(To learn more about Marcy Arlin’s Artist, Immigrant blog series, click here.)
What do you love about theatre in the U.S. for yourself and in general?
At its best, American theatre brings together people who take a lot of pride in their craft. I love the feeling of walking through the backstage areas of a busy theatre buzzing with activity. You know that behind every door and every cubicle there’s someone who’s contributing in a meaningful way to the future production/s. It’s like a very well oiled machine but with a real soul at its core. I don’t like to idealize life in the theatre. It can be harsh and infuriating. But there are moments when American theatre artists really form these ephemeral communities full of generosity and humanity and creative joy.
What do you miss about working in your homeland?
I was a teenager when my family left Russia (still USSR in those days). So I never got to work there before moving to the United States although I directed in Moscow and St. Petersburg later in life. However, I grew up watching a lot of theatre. I was obsessed with theatre ever since my first exposure to puppetry at the age of four. As I got older, I witnessed the dynamism of theatre during perestroika and glasnost. Censorship was lifted and theatres tackled previously banned texts. There was a sense that theatre mattered – that it was a place to examine our deepest social, political and personal issues. I remember attending a brilliantly directed adaptation of Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog; the show dealt with gloomier aspects of Soviet history in very imaginative and funny ways. It was a candid look at our paltry way of life, a lost society brutalized by seven decades of callousness and repression. The image of black snow falling down from heaven and people howling like abused dogs stayed with me. Even as a 12 year old I understood that the production communicated something very important to the rapt audience. Incidentally, it was one of the experiences that made me realize what a real director can do to create a world on stage. The audience was an important part of that chemistry. People weren’t there to put a little checkmark in their cultural calendar or participate in a polite bourgeois ritual; they came hungry for some artistic revelation about the country, about themselves. I fell in love with that kind of theatrical vitality.
How have your combined, in your work, both country’s theatre training and culture?
I trained in both countries and, hopefully, absorbed the best of both theatrical traditions. A significant part of my directorial education comes from the Moscow Art Theatre School and the Russian master teachers. So on a basic level, whatever I do as an artist has some reference to the lessons I received. Beyond craft, however, there’s definitely something in my cultural DNA that influences my aesthetic. A way of looking at things, a feeling of the stage… I would argue that in the U.S. we too often separate theatre into unhelpful aesthetic categories: realism vs. non-realism, Broadway vs. downtown, earnest vs. ironic, etc. I hate those artificial boundaries. I see some very good acting on Broadway and off Broadway but the low level of visual sophistication puts me in despair. On the other hand, I observe smart younger directors working out cool aesthetic ideas while their actors never rise above flat presentational acting. Russian theatre artists have moved beyond those divisions; visually exhilarating staging goes hand in hand with vibrant acting. I like to think that at my best I strive for that.
One of my American mentors, an incisive dramaturge, used to say that all Russian theatre artists are basically expressionists. Maybe I’m a part of that tradition. At least that’s what I hear about my work. For example, to convey the image of a crumbling community in Nikolay Erdman’s 1920s comedy The Suicide, I suspended a ragtag orchestra in mid-air, stuffed old women into armoires, and threw a grotesque drinking party amidst underwear flapping on a clothesline. I think for Russians, tragedy and comedy exist side by side. Despite, moving to America as a teenager, I still get that very viscerally. You can take the boy out of Russia but…
How do you see yourself/identify yourself as an artist in terms of being an immigrant? Does it matter to you?
Sometimes I think that as an immigrant I inhabit a kind of cultural no man’s land. When I go back to Russia, I’m not seen as fully Russian. My mentality isn’t exactly Russian at this point. For example, taking the Moscow metro I’m struck by the lack of respect for private space. I don’t recollect being bothered by it when I lived there. I was more than surprised when a couple of my actors and a sound board guy showed up to rehearsal slightly inebriated. I blamed myself. I thought it was because I was young — couldn’t enforce discipline. But apparently it wasn’t the case. My teachers explained how these “partiers” spend decades in state sponsored theatre companies, taking employment for granted. In contrast, American theatre folks (and I identify myself as one) value work and professional reputation too much. We know what it’s like to hustle for a living.
Yet even decades after arriving to America, I have moments when I feel disconnected from certain cultural habits or ways of thinking. The eternal American optimism is still a mystery to me. And speaking of work, I would argue that as a director in America you’re forced to make crucial decisions much too early in the creative process. Not that I need years to conceive/direct something. I understand that budgets need to be controlled, sets built, props ordered, etc. But why must everything be so rushed? We lack the luxury of time that theatre makers elsewhere enjoy.
