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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unhappy Birthday Party

There is a phrase you can hear in Russian that seems to sum up life itself: "Someone's coat was stolen or else they stole a coat." That is to say, a specific event is clear and incontestable. But how it happened, who perpetrated it and who the victim was -- well, now, that is all left wide open to interpretation.

This phrase keeps coming to mind as I ponder the ongoing saga of what has officially come to be known as "the reorganization of the Moscow School of Dramatic Art." This is the house that was founded by Anatoly Vasilyev in 1986; the house Vasilyev made into a world-famous theatrical mecca; the house that was admitted into the prestigious Union des Theatres de l'Europe; the house for which the Moscow city government built a spectacular new plant on Ulitsa Sretenka in 2001; and the house with which that same government has been locked in a debilitating conflict ever since.

Last week the theater marked its 20th anniversary. Nobody was celebrating. Instead, Vasilyev sent a videotaped interview from France, where he is currently living in voluntary exile to protest the actions being taken against him. Meanwhile a group of his colleagues and former pupils held a news conference to tell their side of the battles that threaten to destroy one of Russia's most important and influential theaters. Several unannounced visits from FSB agents probing the theater's finances and asking about Vasilyev's whereabouts have made the oppressive atmosphere even more ominous. Boris Yukhananov, who runs one of several semi-independent studios within the School of Dramatic Art, said there was little chance that Vasilyev would return from emigration, at least to work at the theater he founded. As for the actors and directors who staff the theater, they are increasingly frustrated by the insurmountable obstacles that the so-called reorganization has caused to their work.

"I cannot work like this," Yukhananov said angrily. "If this doesn't stop soon, I will leave. I will never agree to take part in the destruction of this theater."

How did one of Russia's most famous theaters find itself on the threshold of ruin?

Through its Culture Committee, the Moscow city government has been taking potshots at Vasilyev for half a decade. The motivations seem to change with each new season. At first, the city complained that Vasilyev was not making proper use of the large theater they had financed for him on Sretenka. This was followed by an infamous attempt to turn that building over to Pyotr Fomenko's theater, the Fomenko Studio. Cooler heads prevailed -- to say nothing of the fact that Fomenko flatly refused to be drawn into the dirty dealing -- and that plan was dropped. The committee then attempted to take away 24 dormitory rooms belonging to the School of Dramatic Art. Vasilyev beat them in court. The city appealed, and Vasilyev won again.

Undaunted, the committee moved last year to confiscate Vasilyev's original building on Povarskaya Ulitsa, the location he has occupied since 1986. The stated purpose was that the city wished to use it as a so-called "open stage," a place where unaligned directors and production companies could rehearse and perform. To my knowledge, nobody ever explained why, in this town full of abandoned buildings, the city concluded that the historic and highly idiosyncratic Povarskaya complex was the only one capable of fulfilling this need. In any case, when Vasilyev refused to relinquish the Povarskaya space last summer, he was fired from his post as joint managing and artistic director to make way for a newly appointed managing director. The initial period of reorganization was handled by Igor Gabelko, a lawyer and auditor who had never worked a day in a theater. He was later replaced as managing director by Alexei Malobrodsky, a graduate of the producers department at the Russian Academy of Theater Arts and a former employee of the Golden Mask Festival.

Originally, Vasilyev was to be reinstated as artistic director once the theater was reorganized. However, rather than comply with measures he opposed, Vasilyev took a sabbatical last fall and left for France, where he has been working ever since. As a result, the theater has foundered with no artistic director for half a year. Those left working at the Povarskaya plant find themselves in the odd position of paying rent to their own theater for working in spaces they themselves built and developed.

Vasilyev has stated repeatedly that his theater was conceived as an experimental laboratory, has never been a repertory theater and that he would never agree to work in a traditional repertory setting. The city, on the other hand, has made it clear it wants the School of Dramatic Art to be more productive commercially. It isn't difficult to see that virtually no solution will satisfy both parties. Not surprisingly, in the statement broadcast at last week's news conference, Vasilyev declared he has no intention of working "in Russian theater" or a "Russian environment" again. Meanwhile, the city has recommended abolishing Vasilyev's empty post of artistic director altogether and putting the theater under the sole control of managing director Malobrodsky.

To the casual observer, it looks like a cut-and-dried case of vindictive, arbitrary action on the part of the city authorities. Why, then, do so many imply or declare in private that Vasilyev is getting his comeuppance?

One prominent producer told me: "This is a rare case of the authorities doing the right thing." A well-known journalist suggested Vasilyev has a history of manipulating people and government organizations, and that the conflict is a natural consequence of that. These comments were made off the record.

This is an unavoidable aspect of any discussion of Vasilyev -- he can be abrasive and has offended many throughout the years. On the other hand, virtually no one openly supports the Culture Committee. One famous director, also speaking anonymously, explained why. "The committee is handling this affair so stupidly, in such a Soviet manner, that no self-respecting person could possibly come to its defense," he said.

A rare open sign of support came from Alexander Kalyagin, the popular actor and chairman of the Russian Theater Union. In a strongly worded letter read at last week's news conference, he declared: "I am convinced that the persecution of Vasilyev and the dirt being slung around his name will foul every one of us and that once again we will prove we are a nation that does not value its great artists."

Andrei Samoilov, an associate of Vasilyev's and a participant in the news conference, said that the prominent veteran director Mark Zakharov had brought the scandal up in a public meeting with Mayor Yury Luzhkov. At least in Samoilov's account, Zakharov appeared to sum up the theater community's ambiguous attitude to Vasilyev. Zakharov reportedly noted that Vasilyev may be a hard man to talk to, but that artists aren't judged by how gracious they are in conversation. He is said to have added: "Great directors like Vasilyev are born once in a 100 years."

Whatever the case, Vasilyev most likely will not return to the School of Dramatic Art. "The theater, as it existed, is dead," Yukhananov declared. "What we are dealing with is life after death."

Directors and actors at the theater, supported in writing by Vasilyev, have asked the Culture Committee to appoint Igor Yatsko to the post of artistic director. Yatsko is an actor, director and teacher who has worked closely with Vasilyev for nearly two decades. Because the committee did not respond to Vasilyev's petition of Feb. 9, Yukhananov, Yatsko and others used the news conference as a public forum through which to appeal to Deputy Mayor Lyudmila Shvetsova to intervene on their behalf.

Managing director Malobrodsky also attended the news conference as an invited guest, though not as an official participant. He was visibly uncomfortable when drawn into the question-and-answer period. Although he answered numerous questions, he declined to answer any of a speculative nature. When pushed, he did respond to a query about whether he feared going down in history as the man who destroyed Vasilyev's theater. "No, I'm not," he said quietly. "I never had that intention."