Old mansion and its secrets. Pushkin Theatre's history

January 5

On 25 December, we celebrate the 105th anniversary of Tairov's Chamber Theatre’s founding, which opened on Tverskoi Boulevard on the eve of the new year 1915. Admired by legendary foreign playwrights who used to come here to watch premieres, the Chamber Theatre existed until the end of the 1940s. After it was closed, it was replaced by the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre. Read in the article by mos.ru how it all started and about the theatre's today life.

From Free to Chamber one

1913 A young talented director Alexander Tairov experiencing a creative crisis decides to give up the theatre for good. His friend Konstantin Mardzhanov, founder of a small Moscow Free Theatre, asks him to think twice and invites him to stage a performance. Tairov agrees, starts rehearsals and... stays to work in the theatre, where he met many like-minded people, including Alisa Koonen, who later became his wife.


Alexander Tairov. 1949. Courtesy of Pushkin Theatre

Tairov made two productions here: 'The Veil of Pierrette' by Arthur Schnitzler and 'Yellow Jacket' by Joseph Henry Benrimo and Joseph Hazleton. The Free Theatre did not last long. In 1914, Tairov, along with part of the troupe, founded his own Chamber Theatre to become world-famous, with Tairov's performances admired by Bernard Shaw, Eugene O'Neill and Bertolt Brecht. While the wind of change that had swept Russia in the early 20th century was raging outside the theatre, it staged sophisticated aesthetic performances, really chamber ones, for true connoisseurs.

'The Veil of Pierrette'. Courtesy of Pushkin Theatre

Mansion on Tverskoi Boulevard

To find a room was a top priority. Tairov and Koonen were looking for it. The director and actress chose a mansion on Tverskoi Boulevard owned by three Parshin brothers, Moscow University students. They rented it out for various purposes.

Alisa Koonen wrote later: '...I have been attracted by a mansion with a beautiful ebony door before. It seemed deserted and full of mysteries.' Tairov was more practical and figured at once how to add a small audience hall and a stage to the house. The same year, 1914, construction started to last for almost a year.

Alisa Koonen and Alexander Tairov. Courtesy of Pushkin Theatre

Chamber Theatre

They decided to call the new facility a Chamber Theatre. 'This is a clear and natural concept,' Alexander Tairov told. He preferred to work for his own small audience, who would understand his ideas. The first performance staged in the Chamber Theatre was 'Shakuntala' based on the work by the Indian playwright Kalidasa.

After the premiere, the theatre experienced first hardships. Since it was located next to the Church of St. John the Evangelist, the churchmen had decided that such a neighbourhood was unacceptable. They demanded the theatre to vacate the mansion and move to another place. The matter had been settled, but it was not so easy.

After 'Shakuntala', they staged 'Famira the Kithara Player' and 'Phaedra'. Valery Bryusov made a new translation of Jean Racine's tragedy specially for 'Phaedra'. Alisa Koonen starred in the play. She was the theatre's lead actress, and Tairov was always happy with her, even without mixing personal and professional feelings. The rest of the company rather upset him. Although he did not doubt professional skills of his colleagues, he blamed them for half-heartedness, asking to open up to the new horizons and forget previous experiences hampering them to get the feel of their new parts. Actors respected his views and tried not to let him down.

Alisa Koonen as Phaedra. Courtesy of Pushkin Theatre

Tairov decided that his theatre should primarily focus on the actors' movements, a sense of rhythm and ballet gymnastics. Fencing, acrobatics and juggling masters hold classes for his actors. Other theatres ridiculed them saying that Chamber Theatre actors just 'kick their legs' instead of acting.

Though premieres had been successful, theatre's income was rather small. In 1917, just before the Great October Revolution, the Parshin brothers simply kicked the actors out into the street. For some time, Tairov and his company had to occupy a house on Nikitsky Boulevard. They staged 'Salome'. By a lucky chance, First People's Commissar of Education of the RSFSR Anatoly Lunacharsky viewed the performance and liked it very much. He facilitated the theatre's return to its former building.

Courtesy of Pushkin Theatre

In 1933, the Church of St. John the Evangelist was closed to house workshops and the Chamber Theatre's hostel. By the way, they had lasted here until 1992, when the temple was retrieved by the Church.

During World War ll, the Chamber Theatre showed performances in the city of Balkhash, Karaganda region. In 1945, Tairov was awarded the Order of Lenin. A year later, the government issued a decree prohibiting foreign drama in theatres. Directors were encouraged to stage plays by social realism playwrights. Tairov was against it, so the theatre's fate was sealed. It closed in 1949. 'Adrienne Lecouvreur' was the last performance staged by the theatre.

Alexander Tairov could not bear his creation's loss and died soon. Alisa Koonen lived next to the theatre, but after it was reorganised under a different name, she never entered it.

'Adrienne Lecouvreur'. Courtesy of Pushkin Theatre

Pushkin Theatre

In 1950, it was decided to create a new facility on the Chamber Theatre's basis. People's Artist of the USSR, actor Vasily Vanin was appointed its Art Director. The building was renovated, with the  audience hall finished with velvet, decorated with a huge crystal chandelier and the coat-of-arms of the USSR. The facade remained unchanged.

Vanin was choosing the name for a new theatre. The decision came unexpectedly. He saw his wife's niece, little Natasha, running around the apartment, saying: 'Pushkin, Pushkin'. Vanin thought: 'Pushkin is an icon. They will never dare to close Pushkin Theatre.' He wrote an extensive letter to the authorities, in which he explained why the theatre should bear the name of the great poet. And his reason was that there were many places in the theatre's neighbourhood associated with Pushkin. So, the former Chamber Theatre became the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre.

