Tag Archives: Alexei Kazantsev

Old Actors House, Moscow

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Today another phantom, and almost in the very same place. My last entry was about a place with some small cultural significance that no longer exists on the north side of Pushkin Square. Today I’ll do a bit of reminiscing about a place of genuine cultural importance that once was located on the south side of Pushkin Square. This was the Actors House, or, as the old-timers still refer to it over two decades later, VTO (the All-Russian Theater Organization).
What is it now? Nothing. A big, fat, glorified nothing.
In the past it was really quite something.
With a bit of a stretch we can reach back to 1877 to find its beginnings. That was when the Society for Mutual Aid for Russian Actors was founded. It was followed by several other similar social aid programs for needy actors, but the name Russian Theater Organization (RTO) first appeared in 1894. That was changed to VTO in 1932 and that proud name remained in force until the mid-1980s, when a series of successors bearing various names approximating the “Theater Union of the Soviet Union/Russian Federation” came into being one after the other. And yet, the old-timers still call the building at Tverskaya 16 “VTO” even though this particular address lost connection with theater way back in the 1990s.
Now, what happened to this building is interesting because it is telling of the age. It was one of the first arsons used to wrest valuable property out of the hands of people who weren’t using it to make money by those who were just itching to make money. I said “arson,” didn’t I. Yes, I did. And I meant it. Although I don’t believe I can prove that. You see, like so many murders and hostile takeovers and “sudden fires” that have happened in Moscow and Russia over the last 25 years, nobody ever officially solved the mystery of what happened to the old VTO. Oh, someone somewhere said that a short circuit somewhere started a fire and blah-blah-blah. To which I, and everyone else who knows about these things, say, “Bull.” That’s what they used to fluff it off. Everybody knows perfectly well that the VTO was torched. The firemen got there too late to save the organization, but just in the knick of time to save the building’s structure. The VTO (now called the Actors Union) was hurriedly given digs elsewhere in the city (near the Arbat) and this prime real estate was quickly put in other hands. After a couple of years of backstabbing and infighting, a sparkling new shopping center – with elite offices in the upper floors – opened its doors. In “honor” of the displaced Actors Union, the shopping center was named the Actors Gallery. Or was that mockery? Not sure on that one.
Anyway, it’s nice to see bad folks get their comeuppance now and then. I say that because the economic crisis that pounds silently though heavily at Russia’s doors these days has taken down even the Actors Gallery. When you walk up to the entrances to the short-lived shopping center (the VTO and its successors are around 140 years and counting – the Actors Gallery lasted less than 20 years, I’d guess), you see permanently closed doors and empty windows on the street level.

