Russian director Yury Urnov with theatre professor Robyn Quick, the initiator and coordinator of the New Russian Drama Project for Towson University, in Moscow's Red Square.
Ask most theater-goers to identify a Russian playwright, and you’re likely to hear names like Chekhov or Turgenev. Yury Urnov wants to enhance our understanding of—and appreciation for—contemporary Russian playwrights by performing their work at Towson University.
What is the New Russian Drama Project?
"It's about delivering the best of the new Russian plays to American audiences and theatre professionals, as well as to scholars and students. Audiences of productions presented this year by the Towson University Department of Theatre Arts will see these works in American translation for the
Urnov and Rosenberg Guest Artists Albert Albert and Sasha Konnikova audition for the play Tanya Tanya.
first time. Several of the translations were commissioned especially for our project."
How long has this project been in the works?
"We have been working toward this season for three years, not only planning for the translations and productions, but also offering coursework and guest residencies for Towson students. In May, the work will culminate in a conference for theatre professionals from the United States and Russia hosted by the Center for International Theatre Development, which has been the theatre department’s collaborative partner in this project. There’s more information about our project and the plays on the New Russian Drama Project Web site."
What's important about the new dramatic writing in Russia?
"Playwriting in the Soviet Union was very complicated because the authorities were not really interested in contemporary and free voices. The freedom of the 1990s opened that door, and many
Urnov in rehearsals with theatre students.
young people took the opportunity to express their ideas through dramatic writing. This is one of the first generations of Russians in a long time whose ideas, pains and beliefs are accessible through these texts they have written."
Would you describe your work in the theatre department this year?
"I am team-teaching courses in acting and dramaturgy. I have also been a guest lecturer in other courses. But most of my time is spent directing the plays in our Russia season. Theatre is very much a craft, so you are studying while doing it. That means directing in a theatre department is also teaching."
Are you collaborating with other academic departments?
"I’ve been guest lecturing in several departments, such as geography and modern languages. We’ve also done a film series with Greg Faller in the Department of Electronic Media and Film, where we presented a series of Russian films to the entire campus. Film students have also been creating documentaries of our productions. Right now two Russian choreographers, Albert Albert and Sasha Konnikova, are working with me on a production of the play Tanya Tanya. They are also teaching in the dance department."
The director and his students.
Would you share some details about the Center for International Theatre Development conference to be held on campus next spring?
"CITD and its director Philip Arnoult played a major role in making this project happen and in bringing my Russian colleagues and me to Towson. CITD has been making connections between Russian and U.S. theatre artists for more than 10 years. One of the goals of our project is to deliver these plays to American theatre professionals with the hope of their future production. The conference will bring the Towson productions, Russian guests and U.S. theatre artists together to help make this happen."
How is American theatre education different from its Russian counterpart?
"Most of the Russian theatre schools are built more like conservatories here. Students can’t choose their own courses: the program is obligatory. Each class of theatre students has a master teacher that
students follow for four or five years. Also, the selection process for theatre schools there is very long and difficult. There are a number of rounds of auditions for each school over the course of many months. There could be as many as 2,000 students auditioning for 20 spots in a theatre school in Russia."
Urnov with choreographer Albert Albert (center) and student actor and MFA candidate Joseph Ritsch (left).
Do you view theatre as an instrument of cultural understanding?
"Look at what we have here at Towson University now. We have a play written by a Russian playwright, Olga Mukhina. We have an American playwright, Kate Moira Ryan, who adapted this play for the American stage. Finally, we have seven American actors playing Russian characters. There is no way to do it well, other than to understand what the other culture is and what these people care about and live with and breathe with. That looks like a cultural dialogue to me."
What are you most likely to tell your Russian colleagues about Towson?
"Theatres and theatre academies in Russia are often afraid to produce new work in general. Towson University was brave enough to do that, so I will tell them to follow Towson’s example."