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Undoubtedly one of the most prominent and most important Russian directors of the past two decades, Yury Butusov here refers to several landmarks of his artistic trajectory, gradually revealing a sense of oeuvre, of a body of work connected by a distinctive worldview. Not all of his productions of exceptional significance are cited here, and Flight (2015), at the Vakhtangov Theatre in Moscow, not having found its rightful place here, appears separately at the end. This Conversation, while intentionally taking a wide perspective, nevertheless focuses on production details so as to foreground various artistic qualities that distinguish his approach. Butusov discusses at some length what constitutes his directorial method and methodology, stressing, above all, the primacy of creative freedom for his actors and himself from which emerge complex and highly charged theatre constructions. Butusov, who is against war as such, speaks of his position on the Russian-Ukrainian war, which led to his resignation in 2018 from the artistic directorship of the Lensoviet Theatre in St Petersburg. He became Principal Director of the Vakhtangov, alongside the acclaimed Rimas Tuminas, Artistic Director of this theatre. Tuminas resigned from his post in spring 2022. Butusov and his family left Russia for Paris, and Butusov resigned from the Vakhtangov in November 2022. His production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is to be premiered at the Russian- and Lithuanian-speaking Vilnius Old Theatre in September 2023. This conversation took place on 23 March and 27 April 2023 on Zoom, and was translated from the Russian and edited by Maria Shevtsova.
The account here is in the spirit of the short pieces that periodically used to appear under the rubric ‘Reports and Announcements’ at the back of New Theatre Quarterly. Its purpose is to invite the journal’s readers from all over the world – and they are truly from across our whole planet – to be aware of the very existence of a major theatre event of socio-historical and artistic significance to our shared field of interest; and to give them some insight into the evolution of this event in its interface with political and social change, which, in the current times, have become increasingly brutal. The theatre field is vast, as vast and varied as the approaches and perspectives within it, the positions long held, shifting, or newly taken, and the stakes at play, differently for different people in different political, social, and cultural contexts. The Theatre Olympics, established in 1995, seek to pay tribute to, and activate interaction between, the multifarious humanity that makes theatre and is embodied in it.
World-renowned for having made a totally new kind of theatre, director-designer Robert Wilson first astonished international audiences in Paris in 1971 with Le Regard du sourd (Deafman Glance) and then with his twenty-four-hour Ouverture at the first edition of the Festival d’Automne in 1972. He also refers in this Conversation to Einstein on the Beach, premiered at the Avignon Festival in 1976, as another example among more of France offering him a home before he eventually founded the Watermill Center in 1992 on Long Island in the State of New York. Watermill, a laboratory for multidisciplinary creativity, opened its doors to the public in 2006 and is a focal point of the Conversation as a whole. Wilson’s immediately pre-Covid-pandemic production of The Messiah by Mozart was premiered at the Mozartwoche Salzburg in February 2020 and performed subsequently in Paris during a brief Covid ‘lull’ in September of that year. Discussion of this pivotal work leads to reflections on the opera productions that he had staged not so long before it, emphasizing the elements fundamental to his compositions – light, time, space, architecture, and silence. The Conversation, followed by audience questions addressed to Wilson, took place live online and on Facebook on 4 December 2020 as a prelude to the Festival Internacional Santiago a Mil in Chile, which opened on 3 January 2021. This was the Festival’s twenty-eighth year, but in a significantly restricted form due to Covid-19. A sequel to the Santiago interchange, also online but this time located in Paris, occurred on 17 September 2021. It resumes dialogue mainly on the Watermill Center’s broader cultural and social goals in the present and for the future, noting as well Wilson’s then current activities in Paris: a heavy schedule of four productions from the beginning of September to the end of December 2021, and a sound installation planned for 2022.