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Meanwhile, Moscow actors and theater people over 60 years old still speak dreamily about the VTO, its famous restaurant, its tiny old elevators filled to the gills (4 or 5 people tops) with stars, its concerts, its social work, its work in preserving the history of Russian theater and promoting those who worked contemporaneously. It was an astonishing place. I had the great fortune to spend a good deal of time there because an extraordinary woman named Eleonora Matveevna Krasnovskaya sort of took me under her wing. She didn’t do it because she liked me, but because this tiny woman with more energy than four tanks had a habit of taking under her prodigious, angelic wings virtually everyone who ever came within spitting distance of her office on, I believe, the fifth floor. “Well, come on in here!” she’d bark at you. “What do you want now?!” I wanted everything and she was just about up to delivering it all. I needed to contact a Nikolai Erdman scholar in Tomsk? Done. I wanted to get into a sold-out show? Done. I wanted to meet someone who never met with anyone? Done. I wanted advice on what was hot and new? Done. I mean, Eleonora Matveevna, or Nora, or Norochka, as I ended up calling her, was the gate-keeper to Nirvana. She didn’t like everything in Nirvana and she’d tell you so. “John. I got you tickets to thus-and-such a show. Now, I didn’t like it much myself. But everybody’s talking about it. So, you must see it.” Got something else to do that night? Tough. Nora got you tix to the hottest show in town. Nora sent me to the first shows I ever saw directed by Kama Ginkas, Yury Lyubimov, Mark Zakharov, Pyotr Fomenko, Valery Fokin, and virtually everyone else, I guess. She once thought I needed to have a chat with Naum Orlov, a director who had made his fame working in the city of Chelyabinsk, and so when he was in the building one day, she sat me in a chair in the corridor and brought him to me. It was her way of promoting “provincial” talent, which, indeed, was horribly undervalued in the Soviet period. She didn’t like that and she bucked it. She introduced me to the playwright Alexei Kazantsev – another one of those things she just figured I needed to do. She had no hopes, I don’t think, that I could appreciate what she was doing for me, but she was on a mission. If I was thick in the head, that was my problem, not hers. As it happened, I ended up becoming quite close to Kazantsev. I was thrilled when my old friend founded one of the most important theaters at the turn of the millennium – the Playwright and Director Center – and I was devastated when he died suddenly of a heart attack only a few years later.
I had the special honor on occasion of taking lunch with Nora in the famed VTO restaurant, where for 3 to 5 rubles you could eat as if you were at Maxim in Paris. If I happened to come by before lunch, she’d drag me down there, disgusted at me for some reason, but intent on giving me some culture, dang-blast it, and some food. Look at the photo immediately above – you see the “turret” at the left. The restaurant was in the ground floor in the turret. I can’t walk by without seeing Nora pushing food in front of me, introducing me to people, regaling me with stories and always reminding me why I probably wasn’t worth all this attention. Did I forget to add that her eyes would twinkle when saying things like that? Did I really need to?
When I desperately wanted to get into a sold-out concert organized by Grigory Gurvich (he had not yet opened his soon-to-be famous Bat Cabaret Theater), Nora took care of it. When Oksana Mysina and I – not yet married – desperately wanted to get into a sold-out concert by Alla Bayanova, a romance-singer who had lived for decades in exile in Bulgaria but had now come home to Moscow, it was Nora who whisked us past the ticket takers.
Oh, yes, on Oksana. Nora once informed me that I was accompanying her out to an event in Melikhovo, the estate where Anton Chekhov lived for much of the 1890s. “You need to see this place,” Nora told me, “maybe it’ll even do you some good.” So I met the hired bus at the appointed time and Nora and I took seats next to each other to the left of the aisle, about 1/3 of the way back behind the driver. I was a bit dreamy that day. I had met Oksana perhaps a month before and I wasn’t thinking about much else at the time. The bus door slammed shut, lurched forward and we were off. I still remember where we were when Nora asked about Oksana – it was on Zemlyanoi Val, just after we had passed the Kursk train station. And Nora, assuming all rights to meddle wherever she so pleased, asked point blank, “So, I hear you’ve taken up with that Mysina girl from the Spartakovskaya Theater. Is that so?” I wasn’t the least taken aback. I hadn’t told Nora about that, but I certainly never would have doubted that she would know whatever there was to know out there. “Yes,” I said, probably a bit cowed. She turned to me and let her eyes burn into me for a second or two and said, “Do you love her?” I looked back at her, surely still cowed, but now less so, and said, “Yes, I do.” She shifted in her seat and looked straight again again. “Good!” she said. “She’s a fine young girl.”
Somewhere in my archive I have a photo of us taken later that day, in Melikhovo. Or maybe I lost it in my last move. What I do know is that I can never lose Eleonora, Nora, Norochka, just as I’ll never lose the sensations I experienced under her wings at the old VTO.
Nora, by the way, just turned 90. Happy birthday Norochka Matveevna!

