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Lessons from theatre

“Третья способность души после ума и воли — творчество.”

Василий Андреевич Жуковский

“The third ability possessed by the soul after mind and will, is creativity.”

Vasily Zhukovsky, 19th century Russian poet and translator

An interview which recently caught my eye considers the importance of professional cooperation and dialogue between Russia and countries such as Britain, drawing lessons from the world of theatre and drama. The interview with Anna Genina, an accomplished translator of British plays for joint Russo-British theatrical projects, notes the significance of cross-cultural differences in the context of interpersonal communication and translation.

The Fontanka interview with Genina brings out two key lessons. The first, is that whatever momentary difficulties there might be between nations, on-going collaboration in the field of culture and the arts is all the more essential. It serves as a reminder that – as the quotation from Zhukovsky above notes – art unites us in our humanity. This was illustrated just last month, when the British Museum lent the Elgin Marbles to St. Petersburg’s Hermitage for its 250th anniversary celebration. Genina’s extensive work on ‘Britfest’, a project which includes Bolshoi Drama Theatre actors staging sketches from contemporary British plays, is a valuable example of the much-needed contact which our countries are maintaining.

The second and equally important point highlighted by Genina’s experience involves cross-cultural communication, particularly miscommunication. In her interview Genina recalls a situation of a kind which doubtless many Russians have encountered when interacting with their British counterparts – namely the directness with which people communicate in each country.

In a correspondence between two collaborating museums – one from Russia, the other from the UK – the British side wished to put forward a request for an exhibition that was due to appear in Russia. However, after receiving a letter containing the quintessentially British request, “we would be very grateful if you would consider the issue of…,” the director on the Russian side reacted by saying, “it’s fine, we’ll do without their thanks and not change anything, it’s not like they said we had to do it!” Genina, who was assisting in the project, intervened and explained to the British party that their communication had to be much more direct in order to achieve the intended result!

While Genina’s recounting of the anecdote is amusing to read, it raises a serious point about the ease and speed with which communication between two parties can break down. In certain contexts, particularly business and politics, the importance of expertise in facilitating communication between people with different ways of thinking should not be underestimated (mentalitet in Russian, crucially somewhat different to the English word mentality – a subtle difference which is itself a potential pitfall for understanding).

Work on international theatrical collaborations involves plenty of translation, and this is both a linguistic and a cultural exercise. In a sphere as complex as theatre where nuance, subtlety and feeling are central to the texts which are translated, the potential for misunderstanding is high. When discussing the work Lucky Dog by Royal Court playwright Leo Butler, Genina observes that the only previous Russian staging of the play interpreted it as a farce, when in fact it is more of a psychological work rich in subtext and allusion. If such a radical misinterpretation of an entire work is possible, then one can only imagine the risk of misunderstanding presented by every line and every gesture of a translated play.

But despite this risk, Genina and many others (for example Neil MacGregor at the British Museum) who operate in the sphere of artistic collaboration have had enormous successes. The teaming up of London’s Royal Court and St Petersburg’s Bolshoi Drama Theatre will have brought huge benefit to countless directors, actors and their audiences, as well as appreciation of each other’s art and talents.

So where does this leave us, as far as cross-cultural communication in other spheres is concerned? This post began by relating the world of international collaboration in theatre to that of politics, so I will end with a reference to the stage where I hope I put in my best performances – business. Great results and ongoing cooperation, even during difficult times, are possible in the complex world of theatre where what is not said is just as important as what is said. So this being the case, surely better cooperation in business, where the rules of the market mean everyone is reading from the same lines, is possible too, even if in politics it seems as though “all the world’s a stage”.

Do you have personal anecdotes of instances where cultural differences resulted in misunderstandings, whether amusing or otherwise?

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