Sovremennik turns 65. How one of the best Moscow theaters changed

May 8

It all started with Oleg Efremov. In 1949, he began teaching acting at the Moscow Art Theater Studio School, which he had just graduated from. To the young man’s great disappointment, he was not admitted to the Art Theater, but was willingly enrolled in the troupe of the Central Children's Theater (known as the RAMT now). However, the young actor had his doubts about the legendary theater. The Moscow Art Theater was experiencing stagnation at the time; artists and directors failed to respond to changes in time and did not feel it. Efremov did not agree with what and how the theater spoke to its audience.

Many students of the studio school agreed with him, including Svetlana Miseri, Lyudmila Ivanova, Igor Kvasha, Oleg Tabakov, and Galina Volchek. They decided to work in different way. A progressive teacher formed a team, which was called the Studio of Young Actors and later became the “Sovremennik” theater.

First performance

“Forever Alive” by Viktor Rozov was the first play suggested by Efremov that draw attention of talented actors. The play was written in 1943. A little later, it would become the film “The Cranes Are Flying”, which would bring the USSR world fame. Back in 1956, it was reckless to expect permission to stage a play based on it. The play about the moral choice, which the war demands to make, took time even to be published. Efremov's studio became the second troupe in the country that dared to stage it (the first was the Kostroma Drama Theater), and the first one in the capital.

The actors rehearsed at night in the studio school. It was an exhausting job: the young people did not even have time to rest properly, because each of them had to work in theaters in the afternoon as a part of their regular jobs.

“We couldn’t afford to order a taxi, and rehearsals ended, let's say, at four o'clock in the morning, so we had to wait till the metro is open”, Galina Volchek recalled. “Waiting was never painful though. On the contrary, it was hard to leave and to part until tomorrow. I wanted the rehearsals and communication to never end. And when Efremov starred in “The First Echelon” and became the richest in our poor company, he spent almost all of his modest fee on taxis so that we could get home”.

The first night scheduled for April 15 was really at night. We didn’t call critics or journalists, and mostly students of the MAI and Lomonosov Moscow State University were present, about 100 people in total. Those who failed to get a seat stood in the aisle.

By the way, then, when the Studio of Young Actors turned into the Sovremennik theater, releasing a new performance on April 15 would become a tradition.

The main character Veronika was played by Svetlana Miseri, the adventurous Nyurka the Bread Cutter by Galina Volchek, Irina the daughter of Dr. Borozdin by Lilia Tolmacheva, the student Misha by Oleg Tabakov. Oleg Efremov played Veronika's lover, the front-line soldier Boris. There were no serious decorations or props, just a table and a couple of chairs. The play asking uncomfortable questions, and young artists who were in love with their work were in the center of attention.

After the final applause, the audience did not want to leave the hall for a long time — they argued, thanked, and urged the artists not to part at all costs but to establish their own theater. People dispersed in the early morning, repeating the words of Efremov’s character to themselves: “If I am honest, then I have to”.

A new name and a new home

The troupe existed for two more years under the name “Studio of Young Actors”. In 1958, the director of the Moscow Art Theater, Alexander Solodovnikov, proposed to change it. The new name, the “Sovremennik”, went over with everyone. It perfectly reflected the main idea: the desire to speak the same language with the audience.

By the time the artists moved to the stage of the Moscow Art Theater. The stars of the Art Theater did not take the “young upstarts” seriously. Gradually, the gap between the Moscow Art Theater and the Sovremennik only grew wider. The climax was the production of “Naked King” based on the play of the same name by Eugene Schwartz, written in 1934 based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen and remained unpublished for many years.

The piece was too stinging since it was seen as a criticism of the actions of the authorities. The play by Schwartz was published in 1960, and in the same year it was staged in the Sovremennik by Margarita Mikaelyan. The audience liked the performance, but it was later criticized by the Ministry of Culture, and the Moscow Art Theater refused to provide the stage to the young theater. “Naked King” was performed at other venues, the actors understanding each show could be the last one.

Soon after, Nikita Khrushchev arranged an event for cultural workers, with all the heads of Moscow theaters invited, but for Efremov. The troupe regarded this as a bad sign. Nina Doroshina, who played the princess in The Naked King, was the host performer of the concert. She was supposed to appeal to Khrushchev, but failed. However, she was advised to approach Ekaterina Furtseva, then not the Minister of Culture, but the secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU. Doroshina began to talk through tears: “Oleg Nikolaevich was not invited, and the theater is to be closed because of “Naked King”... Furtseva asked her to calm down and promised to help.

She kept her word. In 1961, Sovremennik received its first building near the Mayakovskaya metro station, on Mayakovsky Square (now Triumfalnaya Sq.). The theater’s fame was so huge that queues of people who wanted to visit the shows lined up on the square. That building was demolished in 1974.

In 1979, during the filming of “Moscow does not believe in tears”, director Vladimir Menshov faced a difficulty: he had to shoot poetry readings at the Mayakovsky monument in the first part of the picture to show the capital of the 1950s. But the Sovremennik building, of course, no longer existed. And the underground passage, which did not exist in the 1950s, was already constructed. There was even a joke: “Menshov is thinking now which is better for shooting: to bury the underground passage or to re-build the Sovremennik”.

