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St. Olaf students research, publish paper on theater in Russia

St. Olaf Associate Professor of Russian Marc Robinson (left) led a research team that included William Bice ‘18, Caitlin Connell ‘17, Griffin Edwards ‘17, and Patrick Connelly ‘17 to Russia to explore the state of theater in the country.

What is the relationship between the Russian government and theaters in Moscow? How are these theaters creating new models for producing vibrant works? What makes a play subject to government censorship? And what is the relationship between theaters and their audiences?

These are the questions four St. Olaf College students — Patrick Connelly ‘17, Caitlin Connell ‘17, Griffin Edwards ‘17, and William Bice ‘18 — examined on a research trip to Russia. The team, led by Associate Professor of Russian Marc Robinson, interviewed directors, actors, choreographers, and administrators in Moscow in addition to attending a variety of productions.

“Despite statements forbidding censorship in the national constitution, the Russian federal government’s control of artistic expression seems to be steadily increasing,” wrote students Patrick Connelly ‘17 and Caitlin Connell ‘17 in an article titled Intimidation Tactics that was published in the New International Theater Experience News (NITE News).  

The project, part of St. Olaf’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program, analyzed the relationship between the Russian government and six relatively new theaters in Moscow. The students — all of whom are interested in pursuing careers with an international focus — explored how these theaters fit into the increasingly diverse theatrical arts field and how a few of them faced governmental censorship.

“We looked at the way these companies sought to create new models for producing vibrant theatrical works. Each theater was rather unique in their approach to ‘changing the system,’” says Robinson.

Though the St. Olaf team had initially planned on attending eight performances, they ended up seeing 19 productions. These performances gave the researchers insight into the role of government in Russian theater.

Many, though not all, of the theaters the students researched had been questioned by the government on the moral content of their works. “If a theater contradicts the moral standards the government sets, the government will do everything in its power to eliminate it,” Connell and Connelly wrote in their published piece.

Teatr.Doc was one of these theaters that had been questioned and harassed by the government. Their motto is “the theater that moves” because intimidating acts of authority have caused them to repeatedly relocate. The theater even had an incident in which officers brought dogs to a showing.

Students had attended a showing of the play that caused the eviction at one of these locations. When the evicted theater moved, the students helped rebuild at a new location.

“The show had a real sense of purpose, which carried over to the people we worked with moving into the new location the following day. The people helping all believed in the theater’s purpose,” says Connell.

Upon their return to St. Olaf, all four students co-authored a piece that provides background on understanding the six theaters.

Students concluded that theater in Moscow is greatly influenced by Russia’s culture, government, and commitment to the arts, all of which are in a state of constant flux. They predict that the next few years will be interesting times for Moscow’s theaters due to increasingly rapid changes in these factors.

“Theater in Moscow had a strong sense of community, one we had the rare opportunity to be a part of,” says Connell.