Stanford students, faculty perform at festival in Russia

Students and faculty with Stanford Repertory Theater were chosen to be among several international guests who performed at a festival in St. Petersburg, Russia, in November.

A group of students and faculty with Stanford Repertory Theater staged a play in St. Petersburg, Russia, in November after having been selected to be among international performers  at a festival honoring the work of 19th-century Russian writer Ivan Turgenev.

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Video by Kurt Hickman

Stanford students and faculty were invited to perform in St. Petersburg, Russia, at a Turgenev festival.

The opportunity came about as a result of the repertory theater’s past summer festivals organized by Rush Rehm, the repertory theater’s artistic director and a professor of classics and of theater and performance studies in the School of Humanities and Sciences. The work caught the attention of the TurgenevFest’s administrators, who contacted Rehm and encouraged the repertory theater to apply for a place in the event.

It was the first visit to Russia for Rehm, psychology Professor Benoît Monin and undergraduates Emma Rothenberg and Gabe Wieder. They were among 10 theater groups from universities around the world that performed stage interpretations of Turgenev’s work at the event.

“It’s wonderful to be able to bring back this sense of what theater is like in different cultures,” said Wieder, a junior majoring in product design and theater and performance studies. “It really puts things into perspective in terms of how a story can be universal across time periods, cultures and languages.”

Bolshoi Theatre in St. Petersburg

Junior Gabe Wieder, left, psychology Professor Benoît Monin, center, and Gabriella Grier rehearse at the black box space inside the Bolshoi Theatre in St. Petersburg. (Image credit: Courtesy of Rush Rehm)

Organized and funded by St. Petersburg University Alumni Association, the festival celebrated 200 years since the birth of Turgenev, an alumnus of the university. Turgenev’s writing, such as the 1862 novel Fathers and Sons, influenced major Russian literary figures including playwright Anton Chekhov.

Wieder said the trip fulfilled his longtime desire to go abroad while at Stanford.

“There is something different about going somewhere with a purpose,” Wieder said. “Traveling and sightseeing is great, but I think there are aspects of a culture that you don’t get unless you are working on a project there or have an internship or go to school. This trip was especially rewarding because of that.”

Diving into a foreign world

Rehm, who focuses on Greek classics in his scholarly work, wasn’t particularly familiar with Turgenev literature, but he took on the opportunity to explore the writer’s work with pleasure.

Theater group

Rush Rehm (back) poses for a photo with the rest of the Stanford Repertory Theater group in an auditorium at St. Petersburg University. From left: stage manager Brendon Martin, Professor Benoît Monin, senior Emma Rothenberg, actress Gabriella Grier, and junior Gabe Wieder. (Image credit: Courtesy of Rush Rehm)

He shortened an Irish adaptation of Turgenev’s play A Month in the Country, which he remembered seeing at London’s National Theater several years ago. Reducing the cast from 14 to four actors, Rehm renamed his version Four-Sided Triangle. The play explores the emotional connections among four characters: the wealthy and married Natalya, her friend Mikhail, her ward, Vera, and her son’s new tutor, Aleksei. Along with Wieder and Rothenberg, the cast included Monin and Gabriella Grier, both of whom act professionally.

“The play explores the way people’s emotional needs and psychological drives crisscross and refuse to align,” Rehm said. “Love and failed love are essential elements in Turgenev’s work. I think most people find a connection with that. Turgenev suggests that love is dangerous and that passion can destroy, but at the same time it can constitute the most uplifting moments of your life.”

In its 20-year history, Stanford Repertory Theater has performed across the world, including at theaters in Shanghai, Greece, Australia, New Zealand, France, Berlin and Amsterdam.

But visiting Russia was a unique experience, Rehm said.

Because the U.S. State Department issued a Level Three travel advisory for Russia in spring 2018, Rehm had to get special permission from Stanford to bring the company to St. Petersburg. Per its international travel policy, Stanford prohibits undergraduate students to take Stanford-organized trips to regions for which the State Department issued a Level Three advisory or higher. Earlier this week, the State Department reduced that advisory to a Level Two.

“It was a hoop I’ve never had to go through before, but I’m glad it all worked out,” Rehm said. “To have the chance to perform a play in Russia, where Turgenev was from, in front of a Russian audience was extraordinary.”

Exploring theater across cultures

A senior majoring in history, Rothenberg said visiting Russia was a “whirlwind” for her.

“As Americans in the current political climate, we have this mystique of what Russia represents and a very vague sense of what the country is,” Rothenberg said. “So going there was really amazing. St. Petersburg is a gorgeous city with so much cultural heritage. I was geeking out going to the Hermitage and other museums in our spare time.”

Learning about Turgenev has inspired Rothenberg to explore more Russian plays and theater. But her favorite part of the experience has been connecting with people from other countries who are as excited as she is about the arts.

“To actually meet people who live vastly different lives than yours but have the same passions as yours is beautiful,” she said.