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Around the Jewish World Russian Group Using Theater to Explore Bible, Other Texts

December 20, 2006
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As her peers looked on attentively, Anya Slobodskaya stepped into the middle of the circle, a purple shawl draped around her neck. She turned her eyes up toward the ceiling. “Who am I?” she asked. “Why have you created me?”

Slobodskaya might also have asked what she was doing there. The conference room of a drab, Soviet-era institute in the middle of a birch-tree forest might seem like a strange place to stage “The Golem,” H. Leivick’s 1921 classic of Yiddish theater.

But the performance by Slobodskaya and her peers was the highlight of a seminar organized by LaboraTORIA, an unusual Moscow-based project that unites cutting-edge drama with the study of ancient Jewish tradition.

LaboraTORIA was started in 2002 by experimental theater director Boris Yukhananov and his colleague Grigory Zeltser. Yukhananov, the older of the two, is something of a legend in Russian avant-garde theater circles.

In the 1980s he started one of the first underground theater companies in the Soviet Union, and in the 1990s he created a marathon, seven-hour production inspired by Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” making experimental videos and working with actors afflicted with Down syndrome.

In this decade, though, Yukhananov has found inspiration by taking a closer look at his Jewish roots. His LaboraTORIA project is a loosely organized group that meets every week to act out scenes from the Torah and other Jewish texts, most recently “The Golem.” Its members are not necessarily Jewish or professional actors.

In early December the project held its Third International LaboraTORIA Seminar — a three-day event that drew actors, directors, playwrights and three Israeli rabbis.

At the opening of the seminar, Yukhananov discussed how working with LaboraTORIA had brought him closer to Judaism. Like many Jews born in the Soviet Union, he grew up in a secular family and had little exposure to religion.

“The more I get to know the Torah,” he said, “the more I get to know this whole enormous mass of Jewish tradition, the more I regret that I didn’t start learning it when I was 3 years old.”

Yukhananov went on to explain the key idea behind LaboraTORIA: By acting out scenes from the Torah, one can grasp the text — and discover its deeper meaning — in a way that other techniques can’t match.

During a cigarette break afterward, Zeltser reiterated the point.

“You can’t read a text with your eyes,” he said. “Some meanings only emerge when you act it out. I think theater is actually the best way to read a text.”

It’s a bit of an oversimplification, though, to say that LaboraTORIA’s participants merely “act out” a text. Sometimes working alone, sometimes in groups of two or three, they develop scenes that are inspired by a text. Yukhananov sits to the side and offers criticism or advice, but it’s up to the performers to develop their scenes, which often evolve over time.

“We are both the actors and directors of our work,” Slobodskaya said. “We create it ourselves.”

Slobodskaya is not a professional actress. She works as a journalist and joined Yukhananov’s group partly by accident — she learned about it when visiting a Jewish community center.

“I was going to join a photography club,” she said.

There are about two dozen regular, active participants of LaboraTORIA; a larger number occasionally drop in on meetings. Some joined the group because of a strong interest in theater, attracted by Yukhananov’s reputation. Others, like Slobodskaya, came to the group through Jewish channels.

In several cases, participants have been drawn to Judaism and become religiously observant after joining the group.

Religion was on many people’s minds at the LaboraTORIA seminar, which had the official theme “Faith and Art.”

The Russian participants were joined by four international guests: Rabbis Meir Schlesinger, Mordechai Vardi and Baruch Brener of Israel, and representing the more secular end of the Jewish spectrum, Yossi Vanunu, an Israeli-born, New York-trained theater director who now lives in Vienna.

In one of the first sessions, Schlesinger led a study session on the apocryphal story of Hannah and her seven sons (II Maccabees), in which the seven brothers are cruelly slaughtered in front of their mother after they refuse to bow down before an idol.

The lesson came with a theatrical twist. As the text was read aloud, two pairs of LaboraTORIA participants acted out the roles of Hannah and the tyrant Antiochus.

While such performances may be typical for LaboraTORIA, many find the idea of staging the Torah exotic. Vanunu, who heads the Toxic Dreams Theater Company in Vienna, said he had never seen anything like it.

“When I left Israel 20 years ago, this sort of thing didn’t exist,” he said.

Rabbi Brener suggested that art forms such as music and theater can help Jews today experience the faith that came more easily to their ancestors.

“Having an imagination helps you understand the Torah,” Brener said. “I’m convinced that the Jewish world needs to return to the world of art and the imagination in order to reconnect with the Almighty.”

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