& Company


Russian Spring and Resurrecting the Past
or How Many Baltimoreans Does It Take
To Change A City?

by Matthew-Daniel Stremba

"Shrinkage of time is so enormous once you age.
At 50 I realized that I am closer to the end — in years.
Whereas at 23 you might fantasize that you are close to the end through some freak disease, you also realize you have a lot of time, chance-wise. Statistically, I don't have time...."

—Spalding Gray (1941-2004)

in an interview with Kate Miller *

What Does an American Do All Day in Russia?

Several e-mailers have needled me: "what is it you do all day while Barbara goes off to define US interests in the Russia?" To lay this to rest, once and for all, let me come clean. A good part of my waking hours I give over to dealing with a parade of visitors, i.e. images from the past, things people have done, said, things I've said, done, scenes, settings.

These incorporeal visitors drop in uninvited. Often I can't figure what spurred them to come just when they did. Other times it's some identifiable here-and-now trigger. An e-mail comes out of the blue from so-and-so; a lone photo I'd forgotten about drops out of a book; a sudden smell opens the door to a train of memories. Or one morning early this March, CNN's startling announcement about the discovery of Spalding Gray's body in New York's East River, and up rise colorful scenes from Baltimore's New Theater Festival, the late 1970s.

It's easier for anybody, really, to make assumptions about what it is Barbara does all day. Representing America abroad, a grand phrase. Though I've been known to hold forth on the waste of US taxpayers' money and how we could just close down all foreign installations and simply send diplomats off on a circuit with a cell phone, a laptop, and a multi-system coffee-maker, I have actually experienced many moments of pride in Barbara's work. And she does have effect even beyond her official brief.

In Tashkent, it will be a long time before Lutheran memories of her vital presence in their community dim, a long time before the state Khorovaya kapella forgets all her promotional support or the music that Memorial parish's Doug Forbes sent them, through her, for their repertoire. And here in Yekaterinburg, after a concert of the Great City Choir, I saw the pleasure Russian altos feel having Barbara sing in their section, and I sensed the easy friendship Vadim Petrovich, their director, extends to her and another ex-pat (Michael Hackett sings with the tenors), two Americans who do their best to get to rehearsal three evenings per week.

How many Americans does it take to make a difference?

Baltimoreans Abroad.

That anybody would take a vacation in Uzbekistan seemed unheard of. I remember one Baltimore neighbor, before we set out for Tashkent in 1998, tsk-tsk-ing how the place was so remote no one would ever visit us. Well, whaddya know, there came friends from Scotland and Germany eager to meet our local friends — "Please meet Jenny and Mary. Let me introduce Lydia H. " And, my-my, a Baltimore Gang, too — "This is Maryann and Gus; and here we have Guy and Pam; and this, Lydia D. " Our Tashkent friends themselves were astounded that anyone would "take a holiday" (Soviet English has been an approximation of British English) in their hometown.

Baltimorean Gus L. visiting Tashkent, summmer 2001
One Baltimorean visiting another one and her friends in a residential courtyard, Tashkent, summer 2001. From left to right: Ramil, Husniddin, the landlady Gulnara who is also founder of a district family center, Barbara C., and Gus L.

Did the seven of us Baltimoreans have some critical-mass effect? Hey, Tashkent has never been the same. That wasn't because of any "Hi, hon!" graffiti we might've sprayed on bridge abutments. But there are a few "Eat Bertha's Mussels" and "The City That Reads" and "BLIEVE, HON" bumper stickers on display. The sewerage system may not yet have recovered after the added strains from American production, but there's at least one Tashkent toilet that now, inspired by a Baltimore model, gets its water feed properly jiggled. Because of Baltimoreans in town, American toys made in China got into the hands of Uzbek boys, and more US dollars entered the local market, and multiple paperback editions of Accidental Tourist, Baltimore Blues,and Angela's Ashes began circulating. In addition, our visiting friends brought with them a palpable humility and respect few failed to notice.

Yekaterinburg has been a different story. We've welcomed one visitor here from Tashkent: Hadicha; and one from Washington via her job in Moscow: Janina. And that's it. Certainly no hometown folks to be introduced around. None we knew of till just very recently. The middle of Lent 2004, and surprise! A fresh Baltimorean shows up, spends an intense two-three days here, then shoves on to the next Russian city. A theater man named Philip Arnoult.

