It’s not easy getting to Vladivostok. I’ve been going there for years, and it always involves multiple plane flights (and sometimes train trips). This time, it was Alaska Airlines to Seattle, Korean Air to Incheon (Seoul), and then Siberian Air to Vladivostok. The time difference is challenging – especially since the route crosses the International Date Line. The Russian Far East is about 16 hours later than Colorado – but really it’s 8 hours earlier, minus (plus?) 24 hours for the Date Line. Except when the time change happens in the spring and fall, when it changes again, since Daylight Savings Time isn’t observed at the same time…if at all…I can’t remember! Long story short – I arrive in Vladivostok at about 2am (which I think is 10am the previous day, back in Colorado). I check into my hotel about 3am, and am asleep by 4…but I have to get up at 8, to be ready for a press conference.
I have been invited to Vladivostok as a guest of the Maxim Gorky Theatre – the largest theatre in Eastern Russia. The reason for the invitation is their every-five-year celebration of the theatre’s anniversary and the Artistic Director’s birthday – the Gorky is 85, and the Artistic Director, Efim Zvenyatsky, is 70; he’s been leading the theatre for 35 years (half a life) and started there as a young actor 50 years ago. My wife and I have been collaborating with them for about 25 years – I’ve had the great pleasure of playing Hamlet at the Gorky (in English, with most of the other actors speaking Russian), I’ve directed a play there, I’ve brought the Russians artists to California and to Colorado to act, design, and direct – it’s been a great cultural exchange, and I hope I can find a way to continue it here at the Arvada Center.
Maxim Gorky Theatre, Vladivostok, Russia
So, the press conference. I’m seated at a long table, between Efim and my translator, Julia. Others at the table include the directors and designers and other artists involved with the week’s festivities. Dozens of reporters and photographers crowd around us, asking questions about the celebration. I’m pleased to be asked about my various projects with the Gorky, and I’m especially flattered that they remember me as Hamlet, 23 years ago.
After the press conference, I get to rest. Later in the day, I am treated to a special screening of a new Russian film, Salyut-7, based on a true story about an accident during the Soviet Union’s space program, followed by a small dinner with Efim and a few of the Gorky Theatre’s sponsors.
Press Conference, October 23rd, 2017
In the morning, I’m a guest speaker at an Academic Conference held in conjunction with the Gorky’s anniversary. They ask me about Shakespeare, and about diversity in the arts – two subjects about which I’m passionate. Everything is conducted through translators, of course, and Julia’s not available –and whenever I don’t have Julia, I worry that what I’m saying is not being communicated, especially when it’s an intellectual or political concept. Julia has been working with me since Hamlet, and she’s not only fluent in English, she’s also really smart, and I know she’ll translate me correctly, fully nuanced. But the audience of mostly students and faculty seem to get what I’m saying (assuming I understood their questions correctly!).
The afternoon is free, and I’ve been assigned two of Julia’s undergraduate English students to guide me around town. Despite missing Julia, it’s delightful to hear the perspective of Russian youth – born after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We spend a few hours wandering around the city, and we try to understand each other’s perspectives (exactly how they feel about Vladimir Putin, for example – a question they artfully dodged).
Late afternoon, I’m to appear at the opening of an exhibition at one of the city’s major art galleries. The exhibition is mostly a retrospective of theatre design work, by the Gorky’s designers and others. There’s a reception (with vodka…always with vodka), and the usual mix of press, students, art-lovers, and theatre workers. I see the work of Vladimir Koltunov, a Moscow-based designer with whom I’ve worked in Vladivostok, California, and Colorado.
Vladimir Koltunov (L) and Efim Zvenyatsky (C, speaking) at Gallery Opening
In the evening, I get to see one of the plays in the Gorky’s repertory – a two-actor play whose title apparently defies translation; the best English title Julia could come up with is Laughing Lobster, and it’s about the French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Afterward, I round out the evening with a private dinner with Efim and his family and some close friends.
Julia doesn’t have to teach today, and I’m free until the evening, so she arranges a car from the theatre and takes me to Russian Island, just off the southern tip of the peninsula on which Vladivostok is situated. It’s a beautiful hike, with some dramatic views of the ocean. Russian island was until recently used mainly as a military base, and there are also a few small villages and a monastery, but most of the island is undeveloped. A few years ago, a new campus for the Far Eastern Federal University (where Julia teaches) was built on the northern end of the island, as well as a bridge to connect it to the mainland – until then, ferry service was the only option for getting to Russian Island. The university has also been used for meetings of APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), which annually attract leaders from Pacific Rim countries.