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Mikhail Ugarov’s Moscow Debut

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A few thoughts today on what is gone, what is lost, and what suits my present frame of mind (I suspect not only mine). Not long ago I walked past this spot next to Pushkin Square. It’s nothing at all. Less than nothing now. What once was here is long gone. What once provided me a reason to be here has long disappeared. Nothing is the same that once was here, just as no one is the same who was once here with me. All these “nothings” bring to mind one of my favorite songs by a Nobel Prize winner. The song is only partly about what I plan to print below, but it does connect well with the frame of mind that I currently find myself in (see my previous post if you can’t guess the reason for that): “Now, too much of nothing,” writes Bob Dylan,

Can make a man feel ill at ease
One man’s temper might rise
While another man’s temper might freeze
In the day of confession
We cannot mock a soul
Oh, when there’s too much of nothing
No one has control.

You see the wooden cover over what used to be (may still be underneath) stair steps? There was a bar down those steps. I spent a few hours there one evening, that’s it. Later they moved out the bar and moved in a shopping center. Then they moved out the shopping center and boarded things up. That’s called “business” – big and small – in Russia these days.
Anyway, that bar you can’t see because it isn’t there once hosted a small group of quiet revelers. There were five of us. The date was June 11, 1997. The occasion, now that I think about it, was no small thing. It was the Moscow debut of playwright Mikhail Ugarov. These days Misha Ugarov is one of the most famous theater makers in Moscow. He’s so famous, in fact, that the Russian government refused to let him travel to Berlin a few weeks ago to accompany a production he had directed. They claimed it was because he owed back fees on an old apartment. But if you look at his Facebook page the night before he was turned away at passport control at Sheremetyevo airport, you’ll see that he had some sharp words for the FSB (that’s the present-day KGB for those of you who don’t keep up with things Russian). Coincidence? Maybe.
Misha Ugarov and his wife Yelena Gremina are the founders of what is surely Russia’s feistiest, bravest, most honest theater. It’s called Teatr.doc and it has become world famous not only because the authorities have persecuted it repeatedly over the last few years, but because they have produced some of the most important theater productions of their time; they have midwifed some of the most powerful writers of their time; they have given kick-starts to some of the most talented directors of their age; and they have schooled many of the top young actors in today’s Russia.
I trust you get my drift. Misha Ugarov and Lena Gremina are national treasures, especially at a time when their nation rarely treasures anyone but bootlickers.
Well, there was a time when Misha Ugarov was no regular guest in the Moscow theater world. By the mid-to-late ’90s he had written a half-dozen plays that many admired, and a few had been produced in other cities (St. Petersburg, especially). But he was anything but recognized. The change from a man looking in from the outside to one of the most active and respected theater practitioners of his day came only over the course of many years. When Misha’s first play was produced in Moscow, there was hardly anyone there to see it (the house held a grand total of 40 people). The play, a kind of ironic fragment knocked off of Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, was the gentle, but acerbic, tale of three monks getting in for more than they had planned. It was called Doves, both ironically and not, and it was staged by the bad-boy director of the moment, Vladimir Mirzoyev, at the Stanislavsky Drama Theater, a place, perhaps bizarrely, where I now work (although it’s called the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre these days).
Mirzoyev had just opened another show days or weeks before and he was stretching himself a bit thin. I happen to know a bit about it because my wife Oksana Mysina was a performer in the other show, a play called That, This Other World, written by our friend Alexei Kazantsev. I heard plenty of tales. Still, Doves premiered on time as planned, while Other World struggled to get itself going.
Oksana and I were big fans, I would even flatter myself to say friends, of Ugarov’s and Gremina’s. We had known them a long time, having watched Gremina’s plays make their way onto some of the smallest and biggest stages in the nation’s capital – all at a time when playwrights in Russia got no respect at all from theaters, directors, actors, critics, even the doormen and women at stage door entrances. We were thrilled to see Misha finally making his Moscow debut and were among the first people to take our seats in the hall. But that was just the beginning of the night that ended at that now non-existent bar below the editorial offices of Izvestia newspaper, across from Pushkin Square. Also long gone are the productions of Doves and That, This Other World. Mirzoyev no longer works at the Stanislavsky, but I do. Gone are the days that Misha was unproduced in Moscow. Gone is Kazantsev, one of Ugarov’s mentors, he died a decade ago. Gone are the days when you could not hear yourself think in a Moscow cafe because the music was so loud. Gone are the days when bars and restaurants were opening up like crazy; these days they’re closing down with almost the same ferocity. And yet, when I recently stood before that wooden cover over stairs that once took me down into a dark, rather cheap, entirely empty bar on June 11, 1997, I had a moment when I felt like I was existing in two planes of time at once. And it was then I remembered that I had probably written something about this evening in a diary that I kept from about 1990 into the early 2000s.
Today, with Bob Dylan ringing in my ears, I went back into an old hard drive to find my old diaries and sure enough, there it was. In this entry made June 13, 1997, the second half rather matter-of-factly tells a brief story about Mikhail Ugarov’s Moscow debut. You can read it below the photos (note that I refer to Oksana Mysina as “O”).

