Kultprosvet [Cultural Illumination] spoke with Kristina Matvienko about the renewal of that theatre, about attracting new and old spectators, and about working with Boris Yukhananov.
In June 2013 Boris Yukhananov won a competition conducted by the Moscow Department of Culture for his plan of development for the Stanislavsky Drama Theatre, and was appointed the theatre’s artistic director. Boris Yuryevich put forth a concept declaring that the repertoire would be built in part by visiting European masters, and, in part, by young Russian directors whom the theatre would support and guide.
According to this plan, the Electrotheatre would be a space working round the clock in the center of Moscow to bring the city educational programs, club activities, musical performances and film projects. As we began putting these plans into action, Yukhananov proved to be a man of his word. With the passage of time we see that this space, which is freely accessible to any and all in Moscow, truly does host a myriad of different programs. This is not, however, an old fashioned House of Culture - theatre always remains at the center of everything going on.
The masterful European directors Romeo Castellucci, Heiner Goebbels and Theodoros Terzopoulos have staged work here, while we have shown the work of numerous young directors, most of them working within the theatre’s experimental Golden Ass project. Yukhananov himself has directed several major works. We are championing the genre of contemporary opera, and we run a broad-based project called the Electrozone. Together with my colleague Anna Nebesikhina, I curate the programming for the Electrozone. This is a space that offers lectures, professional meetings, theatre laboratories, performances, exhibits and musical evenings that take place in the space that we call the Electro Staircase.
As per the plan, we do nothing on the level of “explaining complex art to simple spectators,” for the very reason that there is no such thing as a simple spectator any more. Yukhananov calls them “individual commoners,” having in mind spectators who do not have the financial wherewithal to engage in further education, but who can come to the theatre and enter into dialogue with major artists or theoreticians in any number of fields. We host numerous free events and, if we do charge admission, it is little more than a token fee.
THE FINANCING OF THE THEATRE
Our theatre has very democratic ticket prices and we have a main stage that seats approximately 200 people. Does that allow us to make a profit and support the theatre? I think not. Our salaries are average and our productions are expensive. Naturally, the Moscow Department of Culture cannot take on that burden. In fact they have been cutting theatre budgets – the Meyerhold Center and the Gogol Center have experienced that.
(A note from Kultprosvet: In an April 2016 interview with Forbes, Boris Yukhananov told how, being appointed artistic director, he immediately created a theatre support foundation because he knew that the budget available to him from city subsidies would be insufficient to renovate the theatre. The primary donor of that foundation is Sergei Adonyev, the founder of Yota corporation.)
ON THE EARLY WORK OF THE ELECTROZONE
Thanks to collaborations with the Golden Mask Festival and the Institute of Theatre, we were able immediately to unveil a series of professional meetings with some fantastically interesting people. Each meeting was better than the last. When you have guests like Theodor Currentzis, Dmitri Kourliandski with Rimini Protokoll, and Andrei Moguchy with Boris Yukhananov, you are talking about genuine events. The house is packed for things like that. But it’s no great disaster even if huge audiences do not turn out. Boris Kupriyanov, the owner of the Falanster store, one told me, “Kristina, not many people are going to make it into the future. Why are you worried about having lots of people at your events? Why do you think many must come? Perhaps the smaller the crowd, the more attentively they will listen.”
We had an intern, a student at the Higher School of Economics, whose job was to conduct surveys. Her results showed that the greater part of the Electrotheatre’s audience comes thanks to Yukhananov. Young spectators are attracted by the theatre’s beauty and its welcoming atmosphere. At the same time, we do not overwhelm people with luxuriousness.
I often see mature women come into the theatre. They look over the posters and they ask, “What is this Electrotheatre?” These are surely people who used to come here in the old days. They know who Korenev is (People’s Artist Vladimir Korenev - Kultprosvet), but they don’t know what the theater’s new name means, what the light bulb on the logo means, or why the entry and foyer are now so open and spacious. Some ask why we changed the theatre’s name, because the old one was perfectly fine - the Stanislavsky Drama Theatre. Not all of the changes that have taken place in the theatre are clear to everyone. We must keep that in mind and we must work with that.
