A youth rehabilitation centre
Off Nevsky Prospekt: St.Petersburg’s Theatre Studios in the 1980s and 1990s (Russian Theatre Archive) by Elena Markova
/1-st edition by Harwood Academic Amsterdam, 1998.
/ 2-nd edition by Ruotledge London and New York, 2013. P. 29-37.
The Subbota (Saturday) theatre-club, popular with young Leningraders, was already thinking about how to celebrate its tenth anniversary, but the Young Communist magazine was still openly sceptical. «…The founder members of Leningrad’s Subbota theatre-club like to think that their first meeting was pure chance. Someone was giving a lecture on the history of the theatre in one of the district palaces of culture. A group of young people wandered in to listen – they had been singing to a guitar in a nearby backyard, until the piercing Baltic wind had driven them to seek shelter. Something in the lecture interested them. / … / You can surely only link the setting up of an enterprising youth club with a sudden shower of rain for the sake of a nice club legend» (Young Communist, 1976, No. 6).
In 1994 the Subbota theatre-club, that veteran of the studio movement, celebrated its twenty-fifth birthday. Since it was set up a great deal has changed in the life of the country and in the minds of its people (the Young Communist magazine is no longer with us, for example). The troupe at Subbota has changed several times. Perhaps the only person who remains is its director, Yuri Alexandrovich Smirnov-Nesvitsky. At first they did not have a definite programme, and the level of knowledge and culture of the first troupe was not very high. They lacked a great deal, but they themselves suffered only from the fact that they had no one to confide in, they were not integrated, or, as modern psychology would say, they lacked a referential group.
In his book One More Life about Subbota’s first ten years Yuri Smirnov-Nesvitsky recalls the moment when the theatre-club was born. It was «something like this: everyone has their own dream, their own ideal theatre. But one person doesn’t make a theatre. So several people got together, smiled at one another…and in the stillness there arose an eternal friendship – a theatre.»
In other words, their theatre-club began with casual contact, but with time it began to preach a form of «theatralised communication». United «in a circle», they learned to be honest with one another. And that was all! But it turned out to be quite enough not only to bring them together, but to attract crowds of people who marvelled at their art of finding themselves, their wonderful ability to be honest. The honesty of the «Subbotans» enabled audiences to learn at first hand about the dramatic conflicts in the life of a whole generation.
The main principle and, if one can put it like this, «artistic image» which formed the basis of the first public performance (the production Theatre Pages) was the chain.
The concept of the «chain» was sickeningly familiar to any Soviet person in those days. It was something you knew about from kindergarten, when all the children had to hold on to a long piece of rope with one hand when they went out for a walk, and not let go of it. With age these controlling fetters became increasingly restrictive, although less obvious. In the 1980s young rock musicians wrote a popular song about this, which was actually called «Fettered by a single chain» (meaning the whole Soviet people).
Unexpectedly for many members of the audience the concept of the chain acquired its original sense of unity and solidarity in Subbota. Joining hands firmly, so as not to be pulled apart, the Subbotans walked round the stage at the same pace, chanting a song, reciting a poem, or uttering monologues addressed to the audience. They did not make the slightest effort to be actors. On the contrary, they did everything for themselves alone. None of them was made up, and they were dressed in their own clothes, their best clothes incidentally.
The Visitors’ Book which they have kept here since the very first day contains the following entry about this performance: «A group of young people, all holding hands. Talking and singing. And their eyes! Who are they? They understand each other at the slightest gesture, the slightest word. What a wonderful world! I sat in the first row and wept. And I didn’t feel ashamed. I shall now go down on my knees and beg them for a piece of friendship. It’s called a chain. It’s happiness.»
«Theatre Pages», Yuri Alexandrovich recalls, «was like the tiny pieces of glass that slide around in a kaleidoscope. The episodes fitted into the general mood. And it was this mood, not a definite subject, that held the performance together.»
Already in Theatre Pages the main features of all Subbota’s subsequent productions could be seen. And the most important one was that when they came on to the stage they played themselves and not someone else. They actually played, and in so doing achieved the degree of revelation in everyday situations which they wanted. The path to themselves lay through mastering the equation «the role = me».
As a result the dramatic foundation had to be entirely unusual, created out of themselves, generated from the stillness which preceded the confessional mood.
Smirnov-Nesvitsky recalls: «After we had formed a circle, we sat together in complete silence. The silence itself generated completely new sensations. In the silence you can sense the mood of the person next to you, the general mood shared by everyone. Your imagination starts working, you feel the urge to confess, you want to talk. This organic silence can act as a device for creating a play-talk.