Maria Shevtsova gratefully thanks the Fundación Teatro a Mil and its General Director Carmen Romero for their initiative in inviting Robert Wilson with her to converse publicly as part of the Festival a Mil, and for permission to edit the transcript for publication in New Theatre Quarterly. Thanks are due to interpreters Margit Schmohl and Jorge Ramirez, and to Maria Luisa Vergara for organizing the audience participation included below, as well as to Alfonso Arenas, former Coordinator of the Education and Communities Area at the Theatre Foundation a Mil. Warmest gratitude is extended to Robert Wilson for his generosity in all sorts of ways, and not least for finding the time to continue the Conversation in Paris. Thanks for their kind support to Nuria Moreno, Production at Teatro Real Madrid, Christof Belka, Executive Director of RW Work Ltd, Clifford Allen, Director of Archives of the Watermill Center, and Leesa Kelly and Noah Khoshbin, curators of the 2021 outdoor exhibition Minneapolis Protest Murals at the Crossroads Summer Festival held at the Watermill Center. The exhibition presented 190 public artworks from the 900 boards of the Minneapolis Protest Murals which were created organically in Minneapolis following the murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020. Special thanks for their gift of images are given to photographers Lucie Jansch, Javier del Real, Kristian Kruuser and Kaupo Kikkas, Lovik Delger Ostenrik, and Martyna Szczesna. Kunsang Kelden and Maria Shevtsova transcribed this Conversation in two parts. Shevtsova, Editor of New Theatre Quarterly and author of Robert Wilson (Routledge, 2007; updated edition, 2019) edited and annotated the combined transcript for publication.
The ecology of the rural setting in which Double Edge Theatre lives and works is as integral to its artistic work as to its principles of social justice, and these qualities mark the ensemble’s singular profile not only in the United States but also increasingly on the world theatre map. Stacy Klein co-founded the company in Boston in 1982 as a women’s theatre with a defined feminist programme. In 1997, Double Edge moved its work space to a farm that Klein had bought in Ashfield, Massachusetts, commuting from there back to Boston to show its productions. Within a few years, Klein and her collaborators were acutely aware of their separation from the local community, which necessitated a change of perspective to encompass personal and creative engagement with local people and to develop audiences within the area, while not losing sight of their international links. Carlos Uriona, formerly a popular-theatre activist from Argentina, had joined Double Edge and facilitated the local immersion that ultimately became its lifeline, most visibly during the Covid-19 pandemic, as Klein here observes. Klein, who had been a student of Rena Mirecka in Poland (starting in 1976), has maintained her friendship and professional relations with this founding member of the Teatr Laboratorium led by Jerzy Grotowski, inviting Mirecka to run wokshops at the Double Edge Farm. Collaboration with Gardzienice (also from the Grotowski crucible) through the Consortium of Theatre Practices (1999–2001) extended Klein’s Polish connections. She expanded her research on community cultures in Eastern and Central Europe and developed these experiences in her probing, distinctly imaginative explorations of theatre-making, while taking a new approach to participatory theatre-making in Ashfield. Her highly visual and sensual compositions are driven by her sense of the fantastic, no more strikingly so than in Klein’s Summers Spectacles, which are performed outdoors, in concert with the Farm’s natural environment – fields, trees, water, birds, animals, and heaven’s firmament. Double Edge’s profound commitment in the past decade to what it now terms ‘living culture’ and ‘art justice’ has taken root in multiracial collaborations, primarily with the indigenous peoples of Western Massachusetts. This Conversation took place on the winter solstice, 21 December 2020, a date that Maria Shevtsova, Editor of NTQ, had chosen symbolically. It was transcribed by Kunsang Kelden and edited by Shevtsova. Many thanks are extended to Travis Coe of Double Edge for assembling with such loving care the photographs requested.
The team running the Russian Case as part of Moscow’s annual Golden Mask Festival pulled off a major feat in 2021 by organizing a five-day programme online. Deeply disappointed that the Russian Case had been cancelled in the preceding year due to the Covid pandemic, this group made it its mission to succeed in adverse circumstances; and succeed it did by providing works varied enough to engage its habitual audience, as well as people coming to the event for the first time, albeit digitally. In a departure from established practice, several productions that were performed too late to compete for the awards of the 2021 Festival appeared in this year’s Russian Case. The overview offered here gathers some works out of the choices made by Maria Shevtsova, Editor of New Theatre Quarterly, whose most recent book is Rediscovering Stanislavsky (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
Elizabeth LeCompte co-founded The Wooster Group with like-minded pioneers in New York in 1975, leading and directing its collaborators as deaths, departures, and new arrivals have changed its composition and emphases over the decades, segueing into a world-wide uncertain present. Kate Valk joined in 1978, the last representative of The Wooster Group’s foundational period, apart from LeCompte herself, who is still a key member of the company. References in this conversation are primarily to works after 2016. LeCompte briefly remarks on the importance of Since I Can Remember – one of the Group’s ongoing works in progress in 2021 – as an archival project that draws on Valk’s memory of how Nayatt School was made during her formative years. Having become, since then, a quintessential Wooster Group performer, Valk extended her artistic skills to stage direction, undertaking, most recently, The B-Side (2017). Both the initiative and idea for the piece came from performer Eric Berryman, who had brought Valk the collection of blues, songs, spirituals, and preachings on the 1965 LP made from the research of scholar folklorist Bruce Chapman. Berryman had been inspired to approach Valk because of her exclusive use of unadulterated historical recordings in Early Shaker Spirituals (2014), her directorial debut. The main work in rehearsal during 2020 and which was still locked down by the Covid-19 pandemic at the time of this conversation is The Mother, a Wooster Group variant of Brecht’s dramatized version of Gorky’s novel, directed by LeCompte. LeCompte discusses the current situation, emphasizing the increased vulnerability of independent artists and small-scale theatre, while giving a glimpse of the disadvantages for such groupings built into the North American system of project funding. The Wooster Group is a salient example of small-scale theatre that, despite continually precarious conditions, which the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated, has achieved its creative goals and has defined its place in the exploratory avant-garde flourishing vigorously in the 1960s and 1970s. This particular avant-garde, LeCompte believes, has seen various important developments over the years but might well now be counting its last days. The conversation here presented was recorded on 31 October 2020, transcribed by Kunsang Kelden, and edited by Maria Shevtsova, Editor of New Theatre Quarterly.
