Institutional Theatre


Dragan Ristic and Maja Ristic

Romani Culture and Social issues – The history of the Romen Theatre

It is a little-known fact that the Roma theatre tradition dates back to the 1930s. The Romen Theatre still exists as the greatest symbol of this form of Roma culture. A short overview of the historical development of this institution can serve as a paradigm for the preservation of a national and cultural identity. The Romen Theatre reflects the peculiarities of Roma identity and culture.

‘The cultural and national identities of the Roma in Europe have developed on a model of diversity in relation to the Western cultural space, by which, in this case, we mean the Christian and Islamic countries in which the Roma settled. Their successfully preserved ethnic identity contributed to the non-acceptance of their tradition and codes of value by European peoples and created the base for the development of the discrimination that followed them until they came to Europe. Slavery, genocide, conflicts and brutally organized attacks on the Roma are not only part of the basis of their identity, but also a breaking point of nationalism of the Roma. Thomas Acton correctly observes that the Roma are a fragmented and poorly defined nation, which has more continuity than a cultural unity. Elite groups foster the disguised identity of the Roma and are the bearers of the idea of unity of Roma of all origins.’

Certainly, the establishment of the Romen Theatre is an example of the existence of the Roma culture as an elite culture, considering that this theatre has the characteristics of a typical repertory theatre and defined its mission according to the models of other national theatres in Europe and across the world. Thus the goals of the Romen Theatre are the preservation of the Roma language and dramaturgy, and the development and growth of authentic and unique styles of acting and directing. Performances in this theatre are based on theatralization, sometimes brought to the ultimate limits of the stylization of Roma culture and its syncretic distinctions; Roma theatre is very original and creative, relative to that of the West, which is primarily a theatre of words and drama.

As much as the Romen Theatre served one state ideology, it also served the Roma people.

The Romen Theatre was first and foremost a product of the Soviet Russian political system. The cultural policy of the socialist state, created by the Soviet Union’s Minister of Culture Anatoly Vassilevich Lunacharski, was certainly only a part of the realization of the ‘global goal’. Unlike other European countries, Russia chose a different method of communication with the Roma people. As much as the Romen Theatre served one state ideology, it also served the Roma people.

Lunacharski supported the proposal in a youth party’s call for the necessity of founding a Roma theatre, one that would be the first of its kind in Russia and in the world. At the session of the People’s Commissariat Cultural Commission on 4 October 1930, a decision on founding an ‘Indo-Roma-Gypsy’ theatre was passed (‘Indo’ referring to India, the ancient homeland of the Roma people). Ivan Rom-Lebedev was put in charge of the initial work. At the meeting of the Theatrical Group on 16 November of that year, a steering group was elected. This group was in charge of the formation of an artistic workshop for the Roma theatre. Its members were S. M. Bugachevski (artistic director), Ivan Rom-Lebedev (dramatist), Georgij P. Lebedev (director) and I. D. Faily (vice-director). Someone had to write the first play based on Roma issues, and that task was given to Alexander V. Germano. In a public debate between theatre actors, directors, dramatists and musicians the conclusion was reached that the theatre should be oriented towards drama and music, and be as international as possible. On 20 December, the magazine Vechernyaya Moskva published an article announcing the opening of the artistic workshop of the Indo-Roma Theatre and auditions on 25 December.

Roma activists and the theatre’s Roma performers struggled to assert their own authority over the development of this Soviet-style Romani art, as well as to meet the mercurial demands of Stalinist policy and culture.

The official opening of the artistic workshop took place on 24 January 1931. At the premises of the former Latvian Club, on the corner of Pushkin Street and Pushkin Square in Moscow, the premiere of Atasia the Adadives was held. It was directed by Moishe Isaakovich Goldblat. Contrary to expectations, the efforts of the Roma theatre were appreciated by both audience and critics. By a critic it was said, ‘They are gifted and anything can be expected from them.’ The next performance on stage, Life on Wheels, was in December 1931. It was performed in the Romani language and was very successful. Soon after, the theatre changed its name and instead of the original Indo-Roma Theatre became the Moscow Gypsy Romen Theatre (MHAT). Life on Wheels launched what for the Romen Theatre and its artists would prove to be a stressful decade of trying adroitly to navigate evolving Stalinist policy regarding the arts, nationality policy and the ‘socialist content’ of Soviet culture more broadly. Several times in the 1930s, the Romen Theatre was threatened with closure by the Soviet authorities. Behind the scenes, Roma activists and the theatre’s Roma performers struggled to assert their own authority over the development of this Soviet-style Romani art, as well as to meet the mercurial demands of Stalinist policy and culture.