The source of our first scenario was the general mood which arose from this organic silence, then from the confessions in the silence and, finally, from songs. Both then and later songs played an important part in Subbota productions. We composed them ourselves and took them from life. An amateur actor cannot always master a complex psychological state, but he can convey a similar state in a character through a song. This has been proved time and time again by the traditions of folk creativity.»
The solid core of Subbota has always been made up mainly of eighteen-year-olds, the age when you feel a particularly strong need to assert yourself, by getting to know yourself and comparing yourself with the world around you. This whole complex of highly complicated emotions they called «existing from yourself».
By the time of their next production Teenage Party their principles of work were still the same, but the result was different and also about something different, because by then the joy of getting to know one another had given way to more complex relationships between the Subbotans themselves. As is usually the case, various likes and dislikes developed within the collective and the occasional clash arose from time to time. And since the most valuable thing about the Subbotans had always been their honesty, they told the audience outright in this new production about all the problems they were experiencing. The effect was quite unexpected: behind these individual examples it was easy to detect architypal models in which members of the audience recognised themselves. After all everyone had experienced first love, hurt pride, etc. at some time or other.
The public nature of this confession had the very powerful effect of assisting the development of everyone who took part in and helped to create the production.
In a way the whole business reminded one of the well-known and now popular method of group psychotherapy, which is used to treat neurosis, the disease of unsolved problems. But at the beginning of the seventies these para-theatrical forms were not only not cultivated in our country, but were tacitly banned, a ban which Subbota equally tacitly (and perhaps unexpectedly for itself) ignored.
After the first night of Teenage Party it became quite clear that the Subbota theatre-club was focusing its attention primarily on young peo- ple’s communication problems. Yet the way in which these problems were studied here immediately attracted not only members of the then large and young underground, but also well-known intellectuals, scien- tists, writers and theatre critics, the flower of the intelligentsia, so to say, and not only Leningraders either.
In those years the adaptation of young people to their social environment was a really painful process with pretty dismal prospects.
Subbota knew all about this, not from hearsay, but from personal experience. But they were not going to let it get them down. Their productions often attracted people full of reckless youthful energy and fond of indulging in endless practical jokes, uninhibited by the rules of real everyday life.
It was against this background that another distinguishing feature of the artistic structure of Subbota’s productions appeared, the use of masks. For example, Manya Oshibkina, a teenager who is always making mistakes («oshibki» in Russian), i.e., falling for the wrong guy. Or the Ikarus bus mask, that is, a blinkered person who is capable of moving around in life in straight lines only (at that time the city has just been inundated with these clumsy, slow-moving buses, so the name of the mask was very topical). Another popular mask was that of the mongrel stray Fifi Dog. The associations here covered a whole range of emotions from strong sense of affection to the constant torment caused by an inferiority complex.
Finally came a production which synthesised everything that had been achieved up to then. It was called “The Theatricalised Circle» and was conceived and produced as a talk-play with the audience.
Already in the foyer the theatre staff asked everyone as they came in «Are you a go-getter or a stick-in-the-mud?» and gave them corresponding badges – a smiling face for the go-getters and a miserable face for the stick-in-the-muds. The former were shown to seats at the front and the latter at the back. The unusual aim of the production was to ensure active audience participation in what was happening on the stage. The Subbotans invited members of the audience to come up and dance, sing, chat about young people’s problems and difficulties, and take part in all sorts of practical jokes. What made it work was the fact that they were all the same age and shared the same interests. The Subbotans made no attempt to parade in front of their fellow-teenagers as toffee-nosed servants of the muses. On the contrary, they behaved very democratically, not hiding their merits or their faults. The habit of being honest was by now so deeply engrained that they felt they could create a play-reflection on the fate of a whole generation, the generation that was later to be called «superfluous», the generation whose hopes, dreams and energy had been crushed by the insuperable obstacles that surrounded everyone in the so-called «age of stagnation». What they talked about here was not so much politics as something much bigger, the atmosphere of everyday life, the spiritual «ecology» that had been so relentlessly polluted and destroyed by politics.
As usual the characters in the next production entitled Windoivs, Streets, Backyards were not exceptional people, but ordinary teenagers from the courtyards. But the simpler their wishes, the more tragic the sense that these wishes could never be fulfilled. What could be more harmless than wanting to have a dog? Seventeen-year-old Nina has been longing for a pedigree dog for years, but then a mongrel turns up (one of the versions of the Fifi mask, so a very human-looking «dog»). They get so fond of each other that they become inseparable. The audience has witnessed (and therefore to some extent participated in) this process which had its problems. Then one day the dog disappears. Some boys have tortured it to death. They are not portrayed as villains in the play, but rather as kids who do not know where to turn, like the dog itself and its owner at one stage.
