By Greer Gerni, PhD student Theatre
The 2018-2019 season was the first under the Moscow Art Theatre’s new artistic director Sergey Zhenovach. While much of the theatre’s presence remains unchanged, there are some noticeable differences. Interestingly, most of them point to the past, not the future. I have been researching Moscow’s theatre’s since 2009, paying special attention to the Moscow Art Theatre. My dissertation, entitled Anton Chekhov’s Texts on the Twenty-first Century Stage, examines, in part, the impression the playwright and his namesake theatre impact the performance styles of today.
Part of my work this summer included watching contemporary productions and speaking with living theatre artists, but in order to contextualize the impact of the past on the present I spent a great deal of time in archives, museums, and places of memory as well. As a historian, I tend to focus on the past, but I am always so relieved to do so in Moscow’s theatre culture which is all about the here and now. While the focus may be on present onstage, the culture is certainly supported by the past. The Moscow Art Theatre still operates out of their 1901 building where many of Chekhov’s plays premiered. Located in the center of Moscow, it is still one of the most respected and popular theatres in the city. Since it was founded in 1898 it has been known for pushing into the future with new artforms. The company does this while honoring the traditions and history that built it.
This season, more than any in my memory, seemed even more focused on memories, history and tradition. Current show posters used to fill the display cases lining the front of the building, but they are now filled with photos and short biographies of some of the companies early members. The theatre hosted a “Remembering Place” festival in June which started off with a reading of Tsar Fyoder Ivanovich which opened the first season in 1898. Original costumes were on display. More than any other visit, the Moscow Art Theatre seemed to me to be a place for history and tradition, not necessarily for new theatre. This is not to say that they are not producing new work or making progressive changes. There is, however, a clear difference between the way neighboring theatres are drawing an audience (flashy ads for contemporary shows) and the way that the Moscow Art Theatre is reinforcing tradition on their facade.
What does that mean for Moscow or even for my research? At this point, any analysis I could give would be speculation. I can say with confidence, however, that change is not always new and shiny, sometimes to build something new the foundation must first be reinforced. For now, I am attempting to take a step back and examine how the past impacts the present.