Tomsk Blog 1 – The Little Chocolate House

It’s the start of something but also it feels like I began this journey a long time ago. Today Sergey Jakovsky and I wait at Schiphol Airport Amsterdam for our flight to Moscow where a connecting flight will then takes us on to Tomsk in Siberia. In Tomsk I will be working for Birds of Paradise as the Director of a new show based on Mike Kenny‚Äôs seminal The Last Freakshow written by St Petersburg based writer Natasha Berenko that I’m calling “Urod! The Last Show” but that in Russia we’ll simply be calling “The Last Show” as Urod – Freak is a ‘bad’ word with ‘bad’ connotations. No change there then.

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.