From Russia to a place beyond

A theatre project is crossing cultural boundaries and making connections on many levels, Brian Hayward writes

believe that the mission of theatre is to show people the right things in life and to do it in a manner that takes their breath away."

You could go a long way to hear a theatre director lay down such a fiercely moral manifesto as this. To Togliatti, in the Volga region of Russia, in fact.

This weekend, though, you will find the man and his young troupe getting first use of Platform, the impressive flagship arts centre that opens next Friday at The Bridge in Glasgow's Easterhouse.

His name is Vladimir Bobrov, and he gave up a promising career as an actordirector to become the leader of the Vesoliy Gorchisnik, or the Funny Mustard Plasters, to give it its English title. It is the sort of self-mocking name the orphans in the Priyut No 1 Shelter would choose for their hostel, and their drama group.

Self-mocking because the orphans and children in care are the "untouchables" of modern Russia, though the reserved, dedicated Bobrov has something to say about that.

In the five years he has worked with the children, creativity has played a large part in their lives, and they have spread it around. The plays they produce in their own little theatre regularly tour all the other schools in their industrial home town, and they get invited to children's theatre festivals.

His wife, Svetlana, who is a trained choreographer, works with him and together they form a partnership unique in Russian arts education.

"We have had some help from local specialists," he says through theatre interpreter Tania Oskolkova, "but they didn't last long." There is the merest hint of a sad smile.

All was sweetness and light with the children rehearsing in Easterhouse, but the Plasters children come from miserable, even heart-rending circumstances and need their share of tolerance and understanding.

"My starting point is that the children know they have been unjustly treated by society; in my theatre they work through their overwhelming feelings of anger, envy and revenge. I want them to feel like normal children."

These children, to their unwavering astonishment, have left Togliatti for the first time in their lives and partnered the East Glasgow Youth Theatre for three weeks. It is a minor miracle that began with Class Act, the Traverse Theatre's youth festival, which writerdirectors Nicola McCartney and Douglas Gifford exported to Russia.

McCartney's epiphany came when she was handed a mixed group of No 1 Shelter orphans and "leafy-suburb" students to work with. She watched open-mouthed as the students mocked the orphans' every suggestion and refused to work with them. However, when the time came for preparing the performances, the orphans proved to be remarkably adept at making the best use of space and improvising costume and properties. The students were impressed and from then on they all worked together.

McCartney saw the possibility of a fruitful partnership between the Plasters and the East Glasgow Youth Theatre players, a world apart in language and culture but driven by a broadly similar ethos.

Wendy Niblock, one of the most dynamic of Scottish arts administrators, raised the money from a dozen benefactors, led by the Scottish Arts Council and the National Theatre of Scotland, under its Connecting Communities programme, so the Plasters could come.

The Beyond project rehearsals have been in Platform's spacious theatre studio and the performances are being given in the flexible 200-seat theatre.

Last week, rehearsals were in the fluid state that would give nightmares to a traditional director. Not, however, to Fiona Miller, East Glasgow Youth Theatre's artistic director.

"I don't go for synopses and scenarios. I can only work with what I see in front of me.

"Nicola and Douglas have this idea of a journey, of something beyond.

Together, we are making a narrative of images because, obviously, words won't work this time," she explains.

"The language barrier is a source of difficulty, even with two interpreters; but language can very often be a barrier in itself, even with competent speakers. You get complications and confusions, misunderstandings, all of which waste time and energy.

"What to me was the most surprising aspect of the first few days of this project was how quickly the young people worked together. It went beyond the usual kind of partnering or sharing."

In the theatre studio, the 30 children were working in pairs. It was extraordinary to see how the lack of spoken language and the compulsion to communicate, in gesture and expression, had sharpened their awareness. A few pairs showed a surprising empathy as they ventured more deeply into their interplay.

No less gratifying to the leaders was the way the trust and co-operation spilled over into the off-duty hours. One Scot, known to have language problems, contested with vigour the requirement that in the performances everyone would say four phrases in the other language. Observing his anxiety, one of the Russian boys, not previously identified as particularly co-operative or helpful, gave intensive and patient tuition to such good effect that the triumphant Scot could hardly be silenced.

Other instances abounded. It was clear that as the group moved to the beyond, many private journeys were being made too.

Performances tonight (Friday) 7.30pm, tomorrow 2.30pmBox office, tel 0141 276 9696Further details, tel 07961

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