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New Orleans to Moscow: All for the love of theater

Moscow Nights Inc. recently traveled to Moscow to perform at the Chekhov International Theatre Festival.

Moscow Nights Inc. recently traveled to Moscow to perform at the Chekhov International Theatre Festival.

So what do you think the odds are that not one, but two, local artists would end up in Moscow this summer? One, photographer, Frank Relle -- at the request of the U.S Embassy in Moscow -- curated an exhibition of 1100 photographs depicting New Orleans and South Louisiana life. To say it was a success is an understatement, since the Multimedia Art Museum stayed open until 2 a.m. on May 17 to accommodate the 10,000 Muscovites who poured through on that opening day alone.

The second, theater artist Natasha Ramer, creator of Moscow Nights Inc., a not-for-profit organization dedicated to all things Russian, took her actors to that same city around the same time. Her reason for traveling to Russia was to participate in the 15th annual Chekhov International Theatre Festival. Along with New Orleans actors Diana Shortes and Scott Jefferson, the Jefferson Parish-based Moscow Nights crew was invited to perform I Take Your Hand In Mine, a play by New York University’s Carol Rocamora based on the love letters between the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov and actress Olga Knipper. The play was performed in English with Russian subtitles.

For Ramer, a Moscow native who has lived in New Orleans since 1984, it was an opportunity to not only demonstrate American admiration for the works of the revered Chekhov but, more importantly, to showcase a unique production by a New Orleans-area organization and its talented actors.

These past few months have not been the friendliest of times between Russia and the United States, and many expressed concern about how Americans might be treated in that country in light of concerns about Crimea and the Ukraine. But both artists, like so many before them, believe that sharing artistic endeavors puts a human face on other countries and their citizens, especially in times of tension.

Moscow Nights actors Shortes and Jefferson agree. For both of these dedicated students of Chekhov, the idea of performing in Melikhovo, Checkhov’s country estate about 50 miles from Moscow where he lived from 1892 to 1899, was something they never thought possible. Then, to be unexpectedly invited to perform twice more in Moscow was even more inspiring.

“When we went into the Moscow Art Theatre, I started weeping uncontrollably,” recalls Shortes. “I have never had such an experience. What really struck me was being in an environment where theater is so respected. In the United States we struggle to convince people that it’s important.”

For Jefferson, the entire experience of visiting Melikhovo and performing in Moscow was “transformative; very touching and very beautiful.”

Ramer, who was trained at the Russian University of Theatre Arts, the oldest and largest theatre school in Russia, said the invitation to participate in the Annual Chekhov Theatre Festival was not one that could be refused. “It was an incredible opportunity,” she says. “But my main goal was to show our actors the best of Russian theater -- how people moved, how they talked. For me, it was also amazing.”

Even more amazing was the response from Russian audiences for I Take Your Hand in Mine, particularly from old friends of Ramer who came to see the performances.

“We got so many calls and letters,” she says. “People were so touched. And so was I when I looked and saw so many of my old, old friends.”

For more information about Moscow Nights Inc. go to www.moscownightsus.com.

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]