Maly Imperial Theatre. How one of the oldest theatres in Moscow works

July 13

The Maly Theatre's history dates back to around the same time when the Moscow University, the Academy of Arts and the first Moscow gymnasiums were established under the reign of Empress Yelizaveta Petrovna coinciding with the appearance of the Enlightenment ideas in Russia. In 1756, having started with the creation of theatrical costumes for cadets who performed at the court, she signed a decree on the establishment of the Russian state professional theatre. At the same time, Moscow University arranged its own theatrical group with students as actors. Soon, it included both actors and singers, dancers and musicians.

In 1766, Catherine the Great who had ascended the throne, entrusted the troupe management to the theatre fan and writer Nikolai Titov. Three years later, he was replaced by Italian entrepreneurs Belmonti and Cinti. Talented theatrical figures were allowed to work in Moscow for five years. After Belmonti's death, a fight broke out for the right to manage the theatre.

In 1776, provincial prosecutor prince Pyotr Urusov got interested in the theatre. At that time, the company performed in the outbuilding of the count Vorontsov's mansion in Znamenka Street. But Urusov had its own building for the troupe constructed, with its facade overlooking Petrovka Street (now Teatralnaya Square). Later, there was a fire in the building that caused serious losses to Urusov, so he handed the theatre over to the English entrepreneur Michael Maddox. It is remarkable that he had come to Russia as a maths teacher, but got gradually absorbed in the theatre. Maddox promised to construct a new building at his own expense, and by 1780 it was ready.

In 1806, the theatre entered the system of Imperial theatres. However, it seemed to be haunted by ill fate, as shortly before that, there was another fire in the building. The actors had to perform at other venues. In 1816, a competition was announced for the construction of a new building on the same site.

In 1818, a young merchant Vasily Vargin bought land lots in its neighbourhood and built a facility with a concert hall and a shopping mall. Vargin agreed to rent the building to the theatre. In just two months, the mansion was rebuilt. Soon, the Moscow Imperial Theatre's group of actors performed there.

The audience was diverse. While wealthy spectators rented comfortable boxes for the whole season, the poorest ones were content with standing rooms in the gallery, as the tickets were cheap there. Vaudeville, opere buffe and operettas were performed in the theatre, with applause frowned upon.

Maly Theatre's building: yesterday

Initially, the names of the Bolshoi and Maly theatres were written in lowercase letters, since they just described the buildings' sizes. For a long time, both Imperial theatres had been connected by an underground passage for actors to move between the buildings. It was especially convenient if an actor had to play at two venues during one evening. In cases when the Bolshoi Theatre's stage was more suitable for the Maly Theatre’s drama troupe, it hosted their performance, and vice versa. People often said: "Today Maly performs in Bolshoi."

Now the Maly Theatre's stage is made parallel to the stalls, but in the past, it was sloping towards the hall, for the audience to have a better view. Stage scenery had only painted back curtain and borders hiding the mechanisms of the stage’s upper part. During the intermission, the hall was lit by a huge candle chandelier hidden in a special attic during the performance.

In 1840, a new hall and a new stage, still open today, were added to the main building, with the old ones converted into backstage rooms.

In 1900, an actor, director and reformer of the Russian theatre Alexander Lensky visited Germany, where he saw a turntable on one of the Germany stages and was inspired by the idea to install it in Maly Theatre. His proposal was refused, as according to preliminary estimates, the cost of work was comparable to the annual budget obtained by all Imperial theatres. Then Lensky reinvented the mechanism with the support of an experienced decorator Karl Waltz. The mechanism survived until 1940.

The theatre has two special boxes — portal and central one. Before the October Revolution, they were occupied by Royal family members only, and later by the chief Communist Party leaders. 1949 through 1980, anyone could buy tickets to these boxes. But not now, since the central box has been used for light and sound equipment, and the portal one is offered to high-ranking guests only.

Maly Theatre's building: today

In 2014, the theatre was closed for reconstruction. Before that, large-scale building renovation was conducted in the 1940s under the management of an architect Alexander Velikanov. His drawings, adapted to today's requirements, were used during the new reconstruction as well. In the stalls, the rows were moved apart, so they offered fewer seats now, but they had chairs for spectators with disabilities. The theatre had also acquired one more room, new Shchepkin Foyer, which now hosts concerts, musical parties and exhibitions.

Artistic director Yuri Solomin asked not to remove the wooden deck from the hall's ceiling, as it created good acoustics. The red-white-gold colour scheme of the hall has also remained unchanged. A prompter's box is still the same (Maly Theatre is one of the few theatres in Moscow employing prompters).

Four sculptures of Russian classics — Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Gogol and Alexander Griboyedov, installed in the foyer in 1949, are still standing. Maly Theatre mostly stages these writers’ works.

The Maly Theatre's Squadron

A memorial plaque dedicated to the theatre's life during the Great Patriotic War is the first thing visitors see when they have their clothes hung in the cloakroom. Maly Theatre actors have contributed to the Victory as well: some of them left for the front to fight, while others staged performances in dugouts, on warship decks, in fields and forests. Occasionally, a signal to fight interrupted performances, and soldiers rose from their seats to respond, and after some time they returned, but not all of them. The actors had not taken any payment, but money collected were used to build planes that later were called the Maly Theatre's Squadron.

