Arts groups in Russia are helping to tackle social issues including homelessness, depression and addiction with little funding. They tell Anya Walsh of their ambition to open a centre for psychotherapy and desire ‘to create something new and meaningful in theatre’
When Ksenia Plyusnina graduated as an actor from Saint Petersburg’s Institute of Performing Arts in 2014, she knew she wanted to use her acting to help improve society. On one of her last days at college, she and her fellow students bumped into their drama lecturer, the late Larisa Gracheva. “I told her outright: ‘Larisa, we students want to stick together, we want to create a theatre.’ ”
Gracheva was at the time involved in researching and developing drama therapy at the institute. In 2004, she founded the Laboratory of Psychophysiology to study the physiological and psychological benefits acting can bring to both professional and non-professional actors.
Her expertise appealed to Plyusnina and her colleagues. “We were interested as we all had participated in plays that dealt with themes such as depression and addiction,” she says. “Our main goal was to help people through theatre, so Larisa naturally became our artistic director.”
The company’s name, Social-Artistic Theatre (Socialno-Hudozhestvenny Teatr in Russian), reveals much of its core identity. SAT differentiates itself from the country’s state theatre system by hosting drama therapy workshops for those in need of support. While initiatives like this are developed across most of Europe, practitioners in Russia are still struggling to get support from the state or even recognition for their pioneering work.
“Our workshops are open to anyone interested in developing their personal strength and creativity. We offer an inclusive space where vulnerable people such as the homeless, young orphans, addicts or migrants can interact,” says Plyusnina.
SAT’s first production, Zlo (Evil), was held at Saint Petersburg’s Theatre of Young Spectators in 2014. An adaptation of a 1981 novel by Swedish writer Jan Guillou, the play follows the life of a teenage rebel. Physically abused by a sadistic father, and ignored by his mother, he understands human interaction only through violence. Zlo narrates the journey of a young man intent on ridding himself of his demons – an allegory for other people’s struggles in life.
“Knowing how to deal with and finally letting go of our most destructive impulses is a recurring theme for SAT in our shows,” says Plyusnina, who became a regular actor and spokeswoman for the group when it was created.
‘Plays of Life enabled our participants to narrate their struggles and to see more clearly the solutions that were at hand’ – Ksenia Plyusnina, Social-Artistic Theatre actor
“Later on in 2017, we hosted our first collaborative performance, Plays of Life, at the Baltic House Festival Theatre. I’d say it was less of a performance and more of a social initiative to help people out of addiction.”
Directed by Gracheva, Plays of Life gave the opportunity to four non-professional actors suffering from alcohol and drug-related addiction to recreate their life’s struggles on stage. With help from SAT’s actors, and through specialised training developed by Gracheva, the work enabled the participants to see their problems from a different perspective.
“The performances were the result of a creative collaboration between us actors and these people who had found themselves in a difficult situation,” says Plyusnina. “Plays of Life enabled our participants to narrate their struggles but also to see more clearly the solutions that were at hand.”
Plyusnina says social initiatives similar to Plays of Life have been steadily gaining importance in Russia. “It makes me happy to see my country move towards a more socially oriented theatre,” she says.
1. Theatres in Russia fall into two legal categories: state/municipal and private. The former (for example, the Bolshoi) are traditionally fully funded, employing full-time ensembles, as a direct legacy from the highly accessible Soviet system but many are now being hived off as ‘autonomous’ and thus less reliant on state funding.
2. There are around 650 state and municipal theatres. In Moscow (170-plus theatres) and Saint Petersburg (100-plus theatres) and in prosperous regional cities like Perm and Kazan, venues and festivals are expanding, but the poorer and more distant regions are often underfunded and struggling.
3. In fact, across a country with 11 time zones, there are few regional theatres – just 3.2 theatres for every million people in a population of 147 million. It’s estimated that just under 20% of Russian cities and towns have a theatre but the volatility of politics and economy in Russia means that truly independent theatre and fringe are rarely options and often unsafe.
4. The Russian theatre seasons that we’re increasingly seeing in the UK come from state/municipal theatres and are driven by the twin spears of cultural soft power and new revenue sources. Innovation comes via the director-as-auteur or repertoire, hence the likes of Chekhov rather than new or issues-based writing.