In the Romen Theatre’s early years, Romani-language plays written by Romani authors dominated the theatre’s repertoire. These plays, like Life on Wheels, faithfully combined socialist realism and the logic of Soviet nationality policy; they were straightforward tales of ‘backward Gypsies’ becoming ‘New Soviet Gypsies’. Romen’s troupe performed these plays on stage in Moscow, but also regularly travelled in the summer season to Romani collective farms throughout the Soviet Union to perform for their rural brethren.

Already by 1933, however, calls came from inside and outside the theatre’s administration to change course and adopt a more ‘classical’ repertoire. In 1934, the Romen Theatre premiered its staging of Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen and received disappointing reviews in the Soviet press. Doubts also emerged early on – again, from both inside and outside the theatre – about the viability of performing the Romen Theatre’s plays in the Romani language, rather than in Russian. Most of the Romen Theatre’s audience members in Moscow could not understand a word of the Romani spoken on stage. Many of the Romen Theatre’s actors and actresses were themselves not fluent in the Romani language and wanted to perform in Russian. Meanwhile, some of Romen’s artists quickly grew tired of what they felt was the disrespect of non-Romani theatre administrators and disengaged Soviet officials. By mid-decade, the Romen Theatre was palpably in crisis.1

During its first few years a great obstacle to the theatre was its repertoire. The members of Romen could not perform every play they liked. The audience wanted to see the life of Roma, their everyday life, and their past; they wanted to listen to ‘Gypsy music’ and admire ‘Gypsy folk costumes’. Therefore, Ivan Lebedev became a dramatist and translated into Romani the work Pharaoh’s Tribe, a play by D. F. Sverchkov. Lebedev wrote his first original play, Ganka, in 1933. Within a few years Gypsy dramaturgy had taken over most of the theatre’s repertoire. Soon after, M. I. Goldblat, the director, started to think about staging classical plays like the opera Carmen and Gypsies by Pushkin in the Romani language. The critics did not react favourably to these moves by the Romen Theatre, claiming that they did not correspond to the nature of ‘Gypsy acting’ and ‘Gypsy art’, and saying that the only artistic path MHAT should follow was Romen.

The theatre was without an artistic director for some time. When Mikhail Mikhailovich Yanshin, an MHAT actor, became artistic director on 13 September 1937, he openly started to emphasize the theatre’s weaknesses as well as the need for further artistic development of this unique institution. At this time the famous K. S. Stanislavski was one of the members of the theatre board. The professionalism and good artistic foundations of the Romen Theatre’s work were certainly influenced by the famous acting system of Stanislavski, who demanded serious psychophysical preparation and the study of the biography and behaviour of the character, as well as a great number of rehearsals during the preparation of the play and the theatre troupe’s respect for high ethical codes. The quality of the Romen Theatre of those years is best illustrated by the fact that the plays regularly guest-starred actors of the MHAT, such as V. I. Kachalov, A. P. Kotorov and O. N. Androvskaya. During Yanshin’s time at the theatre twelve plays were staged including Song and Dance Soiree, Makar Chudra, The Strange Cobbler, Carolina, The Song about Ursar, Heroic Poem, For Your Happiness, The Ghetto Bride, The Daughter of the Tent, and Active Persons.

In May 1941 the Romen Theatre set out on a tour around the country, and Yanshin stayed with the MHAT. Hard times had come for all, but despite difficulties the members of the theatre continued to work, performing in Leningrad, Ivanov and Sverdlovsk, where they encountered the war but their tour was quite successful. During the war years they toured to more than sixty places in Siberia, the Far East, Central Asia and the Caucasus region, receiving a warm welcome everywhere with the three plays in the theatre’s repertoire, The Real Face, On the Banks of the Dniester and All about You. The tour ended in Mahachkal. Upon their return to Moscow in 1943 all members of the theatre were awarded the ‘Defence of the Caucasus’ medal for their bravery shown during the ‘Great War for the Homeland’. After the end of the war the Romen Theatre returned to Moscow. Although Yanshin was no longer with it, he continued to direct until 1949. Later he became manager of the Stanislavski Drama Theatre. Petr Savich Saratovski became the manager of the Romen Theatre. He staged some exquisite plays in Romani including Gypsies, The Daughter of the Tent, On the Banks of the Dniester, Esmeralda, and Love and Death. Unfortunately, because he also taught at the Academy of Music he was unable to commit himself fully to the work of the theatre and soon left. He was replaced by Semen Arkadevich Barkan. This artist spent many years with the theatre and staged numerous contemporary, classical and folklore plays, the most famous being The Little Markely Inn, Gypsy Girl Aza, Hello Pushkin, Hot Blood and I was Born in the Ghetto. All of these received great acclaim from both critics and audiences. In 1951, Barkan was replaced by Nikolai Alexeevich Slichenko, the famous actor and singer. His most important stage performances were The Gypsies Are Travelling, We the Gypsies and Grushenka. Slichenko directed at the theatre as well. His staging of The Gypsies Are Travelling is very famous, and in 1977 his staging of the very complex and sophisticated play We the Gypsies met with enormous success.