Maintaining and nurturing an ensemble theatre have been Anne Bogart’s foremost concerns in these past near-thirty years since she and Tadashi Suzuki founded the Saratoga International Theatre Institute (SITI) in 1992. Suzuki had established the Suzuki Company of Toga (SCOT) in 1976, making a secluded mountainous landscape of Japan its home to this day. Bogart’s venture in the United States, although inspired by Suzuki’s model of a production-based troupe of high artistic standards that, at the same time, developed its unique training methods, by no means merely duplicates its predecessor. In this Covid Conversation, Bogart briefly maps a segment of SITI’s history, reflecting on the company’s inter-arts endeavours with differing dance idioms and its engagement with Greek tragedy. She discusses the effects of the Covid pandemic on her troupe, also interrupting its performances of The Bacchae at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. Her most recent opera production, Tristan and Isolde, was closed for the same reason at the Croatian National Theatre – a key work in her portfolio of nineteenth-century grand opera as well as contemporary avant-garde opera. An acclaimed theatre director, Anne Bogart runs and teaches the Graduate Directing Programme at Columbia University in New York. At the SITI summer school in Saratoga, she and the company have workshopped the Viewpoints method that she has elaborated from Mary Overlie’s six principles for theatre and dance training. Bogart’s international workshops have further developed her method. She is the author of A Director Prepares (Routledge, 2001) and of many influential books that include (with Tina Landau) The Viewpoints Book (Theatre Communications Group, 2004). The Art of Resonance is forthcoming (2021, Bloomsbury). Maria Shevtsova is the Editor of New Theatre Quarterly whose most recent book is Rediscovering Stanislavsky (Cambridge University Press, 2020). The following conversation took place on 27 August 2020, was transcribed by Kunsang Kelden, and was edited by Maria Shevtsova. It is followed by a short coda announcing the transition of SITI into a resource centre.
In this profoundly dialogical exchange, Peter Sellars, theatre director, researcher, and teacher, and Maria Shevtsova open out a whole array of questions on the integral relation between politics and the theatre in its multiple manifestations. These questions not only concern the damages inflicted by the present Covid-19 pandemic but also those developed by the neoliberal economics and politics of the past forty years and more. In Sellars’s view, neoliberalism has been the hotbed of social injustices, inequities, market and other forms of current enslavement, migrations, refugee and related precarities, and the havoc of the world climate in which the plight of humanity and that of the planet are indelibly interconnected. His and Shevtsova’s discussion links such vital concerns with his theatre practice, which ranges from his engagement with local communities and indigenous peoples – he details some of his work with the collective, community organization of two Los Angeles Festivals of the early 1990s – to the various forms of his music theatre in which he collaborates, in institutional structures, with highly proficient musicians, singers and dancers. The focus chosen here from his music theatre is The Indian Queen (2013), which Sellars dramaturgically invents using pieces by Henry Purcell combined with prose fragments by Nicaraguan novelist Rosario Aguilar. Peter Sellars is an internationally renowned theatre director among whose more recent productions is Mozart’s Idomeneo, premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 2019. Maria Shevtsova, Professor of Drama and Theatre Arts at Goldsmiths, University of London, is editor of New Theatre Quarterly. This conversation took place on 16 August 2020, was transcribed from the recording by Kunsang Kelden, and was edited by Maria Shevtsova.
