Governance, ghosts and electricity
The Online Theatre Magazine by the UTE (Union des Théâtres de l’Europe)
By Herwig Lewy
The bassline of the day remains unsaid: United in diversity. Artistic directors of UTE theatres came all the way from Athens, Bucharest, Luxembourg, Moscow, Sofia and Vienna to the Yugoslav Drama Theatre, Belgrade, on 17 September 2017. After a first conference in Milan last year, the focus of this exchange on different theatre structures was on Eastern and South Eastern Europe. For the first time, Boris Yukhananov from the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre in Moscow also attended. Meeting the newest member of the UTE.
The dialogue about theatre structures, about its specific problems in Eastern and South Eastern Europe, took place in a location which, until not too long ago, was a European centre of the Movement of the non-aligned states. At this spatiotemporal crossroads, the collision of two governance models carried weight, which has unfolded in the past 28 years in the course of the eastward expansion of the European Union. Inês Nadais writes in this online magazine about the consequences of this development by focusing on the contributions on the diverging financial settings of theatres in Europe. We could also add Naomi Klein’s popular description of this clash in her book about the shock doctrine, and ask an additional question which many participants in the discussion in Serbia probably were wondering about:And to add a question that probably crossed most people’s minds at the conference: Who even knows the content of the Eastern partnership programmes? Who knows about the subjects of association agreements?
The free space of physical encounter
Once again it became evident how important mobility is for artistic exchange. The personal encounter of theatre makers on this and the other side of the stage does not halt whatever the “bodiless” exchange of ideas bottles up worldwide in the digital age in the form of a collection of emotions on social media or the comment columns in the online publications of small and large media houses. Governments have been soaring ever more frequently to curb these accumulations in a morally impeccable way through legislative packages against “hate speech” and “fake news”. Upon physically entering the conference hall, I have to think about Kadett Pirx who has served as the prime example of such conflicts of the body with the “virtual reality” in so many of the Polish writer Stanisław Lem’s literary parodies. A “reality” for which in 1963 Lem already coined the term “phantomisation” in his book Summa Technologiae. It’s fascinating that the ideas of science fiction writers are put into reality in the Silicon Valley—however, without taking the ethical concerns into account. Worked into the cybernetics and convinced of the game theory, these oft-celebrated innovators of the “inventors” of the digital era frequently remain far behind the revelations which Lem centrally formulated in Summa: “The ‘change’ from one personality to another is possible neither in a reversible nor in an irreversible process, because between such metamorphoses, there is a period of psychological destruction which is equal to the termination of the individual existence.”
Will legal packages be able to counter the protest against the preservation of the individual existence? — Admittedly, Lem’s reflections accompany me in the course of the conference like a stream of consciousness. But once awakened, they stay for the whole day. From the perspective of the theatre as a medium, there is an entirely different quality of the “social medium” in relation to Silicon Valley. The interpersonal sphere shaped by metamorphoses is a theatre maker’s daily routine. Metamorphoses happen all the time on this and the other side of the edge of the stage, always as a physical event, though. We could not imagine a theatre event without them. “Phantasm” alludes to the knowledge about the body as a place for ghosts. Through the passions of the soul they famously carve their expression. Love, hate and desire are their main “tools”. While game theory only knows desire, and forgets about love and hate, theatre needs a complete tool box in order to freely embark upon new endeavours.
