Monday, February 14, 2011

Profile: The Moscow-Austin Connection: Breaking String Ties Knots

ALT ProfileNew Russian Drama Festival Austin

Chekhov ends his elegiac Cherry Orchard with a stage direction and sound that contrast in eerie fashion with the moving, realistically acted story of a Russian provincial family's loss of its estate and way of life: "A distant sound is heard that seems to come from the sky, the sound of a breaking string mournfully dying away."

Breaking String Theatre Company

The company that coalesced around UT graduate student Graham Schmidt for The Seagull in 2007 and for The Cherry Orchard in 2009 took that transcendent ending moment as its emblem. It included some of Austin's very best, most serious actors, both Equity members and non-professional devotees. Last year, with his UT master's degree in hand, Schmidt was looking at Ph.D. programs elsewhere. It looked as if the Breaking String Theatre Company might drift away as did the family that lost the cherry orchard.

Unexpected opportunities changed that. Some background: in their first meeting in April 2009 President Obama and President Medvedev agreed to sponsor increased bilateral cooperation in several areas, including the arts. Philip Arnoult, a shaggy international theatre impresario associated with the Center for International Theatre Development (CITD) at Towson University in Maryland had been working with a shaggy American journalist and translator long resident in Moscow, John Freedman. Arnoult had been concentrating on eastern Europe but Freedman and others enticed him into a closer engagement with Russian theatre. Graham Schmidt got wrapped up in these contacts at just about the time that the United States embassy in Moscow got a new minister-counselor for public affairs, Michael Hurley.

Hurley's predecessor had favored sponsoring visits to Russia of high-profile big-splash U.S. performers. Hurley sought out John Freedman at the Moscow Times and learned that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a vigorous, new and very unofficial movement had been underway in Russian theatre. Some of the U.S. government money for bilateral promotion went into an Arnoult-Freedman effort to collect and translate scripts from this "New Russian Drama." Arnoult now has a collection of 26 translated new Russian playscripts that he has been handing out to theatre companies and drama opinion-makers across the United States. (Click for Freedman's February 11 column on the bilateral initiative.)

One of the first of those seeds to sprout is Flying by Olga Mukhina in Freedman's translation, currently playing in Breaking String's exciting production at the Rude Mechs' Off Center stage here in Austin, Texas.

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