The Romen Theatre follows its own creative path by reviving and developing genuine Roma folklore.

The fame of the Romen Theatre has long expanded beyond the boundaries of Moscow, and the original art of the talented team is admired by audiences in Russia, former Soviet countries and further afield. It enjoys the same love and popularity as when its story was just starting. The Romen Theatre follows its own creative path by reviving and developing genuine Roma folklore, creating a repertoire on themes related to this people and including Roma music, songs and dances in its stage productions.

One of the theatre’s most successful stage productions is the parable play Tabor Games, which won the Moscow Prize in Literature and Art. The legendary performance celebrated its 40th anniversary since the day of the premiere. The history of the Gypsy people – the eternal wanderers – is told in an exciting rhythm with passionate songs and captivating dances. This vivid folk music show has gained universal acclaim among audiences in Japan, France, Italy, India, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Austria and many other countries.

The Romen Theatre prepared a premiere for its anniversary, referring for the first time to the history of its foundation. The play Singing Strings of the Soul tells the story of the theatre’s roots and founders. The audience cannot but empathize with the challenging real-life stories of the three main characters: Nikolai Khmelev, Lyalya Chornaya and Mikhail Yanshin.

The eventful life story of this unique theatre is presented at the exhibition project ‘From Gypsy Choir to Theatre’ at the Fyodor Chaliapin Museum Estate. It is the first joint project of the two leading federal museums, namely the Glinka Music Museum and Bakhrushin Theatre Museum, and the Romen Theatre. Visitors will see unique exhibits never previously displayed.

The theatre has become one of the most prominent institutions of Roma culture and today houses the third generation of Roma artists. Its fiftieth anniversary was celebrated in 1981. Its most important tour by far was its first trip abroad, to Japan in 1982. The theatre returned to Moscow in October of the same year and in 1983 toured Yugoslavia with great success. The Yugoslav press wrote that no other foreign theatre on a tour to Yugoslavia had provoked such a favourable reaction as the Romen Theatre. The encounters with Pablo Neruda, Anna Seghers, Eduardo De Filippo, María Teresa León and Nâsim Hikmet are still remembered.

The theatre has become one of the most prominent institutions of Roma culture and today houses the third generation of Roma artists.

Plays performed during the 1990s have experienced a revival in the twenty-first century. One of them is Hello Pushkin by Georgy Zhemchuzhin and Arnold Hessen, directed by Ivan Rom-Lebedev, founder of the theatre. It is known that Pushkin loved the peculiarities of the Roma nation, their music, art and life values. His piece Gypsies, on which Romen Theatre’s Hello Pushkin is based, is one of the most important historical works of world literature dealing with the fate of the Roma. Hello Pushkin was written as early as 1974, and the authors combined biographic materials and the poet’s own letters to his close relatives. Parts of Gypsy, Eugene Onegin and real situations from Pushkin’s life were introduced into the performance and the scene settings. The play was first performed in 1996 and re-staged on 12 January 2016. The audience responded to this piece on the Romen Theatre scene with considerable interest and excitement. ‘This was a brilliant show’ and ‘The actors sparkled on the stage’ were among the audience’s comments, which were published in the newspaper Cultural News in 2016.

The performance that marked the contemporary period of this theatre is Gypsy Countess, which premiered in 1998 and was re-performed on 1 December 2015. The author (ideas and dramatic text) of this setting was Petar Gradov, and the singer and director was Nikolai Slichenko. The play is set in Spain in the eighteenth century and follows the fate of a young, enthusiastic singer named Menitana who earns a living by singing on the streets of Madrid, becoming a fovourite of the poor. However, she imagines a better life. As the piece unfolds, the action follows the twists and turns in love as the girl falls in love with the king of Spain, who seeks to make her his mistress. A ‘love game’ develops between them. Song, comedy, troubles and puns are the features of this primarily entertaining spectacle.