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June 13, 1997
…The night before we attended the premiere of Vladimir Mirzoyev’s production of Mikhail Ugarov’s Doves. I had forgotten this, but it was the first professional production of an Ugarov play in Moscow. He’s been staged all over Russia and in many theaters in Germany, but nobody in Moscow had got around to him until now. The production is quite nice, small and intimate like the play itself. Mirzoyev backed off his usual heavy-handed approach, leaving the text and characters almost exactly as written. The few directorial touches which he did add – such as one of the characters walking around flapping his arms and cooing like a dove – were on the money. There was some feeling that the show came off a bit too understated, but that’s only if we’re getting picky.
Much worse was the treatment Ugarov got from the theater. By the time he and his wife Lena Gremina came into the hall (which only seats about 40), all the seats were full. Nobody lifted a finger to do anything about it. The theater’s literary director (whose job it is to deal with authors) sat in her chair and looked off in the other direction. Misha and Lena finally left. He went to the actors’ dressing rooms and apologized, “Sorry guys, but I won’t be able to watch today. They don’t have a seat for me.” Mirzoyev heard what was going on and he finally asked someone to sit on the floor to give Misha and Lena seats.
The same kind of treatment continued after the show. Mirzoyev pulled Misha up on stage for the bows, but it ended there. Nobody had arranged any banquet of any kind. Everybody moved off into their own groups, leaving Misha and Lena standing there alone. I found them standing on the street by themselves, while Mirzoyev was surrounded by a bunch of actors. It was pathetic. I went up to Misha and Lena and asked if there was going to be a banquet. They said no, and asked me if I would photograph them next to the poster. I did so and went back into the theater looking for O. But even before I found her, I realized things couldn’t just end like that. So I turned around and went back out on the street. Misha and Lena were still standing there forlornly. I said I had no money, but I had a credit card, so let’s go someplace and celebrate. They happily accepted. I ran back inside, found O and invited Masha Kivva, one of O’s partners in That, This Other World, to come along. We headed out to look for a place to park ourselves.
That is no longer a problem in the new Moscow. There are restaurants and bars on every corner. But, as luck would have it, every one we stopped at was full. We did find one place with nice soft seats in the back, but no sooner did we sit down than the waitress came up, plopped a menu down in front of us, pointed to some lettering and left without a word. We read there that we were to be charged $6 a head for a cover charge for a musical program that was to begin soon. I figured, to hell with the cover charge, but if the music was going to be loud, what would be the point of staying? So I got up, found the waitress and said, “Uh, is your music loud? Because we came in here to talk.” She looked at me for a second trying to decide if I was a moron or not and said, “Our music is VERY loud.” I thanked her and we left.
We passed up another place or two because they were all full, but finally, I think it was nearly an hour later, we found a bar with NOBODY in it. Normally, that would be a bad sign, but after our sojourn, we were delighted. Actually, Masha Kivva thought maybe we ought to keep trying to find a better place, but Lena reminded her that, with our luck, the next step would probably be buying a bottle of port and huddling together on a park bench. We stayed and had a very nice evening.

