ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — The event happens in a different city every few years and participants from all over the world are thrilled to take part. Crowds rush to buy tickets for events they might never otherwise see. It was founded in Greece, and international cooperation and good will are high on the list of aims.
Yes, it’s the Olympics — but this is the Theater Olympics, a roving festival founded in 1994. About every four years since (but not always), it has popped up in a new city around the world, each iteration directed by an eminent local theater personality but involving the members of an international committee.
This year, for the first time, the Theater Olympics are being hosted by two cities: The festival began in St. Petersburg, Russia, in June, ran concurrently during August and September in Toga, Japan, and then continued in Russia until Dec. 13.
With 104 productions (78 of them in Russia) from 22 countries, this year’s edition is the longest and most extensive since its inception. It features large-scale productions by Katie Mitchell, Milo Rau, Heiner Goebbels, and Tadashi Suzuki, who also directed the Toga-based part of the festival. (Despite the name, there are no competitive elements or prizes awarded at the Theater Olympics.)
The scale of this year’s edition is remarkable, but even though the organization’s international committee includes the American director Robert Wilson, the French theater maker Georges Lavaudant and the British playwright Tony Harrison, remarkably few people from the Western theater world seem to have heard of the Theater Olympics.
Perhaps that’s because, so far, the festival has been in countries (China, Greece, Japan, South Korea and Turkey, among others) that are not international theatrical hubs. And unlike major festivals like Avignon or Edinburgh, the Theater Olympics are not annual and do not have a permanent director or communications staff who might provide a clear identity. Instead, the event is reinvented each time by a new artistic director.
“I knew nothing about it before they invited us,” said Stefan Kaegi, one of the founders of Rimini Protokoll, a Berlin-based theater collective, in a telephone interview. “We thought it might be one of those pre-Olympic Games cultural festivals. But we learned it’s something quite different.”
Different is right, said Theodoros Terzopoulos, director of the Attis Theater in Athens and chairman of the international committee of the Theater Olympics. In a telephone interview, he enthusiastically recounted how the event had originated during a series of talks and seminars for theater directors and academics that he had hosted in 1989 in Delphi, Greece.
“We had all these great names — Robert Wilson, Heiner Müller, Tadashi Suzuki — and for many, it was the first time they were meeting,” Mr. Terzopoulos said. “They were talking and exchanging ideas, philosophies and theatrical traditions. We thought, how can we create an international version of this, which will travel around the world?”
The first committee of the Theater Olympics consisted of the participants at that original Delphi gathering, and most of the original members are still involved. There was, and still is, only one female committee member, the Spanish actress and director Nuria Espert. “We have to try to change this, it’s very important,” Mr. Terzopoulos said, adding that the committee had repeatedly tried to get the German choreographer Pina Bausch, who died in 2009, to join its ranks. (“She was never interested,” he said.)
It took six years until they were able to get enough money to hold the first festival, in Delphi in 1995. What they wanted, Mr. Terzopoulos said, was an event that was inclusive, showing and sharing all kinds of theatrical traditions from diverse cultures, and that promoted a spirit of conciliation and freedom. Even though the Theater Olympics have been hosted in China, Russia and Turkey — countries where freedom of artistic expression is relatively restricted — there has been no censorship, apart from the prohibition of nudity in China, Mr. Terzopoulos said.
“Because it’s not a local festival, we somehow have the liberty to be more open,” he said. “This time in Russia, over six months, we could really make it multicultural, multidisciplinary,” he added. “People are isolated, we are slaves to technology; what is important for us is that people go out of the house, meet others, see things they don’t know.”
Yulia Kleiman, editor in chief of Peterburgskiy Teatral, a theater magazine in St. Petersburg said that fewer international theater troupes had toured Russia in the last five years because of diplomatic tensions, a lack of funding, and censorship. “Officially that’s not the case, but it is,” she said. “So the Theater Olympics program looked especially impressive in such a context, like we were 10 or 15 years ago, in a time of freedom and collaboration.”
Valery Fokin, the artistic director of the Alexandrinsky Theater who is also leading the programming for the St. Petersburg part of the Theater Olympics, said that 2019 was the official year of theater in Russia, which had made extensive funding available to host the event and allowed the possibility of creating a much-larger event than usual. (The budget was around $10 million, organizers said.)
Mr. Suzuki, the artistic director of the Toga part, who is known for his rigorous physical training methods and marriage of Western texts with Japanese aesthetics and language, presented Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac,” mostly in Japanese. “The behaviors and movements are Japanese, the spoken language changes, the book is French and the music Italian,” Mr. Suzuki said in an interview backstage at the Alexandrinsky Theater. “It is not Japan and it is not the West. This is something new for a Russian audience.”
Ms. Kleiman, the magazine editor, said that while the Theater Olympics had been “a big gift,” there was little hope that St. Petersburg would see this kind of international lineup anytime soon. Mr. Fokin too, acknowledged that the bar was now higher.
“After the high-profile names we had at the event, I don’t know what we can do next,” he said. “Perhaps sword swallowers.”