Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.
The History of Theatre Romen

by Dragan Ristic

It is almost unknown that the Roma theatre tradition dates back to the 1930s. The Theatre Romen still exists as the greatest symbol of this form of Roma culture. A short overview of the historic development of this institution can serve as a paradigm of preservation of a national and cultural identity. The TheatreRomen was first and foremost a product of the Russian political system. The cultural policy of this socialist state, created by Anatoly Vassilevich Lunacharski, was certainly only a part of the realisation of the "global goal." As opposed to other European countries, Russia chose a different method of communication with the Roma people. As much as the Theatre Romen served one state ideology, it also served the Roma people.

The Minister of Culture of the Soviet Union, Anatoly  Vassilevich Lunacharski, supported the proposal of a youth party call on 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 Lebedev was put in charge of the initial work. At the meeting of the Theatrical Group on 16 November of the same year an organisation group was elected. This group was in charge of the formation of an artistic workshop of the Roma theatre. Its members were S. M. Bugachevski (art director), Ivan Lebedev (dramatist), G. 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 A. V. Germano. In a public debate of theatre actors, directors, dramatists and musicians a conclusion was reached that the theatre should be drama and music oriented and international by all means. On 20 December the magazine "Vechernyaya Moskva" published an article announcing the opening of the artistic workshop of the Indo - Roma Theatre and its audition on 25 December of the same year.

The official opening of the artistic workshop was held on 24 January 1931. At the premises of the former Letonian Club, on the corner of Pushkin Street and Pushkin Square in Moscow, the premiere of "Atasia the Adadives" was held. It was directed by Moysey Isaakovich Golydblat. In spite of everything, the efforts of the Roma theatre were appreciated both by the audience and the critics. It was said, "They are gifted and anything can be expected from them." The next performance on stage was in December 1931 titled "Life on Wheels." It was perdormed 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 Theatre Romen (MHAT).

During the 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. In a few years the Gypsy dramaturgy took over the principal part in the repertoire of the Theatre. Soon after, M. I. Golydblat, 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 of the Roma Theatre claiming that they did not correspond to the nature of Gypsy acting and Gypsy art by saying the only artistic path MHAT should follow was Romen.

The Theatre was without an artistic director for some time. When Mihail Mihailovich Yanshin, an actor of the MHAT, became artistic director, he openly started to emphasise the weaknesses of the Theatre as well as a need for further artistic development of this unique institution. Yanshin became artistic director on 13 September 1937 when the famous K. S. Stanislavski was one of the members of the Theatre board. The quality of the Roma 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 work in 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 Theatre set on a tour around the country. Romen went on tour, and Yanshin stayed with the MHAT.  They encountered the war in Sverdlovsk. Hard times had come for all as well as for the Theatre, but despite difficulties they continued to work. They performed in Leningrad, Ivanov, Sverdlovsk, where their tour was quite successful. During the war years the Theatre toured more than sixty places in Siberia, the Far East, Central Asia and the Caucasus region receiving a warm welcome everywhere. The tour ended in Mahachkal. Upon their return to Moscow in 1943 all members of the Theatre were awarded the "Defense of the Caucasus" medal for their bravery shown during the "Great War for the Homeland." During the war, the Theatre had three plays in its repertoire, "The Real Face," "On the Banks of the Dniestar" and "All about You."

After the end of the war the Theatre returned to Moscow. Although Yanshin was no longer with the Theatre he continued to direct until 1949. Later he became manager of the Stanislavski Drama Theatre. Petr Savich Saratovski became the manager of the Theatre Romen. He staged some exquisite plays in Romen including  "Gypsies,""The Daughter of the Tent," "On the Banks of the Dniestar,""Esmeralda," and "Love and Death." Unfortunately, apart from directing in the Theatre, he also taught at the Academy of Music. Unable to commit himself completely to the work of the Theatre he soon left. He was replaced by Semen Arkadevich Barkan. This artist spent many years in theatre and staged numerous contemporary, classical and folklore plays. The most famous plays he staged were "The Little Markely Inn," "Gypsy Girl Aza,""Hello Pushkin," "Hot Blood," and "I was Born in the Ghetto." All of these received strong support from both critics and audiences. In 1951, Barkan was substituted 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 he staged the very complex and sophisticated play "We the Gypsies," meeting with enormous success.

The Theatre has become one of the most prominent institutions of Roma culture and today houses the third generation of Roma artists. The fifty-year anniversary of the Theatre was celebrated in 1981. The most important tour "Romen" had was by far the one made in 1982 when the Theatre went to Japan, their first trip abroad. The Theatre came back to Moscow in October of the same year and in 1983 toured Yugoslavia with great success.  The Yugoslav press wrote that there had been no other foreign theatre on a tour to Yugoslavia that provoked so much favourable reaction as Romen. The encounters with Pablo Neruda, Ana Zegers, Eduardo de Philip, Maria Teresia Leon and Nasim Nikmet are still remembered.

It can be said that the Theatre Romen is the national theatre, which venerated the Roma theatrical system. This institution will continue to play a significant role in the cultural life of the Roma people and the high quality of their artistic work will continue to be offered to consumers of their artistic products.

Translated by Dusan Maljkovic
Dragan Ristic was born in Valjevo, Yugoslavia to a Roma family. He attended Belgrade University where he studied Drama Arts.  He is currently working on his Masters degree in Theatre. He is the founder of a Roma cultural center and one of the first Roma puppet theatres. Besides his love of theatre, his other interest is music. His first album, "Balcan Ambiens" with Violeta and Kal, will soon be released by United One Records of Germany, Marco's Music record label of Bulgaria, and PGP RTS, the largest record label in the former Yugoslavia.

Posted 02 December 1998 by the Patrin Web Journal with permission of the author.

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