Lessons from The Gogol Center

by Julia Bumke

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Survive | Thrive} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.)

When American theater legends Margo Jones and Zelda Fichandler founded their companies in the mid-twentieth century, they both looked to the same place for inspiration: Russia, and specifically Russia’s Moscow Art Theatre.  Upon visiting the Moscow Art in 1936 on a Guggenheim fellowship, Jones envisioned an American theater that would “go beyond the dreams of the past and mean even more to America than the Moscow Art Theatre meant to Russia…a theater that will carry on, but adapt to our Country and our time, the ideals of Stanislavsky; a theater of our time: an art theater.”  She subsequently designed her Dallas-based theater troupe on the Moscow Art model, employing a full-time acting company to perform classical plays and new works in repertory.  Her model took the United States by storm, and scores of American theater leaders, including Fichandler, structured their own theaters by Jones’s example.

Despite Russia’s formative influence on American theater outside of New York, today’s American “repertory” companies have little in common with their Russian predecessors.  Many LORT theaters have cut their full-time acting companies, for reasons of both cost efficiency and quality control; and few theaters have the financial or logistical means to produce a rotating repertory of shows. Russia, meanwhile, has undergone a roller-coaster of political shifts, many of which have challenged the theater’s function as an outlet for free expression and artistry. Today, Moscow’s theaters are forced to juggle their inextricable government ties—they’re almost entirely city- or state-funded, which means that President Putin can enforce a blanket ban on the use of certain swear words, as he did earlier this month—while resisting artistic stasis.

Although America and Russia’s theatrical landscapes have been transformed since Jones came to Moscow, there is still much that the two nations can learn from one another, particularly from the companies and directors who push against the status quo.  At Moscow’s newest government-funded theatrical endeavor, the Gogol Center, director Kirill Serebrennikov has attempted to rid the city’s theater scene of its cobwebs while respecting those who came before him, crafting a performance complex meant to “lead a constant dialogue with reality while creating a reality within its walls.”  He and his Center seek to “not limit [themselves] with any genre boundaries,” thereby destroying this country’s traditional distinctions between performers and audience members, and between art and political activism.  The Center also moves beyond functioning as a theater space: with a café, bookstore, and multiple performance venues, it is designed for lingering, open all day long to invite all kinds of engagement.  It serves as an ideal example of how theater today can engage with society through a blend of conversation, creativity, and community, bringing in new audience members in the process.

The Gogol Center was not built from scratch; it sprang from the ashes of the Gogol Theater, a struggling venue with a traditional Russian repertory company in a little-traveled part of town.   In August 2012, the Moscow government fired the Gogol Theater’s artistic director, citing poor attendance rates, and installed Serebrennikov, a highly visible director who had directed nine productions at the Moscow Art Theatre over the past decade, to replace him.  The space was promptly closed for reconstruction, amid dissenting shouts from those who saw the death of the Gogol Theater as a major blow to the Russian repertory system.  Although the situation never escalated to the Bolshoi Theater’s level of acid attacks and intrigue, reports circulated in the Moscow press that the Center’s managing director, Alexei Malobrodsky, was physically attacked while walking home, and that Serebrennikov had received numerous threats.

The revamped Gogol Center that opened in February 2013 was a far cry from the staid Gogol Theater.  Its traditional lobby had been replaced by a cavernous space with café tables, exposed brick, and neon quotes from famous directors splashed across the walls; a bookstore housed everything from records to English-language art books to Russian classical literature; and new spaces had been designed for concerts, film screenings, and dance performances.  While Gogol Theater had been a standard repertory house, the Center now housed four companies across artistic disciplines: Serebrennikov’s Seventh Studio acting troupe, consisting of his former students from the Moscow Art Theatre School; the Gogol Maly, a smaller version of the Gogol Theater’s defunct company; the Kostroma-based Dialogue Dance Company; and Vladimir Pankov’s SounDrama ensemble, which included musicians, composers, choreographers, actors, and sound designers.