Russian Island – the cape at the end of our hike.
In the evening, I’m invited to another birthday dinner for Efim, this one for about 100 people, including the former Governor of the Primorski Region, of which Vladivostok is the capital. I’ve been to these before, and I know what I’m in for – a very long evening! Julia and I arrive, and we don’t leave until after midnight. There are a dozen or more courses of beautifully-prepared food, much of it consisting of various seafood delicacies. Vladivostok is a port city, after all, and they have always depended on the sea for sustenance. Some of the dishes, it must be said, are a challenge for anyone raised on an American diet (ever tried jellied sea cucumber?). In addition to seafood, there are also some rare dishes from the taiga – the vast boreal forest found in northern climes, particularly in Russia. But the evening is also filled with speeches of congratulations, songs, laughter, and – of course – vodka.
A dish made from the lower lip of an elk – a delicacy from the forests of northern Russia.
Jellied Sea Cucumber
Former Primorski Governor Sergei Darkin, congratulating Gorky Theatre Artistic Director Efim Zvenyatsky on his 70th Birthday.
Tonight is the first of two big “shows” – a large-cast variety show honoring Efim’s birthday. This sounds strange and a little egotistical to Americans, but it’s common in Russian theatre to celebrate major birthdays of the artistic director. The first half of the evening is filled with speeches – including one by me – while the second half is devoted to musical numbers performed by the acting company, video tributes to Efim’s career, and other celebratory entertainment. It’s a big party, performed for a full house of 1,000 devoted fans. There’s nothing like it in American theatre!
The poster for Efim’s 70th birthday show
Afterwards, there’s a big dinner party in the upper lobby, that lasts for hours. Have I mentioned vodka?
Most of my day is free, until another exhibition opening at 5pm. This one is at the Arseniev Museum, and it’s a retrospective of the Gorky Theatre’s 85-year history. I’m pleased and flattered to see that the display cases include relics of some of the work I’ve done there over the past 25 years – including the program from the production of Hamlet I was in. Fortuitously, I meet the new Consulate General from the American Consulate in Vladivostok, and he expresses interest in helping to facilitate more Russian-American theatre exchange. I tell him all about the work my colleagues and I have done with the Russians, both in Vladivostok and in America, and we exchange emails addresses. I hope he will be able to help us find funding for taking some of our productions to Russia.
That evening, I get to see another production in the Gorky Theatre’s repertory – a new play commissioned and premiered by the Gorky, called Edith and Her Demons, about Edith Piaf and the “demons” who haunted her. The actor playing the lead is fantastic, capturing both the young as well as the frail and aging Piaf, and beautifully rendering her songs. As with every production I’ve seen in Russia – and I’ve seen dozens over the years – I can’t understand everything I see. The language is a barrier, of course – although I know a few words, and Julia tells me the story of the play beforehand. But more than that, I don’t always understand the theatrical style, the design choices, the directorial ideas. The actors are always very, very good, and the production values are high (this is a large-budget theatre) – but this is what I find so fascinating about international cultural exchange. Artists in other countries perform/direct/design in ways that we don’t always “get” – but it’s always an adventure, and of course it’s one of the main reasons to engage in cultural exchange. We all need to be exposed to work we don’t understand, because it helps us grow.
The poster for Edith and Her Demons
October 28 (My final day)
Tonight is the big night – the final and biggest show of the week. It’s the show that honors the Gorky Theatre’s 85th birthday, and it’s a variety show, with music, dance, performances of all kinds, salutes by a military band, speeches by dignitaries (not me this time), photos and videos of major productions since the theatre opened in 1932, a tribute to some of the great actors of the Gorky who have died, etc. There’s even an appearance by the granddaughter of famous Russian writer Maxim Gorky, for whom the theatre is named (I end up in an airport shuttle with her the next day; she’s an actor and director in Moscow, and she’s delightful and filled with great stories). And of course, an even bigger party afterward in the theatre’s upper lobby (which is huge). Guess what we had to drink?
It was an exhausting but fantastic week, and a got to spend some time with many old friends – Russian actors with whom I have appeared on stage, who I have directed, and with whom I have taken many excursions, in Russia, California, and Colorado. We have shared so much over the past quarter-century, and yet I still can’t speak to them without dear Julia translating. Still, there’s a non-verbal language that we share, both on-stage and off – and there’s history, and deep friendship. I hope I can share them with our audiences at the Arvada Center.
The train station in Vladivostok – Eastern Terminus of the famous Trans-Siberian Railway.