Jonathan Salway

Selection_022Interview by John Harrison

What made you come to Russia?

I was working as an actor in the UK. You probably know that an acting career in the UK is slightly different from an acting career in Russia, where actors can work in the same company for a long period of their careers if not their entire careers. In Britain you’re very much a freelancer going from job to job. So I’ve worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company, in The Mousetrap in London, been on many tours and worked with some great directors like Richard Eyre and Michael Grandage. But there I was, teaching drama in a school in between acting jobs, and somebody approached me and said that he worked for an organisation that goes over to Moscow every summer for three weeks to do a summer camp, and they could really do with some drama. So I was invited over.

What year was that?

That was 2009, and it went very very well, it was a school summer camp outside of Moscow, in beautiful fresh air. In my lunch breaks I remember reading bits of Chekhov, as a trained actor it seemed to be the done thing to do. I was invited back by a Russian school, a state school with a pretty good pedigree in theatre and I came back quite regularly then, and started to do productions. I organised shows for a student Shakespeare Festival for older students, which won a few awards. I think it might still be running.

My life story in the UK was changing and I decided to risk it over here. This is such a good environment for theatre that I came up with the idea of the Moscow English Theatre. Just before coming here, in 2009, I started doing a lot of work with a touring company in Italy and Germany. We did Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Oscar Wilde that kind of vintage English repertoire shows on four week tours. Then I came to Moscow and saw that the level of English that people have here is higher than it was in Italy and Germany, the theatre culture was stronger, so I thought let’s have a go at starting the Moscow English Theatre and see if it catches on.

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How did you get people to work with, how did you start?

A lot of emails to set up meetings. I felt that we could start off in a humble venue, with a small cast, get our foot in the door and build up a reputation that way. But Karina (my partner who is running the company now) had a very different angle. She said, no, we need to get into a decent venue straight away, so that we could become associated with that theatre. So we wrote to the Moscow theatres; we were looking for small venues, ones with around 100-200 seats. I think the Mayakovsky Theatre was one of the first ones we wrote to and they wrote back almost immediately. We met with the managing director there and he asked us about what kind of show we would be doing there – we gave ourselves the remit of a contemporary small cast English/American drama that wouldn’t often be seen here and could be manageable economically, and he said, well, OK, come on board. At first I didn’t think that it was going to be financially viable, because hiring theatres anywhere is not cheap, and we realised that we would have to fill two thirds of every performance just to cover costs. He offered us some dates, we looked at the space and decided to go for it.
Our first performance was Educating Rita, and we flew Emma Dallow in to play Rita (after auditions that we held in London), in March 2013. Emma was trained at Central School of Drama in London, and was perfect for the part. The show sold out over four performances so we were greatly encouraged to continue – yes, we thought, there is an audience here! Then we did a two-man show, called Space Oddity, which I acted with Gavin Robertson; a very different piece to Rita, a quirky physical comedy style of theatre but equally popular with Moscow audiences. We’d played it at the Edinburgh Festival and toured the UK with it and we adapted it slightly to suit Moscow audiences. The following year we did Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange a play about aspects of the British psychiatric treatment system, which had been a big success in the West End in 2000. This was a psychological drama about a black teenage boy getting psychiatric treatment in the UK. The play deals with the fact that there are more blacks proportion-wise in the UK getting psychiatric treatment than whites. I was nervous about putting it on in Moscow, but I was wrong, we had a huge response as in our globalized world the play had a universal appeal. We had to fly a director and an actor over, and we had an actor here who had been trained at the Royal Academy of Scotland. Gavin then came over again and did a one-man show called Bond and we adapted Luke Kempner’s London and Edinburgh one man hit show about Downton Abbey – audiences loved it. We delved into children’s theatre last year with our adaptation of Treasure Island which we plan to play again in the future.

Our current production is an English language premiere for Moscow. It’s a play by Nick Payne called Constellations and it has been a success in London and New York. It’s a love story interweaved with physics – yes, physics and the multiverse. We’ve played it twice now at the Mayakovsky to happy sell-out audiences and it’ll be returning in the autumn so watch this space – well, follow us on Facebook or at www.moscowenglishtheatre.com

Who is your audience?

Russians mostly. I wasn’t really thinking about the expat audience when we started, but we naturally appealed to the expat audience as well, and I think it’s about 60% Russians and 40% expats. Some of the foreign embassies, like the Australian embassy, have been big supporters.

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What about you, do you make enough money to live on this?

I supplement it with a little teaching as well and I go into several schools to offer masterclasses which is something I really enjoy. I think as an actor to be reminded of the enthusiasm and spontaneity of young students is always inspiring. I do a lot of radio voice overs and we supply actors for that as well – anything from commercials to video games. I do some TV also, I got a nice little role in Londongrad recently which gave me some kudos with my students – that was always the way in the UK, do some meaty theatre roles and they don’t respond but a small part on TV and you’re a hero.

We’ve obviously been affected by the turbulence in the rouble exchange rate, as we sign contracts with actors in GBP. There is about a three-month time line between us booking them and taking money in through the box office, and we have been caught out on a number of occasions when the rouble has plummeted, so we have to be very careful. And it means more and more we look at using UK or American trained actors who are resident in Moscow.

Are you going to stay in Russia?

I have family here now, a wife and a three-year-old daughter. Russia gets such a bad press, which is quite unjustified. All the actors I have had over have had such positive experiences, without exceptions.

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What are your plans for the future?

We’d like to play in a bigger theatre, and we’d like to tour more. So far we had a hugely successful tour, taking Rita to Kaliningrad and we think there is an appetite for this sort of thing outside of Moscow. We will be looking for more people to help us expand especially in the marketing field. We have the opportunity to use the larger space at the Mayakovsky Theatre, which seats about 230 people. We are thinking of using larger casts, with perhaps 5 or 6 people, and then one or two of them could be Russians who speak English very well. One play we are looking at is ‘Who’s Life Is It Anyway?’ which is a fascinating 1980s play about euthanasia as I know now Moscow audiences can take any theme. Elephant Man is another show we’d like to bring over. We are interested in shows that Russian audiences haven’t been exposed to, and which the companies like the Royal Shakespeare Company don’t do when they are here. I also want to get back onto the International festival circuit which I have been part of in the past and start taking shows that we develop here to festivals around the world.

What is the difference between Russian and Western audiences?

Some plays depend on linking things that happen in one act with something that happens a few acts later. Russian audiences get these links, so sometimes it is a surprise to see, oh, wow, the Russian audience has been following it. There is a beautiful tradition of flowers afterwards, which you don’t get in the West, and there is the slow clap which is regarded in Britain as being rather derogatory. But it’s the warmth of Russian audiences, which is so amazing.

www.moscowenglishtheatre.com