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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Subbotina: Not Just Making Scenes




Olga Subbotina is so young she admits she is still searching for her own aesthetic style.


"I like things to be clear and understandable," the director says. "I like actors to perform well. I would like to do something as beautiful as the shows of Giorgio Strehler or Robert Wilson. But you need experience to do that, you need to master your craft and you need financial backing."


Make no mistake. Subbotina, who at age 27 is one of the youngest stage directors in Russia to have established a reputation, has no doubt that she will have everything she needs. Moreover, she expects that to happen sooner than later.


"Our generation has all kinds of opportunities," she said.


Subbotina leapt to prominence this season with her popular, critically acclaimed production of "Shopping and Fucking," the controversial play by English playwright Mark Ravenhill about young pushers, addicts and prostitutes struggling to find meaning in their lives. She had previously worked at Moscow's Debut Center in addition to assisting German director Peter Stein on his local production of "Hamlet" in 1998 and British director Declan Donnellan on his local production of "Boris Godunov" this June.


But "Shopping and Fucking" was the show that made Subbotina's name.


Ravenhill's play has been controversial not only because of its daring, attention-grabbing title that many papers, including the Times of London, declined to spell out. Its frank scenes of vomiting and sex pushed the limits of what is usually considered acceptable in "legitimate" theater. Such scenes may have become commonplace in the avant-garde fringe, but "Shopping and Fucking" was a mainstream hit worldwide.


In the Russian premiere of the play at the Playwright and Director Center, Subbotina toned down the most graphic moments. For one, the actor playing the character who opens the play vomiting performed with his back to the audience. A scene depicting anal sex was drowned in a last-second blackout; others were cut entirely.


"The difference between what is written on the page and what is done by my actors on stage is enormous," Subbotina said. "I tossed things out for various reasons. The play is huge. I thought there were too many sex acts. I just didn't think they were necessary."


Subbotina doesn't even want to discuss whether Russia is "ready for sex acts" on stage.


"Of course it is," she declared. "I saw that kind of thing 15 years ago and it didn't bother anyone."


Shock value was not what attracted her to the play, Subbotina said. Instead, she wanted to focus on the problem of dependency in human relations.


"We all want to break free of dependence, but we cannot," she said.


The director finds justification for her approach to the play in conversations she has had with audience members.


"Spectators talk about a great play filled with many themes," she said. "The themes of money, earning a living, crime and homosexuality are all very timely."


But Subbotina herself, a lively woman with an agile mind and a quick sense of humor appears to have nothing in common with the despondent, often depressing characters of "Shopping and Fucking." If they are addicted to drugs, money, sex and the unrequited desire for love, affection and understanding, Subbotina's biggest addiction seems to be her optimism.


"I think something wonderful is happening," Subbotina said of the freedoms that have come to artists here in the last decade. "My generation is the first to enter the new situation. I don't know how it will be reflected in quality, but it has already had an excellent influence on personal relationships."


Subbotina claims that young directors today can be more independent f and less competitive f than their predecessors, who not only had to fight for a limited number of jobs in state theaters, but also had to oblige the fickle, demanding authorities who kept a close watch on the ideology of the arts.


She points out that she and her peers, such as Vladimir Ageyev, Viktor Shamirov, Garold Strelkov, Marina Glukhkovskaya and Yelena Nevezhina f most of whom have had significant successes in their young careers f are in a position to be more "calm" than those who entered the profession 20 years ago.


"In the old days a theater's artistic director would take a newcomer's production and simply redo it," she said. "That doesn't happen now."


Subbotina is also encouraged by the sheer numbers of opportunities directors have today, from large-scale commercial productions to tiny, experimental venues, like the one where she mounted "Shopping and Fucking."


"The creative possibilities are enormous there," she said of the Playwright and Director Center. "'Shopping and Fucking' would probably not have been possible in any other local theater."


But the opportunities do not stop there. Subbotina points out that there is now the chance to "exist financially" outside of theater. For instance, although "Shopping and Fucking" made her no money to speak of, she was able to remain solvent by doing television work on the side. She has plans for a big, independent commercial production, although superstition won't let her say what it might be.


Another aspect that distinguishes Subbotina from many older directors is her keen interest in contemporary writing.


Throughout the 1990s, new plays were rare guests on Moscow's stages f a trend that only began to change in the last two years, largely thanks to Subbotina's generation. Her own first Moscow production was of Yekaterina Narshi's new play "The Two Youngest."


"The most interesting thing that could happen right now is the discovery of new texts," Subbotina said. "You have to know how to read them, but there are some real gems out there."


Among those gems, Subbotina includes Narshi's "The Two Youngest" f "I don't mean my production," she said, "I mean the play" f as well as plays by Yevgeny Grishkovets, Olga Mukhina, Maxim Kurochkin and an "unknown, talented new writer" named Natalya Bogatova.


Mukhina, whose influential play "Tanya-Tanya" has been running at the Fomenko Studio for five seasons, impresses Subbotina as "a very interesting writer" although Subbotina admitted she wouldn't "know how to stage her."


As for Grishkovets, the latest rage thanks to his "How I Ate a Dog" that won two Golden Mask awards in March, Subbotina calls him "wonderful." She particularly admires his "level of irony."


It's no coincidence that most of the people who crop up in Subbotina's speech are only nearing or have recently reached their 30s. She expresses a profound respect for such established directors as Kama Ginkas, Valery Fokin, Pyotr Fomenko and, especially, Genrietta Yanovskaya, but she does not measure herself by their standards.


"We have yet to prove ourselves," Subbotina said of her generation. "But I have a feeling everything is going to be ok."