Local Theater Forced to Lower Curtain

Local Theater Forced to Lower Curtain

ON.TEATR is in search of a new base from which to carry on supporting young theater professionals.

Published: May 15, 2013 (Issue # 1759)


ON.TEATR’s experimental performances break down boundaries.

Following safety violations and noise complaints from neighbors, local theater ON.TEATR has been ordered to stop all activities for 90 days, after a court hearing held on Apr. 16. It was also fined 200,000 rubles ($6,357).

Since moving into a basement space at 18 Ulitsa Zhukovskogo in 2011, ON.TEATR has fostered something St. Petersburg has not had for decades — a strong and viable youth movement.

The theater’s energetic and visionary founder, Milena Avimskaya, has developed the space for young St. Petersburg directors, actors and writers to create new work, which has had a far-reaching impact on the city’s mainstream venues.

All of that is now in danger of being lost.

In an interview with The St. Petersburg Times, Avimskaya said she heard rumors that officials have given the order to “destroy” the theater. “Like pioneer scouts we stand strong and will do everything we can to fix the problems,” she said.

The safety problems are relatively small, but nearly insurmountable, since the configurations of the basement space do not correspond to basic city regulations. In an interview with the newspaper Argumenty i Fakty, Avimskaya said there is little that can be done. The ceiling, for example, is ten centimeters lower than what is allowed for public organizations. Door apertures are smaller than the prescribed minimum by a total of 12 centimeters in width and 15 centimeters in height. Major structural changes that could do irreparable damage to the 130-year-old building would be required to bring the space into accordance with the law.

The basement was originally granted to ON.TEATR by the Committee of Culture of St. Petersburg, although the current issues suggest it was granted without any proper thought being given to whether or not it was suitable for a theater.

In the two years since the theater opened its doors, countless hours and hundreds of thousands of rubles have been spent on cleaning and renovating the space. Avimskaya said that in order to show building occupants that ON.TEATR could be a good neighbor, the theater has done much to improve shared space in and around the building, including cleaning up the courtyard, putting up good lighting outside, rebuilding a broken gate and installing an intercom and electronic entry system, as well as repairing faulty water pipes in the building.

Days after the court order was given, Avimskaya said that it was becoming more apparent that ON.TEATR will have to occupy a new space if it is to be kept alive. She is actively searching for a possible replacement venue.

“I have looked at many places, but have not found one that fits yet,” she said.

One possibility is Lenfilm Studios, which has recently undergone major renovations. After touring the studio grounds recently, Avimskaya believes it could be a potential match. “These are people who understand that developing new talent is important and that they can also benefit from it,” she said. She also said she can imagine moving performances to a location at Lenfilm and keeping Ulitsa Zhukovskogo as a rehearsal space.

Avimskaya’s natural optimism is tempered by the harsh reality of the current situation, despite being repeatedly told by officials at the Committee of Culture of St. Petersburg that she has their support. Even after the court order to close the theater, an official told her to “keep going.” Avimskaya said that what has been lacking is any tangible support from culture bureaucrats.

“I’m not doing this for myself,” she said to The St. Petersburg Times. “I am not a director defending my own shows. I represent 25 directors and 200 actors who work at ON.TEATR. We have made an impact, thank God. I can now take cover behind the back of Dmitry Volkostrelov, who has just won a Golden Mask – a national theatre award (the 2013 award ceremony was held on Apr. 16). Dima is one of the many young artists who began working at ON.TEATR. The city must understand that this is to their advantage. I won’t do it alone.”

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