MOSCOW -- For much of the past decade, Russian theater has been like an assembled company standing on stage in the glare of hot, bright lights, pelted by one tomato after another from a hostile house.
The "tomatoes" have been unfamiliar and lethal -- poverty, diminishing audiences and even unaccustomed freedom -- but they have had an extraordinary effect. Instead of darkening theaters from Moscow to Magnitogorsk, adversity has electrified many of them.
"It's Russia," says Anatoly E. Polyankin, director of Moscow's Satirikon Theater, laughing. "We keep saying it's bad and it will only get worse. Meanwhile, we're mobilizing, doing what we have to do."
Theaters have recruited banks and oil companies to sponsor performances as government subsidies from the halcyon days of Soviet support dried up. They rented space in their buildings to casinos; they studied the mysterious techniques of marketing, promotion and fund raising; one Siberian theater signed its cafe over to a family of restaurateurs in return for meals for its actors. And directors learned to pander to a growing desire for entertainment by staging Shakespeare, Moliere and Chekhov.
Despite numerous predictions, theaters have not closed. Instead, nearly 50 have opened. In 1993, according to the Ministry of Culture, Russia had 232 dramatic theaters; last year, there were 277. Overall, the number of theaters, including opera, ballet, puppet and youth, has increased from 427 to 496.
"Theater is very healthy today," says Natalya D. Staroselskaya, who edits a journal for the Russian Theater Union. "Not only has it survived last year's economic crisis, it has survived many, many years when everything was forbidden."
In Soviet times, theater was strictly controlled, but actors, directors and playwrights with enough daring pushed at the boundaries, cloaking forbidden criticisms or opinions in double meanings and subtle allusions. Audiences visited progressive theaters in search of truth and tiny wafts of freedom.
"In a way, the theater substituted for the church in the era of Communist domination," says Mikhail Kozakov, an enormously popular actor of the day. "Signals were sent out from the stage, and audiences understood them. People could read between the lines."
Kozakov remembers the exhilaration of reciting a few lines of Joseph Brodksy's forbidden poetry from the stage, even though he suffered for it later. He felt he was doing serious work if he could be punished for it.
Freedom and poverty
When it came, the long-awaited freedom brought some unhappy surprises. Actors were thrown into unaccustomed poverty as the economy withered, subsidies tapered off and truth reared up everywhere. Theaters floundered.
"After 1991, everything became possible, and theaters found themselves at a loss," Staroselskaya says. "Theaters turned to shocking their audiences, and performances were full of profanity and sex. That didn't last long. Audiences stopped going."
The new audiences wanted entertainment. But this is Russia, where the soul looms large. Let Americans flock to big-time Broadway musicals. Audiences here find escape in "Hamlet," one of the season's biggest hits.
Directors began to figure out that people wanted a satisfying emotional experience, the kind they could find in Shakespeare and other classics.
"Their task was not to have something hidden behind the text but to stage a play written by a remarkable playwright, conveying eternal problems and feelings, and performed by talented actors," Staroselskaya says.
"The audience returned."
One of the most successful of Moscow's 75 dramatic theaters is the Satirikon, which occupies a slightly dreary, too-small building in a former movie theater. In a season full of hits, one of its biggest has been "Hamlet."
Konstantin Raikin, son of the legendary comic actor Arkady Raikin, who founded the theater, plays Hamlet. His charismatic leadership has made the Satirikon artistically dynamic. And Anatoly Polyankin, the energetic administrator, has made sure the hall's 1,000 seats are always full.
"We taught people how to sell tickets," Polyankin says. Even though they're expensive for Russians, tickets are snapped up. They range from 50 rubles (about $2) to 500 rubles ($20), which is the monthly salary of a teacher or doctor. Polyankin is especially proud that young theatergoers like the Satirikon.
"Many are attracted by our technical capabilities and by our young company, and many love Konstantin Raikin and can't live without him," Polyankin says. "While he's on stage, people are breathless."
Polyankin gestures hugely with his arms as he talks, pounding his desk with a look of pure delight as he insists that this is only the beginning for the 60-year-old Satirikon.