The unrigged ghosts of the Stanislavsky method
When theatre makers meet to discuss the conditions of their work, the ghosts of the past are also in the ranks of the audience. The physical presence and with it the internalized ways of acting of culturally different geographical realms thus have limited space for individual expression. Their uninvited attendance can rather be compared to a bassline that all participants have tacitly gotten themselves into, and befittingly attempts to describe the motto of the European Union with the words United in diversity. The influence of the Stalinist Papal State had a standardising popularity with the Stanislavsky method in the theatre systems of the Eastern and South Eastern European countries. Very different from the intentions of one of the founders of the Moscow Art Theatre, Konstantin Stanislavski, around 1900, this acting method was about a rigid exegesis that was based on an appreciation of naturalism. Playwrights, such as Anton Chekhov or Maxim Gorki, had to pay for this in order for a “socialist realism” as a formal aesthetics programme for the education of the “new human” and for the development of a “new society” to be declared. The miles of shelving of publications of books and magazines in libraries are still evidence of the fruitful intellectual engagement during the time of the so-called East West Confrontation. But only there; in Eastern and South Eastern Europe, this oft-quoted “Moscow influence” has long disappeared. And not just there. Since the precipitated implosion of the Soviet Union, which resulted in the turn of eras of 1989/92, diverse structural changes have taken place in the former centre as well, for which the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre sustainably stands.
Cultural politics could have definitely taken a different direction for Moscow, the former European metropolis, now a megapolis, after the Russian director Anatoly Vasiliev lost his theatre, which the municipality gave up for new housing space, shortly after the millennium. The same thing could have happened to the Stanislavski Drama Theatre, the final place of activity of the Russian theatre reformer Konstantin Stanislavski, when it burned down in 2003 and 2005. As a housing space, or as a theatre with its glitzy logo of its founder’s name gutted of its actual artistic work, it would have been sufficient for the city’s marketing to organize a commercially successful company for guest performances, which surely would have worked well according to the principle “communism in the museum”. Instead, the former minister of culture called a competition, which Boris Yukhananov won in 2013. At this point, Yukhananov was 56. He has had a long artistic career, which started in 1974 as an actor at the Moscow State Puppet Theatre. It falls right into the 80s, after his studies at the Voronezh Art Institute. Those times were shaped by Glasnost and Perestroika. He took additional directing classes with Anatoly Efros and Anatoly Vasiliev, and assisted in their productions. His first experiments as a director includes his most famous “Capriccios”, based on court documents of a lawsuit against Joseph Brodsky. Yukhananov isn’t a stranger in the independent scene either, since he founded the first non-government funded theatre group “Teatr Teatr” in 1985.
Just how multi-faceted the structural changes were that took place in the Russian Federation after the turn of eras in 1989/1992, is described by Yukhananov in his contribution to the conference from the perspective of a theatre maker. In doing so, he focusses on the two European centres in Russia, St. Petersburg and Moscow. And we find out that they traditionally have always had their own form of financing. The ministry of cultural affairs first and foremost supports big theatre institutions, such as the Mariinsky Theatre or the Bolshoi Theatre. Under the tenure of the former secretary of culture, new theatre buildings were constructed. Since the year 2000, numerous cultural processes have taken off that are unstoppable. Theatre people felt the freedom, the diversity and the cosmopolitanism. The open borders facilitated interactions with Asian and European cultures, leading to an intermingling that helped the theatre cross borders. In doing so, the theatre was not burdened by commercial doings. Research and theatre laboratories also contributed to great changes in educational institutions. Many young and interesting directors have since entered the stage. There is now a wide range that no longer has anything to do with the stereotypes of the Stanislavsky method. You can’t take back these processes, which is why today there are two systems within the structure that compete with each other. One dates back to the tsar era; the other is a modern one, resulting in a diversity of problems that Russia’s theatre has to deal with today.
Magic in Moscow
Just how tightly the structural changes are tied to the processes of renewal of the actual theatre work is what the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre symptomatically stands for. Anybody who lent their ear to Yukhananov was chastened by his explanations later in the conference. A fundamental approach in the understanding of theatre work was revealed that already sees the sources for artistic production in the architecture of the building: “I completely reconstructed the theatre, from the bathrooms to the stage.”, Yukhananov said, “We have a very modern stage and modern lighting, which is why we’re called Electrotheatre. We invested around half a billion roubles into the reconstruction. The stage can be transformed in various ways. We also have an open-air stage that fits 400 people. But we’re not just a theatre. We actively work with many different events on a daily basis. We also offer lectures and concerts.”
