Missing in Russia 2014 - Rich's Blog - Part 1

As a company, international touring has always been at the heart of what we do at Gecko. Over the past 10 years we have toured to over 20 countries, playing international festivals from the USA to China, Japan to Bogota, and most recently we took MISSING to Russia. Our Associate Director Rich Rusk was with the company throughout the 10 days; below are his thoughts on an extraordinary trip to Moscow…

When I told my mum that my next trip with Gecko would be to Russia, a two-venue tour which included Moscow and a smaller city called Voronezh (pretty close to the border with Ukraine), you can probably imagine her response. “…Be careful,” she said with wise eyes and a tiny hint of terror. The press has obviously been heavily focused on this part of the world recently and as a company, concerns were voiced. “Will we be safe?”, “What do they think of the English at the moment?”, “Are we doing the right thing going to a country with such a strong stance on homosexuality?”, “Will the tensions with Ukraine escalate when we are out there?” etc. We had also heard about recent boycotting of British companies and Russian funds being withdrawn from projects in Moscow featuring British Artists. This was a complicated, delicate decision and it made me nervous.

I decided to speak to Amit directly about how I was feeling (I know I wasn’t the only person in the company who had done so). We talked about the politics; we talked about how positive the British Council in Russia had been, how they had done everything in their power to ensure our safety, build strong relationships with the venues we would be visiting and how important we were to them and the work they have been doing. Amit’s personal view on the trip was simple: “We have a piece of art that means something to us and to other people. We are not going to directly affect the policies of the country by going there, but we will hopefully affect some of the people. We will aim to entertain and inspire our audiences and give them a different way of looking at the world.” We have this way of thinking everywhere we go, including the UK where our government isn’t exactly 100% behind the arts! As individuals of course we are aware of what has been happening in Russian politics over the last few years; as artists working with the British Council we decided, as a group, that we would go to Russia and focus 100% on making the show the best it could possibly be.

We meet at the airport very early, the technical crew, the performers and me. Amit is joining us for two days mid tour to attend press conferences. In terms of the quality of the show, I am in charge for the whole trip. As if I wasn’t nervous enough…

We fly to Moscow, which is only 3 hours away! When we arrive we are greeted by the Chekhov Theatre Festival International Projects Manager, Irina Shcherbakova. She will be our guide, our organiser and our companion for the entire trip. First stop Voronezh (Воронеж), a city to the west of Russia, where we are performing as part of the Platonov Arts Festival http://en.platonovfest.com – a festival with a great line up! I was shocked by how comprehensive the festival programme was. We leave the airport in Moscow and head straight to our train, it’s a 12-hour journey to Voronezh from Moscow and so we try to find some supplies and we get ready for an adventure.

We are four to a cabin and it’s pretty cramped, a little bit like being inside a moving tent. The entire team is too excited to sleep; card games and conversation keep us buzzing late into the night. Eventually a few of us decide to explore the train. It’s not long before we discover the restaurant carriage and cold beers are ordered – finally a chance to sit with our new friends to talk.

I knew that if I was going to spend two weeks with our new Russian colleagues I would need to establish open and honest relationships. The only way I know how to make work is as part of a team who can speak openly. I wanted to tell our new friends about our initial worries about coming to Russia, to break the ice. We sat together drinking local beer and within minutes the ice was smashed. Myself and some of the team had a chance to question Irina on Russian cultural policy, artistic opinions regarding companies from the West and even about the current attitude towards the English in Russia.

As our host in Russia, Irina naturally had a responsibility to be reassuring and spoke very elegantly about her government, the way theatre works in Russia and about how important her work with the Chekhov Festival was. She spoke about her personal opinion of the world she is working in, citing arts cuts, challenges with the cultural ministry, how important the British Council and other partners were to the organisation she works for. We all got on well with her immediately. I knew that we wouldn’t need to worry about political spin from her or any of our Russian team. We talked about languages and how Gecko uses language, about companies we all knew, about festivals we had all attended, companies we loved. These were artists just like us, these were people who believed deeply that we should be there and that we would be welcomed by Russian people and audiences everywhere we went. My concerns, for now, were gone. We had made new friends. Now it was time to prepare for the first show…