In the production of The Blue Bird, starring Korenev and his wife Aleftina Konstantinova, I see older spectators who surely remember Korenev from the film Amphibian Man. It’s very possible that this is a reason for them to buy a ticket and come to the Electrotheatre. At the same time I think our interior, on a purely visual level, might scare off some older spectators. It’s understandable, our elderly people can’t afford to frequent, let’s say, bars or taverns. Elderly people in Finland can, but not here. And that is the difference. One of our long-term goals is to get these people into our theatre and to show them that they belong here, too. It is not some terrible, super-hip place.
THE ELECTROTHEATRE COMPANY
The theater’s company is very diverse today: it includes actors who worked here in the 1990s with Vladimir Mirzoev, Tatyana Akhramakova and Roman Kozak. There are also actors who joined the company when Valery Belyakovich worked here in 2012-2013. Having accepted the appointment as artistic director, Boris Yukhananov did not fire a single person. Just a few people left on their own.
All of these actors perform in our productions. They also take part in the numerous student works of the Golden Ass project. I think these are the actors who give us access to the older spectators who used to frequent this theatre before the renovations. You can’t work only for young audiences. We’re all sick of gerontophobia. It is a form of fascism.
WHAT DISTINGUISHES ELECTROTHEATRE EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMS FROM OTHER THEATRES
Yukhananov specifically does not want to be an epicenter. He does not want to put on a hat with jangling bells and proclaim himself king. This is a hard, fast rule. We do not strive to be better or faster than anyone.
On one hand, when we put together our monthly program we act as a filter for the many proposals that we receive. On the other hand, we initiate our own events that in some way reflect the productions in our repertoire.
We support all kinds of initiatives that might help us reach new audiences. For example, we know our Word Order bookshop will attract an audience of writers and readers, because we sell collections of contemporary poets and we organize the presentation of new books in our foyer. My point is that we work with various communities who, thanks to some specific event, may come to our theatre for the first time. It may be that these groups of people do not automatically become theatre-goers. As a rule, they merely attend the events they’re interested in. But we are not pragmatic about this. Our job is to create a lively, welcoming space, not to force people to buy tickets.
One of the marvelous things about Yukhananov is that he never forbids us to do anything. He’s a believer in random structure. He believes in chaos organizing itself and bringing its own fruits.
We are interested in establishing long-term contacts. We will be very interested, shall we say, if someone comes to us with a proposal to deliver a lecture on opera. We realize that few people know or understand contemporary opera, and we also know that the people making it are truly fascinating. As such, the opera critic Yelena Cheryomnykh curates for us a large, ongoing project called OPERA NEARBY.
ATTRACTING NEW SPECTATORS
The Directorate for Educational Programs of the Moscow Department of Culture last year approached us with the idea of creating a course in contemporary theatre. As part of this course we twice invited various lecturers from museums, libraries, theatres, musical and other cultural institutions. The attendees were all very highly motivated. I have the feeling that an entirely new group of people is beginning to come to the theatre, in part, perhaps, because of our programs. When people listen to outstanding speakers such as Yukhananov or Kirill Serebrennikov, they understand what kind of people work in the theatre and they understand that it is cool to attend the theatre.
Experience tells us that we receive the best results from small groups who come back time and again for a repeated kind of event where there is direct contact between participants and everyone has an opportunity to take part in dialogue. For example, a small laboratory like Theatrum Mundi is capable of “bringing in” spectators with their scientific experiments and deep-seated work in the theory of theatre. But “bringing in” is not the best word for us. It belongs purely to the sphere of marketing. What we want is for spectators to come to us because they are interested in what we do, and because they cannot do without us.