But I should add that my “neither here nor there” state of mind isn’t always a negative. It forces me to forge my own unique identity as an artist. Perhaps it makes me more flexible. Not a bad ability in a rapidly globalizing world.
I arrived to this country as a refugee. Surely it has some impact on my life as a practicing artist. We talk about the struggles of various minority groups to achieve success or recognition in American theatre. Immigrant artists face an uphill battle too. Quite a few of my American colleagues turn to their families and family friends for help with networking, fundraising, career advice, etc. If you and your parents are immigrants or refugees you don’t have that option. You’re doing everything from scratch.
How does it affect your getting work? (accent, ethnicity, etc.)
I’m not an actor so traces of my Russian accent do not come into play. There may be a slight (perhaps even unconscious) prejudice against foreign directors. I remember David Mamet addressing my class at the A.R.T. Institute in Cambridge and blasting all those “conceptual” Eastern European directors who have no respect for playwrights. Mamet voiced a prevalent bias. Whether I like it or not, American theatres may be putting me in a certain box. Institutions tend to match me up with European and Russian classics. Which is great. But I wouldn’t mind more opportunities to direct new American plays.
What are you doing now? Here and/or abroad?
I just staged Carlo Gozzi’s The King Stag in Shanghai. Now, I’m preparing to co-adapt and direct Romeo and Juliet for Asolo Repertory’s New Stages program (based in Sarasota, FL, it’s the largest regional theatre in the Southeastern U.S.) I’ve been a part of that project for several years. In 2011 and 2012 I worked on two other Shakespearean adaptations with Stephanie Fleischmann, a terrific playwright. We reached thousands of kids who would never be able to see high quality live theatre otherwise. Last year, our Macbeth was attended by something like 18 thousand people. I’m very proud of what we have achieved. In addition to that, I will continue to teach acting and directing at Tulane University.
Can you tell me a theatre short story/anecdote about when you first came here? A more recent story?
A few years ago, my alma mater invited me to direct a Moliere play. The show traveled to Moscow where it ran for a couple of months on the stage of the Moscow Art Theatre School. Jetlagged, sleepless and dehydrated, I was busy conducting tech and making last minute changes. I was about to collapse when suddenly I experienced a moment of clarity. A theatrical nirvana of sorts. Maybe the legendary space, charged with so much theatrical history and genius, infused me with energy. Everything clicked: my Russian upbringing, my American training, my bi-culturalism. I felt at home with myself. It all made sense and felt incredible.
DMITRY TROYANOVSKY directed, taught, led workshops, and developed projects at national and international institutions such as Asolo Repertory Theatre, Baryshnikov Arts Center, American Repertory Theatre Institute, Shanghai Theatre Academy, Ke Performing Arts Center in Shanghai, Segal Theatre Center (CUNY), 92 Street Y, Fisher Arts Center at Bard College, Brown University, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Soho Rep’s Summer Camp, Brandeis Theatre Company, American Lyric Theatre, and Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. Dmitry maintains close ties with the Russian theatre culture. He directed the Russian premier of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love at the Pushkin Theatre in Moscow and a bi-lingual adaptation of Andrey Bely’s Petersburg for a site specific performance in St. Petersburg. His production of The Discreet Charm of Monsieur Jourdain (based on Moliere’s work) was invited to the IV Moscow International Theatre Festival “Your Chance.” In 2011, Dmitry was added to the Fulbright Specialist Roster, Institute of International Education Department of Scholar and Professional Programs. Since 2012, Dmitry has worked as Assistant Professor at Tulane University in New Orleans. Online Portfolio: www.dmitryt.com
Marcy Arlin is Artistic Director of the OBIE-winning Immigrants’ Theatre Project. Member: Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, Theatre without Borders, League of Professional Theatre Women, No Passport, and Fulbright Scholar to Romania and the Czech Republic. She curates Eastern European Playwrights: Women Write the New. Her project East/West/East: Vietnam Immigrants Out of War, is a binational, Vietnamese/Czech/English theatre project based on interviews with American and Czech Vietnamese. She created Journey Theatre with survivors of war and torture. Directing venues: 59E59, QTIP, LaMama, MESTC, Vineyard, Oddfellows Playhouse, Artheater/Köln, Nat’l Theatre of Romania. Co-Editor Czech Plays: 7 New Works. She is an Assistant Professor at Pace University, teaching theatre and social change.