The Russian Theatre, Should American Playwrights Interact?

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If you’re an American playwright and interested in having your play produced in Russia then a working knowledge of the Russian Theatre Union and the Russian Federation might be a prerequisite. You must never forget that everything in Russia is political and their entire political system revolves around Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Dealing from a playwright’s perspective and concerns, the Russians do adhere to the mandates laid down by the Berne Convention. The Russian Federation entered the Berne Convention, in force, in 1995. The Berne Convention is administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations.

If you want to protect your work internationally, both you and your lawyer need to consider several things. What laws will be in force in the country you will be visiting abroad? What kind of protections will these country’s copyright laws afford you should the need become necessary?

Each member of the Berne Convention is required to have laws protecting the “moral rights” of a copyrighted work; they entitle an author to control how his work is presented in public and the ability to compel the recognition of his authorship so that his work cannot be attributed to someone else. These moral rights are often referred to as “rights of integrity” and “rights of paternity”. How each country’s laws give effect to the protection of moral rights varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

In the United States, federal copyright law does not expressly protect an author’s moral rights. In fact, the Copyright Act of 1976 specifically prohibits reliance on the Berne Convention (of which moral rights is a huge part) in deciding international copyright matters. Instead, the United States Courts are asked to rely on contract law, defamation, invasion of privacy and unfair competition law.

While the Russians do adhere to the principles of the Berne Convention, there will always be the question of “enforcement” should the need arise. American playwrights can also enjoy further protection for their work under Article 1259 of the Russian Civil Code which protects, among other things:

  • Literary works
  • Dramatic and musical works, screenplay works
  • Musical works with or without lyrics

These works do not require registration or any other formalities. However, an author of a copyrighted work may voluntarily register and deposit the work with a specialized depository or with a notary public.

Once you have an understanding of what your rights are, the next step is to become acquainted with the Russian Theatre Union. The RTU will play an important role in just how far your play will go in Russia (I will explain later how I managed to get my play into the Russian Theatre Union’s catalogue)!

The Theatre Union of the Russian Federation (Russian acronym: STD) dates back to 1877 though under a different name. Currently it has over 25,000 members with 75 branches and headquarters in Moscow. The goal of the STD is the promotion of the development of the theatre and performing arts in Russia concentrating on regions that are geographically remote from Russian and European “cultural centers”. The STD acts as a mediator in solving problems theatres face interacting with the state or municipal structures.

In 2005 the Theatre Union launched an all-out campaign to prevent the Russian government’s bill toughening control of theatre budget funding from coming into legal force, which would have led to a massive disbanding of theatre companies. 
As a result, the draft was returned to the government for revision. This is considered part of their Cultural Policy.

The year 2015 will be remembered as a year of social struggle…not that there weren’t many others that came before. Russian theatre makers are openly talking about the threat of the revival of censorship…The Tannhauser Syndrome. One example of this was the mass rally “for the freedom of artistic expression and creativity” that took place on April 5th in the city of Novosibirsk and was attended by more than three thousand people. Shortly before that, on March 29th, another rally took place with no less number of participants under the motto “Let us save Russia by protecting the shrine”. The rally was initiated by Orthodox activists and its participants stood up for protecting religious rights and demanded that creative freedom be restrictive.

Both rallies were held in response to the new production of Richard Wagner’s opera “Tannhauser” that premiered at the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre in December of 2014. The production was recognized by all influential Russian media as a significant artistic event. However, Russian theatre critics and protests by the Orthodox believers led to the opera being removed from the repertoire. There are other examples of censorship fostered by the growing power of the Orthodox Church, which, according to its adherents, presents itself as the main proponent of patriotism in the country.

More recently, the general director of the Bolshoi Theatreconfirmed that the organization will postpone a much anticipated ballet depicting the life of the dance legend Rudolf Nureyev. This because of the gay themes and Bolshoi's controversial director Krill Serebrennikov.

Mr. Serebrennikov was detained for questioning in May over allegations of embezzling government funds. His apartment and the Gogol Center, the theatre where he is the artistic director, were searched in a case widely condemned as being politically motivated. He has since been arrested! Crossing one of Vladimir Putin’s “red lines” can bring about severe consequences.

Almost every theatre company in Russia receives funding from three sources: The Russian Federation, The Russian Ministry of Culture and The Russian Theatre Union…without which they would not exist! It’s no wonder that every artistic director must be extremely careful not to be involved in any production that the State would consider to be “offensive and demeaning” or in violation of the law!

President Vladimir Putin made his feelings known about the “creative process” when he addressed the opening of the Fifth St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum on December 2, 2016:  

“I spoke about my position on interfering in the creative process, and I want to reiterate that the freedom to create should be inviolable. However, all freedoms have their alternate side, namely, responsibility. We know it very well. This, actually, is acknowledged by all renowned philosophies”.

Putin went on to say:

“Artists, the rulers of our hearts, have a special responsibility in everything they do. On the other hand, any disruptive behavior, or attempts to sabotage a play or exhibition are absolutely intolerable and should be punished in accordance with the law. And we will do so.”

While President Putin has expressed his support for the arts, The Russian Federation has come down hard on those theatre companies it considers “over the red line”. Teatr.Doc is one of those radical theatre companies that the Russian Federation has threatened, harassed and shut down numerous times. They are a documentary theatre company based on authentic texts, interviews, and the fate of real people. Yet, somehow they survive and with a very loyal following willing to risk the wrath of the authorities.

