Woolly cancels Russian theater festival amid chilled Russian-American relations

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Moscow’s Praktika Theatre. This version has been corrected.


Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. (Stan Barouh)

The dire turn in Russian-American relations has forced Woolly Mammoth Theatre to cancel a major festival of contemporary Russian theater that would have brought four plays and as many as 90 Russian actors, directors and designers to the capital this fall.

The decision to scrap the event, “The Russians are Coming! A Festival of Radical New Theatre from Moscow,” came as its American organizers realized that municipal officials who oversee the arts in Moscow were unlikely to come through on promises of financing and other necessities for the trip. Many Russian theater companies depend almost entirely on the government for funding, and need its permission, for travel arrangements.

Howard Shalwitz, Woolly Mammoth’s artistic director, said that two festival organizers for Woolly — stage director Yury Urnov and Philip Arnoult, director of the Maryland-based Center for International Theatre Development — received confirmation of the collapse in a sit-down this month in Moscow with officials of the city’s cultural ministry.

“In meetings with the ministry, Phil and Yury learned that basically all the funding on the Russian end was completely frozen,” Shalwitz said, explaining that artists’ salaries, for instance, were supposed to be covered by the municipal body. “That was not money that could be replaced on our end. Based on the meeting, Phil and Yury reported back to us that there was no prospect of it being unfrozen. So we sent letters saying the festival can’t go forward.”

The Moscow-born Urnov, who teaches at Towson University and directs at Woolly and elsewhere, and Arnoult, who has developed deep contacts in the Russian theater community, say the negotiations over the festival deteriorated as the confrontation escalated between Russia and the United States over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which had been part of Ukraine. Both said the Moscow Cultural Ministry was an enthusiastic booster of the project until the political climate grew nasty.


Poster art for “Babushki” from Praktika Theatre. Director: Svetlana Zemlyakova. (Courtesy Praktika Theatre)

“The ministry was very supportive and then all this Ukrainian thing happened,” Urnov said. “I think it was really out of their hands from there on.”

The event, which was scheduled to begin Oct. 25, was to have been the centerpiece offering of Woolly’s 35th anniversary season and the culmination of Shalwitz’s long-held ambition to broaden his company’s outreach to theater companies in Eastern Europe and Russia. The cancellation is a setback, too, for efforts to make Washington more of a destination for global performance. And although visits by Russian theater troupes to other Western nations, such as Australia and Great Britain, have not been curtailed, there is growing alarm over attacks in the Russian media against avant-garde theaters and reports of reprisals against artists for publicly opposing Russia’s incursion in Ukraine.

“One of the mantras that I heard there for 11 days,” said Arnoult, who has just returned from his visit to Moscow, “was: ‘A month ago we thought this, but that was another time, another country.’ ”

Last year, Shalwitz, Urnov and Arnoult traveled to Moscow to see contemporary work, talk to theater people and mull over what productions they might invite to be part of Woolly’s festival. The plays chosen were from four Moscow theaters: “Papa Leaves, Mama Lies, Grandma Dies” from the Meyerhold Centre; “Katya, Sonya, Polya, Galya, Vera, Olya, Tanya . . .” from the Dmitry Krymov Laboratory; “The Scumbags” from the Gogol Center; and “Babushki” from Praktika Theatre. Their directors included such established artists as Dmitry Krymov and Kirill Serebrennikov, and younger stars of the city’s contemporary theater scene, such as Svetlana Zemlyakova and Yury Muravitsky.

Shalwitz said the four pieces explore a range of ideas and social issues, but only one, “The Scumbags,” about “a younger generation trying to find a political voice,” could be thought of as being overtly about Russian politics.

“They were all director-driven and -created pieces,” Shalwitz said of the four plays. “And I would say they reflected a progressive aesthetic strategy.”

The hope is the festival might be reconstituted in a future season. For the time being, though, Shalwitz and Woolly are scrambling to figure out how to fill the hole in the theater’s autumn schedule. One of the options, Shalwitz said, is to memorialize the festival by not replacing it with anything.

“Our trip there was to get to know each of these companies,” Shalwitz said. “We also wanted to know from them, what were the conversations they wanted to have with American audiences.” Now, he added, “my heart sinks not only for the shows but also for that conversation.”

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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