Art is a reflection of society. When mapping the trajectory of a particular culture over time, it is imperative to look closely at the artistic voices of the day; those voices track not only major societal events but reflect upon the impact — be it personal, political, moral, or otherwise — of those events. With upheaval comes incredible fodder for artistic creation, which then provides a window, a refraction through a specific prism. In the case of Russia and its former satellite countries, the current political turmoil plaguing the region can be clearly viewed from the outside through the prism of its robust theater cultures.
In Russia, a seemingly unrelenting drive by President Putin and his associates to secure their authoritarian rule appears to have accelerated, fueled by xenophobia and intolerance. The country’s infamous anti-gay laws and the medieval inquisition leading to the conviction of the feminist group Pussy Riot are the topic of headlines around the world. With this backdrop, theater in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and other Russian cities has emerged as a vibrant and animated battlefield between those who are trying to confront the real challenges facing Russia and those who want the country to return to an earlier era. The upcoming season promises to bring that struggle literally to center stage.
A flurry of changes at many of the major theaters in Moscow holds out the promise of bringing new energy to Russian stages. Kirill Serebrennikov has made the Gogol Center one of the most important venues in Russia – and perhaps Europe – over the past year with an exciting new season on tap. The director/playwright known as KLIM has returned from St. Petersburg and his native Ukraine, to take over leadership of the important Playwright and Director Center as the dynamic Boris Yukhananov assumes control of the famous Stanislavsky Drama Theater. But, in July, prosecutors called in the very same Serebrennikov who has brought genuine distinction to the Gogol Center to testify about his production of Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” at the Moscow Art Theater six years ago. They appeared to be on a fishing expedition presumably to raise charges about the mistreatment of children.
The news from Central and East Europe may be more dire. In Hungary, the April 2010 nationwide elections saw the center-right Fidesz party gain an overwhelming two-thirds of the seats in Parliament. With Hungary’s political power solely in the hands of Fidesz, one of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s first moves was to focus on the “renationalization” of the arts and culture sector, paying special attention to the celebrated Hungarian theater community. The terrain of Hungary’s theatrical landscape has been irrevocably altered due to the cancellation of major festivals, independent companies closing their doors, seasons scaled down or cancelled altogether, and major institutional leaders summarily fired and replaced with party hardliners.
Just last month Robert Alföldi, the openly gay leader of the Hungarian National Theatre in Budapest, who since 2008 led what many call the “golden age” of the National, was replaced by a prominent Hungarian director whose vows to mount productions that represent a “theater of hope” and to turn the venue into a “scared space,” can be understood as a proclamation that only art with a patriotic or positive message is worthy of producing. Meanwhile, independent Hungarian companies clinging to life are trying to absorb the talents of the disbanded actors, designers, and directors who represent the Alföldi era of the National and now find themselves with no theatrical home.
In Romania, the coalition government that swept into power in 2012, led by Prime Minister Viktor Ponta, took a page from the Hungarian playbook when Prime Minister Ponta handed down an emergency decree in June 2012 putting the Romanian Cultural Institute (RCI) under the control of the partisan-driven Senate rather than the independent office of the President. Instead of celebrating and promoting the highest quality Romanian artistic work, RCI and its affiliate offices around the world now must focus on exporting entertainment that speaks directly to the patriotic tendencies of the Romanian diaspora community. Now the members of the Romanian theater community must tread a fine line in order to continue to create work that reflects the diversity of their aesthetics and react to this new climate.
Two decades after the transition away from Communist rule, why are we seeing these intense conflicts over theater? Local stages remain accessible venues for public discussion precisely because they are close to the ground, are rooted in place, and perform in local languages. Other media frequently having been overtaken by second-rate Hollywood productions — and the internet shortening attention spans — the stage has surfaced as a focal point for the resolute exploration of local dilemmas. And those standoffs, in turn, are the subject of bitter debates over the future of society.
Ironically, the fall of Communism enabled Russian, Hungarian, and Romanian societies to reopen debates about identity and modernity that their revolutions had shut down decades ago. Local populists and religious figures routinely decry pernicious influences from abroad. Yet, what they consider degenerate in fact is often simply part of daily life all around them. Debates rage; and theater is proving to be a powerful space for those who believe in more tolerant societies to speak back.
The theater artists living in cities such as Moscow, Budapest, and Bucharest, by reflecting their every day realities through the prism of their work, help us understand the dispiriting political and cultural news emerging from their home towns. Within this context, new seasons are about to open across the region. Stages will be presenting electrifying and important new plays and re-interpretations of older works which will openly challenge those in power who are seeking to turn the clock back to some earlier idyllic era which exists only in their own feverish minds. This should make for theater we all need to follow.
Blair A. Ruble is currently Director of the Wilson Center’s Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience. He served for nearly a quarter century as the Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies. He is author of six books including, most recently, Washington’s U Street: A Biography.
Barbara Lanciers is the Director of the Trust for Mutual Understanding, an American foundation that funds professional exchanges in the arts and environment conducted in partnership with institutions and individuals in Russia and Central and Eastern Europe. Barbara was a 2007/08 Fulbright Scholar with the Hungarian Theatre Museum and Institute and has written independent articles on American theater for Szinhaz Hungarian theater magazine and Didaskalia Polish theater magazine. Barbara’s theatrical career has been enriched by long-term collaborations with Two-headed Calf and the SITI Company. As a performer, she was most recently seen as Baby’s Breath in Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge. She recently premiered her staging of Hungarian Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertész’s novel Kaddish for an Unborn Child at the Jurányi Incubator House in Budapest, Hungary. For more information visit: www.kaddishplay.com