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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Independent Theater: A Tough Act to Keep Up

This is the first in a series of four articles exploring the state of Russian theater. Next week: The aging of Moscow's big-name theaters.

When David Smelyansky's Russian Theater Agency changed its name last year, it was no cosmetic alteration.

The RTA had been a pioneer in post-Soviet, nongovernment theater financing and production, and so when it quietly became the State Russian Theater Agency, it was an unmistakable sign that something had dimmed the bright future once predicted for independent producers.

The rise of so-called "producer" or "commercial" shows was one of the first key trends of post-Soviet theater, almost immediately causing speculation that the familiar repertory system was on the verge of extinction. Many openly stated that the time had passed when theaters could indulge in the luxury of maintaining costly repertories of up to 30 shows -- each of which often performed only one or two days a month.

The producers, as enthusiasts said at the time, would revive the hallowed, prerevolutionary traditions of patronage and streamline the way theater is made in Russia. Theater institutes began adding producing and management courses to their curriculums.

With some of the big houses carrying payrolls of over 200 people, financing in an era of tight money was a problem. The state, while pouring significant amounts of money into culture by Western standards, could not keep the pace set under the Soviet system. And with the notion of corporate sponsorship still vague, if not obscure in 1991 and '92, there was a natural tendency to think that the new producers were carrying the future of theater in their wallet pockets.

Moreover, as the thinking went, the quality of productions would jump. If the best actors, directors and designers would be gravitating to the money, they would be doing the best shows.

It hasn't happened that way. Although there are now approximately 10 independent agencies or production companies and over 60 private theaters registered in Moscow, only a handful are actually turning out shows of any note or with any regularity.

The clearest sign of the slowdown was the RTA's retreat last winter to the protection of the state.

Smelyansky had started raising money for projects in 1991, creating the RTA in 1992. It was responsible for several high-profile shows over the next few years. But gradually the agency's activity slowed. Several projects fell through, including a grandiose English-language production of a Chekhov play that was to be directed by the well-known film director, Andrei Konchalovsky.

Smelyansky's most recent Moscow project, this time under the aegis of the State Russian Theater Agency in November 1994, was a joint production with the Australia Council for the Arts. "Lou," a play by the Australian playwright David George, starred the Soviet-era film star Yelena Koreneva, who spent the 1980s in the United States. It was supposed to follow its Moscow run with an English-language tour of the West. But the show closed after just six performances and the tour never materialized.

Smelyansky's agency continues to be active in the provinces, but the impact once expected from it has never been realized.

The only other organization capable of matching the RTA's visibility and quality has been the Bogis Theater Agency, founded in 1993. Beginning its activities with a highly publicized and extremely popular production of "Nijinsky" starring the top actors Oleg Menshikov and Alexander Feklistov, Bogis has taken careful and prudent steps ever since, creating just one show per year.

The agency is the brainchild of Galina Bogolyubova, whose several decades working on the Moscow theater scene have given her the experience and contacts needed to start a risky new business from scratch. But what has separated her from the rest of the pack is an uncanny eye for talent, a gift for organization and a shrewd feel for how far she can go out on a limb without falling off. Each of Bogis' productions has been mounted with exquisitely good taste and impeccable organization.

Last year the agency repeated its inaugural success with a much-acclaimed, one-actor production of "Bashmachkin," starring Feklistov. And this season it has proved it has the vision to work with newcomers.

The new show "Immersion" featured a first-time playwright, a novice director and two young actors. A pleasant if somewhat cloying outing, it took its share of lumps from the critics. But what its detractors overlooked was that it was a calculated move to support young, inexperienced talent. Whatever the modest show's failures, Bogolyubova proved again that she is a woman of courage and daring.

If it happens, Bogolyubova's next project will be her biggest yet. Planned for spring 1996, it should bring the renowned Lithuanian director Eimuntas Nekrosius to Moscow to stage "Hamlet." True, rumors have surfaced that he has begun having second thoughts, but if anyone can keep the temperamental director interested it is probably Bogolyubova. In any case, she recently said she is prepared "do anything" to keep Nekrosius happy, and she is not one to waste words.

But Bogis has been the exception to the rule. Other production companies, such as All the World Theater Agency and Moscow Salon, surface irregularly and for very short periods.

Meanwhile, the private theaters have proven incapable of creating a quality product. The Roman Viktyuk Theater coasted for a few years on the celebrity status of its founder, but its most recent show, "Love for an Idiot," bombed in May, closing after just two performances. Such once-publicized theaters as Alla Demidova's Theater A, Alla Sigalova's Independent Troupe and the Okay Theater have all but disappeared from sight.

The Anton Chekhov Theater, the first to gather actors for specific shows on a contract basis, has lost its early sheen. Never a favorite with critics, it did create a loyal following by serving up stars. But the absence of any broadly recognizable names in its latest show, "Subway," can't help but raise questions that the venue's best days may be over.

Then there is the case of the Et Cetera Theater, founded by the popular actor Alexander Kalyagin. After two years of struggling artistically and financially, the Et Cetera recently went the way of the Russian Theater Agency: It became a municipal theater, leaving behind the bothersome freedom of existing independently of government.