Since the end of the Cold War, never has it been more important to have an understanding of Russia and the Russian mentality. Finding common ground and re-establishing communication with Russia through art, through our shared interests and histories, could be the most important foreign policy objective of the next decade.
For three years, a small group of playwrights worked with TimeLine Literary Manager Ben Thiem in a series of meetings, workshops and readings to develop a new play from start to finish. We asked each playwright in the 2013-2016 inaugural Playwrights Collective to talk a little bit about their play and their process, to be featured on Behind the ‘Line. Today we bring you into what inspired playwright Alice Austen.
I had just begun to write Bolshoi when I had to go to Saint Petersburg, Russia, to work on a film. While I was there, the Winter Olympics ended, and Russia invaded Crimea. It quickly became apparent that what we were trying to do with the play had to invoke the larger question of Russia today. Other recent events have confirmed again and again the importance of this larger question and informed the work.
Russia presents itself in my life like a recurrent guest who over time has become family. So when I was first approached to write Bolshoi, I was less surprised by the subject matter than I might have been. I have a long deep connection to Russia—family who were aristocrats and fled to Paris during the Revolution (and later to New York), years living and working throughout the former Soviet Union as a young international and human rights lawyer, a recent adaptation of Animal Farm for the Steppenwolf YA, and my partnership with Russian-born film director Kirill Mikhanovsky, are but a few examples.
It seemed natural to work with TimeLine as we developed the play. Thinking about PJ Powers’ question—one that has defined the TimeLine mandate, “why this work now?”—was consistent with our objectives in creating the narrative structure of Bolshoi.
And here’s how I would answer that question: Since the end of the Cold War, never has it been more important to have an understanding of Russia and the Russian mentality. Finding common ground and re-establishing communication with Russia through art, through our shared interests and histories, could be the most important foreign policy objective of the next decade. Reverting to a Cold War mentality is not only regressive, it is part of a dangerous shift to one-sided reactionary thinking that is pervasive not only in Russia, but in America as well.
The play is written through a political and an artistic lens. We wanted to capture the beauty and horror of Russia and the beauty and horror of events at the Bolshoi. From the beginning, we wanted to integrate dance in the story and we wanted to telescope out and tell a bigger story about Russia. This is a tall order and it has taken time to get it right.
My collaborators on Bolshoi have included Broadway director Jeff Calhoun (Newsies) and TIME Moscow correspondent Simon Shuster.
Jeff’s acute sense of theatricality has shaped a play that takes place in multiple shifting time periods and tells parallel stories through the eyes of an observer who is ultimately drawn into the events around him. Simon has provided much of the journalistic and human understanding of our characters and the events.
We intend to create a singular visual piece that tells a compelling and vital story about the dangerous dynamic political landscape in Russia. Ultimately we want our audiences to be entertained, to think about the larger world beyond American borders, and to come away with the understanding that art can transcend our differences.
This post is fifth in a blog series reflecting on the work of the 2013-2016 Playwrights Collective. Read the other posts in the series:
- Literary Manager Ben Thiem on the challenges of writing history
- Playwright John Conroy on making sense of a very personal experience with crime
- Playwright Susan McLaughlin Karp on the 1930s-era Kennedy/Kardashian-like Mitfords
- Playwright Brett Neveu on the development of his play To Catch a Fish, slated to premiere in our 2017-18 season
- Playwright Frances Limoncelli on a story that encourages us to see the racism within us, not just outside of us
- Playwright Emily Dendinger on a magical woman who went after what she wanted, despite obstacles