Russian theater confronts capitalism

July 5, 2011

At the conclusion of 12 days in Russia, I had the chance to speak to a theater professor and critic in St. Petersburg. Or rather, to an EX-theater professor and critic. As Katya Boyarska explained, perestroika meant among other things that fewer people were interested in studying theater and therefore theater professors' jobs were eliminated. And Russia's media are in about the same straits financially as their counterparts in the U.S., so her work as a journalist-critic likewise came to a screeching halt. You know a profession is untenable when hosting American tourists and writing a book of family theatrical history (Boyarska's parents were successful actors in state films and theater under Krushchev) constitutes a financial step up.

Does this mean that theater--so vitally important under the Soviets as an expression of resistance that students took all-night bus rides to Estonia just to experience Waiting for Godot performed in a language they didn't understand--has lost its urgency now that free speech is a commonplace and making money is the measure of all things? Boyarska's critique of Russian intelligentsia, including theater-makers and theater-goers alike: "They could be purchased for a foreign passpost and a Ford Focus." In other words, as long as people are reasonably comfortable theater seems pretty much beside the point.

Does the same hold true of American theater? Certainly theater is still being produced in Moscow and St. Petersburg and probably in Kiev and Tallin, too; but in Boyarska's view it's no longer theater that matters. Proud as I am of Chicago's fecund theater community, which pops out a new company and new productions faster than we can find swaddling clothes for them, her comments made me wonder: is it all just sound and fury signifying nothing to most people, as long as they have a trip to the Dells and their Ford Explorer?

Just a thought.