Artistic Director Garry is spending April 2016 in Tomsk, Siberia (Russia) working Kultproject Moscow to create a new show. He’s blogging as he goes and all updates will be pasted below – keep checking back!
First blog - The Little Chocolate House - 31 March
Producers of the show are Kultproject Moscow and I will be working with The State Autonomous Culture Organization Tomsk Regional Puppet and Actor Theatre Skomorokh – now that’s a name and a half – Deaf Theatre Company Indigo, Designer Viktor Nikonenko and ska punk band The Stupidit Pals Khor – does what it says on the tin. The show will be in Russian and RSL and will be the first time that an integrated company has created a new work for a major Russian stage and is quite a big deal over here.
So this is why Sergey and I sit waiting for our flight to Moscow.
However for me it goes back to the first time I visited St Petersburg as the guests of Sharmanka to look at how disabled artists were viewed in Russia alongside a whistlestop tour of Russian Theatre. Well the theatre was amazing, innovative, challenging, some of the best ensemble work I’ve ever seen and playing to packed houses. The disabled artists? They didn’t exist.
It turned out that in Soviet Russia it was official policy that disabled people legally didn’t exist and so they really didn’t! When the empire collapsed that remained the case for many years. Parents were encouraged to place disabled children in state institutions – Internats – from which there was no fostering, no move on and certainly no independent living. This has changed a little bit but the old attitudes die hard. Whilst I’m sure many disabled people existed supported by their families and communities, on the streets and in law they were invisible.
This was forcibly brought home to me when I was asked to visit and hold a workshop in an arts project for young people – run by an amazing woman called Lena Schiffers – that operated within one of the St Petersburg Internats. The institution is set in the middle of a forest, closed gates, massive cell block buildings surrounded by barb wire fencing, After the obligatory smiling picture with the superintendent, I was led off through a maze of endless crumbling corridors, bare walls, and locked doors till eventually I reached the art space. Inside were a group of young people no different from young people I’ve ran workshops with a hundred times before. We had a great time sharing stories, I met a young poet called Igor who told me of his life and a piece he’d written called The Little Chocolate House. It turned out this was the kids pet name for the Internat mortuary that they can see everyday from their dormitory window.
It was only when I was in the car travelling back to St Petersburg that it forcibly struck me that these young people would never know anything else than this grey place and their final destination in The Little Chocolate House.
So that’s why I’m in Russia. I get to work with some amazing artists, make interesting work and maybe show that disabled people are not “useless eaters” but endlessly creative.
We’re now at Moscow airport.
To give you a flavour of the show here’s one of the fabulous puppet/actor designs by Victor. This is Bird who was Avia the Birdwoman in Mikes original show.
We’re just about to land in Moscow. In the next blog I’ll talk more about my experience of Deaf Culture in Russia and my first meeting with the Indigo Theatre Company in Tomsk. Stay tuned.
Blog 2 - Russia is full of surprises - 6 April
My fist meeting with people from the deaf community in Russia was in St Petersburg several years ago. Unlike the disabled people I spoke about in my first blog, although still relatively invisible they have a well established and self contained culture. Whilst in the City I visited a “House of the Deaf” – similar to a deaf club in the UK but also providing training and work opportunities – and through contacts in the UK met a lecturer who taught art at an Art College for deaf people just outside St Petersburg. Rather like visually impaired people in the UK being trained to work in telephone exchanges right through into the 1960’s – it must be true cause master musician Leigh Stirling told me so – in Russia deaf people were guided towards careers in graphics. The college was so popular with art students it also attracted many hearing students although the majority of classes were still formed by deaf young people.
In Tomsk there is no Drama course at a University level but it is taught at a college which also has an intake of deaf drama students. Rather like the current course at The Conservatoire in Glasgow the deaf students spend the first year working together and then from the second year onwards share classes with hearing students. It’s through this initiative inspired by a local actor and a sign language interpreter with a theatre background that Indigo Drama studio were formed who are now working with me alongside the Skomorokh Theatre Actors on developing our show.
Hey Conservatoire chums, the Tomsk college might be a good place to hook up with? It could be a terrific learning experience for both sets of students and teachers.
So far we’ve been working together for four days and whilst at times it can be a laborious process – English to Russian to SSL – Siberian sign language, yes folks its regional here as well – and back again, the results so far have been amazing. The initial nervousness passed by really quickly – the sign name game and a quick blast of “I love you but I don’t know how to smile” did its magic work once again – and then the great openness, big hearts and hard work of both sets of actors has meant progress has been swift. Each character in the show is formed of a deaf performer and a hearing performer – and a puppet! – twin souls each giving a slightly different version of events. The close pairings around a shared text have proved a really quick way for each performer to learn about the others skills and unique language and all the hearing actors are developing sign language skills within this closed setting.