Its repertoire was based on Russian classics and modern Russian drama. 'Out of the Spark' by Shalva Dadiani, about Joseph Stalin's youth, was the first performance of the new theatre. Later, the theatre staged 'Stolen Happiness' by Ivan Franko and 'John, a Soldier of Peace' by Yuri Krotkov about the fate of singer Paul Robson. Children's 'Scarlet Flower' staged under Vanin's management entered the Russian Book of Records as the longest running children's play. They still stage it.

Vysotsky, Ranevskaya and others

In the following years, art directors changed in the theatre quite often. In 1952, Boris Babochkin occupied this position. He staged a sensational play, 'Shadows' by Saltykov-Shchedrin, acting one of his best parts, Klaverov. The production was so edgy that the Soviet artistic expert board decided to close it for a whole year.

Between 1953 and 1960, the theatre was managed by Iosif Tumanov, who invited Faina Ranevskaya. In the 1930s, she took part in Tairov's Chamber Theatre's performances. Under Tumanov's management, she performed in 'Trees Die Standing' and 'Exorcism of the Prodigal Demon'.

Faina Ranevskaya and Lyudmila Ivanova. Courtesy of Pushkin Theatre

The 1960s saw an increase in musical performances in the theatre's repertoire promoted by the then Art Director Boris Ravenskikh. He had invited a graduate of the Moscow Art Theatre School and Studio Vladimir Vysotsky to the Pushkin Theatre, but did not entrust the young actor with big parts. But Vysotsky stood out even in small parts, his Leshy in 'Scarlet Flower' was really brilliant.

In the 1970s, People's Artist of the RSFSR Boris Tolmazov managed the theatre. He staged legendary plays such as 'The Legend of Paganini', 'The Last Days', 'Stone Nest', 'More Sinned Against Than Sinning' and 'One Man's Destiny'. Alexei Govorukho, a graduate of the State Institute of Theatrical Art, joined the theatre to immediately make its performances sold-out. Vera Alentova played in his first productions. In 1979, he was appointed its Art Director. 'Optimistic Tragedy' and 'Robbers' were the brightest performances of the time. Vitaly Bezrukov, father of the People's Artist of Russia Sergei Bezrukov, starred in the latter. Sergei recalls that he often visited the theatre as a child, watching his father play from behind the scenes.

In 1983, the theatre was managed by Boris Morozov. In 1984, Pushkin Halls Enfilade opened. The original ceiling moulding, patterns and carvings were restored in four halls that saw the earliest mansion owners.

Photo: mos.ru. Maxim Denisov

Yuri Yeryomin who staged the sensational 'Ward Number Six' replaced Morozov in 1987. Tickets for this performance were impossible to buy. The play was presented at festivals in Switzerland, France, Italy, and the United States. In 1997, Yeryomin's play 'Belkin's Stories' opened a theatre's branch in Sytinsky Pereulok.

In 2001, the Merited Artist of Russia Roman Kozak became its Art Director, who introduced a practice to work with guest directors. Kozak directed 'The Academy of Laughter' shortlisted for the Golden Mask award. 'Romeo and Juliet' was another highlight performance with a new translation of Shakespeare's play made by Osiya Soroka. Kozak's students Sergei Lazarev and Alexandra Ursulyak starred in the play.

In 2005, the theatre was renovated, with chairs replaced, and the lobby upgraded. The second floor housed the exhibition telling about the Pushkin Theatre's history since its foundation.

Photo: mos.ru. Maxim Denisov

Theatre today

In 2010, Merited Artist of Russia Yevgeny Pisarev was appointed its Art Director. Before that, he worked as an assistant to Art Director of the Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre Oleg Tabakov.

He staged 'Much Ado About Nothing' and 'Great Magic', in which he played one of the leading parts. He invited Yuri Butusov to direct Bertolt Brecht's 'The Good Person of Szechwan'. The performance was granted a Golden Mask prize.

Evgeny Pisarev, Art Director of the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre. Courtesy of Pushkin Theatre

The concert and performance 'Chamber Theatre Is 100 Years Old', a tribute to the Director Alexander Tairov, is considered to be one of the most significant Pisarev's works. Playwright Yelena Gremina had worked a lot with letters, diaries and other materials related to the first theatre. This performance was shown only once, on 25 December 2014. On 25 December 2019, the day of the 105th anniversary of the Chamber Theatre's founding, audience will view some parts of this production.

The highlight of today's theatre is the play 'Shakespeare in Love' by Yevgeny Pisarev, based on a screenplay by the British playwright Tom Stoppard. The 1998 same-name film won Oscar. Dmitry Vlaskin, Kirill Chernyshenko, Taisia Vilkova and Andrei Kuzichev star in the play.

Classic productions are also worth watching, namely 'The Marriage of Figaro', also staged by Yevgeny Pisarev and 'Cherry Orchard' by Vladimir Mirzoyev.

'Gardenia' directed by Semyon Serzin is based on a play by the modern Polish playwright Elzbieta Khovanets. It is about four generations of a Polish family trying to get along living in one house.

‘An Inspector Calls’ is this season's premiere. The play by the English playwright John Boynton Priestley was directed by Oleg Pyshnenko. It was first staged in the theatre more than 70 years ago by the Chamber Theatre's founder Alexander Tairov.

Source: mos.ru

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