I had every reason to believe I knew what I was in for when I arrived from Moscow with Russian playwright Olga Mukhina at BWI airport on December 1.
You see, I am the Russia Director for New Russian Drama: Voices in a Shifting Age, a project developed by Philip Arnoult’s Center for International Theatre Development and the Towson University Department of Theatre Arts in order to introduce the American theater community to the riches of contemporary Russian drama. This means that I have been a participant in just about every large and small decision made within the project over the last three years. This lulled me into believing there was nothing I didn’t know.
Actually, what I didn’t know is that I didn’t have a clue.
But let’s get to first things first.
Olga Mukhina, one of the most distinctive playwrights on the planet, and one of my favorite human beings, was born December 1, 1970. How’s that for a coincidence? So, as we waited at JFK for our connecting flight to Baltimore, we celebrated Olga’s thrilling 39th at Chili’s in the Delta concourse with fajitas (Olga), a mushroom burger (me) and two Tropical Margaritas. Whoopee!
When Cat Hagner, a grad student at Towson University’s Department of Theatre Arts, picked us up at BWI, the first thing she said was, “Happy Birthday, Olga!” Throughout the coming week, more greetings, gifts and bouquets were tendered. Robyn Quick is renowned at Towson for her goodwill and astonishing labor ethic as the resident dramaturg, but she’s also famous for being the partner of one of Baltimore’s finest photographers and greatest cooks: Robyn’s partner Joe baked Olga a cake that she savored all week long. I believe it was Jay Herzog, the department chair, who saw to it that Olga was outfitted with a set of felt reindeer antlers from beneath which she could watch the Baltimore city Christmas parade, a certifiably insane event that we all took in from a porch belonging to playwright and Towson faculty member David M. White.
In short, Olga’s birthday, stretched out over a week, was a smashing success.
Olga and I did not, however, come to Towson, and later to the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at CUNY, on a birthday tour. We were there at the invitation of Philip Arnoult and Towson University to take part in one of the biggest weeks of the New Russian Drama: Voices in a Shifting Age project.
Olga’s play, “Tanya-Tanya,” in a new adaptation by American playwright Kate Moira Ryan, opened its run December 4 in Towson’s Studio Theatre. (You can see a web column I posted about that on the site of The Moscow Times). David White’s workshop production of my translation of Yury Klavdiev’s “I Am the Machine Gunner” opened the same day in Towson’s Marder Theatre. I knew that during the week I would attend two readings of my translation of Yaroslava Pulinovich’s one-woman monologues, “Natasha’s Dream” and “I Won,” but I had no idea I would have the chance to attend a reading of David White’s brilliant new translation/adaptation of Klavdiev’s “Martial Arts.”
That was only the beginning of the surprises, however. I may never have experienced a week richer in events and surprises than that of December 1 to 8, 2009.
Olga quite naturally stuck close to “Tanya-Tanya,” as directed by Fulbright scholar and artist Yury Urnov, attending rehearsals, run-throughs or performances every day. I, on the other hand, felt as though I was being moved by the hand of the theater god, and I went everywhere s/he wanted me to.
There was a rehearsal and a run-through of “I Am the Machine Gunner.” There was the scintillating reading of “Martial Arts,” which had Philip Arnoult and Martha Coigney spouting superlatives. There was a showing of etudes by the current crop of students from Double Edge Theatre, who were visiting from their home at the Farm in Ashfield, MA. There were strategy sessions concerning “Martial Arts,” the Pulinovich monologues, “I Am the Machine-Gunner” and “Tanya-Tanya” with the directors of all – Stephen Nunns, Yury Urnov and David White. There was a trip to Single Carrot Theatre in Baltimore, which will be producing Juanita Rockwell’s new translation of “Playing Dead” by the Presnyakov brothers in February and March. There were meetings with Arnoult, Nunns, Urnov and Peter Van Heerden, a performance artist from South Africa, about a possible three-nation project that could keep us all very busy for a very long time. There were interviews with Olga during which journalists required my services as an interpreter. There were after-show talk-backs and morning discussions attended by visitors from up and down the Eastern seaboard.
I even had an impromptu 10-minute tete-a-tete with Peter Wray, who is scheduled to direct my translation of Vyacheslav Durnenkov’s “Frozen in Time” in May. It happened in the empty hall of the Marder following the last performance of “I Am the Machine Gunner.”
I admitted to Peter that, although I have had over a dozen of my translations performed in the U.S., Canada and Australia, I never once had been present to see a performance. It was a revelation for me. When I work on the text at home in Moscow on my trusty computer I always feel as though the play becomes “mine” as it makes the transition to English – I choose every word, I decide where to put every comma, every period and every dash. But when I sat in the second row and watched James Knight perform “my” text – all I could think was: “Yury Klavdiev! Wow!” It was as though I had absolutely nothing to do with the whole thing. It was a beautiful and surprising experience.
And there was more. Much more. I don’t remember it all. I didn’t keep track. I didn’t have time. All I ever did was ask Robyn Quick, “Where do I go next?” and she’d point and give me a little shove.
The New Russian Drama: Voices in a Shifting Age project is running on all cylinders. But what must be understood is that this program extends over the course of an entire season. I was just there for one wild and woolly week. Still to come are readings, workshops and productions of plays by Pulinovich, the Presnyakovs, Durnenkov, Klavdiev and Maksym Kurochkin. Check out the schedule and be there if you can. This is a wonderful opportunity to become acquainted with some of the most unique and talented people writing plays in the world today.
If you are interested in theater, you are definitely interested in hearing what these writers have to say.
And if Baltimore is too far from where you live, look for us in other cities, too. Maksym Kurochkin and I will be at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the Humana Festival in Louisville, and CUNY in the second half of March, 2010. Kurochkin, Klavdiev, Mukhina and Durnenkov will accompany me to CUNY again, another of our homes away from home, in May. We also plan to be in attendance at the LMDA conference in Banff, Alberta, Canada, and the TCG conference in Chicago.
We are bringing contemporary Russian drama to you, no matter where you are. I heartily encourage you to listen to what it has to say. I also urge everyone to join in on my enthusiastic “Thank You!” to the Trust for Mutual Understanding. None of this could have happened without the extraordinary, generous support of TMU.
By John Freedman