The repertoire of the 2017/2018 season of Romen Theatre was marked by a musical comedy, Diamonds and Love, from a text by current Roma artistic director author Nikolai Lekarev. The story is very simple and comical. It follows the fate of a rich Roma man who wants to marry; however, his situation and friends create a series of complications to persuade him that his chosen one is not asking him for love, but diamonds. Thus a single lie by an uninvited guest in the house of a Roma businessman creates a series of confusions and deceptions, which culminate in a ‘fiery’ dance by the whole ensemble.

Beautiful Prince is another play that was performed more than twenty years ago on the Romen Theatre stage. The story, by author Isidora Shtok, is melodramatic. The main hero of the piece, Prince Golovan, meets Grushenka, the pearl of the saloon, and falls in love with her. The prince is fascinated by her gentleness and fragility, but as the performance proceeds, the audience learns that the prince wants only fleeting adventures in love. Grushenka quickly becomes boring to him and he turns to seducing other women.

Curse is a play that was performed at the Romen Theatre during the 1986 season. The director was Nikolai Leskov, and it is a play of love, passion and a Roma wedding based on the poetry of Lorca and Zhemchuzhina. For him, the presentation of an authentic Roma wedding is real art because nothing can ‘disturb that festive atmosphere: joy, dance, fireworks, celebration, the ritual made in the glory of life’, as the author writes in the play’s programme.

The current repertoire includes the show Torn Strings of the Soul, which was based on a text by V. Romanov and N. Serijenko with the idea of presenting the spirit of Roma theatre as it was when the Romen Theatre was created. Nikolai Slichenko celebrated over 64 years of work as director and actor at the Romen Theatre in 2015. This great actor and singer began to perform there in 1951 and to this day he is a star and recognizable name of this theatre. In addition to Slichenko, one of the actresses who marked the earliest period of the Romen Theatre’s work is Tamila Agamirova. Her style of acting is distinguished by its highly cultivated approach. She has played over 50 roles, her most important being as the star of the play Stubborn Heart.

We Gypsies, an anthological performance that marked the history of world theatre, but also the history and founding of Romen Theatre, was revived in the theatre’s 85th season, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first performance. Zhanrovsky, defined as a Roma folk fair, by authors Nikolai Slichenko and Ivan Rom for the new audience, aimed to show how the Roma nation was created by reviving the tradition of the theatre. The spectacle was revived in cooperation with the Russian National Museum of Music and the State Theatre Museum, which organized an exhibition dedicated to the history of the Romen Theatre for this jubilee.

In the twenty-first century, in the creation of repertoire policy, the managers of the Romen Theatre have not given up on their established mission of presenting music, drama and music and dance spectacles – performances that prevent the loss of the symbolism and meaning of Roma culture, as depicted through its basic stereotypes: the aspiration and desire for freedom of choice and life, the expression of its myths, and Roma disobedience, when judged by certain rigid social rules, the high value of love, the vigorous expression of jealousy in relations between men and women. Temperament, passionate dance and original and stylized (modernized) Roma music, rich choreography and costumes, virtuoso Russian dancers are only some of the hallmarks of this theatrical spectacle, which for years has reflected the iconography of the musical score of the film Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven (1975) and the short story Gypsy Camp by Maxim Gorky.

In addition to the most important actors and directors, it should be emphasized that dancer Patrina Sharkozi performs traditional Roma dances with elements of neoclassical theatre in most of the performances of the contemporary repertoire. In performances, in addition to the authentic national Roma costume of red or colourful long skirts, headscarves, and scarves tied around the waist on men’s costumes, use is made of tambourines, guitars, projections of horses and scenery depicting vivid landscapes as the general setting for Roma people’s lives. Although the twenty-first century has brought commercial performances whose aesthetic base is made up of traditional Romani dances glamorized with a lot of kitschy elements, Romen Theatre strives to maintain a part of ‘cultural memory’ (Kuljić, Dragićević-Šešić) through its traditional repertory concept based on original, authentic Roma customs and rituals: funerals, weddings, baptisms, belief in magic and spiritualism.

The Romen Theatre is an institutional state-run theatre created according to the high standards that Konstantin Sergeievich Stanislavski set as director and actor. But equally, the popularity of this theatre around the world, the themes, genres and styles of performance, reflect the multiculturalism and interculturality of the Roma people and artists, which are also key features of their national identity.

Rights held by: Dragan Ristić — Maja Ristić | Licensed by: Dragan Ristić — Maja Ristić | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: RomArchive