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Elise Thoron
 
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I began working on cultural exchange with the Soviet Union when our countries were enemies locked in the frozen embrace of the Cold War. Theater provided a way of Americans and Russians connecting emotionally and intellectually around the basic questions of life. A highly collaborative art form, theater necessitates working closely together, as such it is an excellent vehicle for cultural exchange and transformative for participants and audience members alike.

When I was a student at Leningrad State University in 1984, I was adopted by a class from the local Theater Academy at their huge personal risk.  In those times it was forbidden for Soviet citizens to associate with foreigners, especially Americans.  By the end of the semester we had shared so much through our mutual passion for theater that I was determined to find a way for them to visit the United States.   That summer I was hired as a translator for a new Russian play at The O’Neill Theater Center, one of the only American arts organizations with an ongoing cultural exchange with the USSR. I had the good fortune to meet O’Neill Center founder, George White, who became a mentor in the art of international exchange.  With our wonderfully dedicated Russian partner, Gregory Nersesyan, we started the American Soviet Theater Initiative (ASTI), organizing myriad exchanges of Soviet and American theater professionals and students in the late 80s and 90s.  We created a program for American undergraduate students to study at the Moscow Art Theater, which continues to this day: The O’Neill’s National Theater Institute currently sends over thirty undergraduate students to live and study for a semester in Moscow every year. 

I became fluent in Russian by directing plays in Moscow including Geography of a Horse Dreamer - the first Sam Shepherd play in Russia-  and my own Russian adaption of Fitzgerald’s  The Great Gatsby.  Through the O’Neill and ASTI exchanges we introduced American actors to a Russian theater experience many being inspired by the work of Lev Dodin’s Maly Drama Theater, whose productions I translated for performance in the United States. In St Petersburg, I worked with Tanya & Nicki Yermolaeyev and The Alliance for Creative Youth, to bring our best Broadway music theater actors to work on new musicals with students from the St Petersburg Theater Academy.  The culmination of my work in St. Petersburg was performing the musical I wrote, Green Violin, about Chagall and the Soviet avant-garde Yiddish theater with American and Russian actors, a virtuoso gypsy violinist, a local klezmer band and composer, Frank London, conducting, and Rebecca Taichman directing. A class of Russian musical theater students played the chorus and brought to life on stage this remarkable company of Jewish actors who perished under Stalin.

Fueled by rich experiences working with Russia, I began working cross culturally with other languages and cultures within the United States.  I created a piece about immigration to the USA with the wonderful American-Dominican writer, actress, and cook, Lidia Ramirez, adapted Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao with actor Elvis Nolasco. In Brazil, I directed American composer, Lukas Foss’ opera The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (click here for photos) and Jake Hegge’s opera At the Statue of Venus in Sao Paulo.  And I have become deeply engaged in Japanese culture through my collaboration with Kyoko Ibe, internationally renowned paper artist.

Two foundations are the mainstay in supporting my cross-cultural work: Trust for Mutual Understanding (TMU) in former Soviet territories, and, more recently, Asian Cultural Council (ACC) in Asia.  Our government, sadly, does not have a coherent, sustained policy or support for diplomacy through the arts, although individual American embassies can be very helpful. So I feel tremendous gratitude these to ACC and TMU, for recognizing the importance and powerful ripple effect of individual encounters and exchange through the arts.

Japan

Recycling: washi tales on going collaboration and cultural exchange with Japanese paper artist and performers. Click here for photos.

     
Brazil  

Jumping Frog of Calaveros County by Lukas Foss; At the Statue of Venus by Jake Heggie; directed two operas at Teatro Sao Pedro, Sao Paulo, Brasil (2007). Click here for photos.

     
Russia  

Green Violin in St Petersburg (2005)

     
Russia  

Wild Party by Andrew Lippa, directed concert version with American actors and Russian students as chorus, Jazz Philharmonia, St Petersburg (1999)

     
Hatuey  

Words no Words by Martin Boroson, music by Trevor Knight (1999) devised and directed a cross-cultural performance based on the paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe with Japanese Noh master and Butoh dancer and Irish actors. Temeons Project, Dublin (1999) Laboratory, 1997, Sli na Bande, Co. Wicklow. (1997) Click here for photos.

     
Russia  

Captain's Daughter by Alexander Pushkin, Andre Petrov (composer), Adele Ahronhiem (librettist), directed this ongoing exchange developing a new musical with Russian and American actors and musicians in St. Petersburg/ New York. (1996-98)

     
Russia  

First Snow - Egorushka (director/translator) by Oleg Antonov, (translation E. Thoron), at The O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut (1993) and No Mercy by Constance Congdon, (translation S. Volonets), at the National Playwrights Conference, Shelykova, Russia (1995). Conceived and created this cross-cultural exchange to explore and develop bilingual performances of a new Russian play and an American play with an ensemble of Russian and American actors. (1993/95)

     
Russia  

Geography of a Horse Dreamer by Sam Shepherd, (translation N. Gorshkova) directed first Sam Shepherd play in Russian at Pushkin Theatre, Moscow. Lead to productions of many of his palys. (1989)