Teatr.Doc has been described as Russia’s most daring theatre company. They began in 2002 by a group of writers who couldn’t find a theatre willing to stage their documentary-style writing. They focused mainly on social issues until 2010 when they became more critical of the government.

But Teatr. Doc really pushed the limits when it produced a play entitled “BerlusPutin”, a farce adapted from a play by Italian satirist Dario Fo, called the ”Two Headed Anomaly”. In Doc’s version, Silvio Berlusconi’s brain is transplanted into the head of Vladimir Putin with disastrous results.  The play revolves around the relationship between Vladimir Putin and his former wife Lyudmila who has been dumped in a monastery. When he suggests they have sex, she yells: “You can’t rape me, I’m not Russian!”

Just how much can teatr. Doc get away with? With Vladimir Medinsky…Russia’s hardline Minister of Culture and the strong influence of the Orthodox Church…who knows!

My dealings with the Russian Federation began months ago when I started sending communications to Russian President Vladimir Putin. This was in reference to my powerful “cold war” dramatic play For England…For Love. I have had a great interest in actually going to Moscow to work with one of their theatre companies…perhaps in the production of my own play.   

After months of waiting, I finally received a communication from the Foreign Relations Department of the Theatre Union of the Russian Federation informing me that my play was accepted for inclusion into their catalogue and will be made available to all the theatre companies in Russia! This was made possible because of the communications I sent to President Putin which were redirected to the Minister of Culture. A major accomplishment!

Since then, I have established an account with the Russian Federation and have contacted them many times. Currently, I am actively involved with trying to find a theatre company who will not only produce my play but provide sponsorship for me so that I might travel to Moscow and be a part of it’s production. But you must obtain four things in order to go to Russia; first: you need a passport; Secondly a visa; you also need a migrant card (part goes to immigration and part stays with your passport) and, most importantly, you need a sponsor. Without a sponsor you can’t get into Russia! A sponsor can be a theatre company who has taken an option on your play or a film festival where your film will be screened. When you think about it…not a bad system for keeping track of people coming into their country!

A major problem that exists with American playwrights trying to get their works produced in Russia is trying to get a decent translation done of their work. Both languages are diametrically opposed to each other. I have been working with the Russians to allow American playwrights to submit their plays in English as opposed to Russian for inclusion into their catalogue or at the very least have a separate catalogue for plays written in English. Why? Because there are theatre companies in Russia that are run by artistic directors who speak and understand English. I am personally dealing with one now! But, so far, they have been unwilling to compromise. So, the best action to take should your play be selected is to go to Russia and make sure that you are part of any production and that you have a good translator “on set” to make sure the actors have a clear “understanding” of what you have written and how you want the scene to be acted out.

 Remember, everything in Russia is political! When you first make contact with the Russians, you begin to realize you are dealing with a government bogged down in “red tape” and suspicion. If you are an American playwright and you want to have a conversation with a Russian theatre company, be prepared to be cross-examined. The current political climate does not help matters, either. But, is there hope for change…perhaps even a return to “glasnost”? Don’t hold your breath!

I have made other contacts in Moscow. One individual happens to be a translator, although she has never really worked on a play. However, she has supplied me with “people information” regarding the theatre. Maria is a wonderful person who is a bit of a conservative on matters pertaining to Russian politics although she doesn’t get to the theatre very often.

So, we can make certain observations of the theatre under President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation:

  1. Putin is in favor of the government providing financial support to Russian theatre companies and the arts in general by providing funds through the Russian Federation, the Ministry of Culture and the Russian Theatre Union.
  2. Putin supports the Berne Convention and therefore the “moral right” of all playwrights.
  3. Putin has set limits as to what is “acceptable” for theatre companies to produce. Plays that demean the Russian government or people are against the law.
  4. The Russian Federation is the “enforcer” when it comes to carrying out the will of President Putin. Those theatre companies that “violate” the law when producing plays that demean the government or the Russian people will find themselves dealing with the various government police agencies, local or otherwise.
  5. The Russian Federation is also part of the financial arm that makes sums of money available to those theatre companies that produce plays that bring “glory” to the country and to President Vladimir Putin.

Finally, if you’re an American playwright, and you would like to know what the possible financial rewards might be should your play be fortunate enough to get picked up on a future option from a Russian theatre company, just like in the United States, you will have to negotiate. And if you’re thinking about having your play translated into Russian, be prepared to pay big bucks. The Russians are under the impression that the streets in America are paved with gold!

GOOD LUCK!

Michael Corriere

Notes:

Bring This! The Effect of International Law On Your Play by Dan Chen/ Supplied by The Dramatist Guild- News Letter Nov/Dec 2001
RTLB-RB Theatre Information Gateway For Russia and About Russia:  www.rtlb.ru/en_union
RTLB.RU: www.rtlb.ru/en_infocus_latest/:
Closed Before It Opened - New York Times July 11, 2017
Fifth St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum/December 2, 2016 St. Petersburg, Russia: en.Kremlin.ru/d/53393
BBC NEWS by Lucy Ash April 16, 2015 - Russia’s most daring theatre company.

First published on scene4.com on May 2018. See the original version.

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