Theater Offers Insights into Post-Soviet Russia

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Vreneli Farber

Theater in 20th-century Russia, under the last of the tsars as well as under the Communists, mirrored much of what was taking place in Russian society and in Russian culture. It continues to do so today, said Vreneli Farber, “yet works in English on Russian theater published in the last dozen years give little attention to this rich source of information on post-Soviet Russia.”

As a case study of the cultural and social evolution that has occurred in Russia since 1991, Farber is examining the status of the Stanislavsky tradition of actor training during the post-Soviet years. A Research Fellow and professor of Russian at OSU, Farber held a previous Center fellowship during which she worked on her book The Playwright Aleksandr Vampilov: An Ironic Observer (Peter Lang, 2001).

“Under the Soviets, theater served as a means of political organization,” said Farber. “The Soviet government generously subsidized theaters—and the training of actors and directors—as long as they followed the line set by the Communist Party.” This gave the Soviet rulers control over the theatrical world. “Under Gorbachev, the pattern of support and control began to change. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union both the financial support and ideological control have practically disappeared, yet theater remains alive and well and its importance to Russians has not diminished.”

Modern actor training in Russia and the United States is rooted in the writings of Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938), and it was only in the 1980s that the tradition began to erode in Russia, leading to a rush to catch up with more diverse methods that had developed elsewhere. This “revolution” continues in the post-Soviet era, said Farber. “Amidst all the change, disruption, controversy, and hardship of the past thirteen years, Russian theater has not only survived but has revitalized itself.”

Farber’s study focuses on the way actors are trained in Russia today, and the philosophy behind the curriculum “in order to reveal what persists from the Stanislavsky tradition and to show what is new since 1991, and, consequently, how thinking and approaches have or have not been modified.” Because developments in actor training reflect challenges and problems faced by other institutions—in the arts and sciences—they offer “insight into post-Soviet Russia and allow me to draw broader conclusions about Russian culture and society.”

Farber has direct access to the theater world through her own performance, particularly a sabbatical year spent affiliated with the St. Petersburg State Theatre Arts Academy, one of Russia’s foremost theatrical institutes. In addition to the usual scholarly research, Farber attended acting classes at all four levels of the actor training program, each level for six weeks. She also interviewed teachers, administrators, and students, attended diploma performances by students, and attended twenty-five dramatic productions in eight different professional theaters in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

“I discovered that, although the past thirteen years have witnessed many changes in theater and in actor training—sources of funding, administration, choice of repertoire, new methodologies and so on—there remains much continuity with the past. The core of this continuity is the Stanislavsky tradition which nevertheless has been affected by the views of post-Soviet Russia.” Training informs how actors interpret a text and approach a role, what meanings they draw from and emphasize in scripts, and how they interact with directors. “The training, then, both influences the actors’ outlook and illuminates the outlook of the times.”