Magazine article American Theatre

Who Needs Moscow? A Guru of Russian Playwriting Holds Court in Distant Ekaterinburg

Magazine article American Theatre

Who Needs Moscow? A Guru of Russian Playwriting Holds Court in Distant Ekaterinburg

Article excerpt

EKATERINBURG, RUSSIA: Nikolai Kolyada has dirty hands, a black fez and the warm eyes of a holy man. He shares his name with a pagan god of happiness, but his playwriting students call him "our mafia boss." People on the street want to touch him. Before shows at his theatre, patrons eat his homemade borscht. Afterward they wait in line for his autograph, some of the women in tears. "Their husbands are drunks," says Kolyada. "They all want tenderness. Forty-five years old, and they've never had it."

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Tenderness is, in fact, the name of one of 12 shows running in repertory at Kolyada-Teatr in Ekaterinburg, a Ural Mountain town some 900 miles east of Moscow, near the intersection of Europe and Asia. The sold-out crowd in the 60-seat house is rapt. In this play--not atypical of Kolyada's work--former teenage sweethearts meet many years, a war and a couple of marriages later. She flirts, he lusts, he steals her purse. A chorus of dancers in Hefty-bag headdresses, G-strings and purple wigs punctuate the action. When the woman gently confronts her ex-lover about the theft of her purse, he pelts her with insults and sodden fistfuls of paper, then shoves her head into a Hefty bag. He flees. She sobs while gathering the soggy paper to her chest.

"I've written 90 plays," Kolyada tells us afterward. "Thirty of them are good."

Five American theatre professionals and an American-born, Moscow-based theatre critic--John Freedman, who has written for this magazine--have come to Ekaterinburg as guests of the Center for International Theatre Development, a Baltimore-based organization founded by Philip Arnoult to foster collaboration among artists from different cultures. Ekaterinburg is the city where Bolshevik soldiers famously shot the Romanovs before dumping their bodies in a birch forest. The occasional wooden home decorated with lacy carvings still stands among the Soviet walkups and steel highrises of the city. As recently as the 1980s, Ekaterinburg was closed to outsiders due to the production of armaments here. These days, the city is a center for research, industry and higher education, so office, living and cultural space is in great demand. Ekaterinburg is also, thanks in no small part to Kolyada, a hotbed of new Russian playwriting and production.

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Kolyada is lucky to rent two performance spaces in the basement of a building that once housed the KGB. (Viewed from above, this building and neighboring structures form a hammer and sickle.) Kolyada calls the second of these spaces, once used as a KGB shooting range, "the Boiler Room." It seats 35 amidst crumbling bricks and exposed pipes. Among the productions we see in the Boiler Room is an electrifying prison play called Claustrophobia, by Konstantin Kostenko, which makes use of a flaming torch and a live rat. Every Friday night, Kolyada presents readings of his students' work here. We hear a raucous, Rocky Horror-like script called The Horrible Dead Whom I Love or Evil Dead Corpses, depending on the translator.

KOLYADA HEADS ONE OF THE FEW extant playwriting programs in Russia. "Without him," one of his colleagues told us, "there is a missing generation of playwrights." More auditors than enrolled students attend Kolyada's class at the Ural Institute. As the session that we observe begins, Kolyada distributes copies of a student's first published work. "You're ashamed? You think it's bad?" he asks the playwright. "Maybe your play is bad, but the production could be worse. Then 5,000 people would know it's bad." He speaks in a spirit of fun but holds a lofty goal: to guide these writers toward the creation of a literature of musicality, to be enhanced by performance. Come to my seminars, he tells them. Listen to the plays of your classmates, share your responses and teach yourselves.

"She writes fairy tales. They are shit," says one student after Kolyada reads aloud Anna Baturina's script called A Territory of Rubbish. …

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