As the two non-theatrical resident ensembles, SounDrama and Dialogue Dance embody the Center’s new credo of collaborative art as a means for self-expression.  “Artists do not come here to make money, but to work from their heart; their zeal is most important,” described SounDrama artistic director Vladimir Pankov of his company’s work. Dialogue Dance aims to “declare the creative self-identity of each member, at the same time developing the concept of dialogue in all possible aspects”—and it is based four hours outside the city, pushing against Moscow’s insular approach, much like New York’s, to its culture. Dialogue Dance calls for an art form where “nothing is canonical, each individual brings their own contributions, their own imagination…a complete improvisation out of which a work of art is formed.”

In the past couple of months, I’ve visited the Gogol Center for four different productions: a four-hour, site-specific version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; an adaptation of Lewis Caroll’s poem The Hunting of the Snark sung entirely a cappella, with the occasional aid of inflatable pool toys; the little-known Russian farce Christmas at the Ivanovs, done in a tight attic space with actors from both Studio Seven and Gogol Maly; and a derelict, post-apocalyptic interpretation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  While all four productions had their shortcomings, my experiences were overwhelmingly positive—and, most of all, they were richly diverse.  Shows started at 8, 8:30, or even 9pm, a shift from Moscow’s typical 7pm curtain; apart from Midsummer, performances were under two hours without intermission, and people lingered afterwords for drinks; and the Studio Seven actors, secure in their positions as Serebrennikov’s company, performed with a enthusiasm and vigor that I’ve rarely seen back home in the States, taking chances with their voices and physicality that had nothing to do with landing their next role.

“The Gogol Center is a place of freedom,” reads the theater’s mission statement—but it is also a place supported by city funding, with all of the inherent strings attached.  A film screening of a documentary on Pussy Riot was shut down at the last minute, and Moscow’s Department of Culture justified its choice by writing that art should “save the world, make it better, not inflame the public with scandalous stories that have no cultural merit.”  Despite these controversies, Serebrennikov is determined to continue the Gogol Center as long as possible—and many theater professionals here believe that his space will persevere, partly because backlash from the Center’s loyal supporters upon its closing could prompt a greater upswell of dissent than letting it continue.  As Serebrennikov wrote on Facebook after the Pussy Riot debacle, “I call on all people for whom the concepts of honesty and freedom are alive, for whom the worth and right of an artist to create and speak freely are important, to rally round and oppose the coming Gloom; in word, in action, in art, whatever you can do.”

What can American theater makers learn from a space like the Gogol Center?  There are American troupes today that arguably match Studio Seven with their physically inventive storytelling: Fiasco and PigPen Theater Companies spring to mind, with the Wooster Group as the stalwart pro.  And many theaters—including the Guthrie, New York’s Signature Theatre, and Lincoln Center Theater—have sought to turn their spaces into all-day destinations with restaurants, cafés, and wifi hotspots.  But what makes Gogol Center so innovative is its interdisciplinarity, and the way that this plays out on so many levels.  From its crossover projects between companies to its pop-up midday concerts, the Center thrives on collaboration and community, and this transforms its audience members from observers into participants—and, by extension, into arts advocates.

At the end of Serebrennikov’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, during the play-within-a-play of Pyramus and Thisbe, we stand around a massive turntable, our fourth and final location of the night.  During the death of Pyramus, as Thisbe jumps to save her lover, the scene shifts: the other characters come out from audience and begin pushing the turntable, as those atop it perform a funereal dance.  As the turntable rotates, the characters, one by one, ascend to join their collaborators—but before they do, they choose audience members to take their places.  The turntable is heavy; it moves slowly; it is pushed by at least twenty of us.  We walk; the performers writhe; Titania’s voice soars.  The performance is all-consuming, and, for a fleeting moment, we are a part of it.

Julia Bumke is currently in residence at Russia’s Moscow Art Theatre, as part of a master’s in Dramaturgy at Harvard’s Institute for Advanced Theater Training.  Her articles on American institutional structures, Russian theater, and art as dissent have appeared in HowlRound, Culturebot, and the Yale Historical Review.