A creative challenge at the moment is that Indigo seldom use much text in their work, preferring to work with gesture and physical theatre techniques and rarely using sign language in their performances. There’s not a huge amount of text in the show but for any actor starting out with a new script it can seem like a big hill to climb and for actors unused to working with texts we have to find ways to help with the climb. Natasha Berenko’s script is beautiful and having spent time working with Indigo before writing she has created a piece that is sensitive to the needs of all the actors involved and we are finding ways to make it work. It’s true I think that great theatre often begins from finding creative solutions to challenges so let’s hope that’s the case in Tomsk. Watch this space for developments. It’s an interesting conundrum.
Blog 3 - Damn fine soup Tatyana! - 13 April
Part of the joy of collaborating with companies overseas is working with artists you might not generally meet that then bring a whole new flavour to your work and learning about whole new ways of doing things.
At the same time it’s important to recognise that the company also want what you bring to the party and what you may have done a thousand times before when making a show in the UK can be a new and exciting experience for people from another culture.
Whilst you need to understand Russian theatre, director-led, much more stage time – sets and lights up and able to be worked with almost from day 1, thus a concomitant attention to fine detail – a large core company of trained salaried actors and, in this particular case, making work in a theatre which has a large staff that at times seems to be like an extended family with all the joy that can bring but also the politics that can bring with it. However at the same time the company really wants to understand the way you work and are excited by new experiences.
This is particularly so in this case where three distinct theatre cultures are meeting, four if you count the world of puppets which I think you really should otherwise one of Viktor Ninonenko amazing designs will chase me through my dreams.
In the basement of the theatre is the cafe where Tatyana produces fine food every day for us all. Including fabulous salads, Perozhki – wonderful glazed buns stuffed with cabbage, rice and mince and various other fillings – which I absolutely love. But what I really adore are Tatyana’s damn fine soups. We eat a lot of soups and they are unwaveringly delicious. When I think of the mix we’re cooking up on stage I cross various crossable parts of my anatomy and pray the work will be as interesting, tasty and delicious as Tatyana’s famous soups. See what I did there.
Yesterday Sergey and I had the great privilege of being taken by Larisa Otmahova the Theatre’s General Manager to meet her friend world renowned sculptor Leonty Usov. He carves figures from the millennia old Siberian forests that surround Tomsk, and has a particularly fascination with sculpting the heads of writers. If the eyes truly are the windows of the soul then it’s these that draw you to all the figures in his workshop home. Leonty speaks of looking for the spaces in between where he and I guess the rest of us can exist in the minds of all these writers. It’s this he captures so perfectly in his work.
“An artist is not a bookworm. He should be a little bit silly” Leonty Usov.
Blog 4 - Lost in translation - 19 April
For all you future Russian visitors here’s a wee glossary.
- A work in progress is a draft production
- A tech run is a dirty run through
- A dress rehearsal is a general repetition (and lordy, we’ve all been in one of those!)
Spring has truly sprung in Tomsk, a month early according to Ludmilla one of the superintendents in our building. First the ice moves, the ice breaker clears a path, the river flows and then Spring seems to happen overnight. I’m feeling a bit foolish in my Arctic gear when everyone else is wandering about in jeans and T shirts, but hey cmon, this is Siberia. Who’d have thought it.
We walked again by the river last night and large chunks of ice layer the banks, thrown aside by the freed river and the first merchant ships are now moving smoothly along the central channel. The small mountains of stacked ice that cover the banks are of course a temptation for young and old alike, particularly young bucks showing off a little for their female companions. We all watched with much joy as one such young gazelle sprinted to the top of a particularly tempting peak only to suddenly realise that in trainers descending is a damn sight more difficult. After several false starts and involuntary skids, his young woman companion got fed up with the shenanigans and took charge barking out orders to her increasingly deflated beau. Ten minutes later after much circuitous movement and shouts of encouragement from the many amused onlookers the young gazelle collapses into the rather fed up arms of said female companion and is marched off with much bending of young gazelles ear.
In case you bump into him he’s the guy on top of my head in Serge Jacovsky’s photo amuse.
Today we start the Tech – which is in fact called a Tech. Huzzah! – and it’s a great feeling to watch all the parts of the show tumble into place. Here’s a picture of the preset. The signs say. “The Not Normal Show”.
As if I’d make anything else!