The last time I saw Arnoult, before Yekaterinburg, was in the mid-nineties at Theater Project, when he was already retiring there to a kind of venerable founder status while someone else was, so to speak, starting to run the show. He doesn't remember seeing us in the lobby that day; Barbara and I don't remember the bill of fare that evening. Anyhow, the other day, the impresario was in town, here in Yekaterinburg, looking much the same — well, a Russian bear with Irish eyes. And in the midst of many things he had to get done he was characteristically gracious.

Baltimore Trio: MD Stremba, P. Arnoult, & Barbara C, spring 2004
Just three Baltimoreans
far away from
their hometown
in a city in the Urals region
of Russia.

The Theater Project.

Arnoult remembered that I'd once done some work at his old venue there on Preston at Cathedral Street. Only I, however, remembered what exactly that work was. Only I knew how extremely lucky I had been to have gotten those four late-night spots in early 1980, thanks to Carol Friedman's dad, Marty (may he rest in peace; or, as the Russians say, may the earth be like down feathers for him); through Marty's persistence I was introduced to Arnoult. Like an alumnus who doesn't want to disturb his old teacher's comfortable memories by inserting the brutal reality of his own classroom under-achievements, I discreetly declined reminding Arnoult of any details about the show I did so long ago at Theater Project. (My analogy limps: we're both old men; Arnoult, I find out, was born the same year as I; he was a graduate student in CUA's drama school same time I was a seminarian hoofing it down Harewood Road to CUA's school of theology.)

Patrons of Theater Project in its early years, that is, before the introduction of normal admission tickets, can tell wonderful stories about all manner of things they saw there. I remember David B. Cooper going on ecstatically about one show, a group Pilobolus, whose work he fell in love with in the 1970s. Just this past February 2004, CBS' "60 Minutes" did a feature on what Pilobolus is doing now thirty years later. And here in Yekaterinburg, Arnoult recalled the original Pilobolus members, then all nimble enough to leap and contort and fuse into a sculpture of bodies, and how after one show at Theater Project they earned 98 bucks from good-will donations patrons had stuffed into a hat, a laughable sum in light of the kinds of fees the "dance" company commands these days.**

I remember a show there called "Outlaw Heaven," which I thought a terrific event, but as is typical with me, I can't remember the touring company's name, and, in the sweep of our recent Yekaterinburg evening, I didn't get around to drawing it out of Arnoult, a walking encyclopedia of theater information. (Ironically, his feet, he tells us, are troubling him these days, so we chose the restaurant the shortest walk away from his hotel.)

I remember being in the audience several times for Bob Carroll, a solo-performer with a singular persona that seemed it would be the very same offstage too. He had a nose the shape of a crone's finger centered on a face pale as a Russian's, itself at the center of a mane of white-blonde hair that sometimes frizzed out and away like sunshine. His delivery was a jazzy-bluesy chanting accompanied by rhythmic tapping that never messed up. I have vague recollections of his signature piece, "The Salmon Show," and his doing something with passages from Colette's diary. ***

Arnoult tells the story that when Spalding Gray (another performer whom I first heard of in Baltimore: The New Theater Festival) was moving his creativity more toward solo performance and having some artistic problems doing it, Gray caught a performance of Bob Carroll in NYC, and that made all the difference. I just learned that Carroll died shortly after a botched suicide in the late 1980s, which came 2-3 years after Gray's "Swimming to Cambodia," and 15 years before Gray's own suicide in January 2004.

When I told one Yekat expat about our dinner with Philip Arnoult, she wondered how it was that Barbara and I hobnobbed with "the rich and famous." I laughed. For one thing, Arnoult had just regaled us with some of the hairy times in Baltimore when the wolf was at the stagedoor, told us about serious inroads theater finances made on his and his wife's (Carol Baish) personal assets, and said, with no regret in his voice, that after a lifetime in theater he's just never gotten rich.

As for us hobnobbing with the famous, that's really funny. In Baltimore if I ever cross paths with a celebrity — from William Donald Schaefer to, say, Montel Williams — I customarily withdraw to the margins struck dumb with awe. Probably why Arnoult didn't remember chatting with us in the mid-90s. Here in Yekaterinburg, that we were three Baltimoreans, together, away from our shrinking hometown, in a city of Russians and dirty snow, that fact seemed to take precedence over Arnoult's fame. And had I never had the honor of doing my own work all those years ago at Theater Project, I probably would've let Barbara do the recent honors all by herself.

How Many Baltimoreans Does It Take?

