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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Small Town Boy Energizes Russian Classics

Artsibashev thinks his directing career may actually have begun taking shape in his native village in the far north of the Sverdlovsk oblast when he was 13. He was a soccer fanatic and his dream was to put together a local powerhouse that would take him all the way to the finals of the Leather Ball Tournament in Moscow. With that in mind, he organized a whole league of eight teams in "a town with only eight streets."


"I had all the thugs in town playing for me. I'd just go up to them and say, 'You're playing on this team,' and they'd quietly come along."


"The adults were jealous," Artsibashev adds with sparks of pride still flashing through a grin these 32 years later. "My field was just like in the Olympics and they all wanted to come play on it."


But even if Artsibashev's team never made it to Moscow, he proved one thing: He was a great organizer. "And what is directing if not a matter of organization?" he asks. "A director gets lots of people to bend their will in the service of a single idea."


As Artsibashev has repeatedly shown, that is something he does well. So well, in fact, he was awarded a State Prize in June for achievements in staging the Russian classics. His productions of Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Alexander Ostrovsky and Nikolai Gogol had already brought him international acclaim. Now they have won him Russia's highest cultural prize and given him the recognition that is often hardest won at home.


"It doesn't mean a whole lot for me personally," Artsibashev says of the prize, "I've still got to go out and prove myself again with every new production. But it is a nice thing for my theater."


His theater, the Theater Na Pokrovke, will observe its fifth birthday at about the same time that Artsibashev celebrates his own 45th this September. In that half-decade, the director has gone from the proverbial "future talent" to one of the top names in Moscow's middle generation of directors.


It may be a contradiction in terms, but the Theater Na Pokrovke and its artistic director have had a quiet, almost uneventful rise to stardom. He doesn't throw splashy, publicity-laden premieres. Like the reserved productions he creates, the soft-spoken, close-cropped man is more apt to be subtle than sensational. While his shows have traveled around Europe, getting information about when they play in Moscow has not been easy. Artsibashev himself handles the scheduling, and sometimes he doesn't make up his mind until the last minute.


The near-anonymity which surrounded the Theater Na Pokrovke until recently had other sources, too. For almost four years, despite its name, it wasn't even located on Ulitsa Pokrovka but was tucked away on the second floor of an obscure building behind a courtyard on Olkhovskaya Ulitsa, a typical backstreet if ever there was one.


The reason was simple: the construction of the small, but elegant theater which finally opened in the spring of 1995 on the corner of Pokrovka and the Garden Ring took more time and money than had been planned for. But the State Prize looks like it might be the sign that the rough road is ending.


Artsibashev began his life in the professional theater at the top, taking a roller coaster ride down before heading back up again. In 1980 he joined the world-renowned Taganka Theater as a staff director under Yury Lyubimov.


"I got there at the peak, when Vladimir Vysotsky was still there," says Artsibashev of the fantastically popular actor and songwriter who died at the age of 42 in 1980. "And then I was there for the most tragic period, the departure of Lyubimov and the stagnation that followed."


Speaking of the Taganka's split into two warring factions in 1992, Artsibashev says "that was just the echo" of what transpired there in the 1980s.


In 1989, as Lyubimov was returning from the West, Artsibashev struck out on his own, taking over a little troupe called the Moscow Theater of Comedy. But it wasn't long before he realized he was after something else and, taking about a third of the actors from that company, he regrouped and founded the Theater Na Pokrovke.


Although Artsibashev "had never staged a single classic play" before, the credo of his new theater right from the start was to dig into the riches of the past. Was it, as it has been for many directors in the post-Soviet period, a calculated escape from contemporary life?


"Absolutely not," Artsibashev responds quickly. "It's just that I had become so saturated reading the works of the Golden Age for so long, I couldn't wait to get at them. Those writers have a breadth, a scope to them, while modern writers have a more narrow view."


During the first years at the Theater Na Pokrovke, Artsibashev also ran a playwriting laboratory designed to develop young writers. Of the 12 plays he worked on over two years, he says "about four decent shows came of it."


"But then I realized that the writers didn't need it," he continues. "They just wanted the result and praise. I wanted them to work with actors and learn the process."


He hasn't rejected contemporary drama entirely, as is witnessed by his staging of Maria Arbatova's "A Trial Interview on the Theme of Freedom" last fall. But his interpretation of Gogol's "The Marriage" -- which opened in April and showed off beautifully his brand of tenderness and understatement which invariably gives 19th-century writers a new, unexpected sheen -- was far more successful.


And now that his own theater is on a firm setting, Artsibashev has tackled a new challenge, accepting Yevgeny Kolobov's invitation to stage the Tchaikovsky/Pushkin opera, "Eugene Onegin," for the Novaya Opera Theater, in October.


As rehearsals progress this summer, Artsibashev admits to feeling a little like a fish out of water working with opera singers. But it doesn't bother him. "They know the laws of singing," he says, "but I know the laws of human nature. Whenever they tell me they can't do something, I just say, 'Yes you can. Do it'."