Editor’s Note: This is the first in the three-part series about a trip Telluride Playwrights Festival artistic director Jennie Franks took to Russia in search of adventure and inspiration. She found both. Now for part 1, Theatre Tales.
This is the Telluride Playwrights Festival’s sixth year, and I am happy to say we continue to grow with the support of CCASSE, Colorado Creative Industries and generous local donors. We received over 300 plays this year, the work of playwrights from all over the country and beyond.
As artistic director, when I put out a call to playwrights for the 2012 season, I requested work of a more political nature. Hearing that, my friend Sasha Cucciniello, artistic director of Telluride Theatre kindly introduced me to the amazing Philip Arnoult, who runs the Center for International Theatre Development and is particularly interested in bringing Russian playwrights to the West. Knowing the Playwrights Festival interest in highlighting Russia this year, Philip invited me to join a small group of Americans to be part of a larger international group of visitors to the Russian Case Theatre Festival, part of the Golden Mask Festival, held in Moscow every year.
It was an invitation I couldn’t refuse, in spite of Jeff, ever the concerned, loving spouse, asking “Why? Why do you want to go there? Its dangerous.” Mmm, maybe I better do a bit of research, ask a few questions just to make sure he was wrong. So I met up with a Russian woman, who, over drinks at La Marmotte, got straight to the point: “Why you want to go? The streets are dirty. The food, awful. And if you take a taxi , you will be abducted and released naked in a street in the middle of nowhere.” Hmm, sounds chilly considering the Moscow weather.
I decided instead to listen to my Russian neighbor and friend Elena, who was decidedly more upbeat: ‘You have to go to Moscow. The city is fantastic. You have to see it.”
That’s all I needed to hear. First stop London, where my spring Russian theatre adventure began surprisingly enough at the Barbican Theatre. I had gotten us a couple of tickets to see the theatre company Complicite’s sell-out performance of the Russian masterpiece “The Master and Margarita,” directed by their brilliant artistic director, Simon McBurney, who for me can do no wrong. I think the man is an out and out genius.
“The Master and Margarita” is an epic masterpiece adapted from the hugely popular Russian novel (but largely unknown in this country) by Mikhail Bulgakov, who in the 1920s had become a successful dramatist, lionized by Stanislavsky’s Moscow Arts Theatre as a “Chekhov for the Soviet Era.” Bulgakov’s plays were performed until he fell out of favor with Stalin, after which he was banned and effectively banished. The man died penniless long before his novel was published, so he never knew how popular the book would become or that his apartment would be turned into a museum and a square in Moscow would be named after him. On second thought, maybe he did know: Bulgakov quite clearly calls himself “the master” in his novel.
“The Master and Margarita” is not an easy book to adapt because it is full of allegories about Soviet Russia in the form of a Pontius Pilate, a Jesus character, a down-on-his-luck novelist, the Master, and his love Margarita, who has to sell her soul to the devil to be reunited with her true love. The story is fantastical and so was the production, with hardly a moment to catch your breath. Complicite, for those of you who might not know, is one of the most exciting theatre companies in the world. If you’re ever somewhere where the company is playing, make a point to see them and you will see what I mean.
Gleaning what I could about Russia for my upcoming trip, I scanned McBurney’s program notes front to back and found myself hyperventilating. McBurney had gone on a short trip to Moscow to research “The Master and Margarita” and had taken, god forbid, a cab ride out to the airport, landing up at deserted factory where a couple of creepy Russian goons glared threateningly at him through the cab window. His only thought as to how to save his skin was to say “I’m an actor. I was in ‘Harry Potter.’” The dour Russian woman from La Marmotte was right after all. No one in Moscow is to be trusted. One cab ride and I’ll be stripped of my J. Crew capitalist clothes and considering I was never in a Harry Potter movie, I’ll never be seen again.
Nevertheless for the sake of art, I said farewell to the family in London and boarded Aeroflot in Hamburg, assuming my Soviet education would begin with a dodgy aircraft and Gulag style snack, not dissimilar to United’s Denver to New York flight. Wrong. The aircraft was clean and the seats were bigger than economy plus. And – blow me down with a feather – there was a full meal of smoked and poached salmon with yummy candy and bread and cheese, all for a two and a half hour flight! Go communism. Were other perceptions about Russia about to be shattered too? No way. The airport will be a mess, and I’ll be stranded at customs for hours, interrogated about my capitalist resort town lifestyle. My guide long gone, I’ll be forced to take Simon McBurney’s rogue taxi.
Luckily a young Russian girl who spoke perfect English was waiting for me upon arrival, ready to whisk me off on the express train to join the Russian Case Theatre Festival, for which people had been invited from all over Eastern Europe and the West to see what was happening in Russian theatre today. I felt very privileged to be included in the group. We hit the ground running with Ivan Vyrypeav’s “Illusions.”
In a small fringe theatre, four young actors told a story of love and illusion, one by one. It was the same story again and again, but told from different perspectives, neatly simultaneously translated through a headset by an impeccable translator who spoke better English than anyone short of the Queen.
At first, feeling a little tired and jet lagged, I thought the actors were reading the text, as they were reciting at a break neck speed, then I realized they were actually acting. Each performance was mesmerizing, allowing one to concentrate fully on the text. With total concentration and focus, these actors explored how a simple romantic love story was not simple at all. An even more complex and controversial idea: perhaps love is not love but an illusion.