Now, just why was Arnoult here? His first time in Yekaterinburg, but hardly the first time in Russia, he has been working for some years as director of the Center for International Theater Development, an organization that seeks to locate new talent, create meetings between artists from different countries, cultures, hemispheres, get new work going. In the hotel lobby Arnoult introduced us to dance artists he had brought to Russia from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. He had come to know them on one of many trips into East Africa, where the Center also works developing opportunities for exchanges — training, production partnerships, tours — with established companies in Eastern Europe. (Arnoult was transiting through Cairo, September 11, 2001, he told us, when in a hotel room he caught televised images of the unfolding terrorist horror in the USA.) ****

Theater Project patrons will remember Arnoult's introducing several foreign companies to Baltimore audiences. Look at his curriculum vitae and you plow through abbreviations and acronyms signifying various world organizations and the American chapters thereof.

The afternoon we caught up with Arnoult was at a meeting squeezed between two other appointments on his tight schedule. He was to meet Olga Kislinskaya, a young Russian linguistics teacher, who has formed an amateur theater group for doing English-language plays. ("Is there a demand for that here in Yekaterinburg?" Paul Neubauer, an ex-pat, asked her. "Lots," she said laughing at the improbability.)

Theatre luminary Philip Arnoult visiting Yekaterinburg, spring 2004
Meeting at the American Center in one of Yekaterinburg's municipal libraries, from left to right: Paul N., Olga K., Barbara C., Philip Arnoult, Elena, and Maria T. center director.

This local producer of plays came to our attention nearly a year ago. Her troupe has no home stage, rehearses where it can, and takes its show to the audience. We sponsored an evening of her company's production of "November Women," a play they'd found on the internet, here in our home, to which we invited about two dozen individuals, locals with good English fluency, as well as American and British ex-pats, all jammed into our living room. *****

More recently Kislinskaya happened across Kate Moira Ryan, an American playwright, who is still putting finishing touches to a drama about Tsar Nicholas II's daughters in their last days in this city. It seemed a natural choice for Olga's company. She submitted a request for permission to do Ryan's play, "OTMA," and got a positive response. Ryan who will be in Moscow in September for a theater festival, in which Arnoult's organization plays a part, will also come to Yekaterinburg to look in on Olga's rehearsals. The culture section of the US Consulate is studying ways to provide some assistance for the production of this new American work by local actors, primarily by getting a performance venue.

The target date for the premiere is, sadly, months after Barbara and I depart Yekaterinburg for good. Any Americans reading this who'd like to fly in for the premiere — well, your applause could make a difference. And those of you who still call Maryland's Charm City your home, well, flying here for the show would increase from "3" the number of Baltimoreans who've had some effect here.

By then Barbara and I will have already returned home, finding Baltimore to have shrunk even more in our absence. (Is Baltimore's population still bleeding a thousand souls each month?) Maybe that's why Arnoult and many of our Baltimore friends love to get away and travel so much. Baltimore's too damn small. I myself like small. Philip and our Gang must too, really, because they keep going back home to Baltimore. Once back, though, I think I'll just stay. Someone's got to be sensible. Besides, all my surprise visitors need to know where to find me.

Americans visiting Bukhara, autumn 2000
Americans in Bukhara, autumn 2000. The adults, from left to right: Guy H., MDS, Pam F., BFC, Aron L., and Sara H.; the last two, Peace Corps volunteers then, are now married and back in the USA. Names of the three Bukhara children, unfortunately, missing from file.

Yours truly,
your friend, welcoming memories of you
on the way to Easter, which this year, 2004,
coincides on both calendars,
Matthew-Daniel Stremba

Baltimoreans visiting a family near Bukhara, summer 2001
Two Baltimoreans received as guests in a small town between Navoiy and Bukhara, summer 2001. Clockwise round the family table from lower left: Indira, Halima (mother), Nargiza (only partially visible), lady whose name I've forgotten, Maryann L, Gus L., Nodir (Tashkent visitor), Radik (father), and Laura, the youngest daughter.


* Spalding Gray.

The full interview with Kate Miller starts at —

* * Pilobolus.

More of the February 2004 "60 Minutes" feature —

* * * Bob Carroll.

A good appreciation of and personal response to Carroll's art —

* * * * Philip Arnoult.

A St Petersburg Times article on his work in Russia and Africa —

* * * * * Olga Kislinskaya.

Her work at the American Center in Yekaterinburg —

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