During the war, the theatre acquired its branch — a building in Bolshaya Ordynka Street. Its first performance, 'On the Busiest Place' by Ostrovsky was staged on 1 January 1944. The branch is still open, it has some performances staged.

Ostrovsky, Shchepkin and Mochalov's House

Informally, the Maly Theatre is called Ostrovsky House, since it saw 48 plays of the famous playwright performed on its stage. Alexander Ostrovsky often visited rehearsals, befriended with artists, gave them some advice. Ostrovsky monument set up next to the theatre, made by famous sculptor Nikolai Andreyev, was opened 90 years ago.

It was Ostrovsky who launched a theatrical reforming in his time. Thanks to him, the concept of 'acting ensemble' emerged: speaking about Katerina from 'The Storm', we also mean Kabanikha, and Tikhon, as none of the characters may be considered out of the context. And during the play, an actor presents various characters. Besides, Ostrovsky believed that an actor must re-embody in his or her character. The playwright's innovative ideas were subsequently developed by Konstantin Stanislavsky. Contemporaries shared Ostrovsky's views. For example, one of the leading actors of the Maly Theatre Mikhail Shchepkin totally agreed with him: if you want to play convincingly, you need to personate your character.

Shchepkin was a former serf actor. When he was 33, he was given his freedom while serving in the Poltava theatre. In Maly Theatre, he played Famusov ('Woe from Wit'), Mayor ('The Government Inspector'), Baron ('The Miserly Knight'). Many spectators specially came to the theatre to watch him performing. He was the first to put forward the idea to open an acting school, since enthusiasm is not enough, and you need to be educated to take the stage. That's why the theatre school at the Maly Theatre is named after him.

The Shchepkin Foyer of the theatre has a portrait of Mikhail, painted by Ilya Repin. In October 1917, when a detachment of Red Guard officers had burst into the building, the painting was pierced with a bayonet. Restored portrait is now kept under glass.

Another key figure of the Maly Theatre is the actor Pavel Mochalov, who made his debut on its stage in 1817. The Shchepkin Foyer has his portrait as well, where Mochalov is depicted as Baron Mainau in the Kotsebue's play 'Misanthropy and Repentance'. Many critics had noted that despite the fact that he was a very talented artist, he sometimes failed to get inspired on the stage. But, if some scene had caused response in him, he immediately got involved in the process to start something ingenious with his game being really brilliant. Being the audience's favourite, he starred in 'Hamlet', 'Barber of Seville' 'Don Carlos' and other often sold-out performances.

After the October Revolution, Alexander Yuzhin became the theatre's director. When he was a young provincial actor, he decided to come to Moscow on his way to St. Petersburg, with a special purpose to visit Maly Theatre. Having bought the cheapest seat in the gallery, Yuzhin started to watch the performance and was struck by the level of acting, without grimacing and playing down to the audience. The actors seemed to take no heed of spectators. The young actor aspired to learn to play without playing. A few years later, Yuzhin made his debut on the stage of Maly Theatre as Chatsky in the first Moscow production of 'Woe from Wit' based on the comedy of Alexander Griboyedov, and soon he became a key theatre actor.

Over the years, the theatre was managed by Ilya Sudakov, Prov Sadovsky, Konstantin Zubov, Mikhail Tsarev, Evgeny Simonov and Boris Ravenskikh. People's Artist of the USSR Yuri Solomin was assigned as an artistic director of the Maly Theatre in 1988. He joined theatre in 1957, immediately after graduating from Shchepkin School, and in April 2019, Minister of Culture of Russia Vladimir Medinsky had him signed an open-term employment contract.

To date, a large part of the Maly Theatre repertoire consists of classic works, but earlier it was different. Before the Soviet era, it often hosted performances designed for the easy-to-please audience, such as vaudevilles, melodramas and comedies.

But 'Woe from Wit' has been a hallmark of the theatre. It is that very performance Alexander Yuzhin participated in. After its premiere in 1831, the comedy is still running. Yuri Solomin plays Famusov's part in the production of Sergei Zhenovach, to the music by Mikhail Glinka, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Dargomyzhsky.

The Maly Theatre's performances have repeatedly received the Golden Mask awards. In 2004, the performance 'Truth Is Good, but Happiness Is Better' was awarded for the best actors' ensemble. Sergei Zhenovach staged the Ostrovsky's play with Viktor Nizovoy, Evgeniya Glushenko, Lyudmila Polyakova and Sergei Kagakov starring.

'The Last Victim' is another performance based on Ostrovsky's work (staged by Vladimir Dragunov). In 2006, Vasily Bochkaryov, who played the merchant Flor Pribytkov, received the Golden Mask award for his work. He took the stage together with Lyudmila Titova, Boris Klyuev and Alexander Yermakov.

The last Molière's play, a comedy 'The Imaginary Invalid' was staged by Sergei Zhenovach in 2005. Two years later, this production was given the Golden Mask award in 'Big Performance' (250 spectators and more).

You may watch these performances in the next season.


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