"We refuse to think that survival is enough," he says. "We want to grow better and better. I think we'll have a very good future. We're burning with desire. We make our plans. We fight. In art there is love for life, and that is reflected in everything we do."
Even in distant Siberia, theaters refuse to settle for what circumstances seem to dictate.
Life and art
"It's the Russian paradox," says Vladimir Petrov, artistic director of the 500-seat Omsk Drama Theater. "The harder the life, the higher the quality of the art."
The people of Omsk are so eager to buy tickets, he says, that two years ago criminals found it desirable to print and sell counterfeits.
"Previously, the theater was an ideological institution," Petrov says. "Now the only language we can speak is artistic. And such a theater can survive if the people of the city can understand this language. Fortunately, ours do."
Times have been harder since the financial collapse of August 1998. The theater lost the sponsorship of a bank. But the 160 employees persevered.
"We gave a family our small theater cafe in exchange for free lunches for our employees," Petrov says. "We went for six months without being paid, and that family fed us."
Some, like Gennady Chikhachev, who runs a 260-seat musical-drama theater for children in an industrial section of Moscow, are managing to find new government subsidies.
The mayor of Moscow has been sympathetic to the arts and bailed out the theater when ticket prices of 40 cents to $2 proved insufficient to support 154 employees.
"Our most difficult year was when the Soviet Union collapsed," says Chikhachev. "For a year and a half, I thought we would collapse too. It's only because I'm crazy and fixated on the theater that we survived."
Some theaters are having more difficulty emerging from an illustrious past to grapple with the future. The Moscow Art Theater, founded 100 years ago by Konstantin Stanislavsky, is one of the world's best-known theaters. Stanislavsky taught actors to identify with their characters, a style that famously developed into "method acting" in the U.S.
Here, they're still talking about truth.
"We have the task of molding the spirit," says Galina A. Orekhanova, head of the literary department. "The theater is the cathedral of the spirit."
The theater has rented its basement to a Chinese restaurant, but Orekhanova tries not to think about it.
"It has its own entrance, as if it isn't here," she says. "We're different from other theaters. We don't have the privilege of surviving by just any means. People who come to our performances are supposed to step to a higher level in spiritual development."
The 80 actors earn $16 a month, and the critics have been less than kind recently.
Other theaters are somehow balancing in both worlds. One production of the venerable Obraztsov Puppet Theater, "An Extraordinary Concert," has been a mainstay of every season since 1946. It has been performed more than 10,000 times. "Aladdin and His Magic Lamp" has been performed since 1940, and another fairy tale first hit the boards in 1936.
A few years ago, it seemed inevitable that the labor-intensive theater would die. During one scene in "An Extraordinary Concert," two puppets dance the tango with nine people maneuvering them behind the screen. It's a brilliant experience, but how can such a theater pay a staff of 300 with its 500 seats going for about $1 each?
"It's arrogantly unprofitable," says Boris Goldoveisky, who is in charge of the repertoire, "but it's a national treasure, like the Bolshoi."
Though cherishing the past, the theater is trying to engage the future by touring, developing its 10,000-puppet museum and renting part of its cavernous building to a stylish restaurant and nightclub.
While some of the world's most talented puppeteers are on the stage, performing magnificently for $40 a month, handsome couples are driving up in Mercedes, spending that much on lunch.
"Salary is one thing; money is something different," says Goldoveisky, explaining that actors work in the theater for the love of it but earn their living dubbing films, making commercials or giving lessons.
That is the legacy of the now-dead Soviet Union. Mikhail Kazakov, 65, watches as his films are shown on television night after night. He doesn't get a kopeck in royalties. His pension is $15 a month.
But, like the theater he loves, he survives by working furiously. He's an impresario, staging and starring in Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" on a Tuesday night. On Wednesday, he's starring in a comedy he wrote, about an imaginary meeting between Handel and Bach.
During the day, he's rehearsing Shylock for "The Merchant of Venice," which is a labor of love because he'll get little pay.
He strides across his living room as he talks, as if on stage, lean and handsome and playing his role to the fullest.
"So we work harder," he says. "We pray for good health, and hope to do something worthy. Theater will stand. There will always be people who want to see a live person, performing for them. And there will always be actors who want to do it."