These are pieces of a mosaic that fragmentarily assembled into a picture of contemporary theatre in Russia. Yukhananov explained that it’s a given that Russian society highly values theatre work. And both national as well as multi-national theatre is taking place. There’s an unabated interest in theatre, both with regards to civil society as well as the public authorities. This, however, also harbours its problems. One is the case Kirill Serebrennikov. Others have to do with theatre financing. Financing happens on the municipal level, on the level of the provinces, which Russia is divided into today, or on the level of the federation. A theatre’s own resources are also appreciated. No theatre, though, can exist solely based on the ticket sale. There are also sponsors and founding advisers who distribute money within a private structure on a yearly basis. This, however, has to do with preferences and interests, where theatre work has to compete with sport events. This aspect of gratuitousness has to be taken into account, especially with regards to creating a repertoire.
The pre-Stalinist foundation of the structure already hints to just how multi-facetted the new building that houses the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre embodies the diversity of the national and multi-national societies and declares their artistic ambitions, always with the stipulation of the artistic heritage. It opened as one of the first cinema palaces in 1915 in Moscow, the ARS Electrotheatre. Afterwards it was home to Konstantin Stanislavsky who established a studio for opera and drama there. His head forms part of the theatre’s logo today against the backdrop of rays. They seem like a tribute to Aristophanes, as if the one-hundred-year old ghosts of the past were laid to rest humourously in the theatre’s name and logo. The ensemble looks like a bell of a light bulb that has died out in Europe that may provoke flashes of genius. These inevitably are a credit to Lenin’s slogan that Socialism were Soviet power plus electrification of the whole country. The theatre strives to live up to the threefold use of the location also today—as a cinema, as an opera studio and a drama theatre. To deal with the objectives of the theatre requires sensitivity for magic. It must be a magical place, since they obviously succeeded in liberating the ambitions of the founding figures of the Moscow Art Theatre of more than one hundred years ago from the burdens of Stalinism. Ambitions which have been tied to the roots of theatre in Europe, which is demonstrated by the inclusion of opera: “Personally, I think that it’s really significant to work with contemporary composers”, Yukhananov concludes his contribution to the conference. “We are slowly developing a new face of our theatre. I’m sure you’re just making a sketch of the head right now. Then come the eyes. In theatre, we thus create a body. Through the reconstruction we also got a new body. For drama theatre, it’s now important to also be able to listen. So we have to add ears now.”
In the tradition of the Art Theatre
The Stanislavsky Electrotheatre opened its first season after its reconstruction period with a production of a subject matter whose control text Stanislavsky put on stage in the Moscow Art Theatre in 1908: The Blue Bird by the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck. Yukhananov directed this text as a theatrical journey of three days that also includes a Boeing 777, which may remind you of the plane that crashed in Ukraine. And just as Yukhananov said during the conference: “We are open for dialogue, and we want to cooperate.”—thus visiting theatre makers have a long-standing tradition with the Art Theatre. Stanislavsky once invited Edward Gordon Craig to rehearse Hamlet with the company. Under Yukhananov’s tenure, Heiner Goebbels realised Max Black, Theodoros Terzopoulos developed The Bacchae by Euripides, and Romeo Castellucci rehearsed his production of Human Use of Human Beings together with the Electrotheatre’s company. The online trailer of the first season, which started in 2016, sets out with humour and ends humorously: Through the masks of the expectation to see Russia’s goats in women and bears in men a multi-naturalism likely presents itself that is so different from the known naturalisms of the 20th century that new research will surely be introduced into academic considerations as well. The theatre delivers early impulses. The dramatic and the postdramatic theatre, the performative and that which has been theatre since antiquity, which is opera, seem to have newly assembled into a concept of acoustic ecology under the magical direction of Boris Yukhananov. But in order to find out we should follow the invitation made in the online trailer: “Visit us—Tverskaya Street 23”.