From Efremov to Volchek

Four years later, Sovremennik officially received the status of a theater. This meant excellent prospects: funding and staffing. In the following years, they staged “Decembrists” by Leonid Zorin, “Narodovoltsy” by Alexander Svobodin, “Bolsheviks” by Mikhail Shatrov.

And then Efremov was offered to head the Moscow Art Theater. He remembered how he dreamed of being an actor there and how his expectations were not met. And now he was asked to be the main director. He agreed, of course.

In the summer of 1970, he staged a farewell performance in the Sovremennik, “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov. “The Seagull” was the first production of a classic in the history of the theater, which began with Efremov's desire to work only with modern drama. By the way, the production was highly appreciated by Andrzej Wajda, a Polish director who came to the Sovremennik to stage the play “Sticks and Bones” based on the play by an American playwright David Rabe. Wajda was invited to the Sovremennik by Galina Volchek, who became the main director of the theater two years after Efremov's departure (Oleg Tabakov became the director a year earlier).

“Let me be totally sincere, least of all I thought of being the main director.  But there was no other way then. They tried to persuade me for a long time and they finally did. Probably that’s because Efremov called me “the most party-loyal than others”. I have never been in the CPSU, and no one would have forced me to join for anything in the world. By calling me “party-loyal” he meant my extreme sense of duty”, she said.

Working with guest directors became an important part of the theater's life under Galina Volchek — Peter James, Georgy Tovstonogov and others staged their performances in the Sovremennik in different years.

Георгий Товстоногов на репетиции спектакля «Балалайкин и К°»

Many feared that Sovremennik would perish without its founder. But Galina Volchek managed to make the theater take a new height. Liya Akhedzhakova, Marina Neelova, Valentin Gaft and other stars joined the theater troupe under her direction. There were productions based on the plays of Alexander Vampilov, Vasily Shukshin, Mikhail Roshchin, William Gibson, Vasily Aksenov, and Leonid Zorin.

The theater experimented a lot. For example, in the play “Ascent to Fujiyama” based on the piece by Chingiz Aitmatov, the auditorium and the stage were combined. The action unfolded almost at arm's length from the spectators.

Chistye Prudy

In 1974 the theater again changed its venue. This time it moved to the building of the former cinema “Colosseum” on Chistoprudny Boulevard. Here Lilia Tolmacheva staged “Faryatyev's Fantasies” based on the play by Alla Sokolova. Later, a film starring Marina Neelova and Andrey Mironov was based on this play by Ilya Averbakh.

In 1976, Oleg Tabakov left the post of director. He started teaching his own course of 26 students (based on the GITIS) and devoted himself entirely to teaching. Two years later, he opened his own theater.

In 1982, Galina Volchek turned to the classics, to Chekhov, and began rehearsals for “Three Sisters”. In 2001, she made a new version of the performance, which still remains in the repertoire of the theater. In the same 1982, the posters invited the audience to “Love and Doves”. Director Valery Fokin staged a play based on the piece of the same name by Vladimir Gurkin. Vladimir Menshov was so inspired by the performance that two years later he took up the film version of it.

In 1989, Volchek staged the play “Steep Route”, which is based on the autobiographical novel of the GULAG prisoner Eugenia Ginzburg. The production was recognized all over the world. It was shown in the UK, France, Israel and other countries. In 1996, the Sovremennik went on tour in the United States and became the first Russian theater to perform on Broadway, after the famous tour of the Moscow Art Theater in 1924. “Steep Route” was awarded the prestigious American Drama Desk Award.

In the late 1990s, the Sovremennik staged Erich Maria Remarque's “Three Comrades”. The actors prepared carefully: they watched the military chronicles, talked with a man who was rescued from captivity during the war. In general, in the 1990s, classics was frequent on the stage: Nikolai Gogol, William Shakespeare, Alfred de Musset, and others.

In 2004, the theater opened the “Other Stage” with the play “Overcoat”. It occupies a separate hall adjacent to the main stage. There are only 10 rows in the new hall, where chamber productions are shown.

In 2016, the theater was closed for renovation, and the troupe moved to the Palace on Yauza for a while. In 2018, the artists returned to their home venue, and in 2019 the building became the winner of the Moscow Restoration Award.

Under Ryzhakov’s direction

Galina Volchek passed away in December 2019. Viktor Ryzhakov, a director and Honored Artist of Russia, was appointed to the post of artistic director. The performances staged by him include “Do not part with your loved ones” by A.M. Volodin in the Chekhov Moscow Art Theater, “Little Tragedies” by A.S. Pushkin in “Satyricon”, “War and Peace” by Tolstoy in the St. Petersburg Bolshoi Drama Theater and much more. The international theater project “Guard No. 8” created by him in 2000 with the actors of the Kamchatka Theater participated in festivals in Los Angeles, Vienna, and Edinburgh.

The Sovremennik presents performances that have won the love of the audience for a long time, such as “Steep Route” and “Three Comrades” by Galina Volchek. These productions are still in the repertoire nowadays. Last year, the theater presented the play “The Father” based on the play by Florian Zeller. Director Eugene Arye was invited by Galina Volchek. He also directed “Enemies. Love Story” and “Hidden Perspective”, which have become very popular.

The Sovremennik will celebrate its birthday in 2021 with the premiere of the play “Theater” based on Somerset Maugham’s novel of the same name.


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