Major American theater organizations and Russian theater professionals are working together to bring contemporary American drama to Russian audiences, showing them sides of American life rarely portrayed in Hollywood movies or television shows.
“The New American Plays for Russia” project, which received a grant from the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission, is the brainchild of John Freedman, an American author and Russian theater specialist, working with Philip Arnoult, founder and director of the Center for International Theatre Development (CITD) in Baltimore. It enlists the expertise of four major American theater organizations: the New York Theatre Workshop, the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, the Sundance Institute, and the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
The project evolved from a successful program last year that brought 10 Russian plays to American audiences through CITD, and led to Russian drama projects now in development in Washington; Austin, Texas; San Francisco; and Chicago. It also builds on Arnoult’s decadelong effort to translate 26 Russian plays into American English.
“Theater over the decades has become one of the richest, deepest and most successful means to communication between Russians and Americans,” Freedman said. It offers “a significant and lasting cultural diplomacy.” By bridging the two nations, the joint project seeks to build on the popularity of theater and drama in Russia and the profound interest that Russians have in contemporary American culture.
There is a “hunger” in Russia to know what the United States is like and what its artists are saying, especially in the theater, Arnoult told . “We are going to create more hunger by feeding the hunger that now exists,” Freedman added.
Philip Arnoult at work in Moscow
According to Freedman, theater and drama are “the hippest and most chic artistic genres in Russia today.” And yet, the vast majority of Russians do not know American playwrights, “beyond Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. The Russians want to know, ‘Where are the new American plays?’”
From discussions with their counterparts in the Russian theater, the Americans discovered what the Russian audiences want: plays about ordinary Americans, particularly the lower classes, their struggles and aspirations, rather than the “wealthy or bourgeois”; plays that go beyond the movies, or what Russians learn from television; plays that don’t perpetuate clichés and tell something new about life in the United States; and unusual and creative works that illustrate how Americans think and express themselves.
With these requests in mind, the project assigned representatives from the four partner organizations, and experts familiar with Russian theater, the task of compiling a list of 24 contemporary American plays that reflect this diversity and innovation within American theater today.
“The great discovery of American theater over the last 40 or 50 years has been the discovery of individual freedom,” said James Nicola, the artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop and a member of the team that compiled the recommended plays. “Socially this has been a time when previously repressed or suppressed segments of the American population have found their voices, leading to the emergence of African-American voices, Latino voices, Asian-American voices, female voices, and the voices of people of alternative sexual preferences.”
From this list of 24, eight plays will be chosen by Freedman and an English-speaking Russian board for line-by-line translation into the Russian language. A larger board of Russian partners will then narrow the field to the four plays most likely to reach a broad Russian audience. These four plays will be polished and fully adapted by prominent Russian playwrights and distributed throughout Russia by CITD, to directors, producers, and the general public, on compact discs, the Internet and in a print anthology. Theaters may then produce the plays with production rights negotiated on an individual basis.
“I am thrilled that we are going to have the opportunity over the next year … to show Russians a side, no, many sides of American life that they never dreamed of,” said Freedman.
The project ends in the fall of 2011 with a series of festival readings in cultural centers throughout Russia, including Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Saratov, Novosibirsk, Togliatti and Perm.
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. )