Tea, vodka and art in Russia

One of the joys of being old and grey and still around is that people remember me when they need someone to talk about something, watch and explore a series of ideas, and even better hop on a plane and meet a wonderful array of international practitioners.  I’ve just spent 4 days in Perm Russia, on the edge of the Ural Mountains about 2hrs flight East of Moscow.  I’ve been to Russia 6 or 7 times, first to work on Witches of Eastwick, then to see a new production of Cats, and then to work with two amazing entrepreneurs in Kolomna on the re-invention of Pastilla.  Now I have had the chance to visit the 3rd largest city (about 1m people) which has a private history and now an inspired cultural and government leadership who believe in the power of the Arts and culture to serve a people.

The pic is of “Salty Ears” taken by my co-traveller Nick Williams, shows just one of a trail of street art sculptures which, in the spring and summer make another wonderful reason to be in Perm

Michael Hunt, a UK based director who has worked with Perm theatres for over 10 years, thought of me because he knew of my interest in international collaboration, the nurturing of new creative talent especially in theatre producing, and my explorations on bilingual musical theatre and new writer collaborations.  I was part of an illustrious group of international invitees to see a specially curated programme with our main host being the Artistic Director of Theatre-Theatre, Boris Milgram who inspires a resident company of actors, singers, orchestra and dancers to run a repertoire of 20+ plays and musicals all year.

In four day I saw 9 different performances across 3 different artistic organisations – everything from the premier of a massive Russian /English version of Jesus Christ Superstar, through to a meditative artform installation inspired by the 16th and 17th century wooden statues of Christ which are a vital part of Perm’s cultural offer to the world.  I saw some Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev and Dostoevsky. My Russian is non-existent, but we were supported with programme synopses in English, wonderful inhouse interpreters to share our journey, and the power of acting to bring across meaning.

My “to do” list from this visit is to report back to a couple of artistic/executive directors who had wanted to be there from the UK, but got tangled up in their own artistic challenges. To learn more about some of the works which I did not see. Think about ways in which each of the theatre artistic institutions I met could collaborate with UK theatres and creative produces, and continue to explore ideas.  There is a nomadic people’s phrase “Three cups of tea” to explore how friendships and business is done. The first cup with a stranger brings you a connection. The second cup suggests to both parties that you want to carry on talking and building rapport. And it is on the third cup of tea, maybe many months or years later, that a deal can be done.  This visit was my first cup of tea in Perm meeting artistic directors from the City, as well as international producers from St Petersburg, Sofia and London.  I hope to be able to go back, maybe for the important Diaghilev Festival in May, to have many second cups of tea. Then we shall see.

I really enjoy an invitation like this. The chance to see a totally different culture and theatre structure. To see a new place. To meet wonderful passionate and skilled people – especially those who work in the offices to make the trip possible as interpreters, managers, and hosts. Watching staff support and care for the vision of three highly inspiring artistic directors in one city was fascinating.

My recommendation to any theatre producer and creative reading this is grab any opportunity to make these kind of trips.  Open your eyes to everything that you see. Remain calm when trying to understand how a place works, how visas and flight queues and arrangements are put together. Enjoy whatever is put before you at whatever time of day in terms of art, food, drink.  Share in the pride that guides have in their city – and encourage them to take you off the beaten track.  We had too little time in the extraordinary gallery of the wooden sculptures of Christ. We got to hear a fraction of a stunning choir in an Orthodox mass as we walked to see the Kama river. And I now know about Salty Ears. Go and find out for yourself.

We have no theatres like these theatres in the UK.  We estimated there were over 2,000 performers under full-time contract across the theatres in Perm. We do not have that ensemble, and most definitely not for theatre/drama with a resident orchestra and ballet troupe. But we do share a common passion for making art, for attracting audiences, for making a balance between “show” and “business” , and to harnessing the great writers of the past and the inspiring creators of the present.  Collaborating across continents, cultures, and very different financial strictures and political landscapes is challenging. But after 3 cups of tea everything is possible (and vodka could help too).   I heard whispered ideas between my fellow delegates about connections that could be made, and art which could be possible.  I heard a passion from the three artistic directors and their staff to make the work, existing and new, accessible to the widest international audience.  And I can’t wait to visit Perm again, and to welcome some of the emerging producers and managers to Edinburgh very soon.

Thank you for your hospitality.

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