The second ’half’, as identified in this book, of Stanislavsky’s artistic enterprise sees him insistently separating art – thus theatre – from politics in the decades after 1917 in which political engagement and political misalignment were matters of life and death. This chapter puts paid to the myths that Stanislavsky was politically naïve and incompetent and as well administratively incompetent. Such biased but reproduced ‘received wisdom’ has failed to acknowledge the actual complexities of the MAT’s struggles to survive the onslaughts of continuing brutal change, particularly of the later 1920s and well into the 1930s during which Stanislavsky was obliged by moral imperatives together with political subterfuges to protect his life’s work. Doing so meant entering into correspondence with Stalin, also to argue against decisions made by his totalitarian leadership concerning the theatre. Most notable was Stanislavsky’s unassuming but well understood protection of Meyerhold and Shostakovich.
Meyerhold’s theatre trajectory is juxtaposed against those of the Proletkult, the Blue Blouse groups, Agitprop and TRAM, highlighting Meyerhold’s theatre innovations while pointing out how the MAT managed its compromises until state co-option triumphed and left Stanislavsky continuing valuable research outside his own edifice but in his last studios.
A chart of the six studios, linked to the MAT or under Stanislavsky’s direct responsibility, identifies the time, duration and character of each and paves the way for detailed discussion of their respective activities, some receiving less space than others for reasons that are explained. The First Studio led by Sulerzhitsky is the most famous of them, yet is little known ¬–¬ the case also of Sulerzhitsky whose working biography is drawn as much as evidence permits. The foundation, as demonstrated, for the remaining future five studios, the First is detailed largely through the notes, memoirs and letters of its participants, several of whom became successful theatre women, notably Birman and Giatsintova. The Second Studio, the home of Knebel, is shown to have been pivotal in the development of generations of significant figures and is thus much more important than usually allowed.
The Third, Vakhtangov’s Studio, is a familiar entity, while the Fourth reveals its explicit social mission in a revolutionary era. The Bolshoy Opera Studio with its several avatars and the Opera-Dramatic Studio are vital sites of Stanislavsky’s ongoing research without which his System, let alone his directorial and pedagogical work, cannot be accurately gauged.
Stanislavsky’s artistic development is tracked in its various phases during the years preceding the 1917 Revolution and according to his strongest affinities and the most important influences that he absorbed into his guiding principles for the Moscow Art Theatre. Attention is focused on Abramtsevo, the artistic colony and utopian community founded by Savva Mamontov, a family friend and significant part of the habitus that shaped Stanislavsky’s cultural attitudes and tastes. It is at Abramtsevo and also at Mamontov’s Private Opera Theatre in Moscow that Stanislavsky saw communal artistic aspirations in action and how leading visual artists, composers and singers, notably Chaliapin, combined their different talents and skills, providing him with reference points for his ensemble theatre and its aim for harmoniously integrated productions.
Related inspiration to do with Old Believer Orthodoxy and its values, Tolstoy’s beliefs, Sulerzhitsky’s Tolstoyan perspectives, Vrubel’s mystical paintings and Scriabin’s ecstatic music, along with numerous other experiences of the Russian Silver Age, not least Mikhaïl Chekhov’s stage experiments, contextualize and illuminate Stanislavsky’s theatre work in its fullest sense. Sociopolitical factors similarly situate Stanislavsky’s endeavours in the first ‘half’ of his life in art.
The focus is on the subtle meanings of Stanislavsky’s ‘life of the human spirit’, demonstrating this idea’s seminal importance for his System and the latter’s roots in specific aspects of Russian Orthodoxy, primarily its holistic approach. The perspective offered here looks directly at Stanislavsky’s religious beliefs, which scholars either have not recognized or have avoided, and it runs counter to recent studies of the System, which promote yoga as its main influence. Key formulations intended to be of practical use to actors are shown to be integral to Stanislavsky’s worldview, which made his System far more than a matter of technique and actor training. The chapter indicates how lack of attention to his worldview, from which his religious and artistic views are inseparable, is bound up with inadequate translation into English of numbers of his principal terms.
Stanislavsky’s notion of the organic actor has Isadora Duncan’s natural dancing for reference, among others, and that of emotional experiencing is identified in respect of other types of acting central to Stanislavsky’s critique. His views on ethics and discipline are foregrounded – another neglected but indispensable facet of his worldview and of his understanding of the actor.