Chechen terrorists understood that to invade a Moscow theater was to attack a Russian cultural emblem. In October 2002, they held about 800 audience members hostage at the Theater Center on Dubrovka, where the musical "Nord Ost" was performing. After the tragedy, which left nearly 130 dead, the producers defiantly kept the show going. But audiences were spooked, and "Nord Ost" withered away.
Still, not even terrorism could keep Muscovites out of their theaters. The desire of Russians to escape their tiny Soviet-era apartments helped establish strong theatergoing habits. And though pop music -- blaring in parks, taxis and shopping centers -- now overshadows every art form, theater remains hip and well attended in Moscow.
Today, many of the city's grand old theaters and directors who made their reputations during the Soviet era are struggling to remain relevant. Tradition may be honorable, but there is no arguing with box office receipts or the need to bring in young audiences.
The Soviets left Russia with a network of midsize to large theaters (300 seats or more), of which 60 now thrive in Moscow -- a metropolis of about 11 million people. By contrast, the L.A. megalopolis, with its population of 16 million living in comparatively spacious homes, has about half as many comparable venues for professional theater.
As an indication of how Russia still regards theater, the government's TV Channel 2 broadcasts a two-hour monthly program, "Theater Plus TV," devoted to actors and directors working on stage and screen.
Attendance at the midsize to larger venues runs from 85% to sold out -- crowds of 15-year-old schoolgirls gawking at the bare-chested male dancers in Alexander Ostrovsky's "Country of Love" (adapted from the fairy-tale "Snegorochka") at Satirikon Theater; fur-coated matrons sitting next to pensioners and teens (text-messaging on cellphones during the show) at Sovremennik Theater's "The Possessed." Tickets range from $7 to $100, though artistic director Galina Volchek says the lower-priced tickets sell out instantly.
In a guest room off the lobby of the Sovremennik, about an hour before a performance of Nikolai Kolyada's "Murlin Murlo," Volchek, who staged the show, sits at the head of a table. On the wall hang photos of Volchek in New York with Al Pacino; with Arthur Miller. Volchek as a young woman with her mentor, Oleg Yefremov. Volchek with Boris Yeltsin, with Vladimir Putin. Volchek, head slightly bowed, holding Queen Elizabeth's gloved hand.
As she speaks in a soft voice, husky from chain-smoking, she lifts one arm as though it carries the weight of the world -- which, in a way, it does. Having taken over the Sovremennik from Yefremov in 1972, Volchek is one of the few Russian directors -- and the only woman running a major theater -- who has weathered the storms of Soviet bureaucracy and its collapse, the mixed blessings of Russian capitalism, the free fall of the ruble in 1998 and the subsequent realignment of both the economy and the culture with the West.
Volchek was the first Soviet theater director to visit the United States, staging American actors in a production of Michael Roschin's "Echelon" at Houston's Alley Theatre in 1978. In 1996, her touring Sovremennik repertory of Eugenia Ginzburg's "Into the Whirlwind" and Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters" performed on Broadway, earning the first Drama Desk Award ever given to a foreign company. All the while, she has held together a repertory company that continues to present a dozen or so shows a month and in a theater town akin to London and New York for intensity, enthusiasm and combativeness.
Cutbacks have a price
Since the doors to the West swung open about 15 years ago, a trio of crosscurrents has been buffeting Russia's old school repertory system that Volchek embodies.
First, cutbacks in government funding have, to the artists' relief, removed the government's license to interfere in the art. But the cuts have forced artistic directors to scramble for private sponsorships to maintain standards and payrolls. As with financial arrangements at many theaters in the U.S., Sovremennik's corporate sponsor, Rosbank, is credited in every playbill. Downtown's tony Lenkom Theater has a running program note thanking its "partner," designer Bosco di Ciliegi.
Despite such private support, Volchek's payroll has not kept pace in a battered economy. In earlier years, an actor could live comfortably on the theater's salary. Today, film and TV work is a stage actor's only road out of poverty -- creating tensions all too familiar in America.
When Gordon Davidson tried in the '70s to create a repertory company at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, he found he couldn't get actors to commit to an Actors' Equity salary for an extended period if they risked sacrificing film and TV work. Similarly, Volchek now finds herself in the company of Russian actors who no longer wish to work in an artistic monastery.