturned eyes. When I finally made it to my viewing place, I stayed there, staring at the moon as long as I could. I forgot the people beside me, the time, and all the many things I had yet to do that Sunday. I lost myself in the moon’s slow movement across the sky. This eclipse was cosmic theater, and for that night, St. Olaf was the silent audience.

One of the many strengths of the theater is its ability to evoke strong emotion in people through storytelling. To see a story told on a stage, wherever that stage may be, can be powerful enough to make people giddy and joyful, pensive and moody or just shocked. Communicated emotion is incredibly powerful, and subsequently dangerous, since its application can be misused.

The lunar eclipse evoked a sense of awe. Watching the moon travel the sky and shine a brilliant red served to remind those watching of the grand scale of the universe, and the incredibly intricate and huge systems at work so far beyond our sight. When confronted with the vastness of the world we inhabit, awe seems like the only possible emotion with which we can respond. The story told by the lunar eclipse is one of a universe that keeps moving and working despite any help or hindrance from humanity. The brilliant colors and remarkable visuals of the moon would have been there had no human audience members been present, and they certainly didn’t need any human help to be astounding in appearance.

Since the eclipse, I have been trying to go stargazing more often. Enjoying the spectacle of the cosmic theater always helps me ground myself. I forget myself and my homework. The beautiful vastness of the sky above me, representing inconceivably vast distances and billions of trillions of places I could never possibly see, kindly accepts my human concerns and invites me to sit and watch. I always leave the experience in a state of quiet assuredness in my meaningfulness and a desire to create something beautiful, or try to somehow capture the beauty I witnessed.

At St. Olaf we belong to a rich tradition of performance. With Christmas Fest every year, performances of our numerous nationally recognized ensembles, the yearly performances of the Theater and Dance Departments and the host of student organization performances that happen each year, we do not suffer from lack of theatricality. Some of these performances inspire awe and joy in people like nothing else can. One of the most powerful memories I have is that of participating in Christmas Fest last year and contributing to the sheer power and magnificence of the performances. But once in a while we need to step out of the observation of human performance and revel in the wonder of natural performance. The effortless beauty and vitality of the world around and above us, manifest in the lunar eclipse we all so silently beheld grants us a certain introspection.

Call it meditation, call it prayer or call it simple theater-going. But go out some night. Bring friends, hot beverages and warm blankets. Go to the natural lands, Thorson hill or the middle of the quad. And just sit. Or lay down. Look up at the sky and see the light that has travelled incredible distances to your eyes. See the brilliance of a shooting star, the incredible beauty of an eclipse. Let the universe bring itself to you, and accept the gift it gives you.

suther1@stolaf.edu

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Oles win nine straight, claim first round bye