Hardly an earth-shattering story. But one whose muted tones suit these photos and my prevailing mood. I usually don’t let others’ words draw conclusions for me, but I’m okay with Bob doing it this time, with the chorus from “Too Much of Nothing”:

Say hello to Valerie
Say hello to Vivian
Send them all my salary
On the waters of oblivion.

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Alexei Kazantsev apartment building, Moscow

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I believe that the first time I met Alexei Kazantsev was in 1990; it might have been in February or March. Although I didn’t visit his home all that many times before he died absolutely unexpectedly in 2007 at the age of 61, I did enjoy the hospitality of the house several times. A time or two it was just to pay a visit; a time or two it was a working visit in regards to Kazantsev’s position as one of the great champions and muses of contemporary Russian drama in the post-Soviet era. One cannot overestimate Alexei’s importance to what famously came to be known as New Russian Drama. It grew directly out of his work as a tireless advocate for writers and a theater based in contemporary writing. This isn’t the place for an essay on that topic, but suffice it to say that he was instrumental in the founding of the powerful Lyubimovka new play festival in the early 1990s; he founded the feisty and highly influential Playwright journal, an alternative to the dusty-musty Contemporary Dramaturgy periodical, in 1992; he founded the Playwright and Director Center in 1998, in my estimation the most important new Russian theater to appear in its era. There was, and is, not a single important Russian playwright to appear in the last 15 years of Kazantsev’s life that does not owe a deep personal debt to this phlegmatic, hypochondriac, pedantic, methodical, selfless, generous, kind, thoughtful, sensitive man. His impact as a playwright was limited. His plays Anton and Others and The Old House, both written in the 1970s, were his best-known works. Other plays with notable productions were This Silver Lace Will Break, That, This Other World, and Yevgenia’s Dreams. But Kazantsev’s true calling was to become the beloved, revered Godfather of New Russian Drama, the man who put his reputation, his time, his health and his money on the line in order to see that young writers had a place to go with their work.

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Kazantsev, if I can put it this way, shared his moderate home – an apartment on the 3rd floor of Corpus No. 2 at 7/9 Ulitsa Palikha – with an enormous number of paintings by his wife Natalya Somova. Natasha’s paintings were everywhere – hanging on every empty bit of wall-space, stacked behind tables and chairs and desks, leaned up 15-deep against walls. It gave their apartment a marvelous, spectacular sense of creativity and artistic chaos. Alexei’s own work space, his desk, was usually kept relatively neat, with lots of stacks of scripts, plays and such waiting to be read. More often, my wife Oksana Mysina (who performed in This Silver Lace Will Break when she was a student, and That, This Other World in 1997 at the Stanislavsky Theater) and I crossed paths with Alexei in the theater or in phone calls. Such a creature of habit was Alexei that whenever our phone rang at 11:45 p.m. Oksana and I would look at each other, laugh, and say, “It’s Alyosha.” And, invariably, it was. Moscow is a vastly different place without Alexei. When he died suddenly of a  heart attack while swimming out into the Black Sea in Bulgaria in September 2007, we lost one of those people whose personality, passion and convictions are capable of changing not only those around them, but of actually altering the course of history. Russian drama and theater today are what they have become in large part thanks to the personal contributions made by Kazantsev. His widow Natasha Somova published a two-volume collection of his plays, essays and interviews in Moscow in 2013.

DSCN2437.jpg2One last thing in regards to the building where Kazantsev lived – the first time he gave me directions he explained that there were a lot of similar-looking buildings in the complex where he lived, but that I would know I had found him when I came upon a bust of Vladimir Lenin. Alexei said that with a faint tint of irritation and ridicule, but it was the truth, and it was an excellent way to find the necessary building. Indeed, a crumbling, , crooked, totally incongruous bust of Lenin stood just across the way from the entrance to Alexei’s building. When I went by to take these photos yesterday, I couldn’t help but get a shot of Lenin, too. It’s still there, as mute, forlorn and immutable as ever. There’s something too bizarre about it to ignore.
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