«It’s all so hard and all so simple». This line from one of the songs in which Windows, Streets, Backyards abounded, like earlier productions, became its leitmotif. Songs alternated with the short sketches that made up the scenario, which was written by the performers themselves (not without the assistance of an artistic director, of course).
Once found, the basic scheme of the Subbotan productions remained practically unchanged, yet new productions never repeated old ones. The secret of this was very simple: roughly every five years the Subbota troupe changed and a new generation came into the theatre, as it did into the world … with its own problems, its own assumptions and values. So Subbota productions, in spite of the unchanging principles that underlay them, were always in touch with the times and never the same. Here is just one example of this. Although not a theatre obsessed with political intrigue, it was Subbota that only a year before the August putsch of 1991 put on Macbeth which conveyed very accurately the atmosphere of chaos accompanied by the struggle for power that was just beginning in our country.
In Edinstvo (Unity), one of the new newspapers (of which there were so many at that time), O. Zavyalova published a review of Macbeth under the title «Childish dreams of the age of perestroika», which showed clearly how much the mood and hopes of the Subbotans had changed compared with what they were at the beginning:
CHILDISH DREAMS OF THE AGE OF PERESTROIKA
Theatre news: the Subbota theatre-club has put on Macbeth. The production is extremely polemical and very avant garde. One is even afraid to describe it. Lovers of the classics and purity of style can throw stones. In its defence it must be said: yes, the witches here do have a blood test for AIDS and Macbeth and his lady do rush around the stage from time to time in their birthday suits. Yes, some of the characters are standing for people’s deputies and the Globe theatre troupe is riven by intrigue, while
Shakespeare’s blood-covered sergeant becomes one of the main heroes and is dressed in the green spotted uniform of an international soldier.
1 can just imagine Shakespeare’s enormous shadow looming over the theatre studio’s tiny stage. But he can sleep peacefully, I assure you. Nor should our scholars, docents and candidates of science worry unduly. Smirnov-Nesvitsky, the author and director of this scenic composition, warns us clearly on the poster «based on motifs…» The super- freedom of the treatment, I make so bold to say, was necessary not in order to dance on the remnants of the great tragedy. By plunging into the Sphere of form, the theatre-studio does not in fact stray very far from Shakespeare. At any rate no further than the academic theatres who put him on respectably and boringly, although closer to the text.
In this composition «based on motifs» the main motif of the tragedy is elaborated with respect and understanding. The world intrigue of evil, the satanic struggle for power (acted out on all levels, from political skirmishes to theatre intrigue) – this is the mainspring of the spectacle which destroys everything, sparing no one and executing victims and butchers alike, guilty and innocent. Subbota has arranged the old and terrible melody in super-modern rock rhythms, and the whole fabric of the production is incredibly relevant and familiar.
The refrain «O, theatre of non-residential accommodation!» runs through the play. And the accommodation really is non-residential. On the stage we see a rusty bedstead, a peeling park bench and an iron cage the height of a man, the sort of cage one might find standing empty in a super-market these days (they used to have food in them). A rubbish dump, alias our ecological niche. The beams hang menacingly overhead, something is dripping from the ceiling and the plumber just doesn’t want to know. Everything is on the verge of collapse. A dress rehearsal for the apocalypse. And a frayed and patched curtain. The curtain of a «burnt-out theatre».
The production is called «Who’s that covered in blood». Not only the sergeant is blood-covered. A witch who looks like a rock star is rushing round the stage with a bowl of blood – there’s plenty for every- one. «Who’s that covered in blood» wouldn’t be a bad name for the TV programme 600 seconds, would it? The aesthetics of this production are quite close to Alexander Nevzorov’s kaleidoscope of city news that appears each evening on Petersburg television. The same frenzied rush of «bloody» shots, the same poverty-stricken life verging on collapse and the absurd. Only whereas Nevzorov is not joking as a rule, this is Subbota’s sole salvation, its very foundation. And whereas Nevzorov tries to scare you with subjects from other people’s «sordid» lives, Subbota admits sadly through Banquo’s lips: we are all homeless and share the same fate.
Against the background of the politicised art of recent years this production impresses one as being extremely deideologised. All the fearful and funny, familiar and strange «birthmarks» of the present day are demonstrated here but not with passionate denunciation. All the facts of life – AIDS, the impassioned parliamentary battles, the boys from Afghanistan «with their bloodshot eyes» – all this is acted through the prism of a modern young person’s mind, whose poor head is dazed by the picture of the world that oppresses it.
