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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Welding and Fusing' American and Russian Culture

Olga Petrakova may not stand out simply because she is a Russian who has gone to the United States to make her life — tens of thousands of Russians have made that same choice in the last few decades. But as a former mathematician who now runs her own theater in Los Angeles, she clearly is not cookie-cutter material.

Earlier this week, Olga, her American partner Bryan Brown and I were planning to attend Pina Bausch’s “Nefes,” one of the last productions to be shown at the incredible “World as a Place of Truth” festival in Wroclaw, Poland. But first we met at a cafe across from the city’s opera theater and sat down to tea and conversation. That is where I learned a little more about Olga’s and Bryan’s theater, ARTEL, which stands for American-Russian Theater and Laboratory.

Bryan described how one scene came about in something they ended up calling “Bulgakov Project.”  This was a piece incorporating segments of Mikhail Bulgakov’s prose, plays and biography in order to explore myths about the United States and Russia. Bryan said he was looking for ways to express the danger and debilitating influence of a Stalin-like figure on a creative person’s life. And as he was working one day, Bob Dylan’s song “Dear Landlord” began to play.

Dear landlord,
Please don't put a price on my soul.
My burden is heavy,
My dreams are beyond control.

The song ended up being a part of the production.

That is just one instance of how Olga and Bryan attempt to “weld and fuse” aspects of Russian and American culture as they build their theater. Other works they have put together include “Kharmful Charms of Dani Kharms,” based on the absurdist poetry of Daniil Kharms, and “Gogol Mogol,” a cabaret-type evening that plays on the name of the great writer Nikolai Gogol and the Russian word for egg-nog.

By the time we’d finished our tea, I realized Olga could do a much better job of describing ARTEL than I could ever do by paraphrasing her. So I asked her to stand in front of the Wroclaw Opera Theater and talk. I aimed my trusty camera at her, and you can watch what came of it by clicking on the picture below.