In 1917, America received its first taste of Russian drama when the Moscow Art Theatre went on tour, making Chekhov into a household name worldwide.
But Breaking String Theatre and the Center for International Theater Development are on a mission to remind us that Russian theater didn't die with the aristocracy. So they're bringing the Russians to Austin.
To complement the North American premiere of Olga Mukhina's "Flying," playing Friday through Feb. 19 at the Off Center, Breaking String will host a New Russian Drama conference and theater festival this weekend. In addition to panel discussions with Mukhina and fellow playwright Maksym Kurochkin, the festival will showcase staged readings of plays by both artists — events that are free and open to the public.
The New Russian Dramatists are a loose association of youth-oriented, avant-garde playwrights speaking for the first post-Soviet generation. The movement emerged in the mid-1990s, largely as a result of Olga Mukhina's first play, "Tanya Tanya."
Mukhina arrived on the scene in the midst of chaos in the Russian theater world. Arts funding had evaporated with the fall of the Soviet Union, and the early '90s were a period of severe pessimism and upheaval. Mukhina and the New Dramatists revolutionized Russian theater by rejecting socialist realism and exploring the lives of individuals who didn't fit into the Soviet vision of obedience and silence.
In a country where media censorship ran rampant, the playwrights and writers in Russia were not just ordinary activists, they became the moral voice for the culture. Their plays record the cataclysmic changes of a society entering the 21st century without a familiar cultural paradigm.
Seeking new and younger audiences, the playwrights delved into the anxieties and obsessions of the disenchanted youths of Russia. But their plays speak to youths across cultural borders, and Mukhina's "Flying" makes clear that public infatuation with celebrity is the same phenomena worldwide.
"Flying" is constructed from a series of 15 interviews with Russia's golden youths – the Paris Hiltons, Lindsay Lohans, and other such poster children for celebrity rehab. Stitched together verbatim, "Flying" is (in a manner of speaking) a true story in two parts: fear and awe.
In the heightened reality of paparazzi, television production, and recreational drug use, the characters are haunted by the feeling that their lives are empty and shallow. Living in the public eye, they are the breathing personifications of cool, creating the images that will define the future. But as such, their lives, even their names, are not really their own.
Along the lines of American DJs, Russian celebrities have taken to adopting sobriquets. Real-life playwright Yuri Klavdiev is known simply as "Strike," but in the play, the characters have no real-life identities. They are Maniac, Blizzard, Orangina, Snowflake and Snowstorm. They exist in a fantasy version of reality that soon will come crashing down around them.
As the characters begin to self-destruct, the play shows that Earth is a testing ground for man's ethical values. It proves that life is full of choices and that even dissolute celebrities are given a chance at absolution and redemption.
New Russian Drama Festival
What: Panel discussions and staged readings
When: Various times, Saturday through Monday
Where: Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo Street.
When: 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Show continues 8 p.m. Thursdays-Mondays through Feb. 19
Where: Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo St.