Danila Korogodsky brought theater to the heart of Russian history in 2006 when he raised the curtain on a stage within the 26-meter-thick walls of St. Petersburg’s 300-year-old Peter and Paul Fortress.
“It’s a remarkable space,” said the St. Petersburg-born member of CSULB’s Theater Arts faculty since 1995. “I’ve spent my life in theaters and this is one of the most charming and mysterious spaces I’ve ever seen in my life.”
When Russian Czar Peter the Great reclaimed the lands along the Neva River in 1703, he decided to build a fort to protect the area from possible attack by the Swedish army and navy. The fortress was founded on a small island in the Neva delta on May 27, 1703, and that day became the birthday of St. Petersburg. The Swedes were defeated before the fortress was completed so, from 1721 on, the fortress housed part of the city’s garrison and served as a high-security political jail including such inmates as Dostoyevsky, Gorky, Trotsky and Lenin’s older brother, Alexander. In the middle of the fortress stands the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the burial place of all the Russian emperors and empresses from Peter the Great to Alexander III.
“The place itself is rich in cultural history and much bigger than the Tower of London,” said Korogodsky, who spends months every year in his Russian home. “So it was with some trepidation that I approached the manager of the fortress’ city museum and asked if he would like the idea of having a small theater troupe under his roof. He replied that he had thought about just such an idea for 40 years.”
Korogodsky and the manager toured the vast complex before settling on a space buried within the fortress walls. “It’s a very unconventional space,” he said. “Some guy showed up with a bunch of keys and we went to the walls where we found a doorway with a huge lock. They opened that lock and we crawled through the thickness of the wall for about 10 yards. I found myself in the middle of a space that was exactly what I’d dreamed of.”
The domed rooms came in various sizes including a foyer and a stage. “It had been a ruin which our troupe cleaned and gave a wooden floor,” he said. The shape of the audience fluctuates. “We created a flexible configuration which can arrange the audience in a conventional setting or they can be seated all along one wall,” he said. “The whole space is a rectangle which is roughly eight by 17 meters.”
The theater has its roots in a troupe established by Korogodsky’s father, a longtime producer and director in what was then Soviet Leningrad. “For the last 15 years of his life, my father led his own St. Petersburg theatrical company called Generations,” he explained. When his father passed on in 2004, “the theater was fatherless, metaphorically speaking,” he said. “The actors of the company invited me to be their leader and the first thing I thought of was a change in location to the cultural center of the city.”
There was the inevitable jumping through hoops to obtain official permission from the city government, the fortress management and the preservation society. “Right now, we are there by good will,” he said.
The troupe opened in 2006 with a version of “King Lear” titled “Without Lear” followed this January by Sophocles’ “Antigone.” Next up is a program titled “Songs of Love and Death” and an evening of theatrical improvisation.
Some careers are bicoastal but Korogodsky’s is bi-continental. “I’m there when I’m not here,” he said about his frequent visits. “That can be a bit tiresome after a 19-hour flight.” When he shows up during spring break, he expects to see rehearsals of three productions, and when he returns again this May, “we’ll have a repertory of eight shows by the end of summer,” he said.
“Spaces carry some kind of psychic load and there is no doubt this space is filled with dramatic tension,” said Korogodsky. “That is essential to the event of theater. I’m absolutely charmed by it but I am partial. It reverberates with possibilities. Every day I’m there, it’s hard to close the door when it’s time to leave.”