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The Perm State Drama Theater Showcase

RUSSIA: 2018



Perm is the last big Russian city (over a million population) before we hit Ural Mountains on the way East from Moscow (just under 1000 miles), and only 200 miles away from Yekaterinburg – capital of the Urals Region. The City was initially founded as the center of copper and silver smelting during the Russian colonization of Siberia, in the Soviet times was known as a gateway to the camps of gulag, but I won’t dare going any deeper into the rich and complicated 300 years of its history here.

The important period I can’t avoid mentioning though, was the raise (2008-2012) and the fall (2012-2016) of the “Perm Cultural Revolution”, - the phenomena that made this city famous around Russia and the world. The project was so ambitious, the achievements were so obvious, and its failure was so loud, that it made NY Times publish large material about it in 2016. The article is actually really good, precise, and detailed, so please just follow this link if you want to know more. Marc Masterson Joined Philip Arnoult for a Festival in Perm, led by a long-time CITD partner Edward Boyakov, former director of the Golden Mask Festival and founder of Praktika Theatre in Moscow.  Mark and Philip would be a good source of first-hand information on the better days of the project.  Much touted, the Perm Cultural Revolution even had a focus at the massive Russian Economic Forum in St. Petersburg in 2010.  Philip was  invited to sit on a panel with Edward and Governor Chirkunov at the Forum. No question—something was seriously afloat in Perm.

The short story is that in 2008 Boris Milgram – a well known Russian theater director and expert was appointed as a Regional Minister of Culture by the then Governor of the Perm Oblast Oleg Chirkunov. The next four years were the time of big cultural changes and of the bloom of contemporary arts in the city. Soviet approach to cultural policies and finances is dominating the majority of Russian Regions to this day, and Perm reformers were fighting it hard. Important Russian artists and art-producers, such as Marat Gelman (visual arts), Teodor Currentzis (music) and Edward Boyakov (theater), supported Milgram’s undertaking by moving to Perm and joining the fight. After the 2012 Putin’s presidential return, the Governor was replaced, Milgram was fired, and most of the reformative projects were shut. The final part of the crisis promised to become even more dramatic, with the number of criminal cases opened against the leaders of the reforms. It was only the huge wave of support, raised by both local and Moscow artists and journalists, that saved Boris and others from the worst consequences.

But even though the “Revolution” was suppressed, a number of cultural achievements survived. While Marat Gelman had to immigrate, the museum of contemporary art PERMM is still functioning while in a smaller space; while Edward Boyakov switched sides and now is a member of some patriotic-religious organization, Teodor Currentzis – one of the most talented Russian conductors of the Greek descent - is still heading the Perm Opera and Ballet Theater; Boris Milgram became the AD of the City Drama Theater, which hosted our event; and no tourist travelling to Perm can avoid a quick photo-stop by the huge sign “Happiness Is Just Around the Corner” (literary from Russian: “Happiness Isn’t Beyond the Mountains”, referring to the pre-Uralian geographical location of the City) on the shore of the Kama River.


The theater, now headed by the trinity of Boris Milgram – Artistic Director, Vladimir Gurfinkel - Chief Director, and Anatoly Pichkaliov - Managing Director, is located in an enormous Late-Soviet architecture building, dominating the huge square or (more likely) the mall in the center of Perm. The few minor but real smart design adjustments send visitor a message:  inhabitants of this building are aware of its ugliness, are humorous about it, and promise to make better art on stage than its architects did. This is exactly what this “Revolution” was about – instead of destroying the cultural environment(s) of the past, they were creating an aesthetical dialogue with it.

Theater runs a repertoire of about 30 titles between its main stage and the famous studio MOLOT (Hammer) space; has a company of 42 actors + music orchestra + dance company + group of student-actors; and the full administrative and tech personal of 240 employees in total. Majority of the financial support comes from the government, but box-office and private donations also help forming the annual budget of over $4M.

The idea of a showcase (organized by Pavel Shihin, participant of the CITD’s Beyond the Capitals projects in 2012-2013, and visited the theatre communities in Austin, New Orleans, San Francisco and Baltimore—some of you receiving this DISPATCHES may have met him), of a one-theater-festival, with 30 international guests visiting, sounds quite ambitious, specifically if one adds a factor of this happening at the foot of the Ural Mountains. But it sure works well with one of the main “revolutionary” principles – Perm is no worse than Moscow or St. Pete, artists here want it to be and will make it a cultural capitol fully integrated into the European art-process. I’m not sure if this is just my wishful thinking or not, but I believe this also to be a part of the larger trend of long-expected cultural decentralization of Russia, when bigger cities like Perm, Yekaterinburg, or Novosibirsk start competing with the capitols for the cultural influence. One may find some argumentation supporting this thesis in my Russian Notebook issues 2, 3, and 4, dedicated to the Russian Regional theaters.

Same as the majority of Regional theaters around the country, the one is Perm is serving quite diverse audiences with radically different tastes and cultural expectations. The spectrum of such expectations varies from: “I want to relax on my Friday night” to “It’s not art if it’s not avant-garde”, from “no politics in the arts” to “all art is politics”, from “theater should teach our youngsters morals” to “the nature of the art is immoral”. For this very reason, the repertoire of any Regional is eclectic. The Chief Director Gurfinkel is sharing: “Openings are always sold out, then, often, there is a 6-month long recession (approximately 10 showings within the repertoire system -YU), and only after that period the “right” segment of audience starts coming to see the show”. I don’t know what exactly the numbers for the recession are, but I know the overall sales are over 90%, so it can’t be too bad.