5. Issues-based theatre when it happens falls into two categories at the moment. Moscow’s Teatr.doc embodies the company that produces grimy work to challenge society – and gets targeted and closed down by the authorities, often violently. Not to be confused with productions that push the wider boundaries, like the Bolshoi’s lavish Nureyev, which got pulled for its overtly gay themes. The difference? Oligarchs, ministers and prestigious Golden Mask awards go to one and not the other.
In a simple and unassuming apartment situated on the banks of the Moika river, again in Saint Petersburg, another theatre company is following in SAT’s steps, this time, by providing help to autistic adults and children.
Kvartira (Apartment) Theatre Company opened its doors in 2017 to provide a safe and inclusive space for autistic people to perform and create art. Through the combined initiative of Kvartira’s artistic director Boris Pavlovich, who is also executive director of the Alma Mater Foundation that funded Kvartira, and Anton Is Right Here, a social rehabilitation centre for autistic adults, the company rapidly became a rare gem in the Russian theatre scene.
This Soviet-style flat, with its yellowing wallpaper and communal kitchen, brings us back to a time during the USSR when living areas were often shared by different families. Kvartira acts as a sort of time capsule – a place in which children can roam around between rehearsals, where tea is always found brewing on the kitchen stove, and where the conversation never ends. At the time of Kvartira’s creation, Pavlovich said the company was “not so much rehearsing theatrical performances” as trying to return to a communal experience characteristic of the Soviet Union.
At the end of 2017, Kvartira held Conversations, a performance during which autistic adults were given centre stage. It was built around an improvised conversation that the actors initiated with members of the audience.
“Providing such a stage for autistic people to express themselves is essential to their wellbeing,” says the company’s producer Nika Parkhomovskaya. “These experiences are so valuable for them, especially considering they do not usually get to perform in the theatre.”
The company was forced to move out of its original venue last July due to legal complications over the lease and conflicts with neighbours who often complained of noise disturbance. However, during the two years of its activity, the venue hosted four premieres and up to 16 performances a month. “Kvartira was a sort of utopia,” says Parkhomovskaya, “and because of this, you could say it was doomed from the very start – it was the shared dream of a group of like-minded people.”
The future of the company seems uncertain at the moment and it has yet to find another place to call home. “The systemic lack of support for such initiatives from the state, from society and even from the theatre community makes it quite difficult to continue this project,” says Parkhomovskaya, adding that the group, which has now renamed itself Kvartira Conversations, still meets once a week and regularly holds performances at the Saint Petersburg Museum of Theatre.
“In Russia, initiatives such as Kvartira are few and far between, autistic people rarely get to participate in creative and artistic activities such as theatre,” she says. Because of this, they are often left isolated, especially in towns outside of Saint Petersburg and Moscow.
Indeed, one of the main problems with initiatives such as Kvartira is that they are rarely found in cities outside these two cultural centres. “Of course,” says Parkhomovskaya, “the whole of Russia needs more places like Kvartira, and not only in our capitals. But, unfortunately, Kvartira’s story is tightly bound to how things actually work in Saint Petersburg.”
‘Initiatives such as Kvartira are few. Autistic people rarely get to participate in creative activities’ – Producer Nika Parkhomovskaya
As for SAT, the lack of state financial support means the company frequently finds itself in financial difficulty. “Even though we have received government subsidies in the past, they are not enough to help us live,” Plyusnina says. “At the moment, we can’t afford to pay our actors a salary, since all the money we earn goes to renting premises for performances, transporting sets and paying stage technicians.”
SAT is also facing problems in finding somewhere large enough to host all its activities. “It’s a real challenge to rent out 250 sq metres of space for all our needs. To date, we have no fixed area to rehearse, store our sets and costumes and, above all, to carry out our drama therapy workshops.”
Even so, despite the financial worries, Plyusnina says that SAT won’t give up. “Of course, combining all our different schedules is not so easy, but our desire to be together and create something new and meaningful in theatre is stronger than any difficulty we encounter. We will continue to move forward boldly and hope that one day our company will open the doors to not just a theatre, but a real centre for psychotherapy.”