If I had to define the genre of this work (which is almost impossible because it keeps floating away), I would call what takes place on the stage a Russian folk dream. It is a mixture of reality and premonition, our fears and our pain, our liberating black humour («save yourself if you can!» and our all-embracing senility which, as we know, tends to progress.
This split personality, riven by a stream of TV, audio, printed, street and so on information, this underground voice is one of the main heroes in the production. It is not mentioned on the poster, but is clearly present on the stage. As for the other characters, I would prefer not to pick out anyone in particular. It is a collective work and the whole team acts in it («team thinking,» as they say in football). Yet two stars do shine out very clearly, to my mind. They are K. Destilyator’s Lady Macbeth (with her fantastic entrance to the rock hit «Alain Delon don’t drink eaudecologne!») She strides down the theatre steps triumphantly and impressively, like a first lady walking down a plane ramp. And the fourth witch, who does not exist in Shakespeare’s play, but was invented by the theatre and is played by M. Veselova. This ginger-headed singer with the chalk white face and wonderful husky voice, an «untaught» heroine, performs her part with polished brilliance and charm.
I couldn’t help thinking that if the theatre is able to play these unchildish games, get such pleasure from it and convey that pleasure to the audience, it must mean that all is not lost. For what is this crazy spectacle if not the overcoming of life by acting, when humour and artistry rescue the mind from mounting nightmares and light up the shaking world through the crystal of irony. The theme of the theatre, of acting and overcoming shines throughout the play like a torch, relieving the darkness. And when things become quite intolerable, the Subbota theatre troupe assembles behind the tom curtain, in other words, the Globe theatre company, the villains and angels all join together, and the theatre’s First Lady recites like a prayer: «Oh, theatre of non-residential accommodation! You are alone in the total darkness! And if one solitary last spectator comes to us, we shall play before him…» A guitar drowns the shouting, screams and clamouring voices for a while and the bedlam recedes…
Watching this production is like turning the knobs of a radio. First the long waves, then the medium waves and then the short waves. You can hear the sound of voices, intonations, a delusion of sounds, gnashing of teeth, languages, melodies, explosions and silence… Sometimes the fabric of the production seems so tattered that one more tug and that will be the end of it. It will split into pieces from the tension, the confusion of meanings, hints, and parodies. But no, it still hangs together. I suspect that this «splintering» is not a mistake in the blueprints or a flaw in the performance, but a structural principle. The production «Who’s that covered in blood» does not strive to be integrated and well-balanced, just as the mass consciousness cannot be integrated and well-balanced. What is more, it does not strive to be finished! It is an absolutely open- ended structure. The theatrical text is not wedded to the space of the stage for now and ever more. So if during a performance Matthias Rust suddenly lands on the stage, or Maradona runs out with a football, or Yegor Kuzmich Ligachev suddenly makes an election speech, Subbota continues without batting an eyelid. Taking the new circumstances into account.
* * *
It can be said without exaggeration that the Subbota Theatre team have always acted «for themselves», put on plays proceeding from themselves and tried to realise themselves, which means, finding themselves.
During the 25th-anniversary celebrations of Subbota, a lot of people recalled that the theatre-club had started «just like that», just because a group of teenagers singing their simple home-made songs to a guitar in a backyard had nowhere to go when it started raining and went into the nearest house of culture to get warm. And on that particular evening Dr. Yuri Alexandrovich Smirnov-Ncsvitsky, a serious-minded and well-respected person, eminent scholar, author of many definitive studies on the Soviet theatre, member of the Union of Writers and Union of Theatre Workers, who worked for many years in one of the world’s oldest institutes for research into the arts, which is next to St Isaac’s Cathedral in one of St Petersburg’s loveliest squares, was giving a lecture on the work of Evgeny Bagrationovich Vakhtangov, the legendary producer who succeeded, although mortally ill and in the bitterly hard years of the Civil War, in creating the most sparkling and delightful production in the whole history of the Russian theatre, Princess Turandot based on the story by Carlo Gozzi.
That evening «a certain something» attracted the interest of the teenagers from the backyard and ever since then our city has had the Subbota theatre-club, Subbota (Saturday) being the day when a person can escape from the oppressive tedium of ordinary weekdays and find his ideal self.
P.S. Today Subbota is so well-known that the Mayor’s Office of St Petersburg has found it possible to grant this collective the status of a municipal state theatre.
Permanent premises for Subbota are now being built in the city centre (in the reconstructed complex of the Apraxin Court).
Let’s hope to goodness that as a result of these changes Subbota won’t turn into an ordinary weekday.
No theatre company can survive today without substantial grants, but what state patronage does to theatres we have seen not so long ago.