The showcase certainly succeeded in presenting the diversity of theater’s repertoire. We saw 5 productions, among which: one was a musical, another one - a political piece, the third was based on a classical Russian drama, while the fourth – on the contemporary play, and one more was a vaudeville. The directorial and acting styles of each piece varied same radically, which obviously demanded the highest level of professionalism from the company.

Our Reporter

Yury Urnov

Born in Moscow, Russia, Yury graduated from the Russian Academy of Theater Art (GITIS) in 2000 with an MFA, and has directed over 40 productions in his home country, Europe, and Africa. He was one of the first to discover and direct plays by the generation of post-Soviet playwrights, who are now internationally recognized as the leaders of the New Russian Drama movement. Yury translated plays of Martin McDonagh, Sarah Ruhl, and Edward Albee into Russian, as well as a number of contemporary Russian plays into English.


Since 2002, he has worked closely with the Center for International Theater Development (dir. Philip Arnoult) on a number of Russia – US cultural projects. In 2009-2011 he was a Fulbright Scholar in Residence at Towson University, MD, where he kept teaching through 2017.


His recent professional directing credits in the US include Hedda Gabler and Ubu Roi at Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco, award-winning Thr3e Zisters at Salvage Vanguard Theater in Austin, The Pillowman at Forum Theater in DC, and also KISS, Marie Antoinette and You for Me for You at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company in DC, in which Yury is an ensemble member.

A Note From Philip

27 March 2018 

World Theatre Day * 


Oleg Pavlovich Tabakov 

1935 - 2018 

Oleg Tabakov died on Monday, March 12 in Moscow at 82. 

Tributes began pouring in from the Russian and European press.  Almost all the pieces led with  “the beloved actor”—indeed he was a celebrated actor, teacher, director, and for the past 18 years he led the famed Moscow Art Theatre. 


He was also my friend.   


We met when we were both in our 30’s, participating in an International Theatre Institute event in Helsinki.   We were co-vice presidents of the ITI New Theatre Committee then.  And for some reason, the Finns refused a visa to our Cuban colleague, Helmo Hernandez.  Well, Oleg and I held a joint press conference (a Soviet/US arm-in-arm demand)—this was 1978 and a hot cold-war time—and got Helmo in!  (Helmo was the deputy Minister of Culture in Cuba when I visited 9 years later in 1987, and is currently the President of the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba). 


Two years later, Oleg and I were in Amsterdam together just as President Carter announced the boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.  We were taking a long, early morning walk around the Museumplein just after the announcement—I was planning on making my first trip to the Soviet Union for the theatre festival around the games.  I, along with all the American athletes, never got there—but Oleg pulled out a gold-plated Moscow 1980 Olympic pin and presented it to me with great fanfare in the shadow of the Rijksmuseum!  I wore it all that Olympic sumer. 


We were finally together in Moscow when he opened his Tabakov Studio Theatre in 1986—a daring move for then leading actor at the Moscow Art Theatre.  And it was good, fresh work.  He took the company to the first Suitcase Festival in Sofia, Bulgaria, and we were together again.  Sasha Popov started working with him at the Studio, and remained a partner and friend till the very end. 


When Oleg Yefremov, the director of the Moscow Art Theatre, died in 2000, I was in Moscow.  Tabakov was offered the job, and he assured me he would be a transition director.  He never left.  His partnership with Anatoly Smeliansky, theatre writer, scholar, and critic, and Literary Director and Associate Artistic Director under Yefremov, was deepened when Tolya took over as head of the Moscow Art School.  Oleg and Tolya  opened up strong, long-lasting international relationships. 


Oleg was never one to take himself too seriously.  I remember a dinner a few years ago with Oleg and his wife after his performance of an Italian comedy at his theatre.  “Don’t bother to come to the performance, Philip.  It’s not very good and might spoil a good dinner.”   It was a great dinner—Toyla joined us, and we looked back with smiles over multiple decades. 


Rob Orchard, who worked closely with Oleg and the theatre from his perch at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, and was a good friend,  let me know of his failing health a month or so ago.  It was all kept quiet.  A week before he died, I got a note to him through Sasha Popov.   


I talked to Yuri in Moscow as he was finishing up this current issue of DISPATCHES, and he wrote to me: 


“He was a constant thing for my generation: already famous when we were born, he entered our lives as the coolest voice-over in the cartoons of our childhood, the saddest guy in comedies, and the funniest in dramas.  


The message his whole being sent was… I don’t know… Optimistic? Encouraging? As if he was petting you on the shoulder: “it will be fine”, and smiling conspiratorially: “and if not, at least it will be fun, right?”  


We never perceived him as a genius actor (which he certainly was), or as a voice of the generation (which he sure was), or as the leader of the national theatrical process (which he absolutely was).  


We thought about him differently: as of the cool and smartass guy, imperceptibly planting seeds of hope into our souls; as of some normal, good, constant thing, that will always be there and will never end.  


We are all weeping like babies here.  


A great man.  A great loss.  A good friend. 


Stay strong, my friends, 







*Today is WORLD THEATRE DAY: since 1962, The International Theatre Institute has celebrated this day in March with messages from theatre leaders around the world.  2018 has five messages from Ram Gopal Bajaj, India, Maya Zbib, Lebanon, Simon McBurney, UK, Sbina Berman, Mexico and Wèrê Wèrê Liking, Ivory Coast.  


Things can move fast in Mother Russia, and two days ago, Sergey Zhenovach was announced as the new Artistic Director of the Moscow Art Theatre. Here is a link to some of the inside machinations.


Here is a link to the NYTs Tabakov obit from the 23rd