The Bolshoi Drama Theatre (BDT) was founded in 1919 in Petrograd (St Petersburg) by writer Maxim Gorky and poet Alexander Blok. The first company established after the October Revolution,
BDT was conceived as an anti-bourgeois theatre
to bring cultural enlightenment to the masses in opposition to lowbrow entertainment and vaudeville, which had previously been popular.
Its first audiences were sailors, workers, and peasants. They needed to learn to appreciate high classical literature—the works of Shakespeare, Schiller, Goldoni, and Hugo. It was Blok’s responsibility to teach them. He decided on the new repertoire, and, in order to explain the right way to watch the shows, delivered lectures before the performances. He even taught the sailors how to applaud without holding onto their rifles!
Blok also used to tell the actors, “When the old life is broken, and the art has not yet created works reflecting on the new life, it is our responsibility to show the best examples of the world’s classics, the exemplary characters with strong will and great passions.”
The theatre on the Fontanka Embankment was designed by Ludwig Fontana and built in 1876-1877 with funding from philanthropist and pioneer of Russian aeronautics Count Anton Apraksin. Before the October Revolution the Imperial Maly Theatre was in residence—Isadora Duncan, Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse gave performances—and also playwright Aleksey Suvorin’s Theatre of the Society for Literature and Drama.
In the 1920s the BDT became a leading ‘theatre of the artist’ which collaborated with members of the World of Art movement, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Boris Kustodiev, Kuzma Petrov- Vodkin, and set designer Alexander Benois.
In the 1930s, dark and cloudy times for Russian culture, some of the leaders of BDT fell victim to repression. In 1937, for example, the director Konstantin Tverskoy, a student of Vsevolod Meyerhold, was executed by the NKVD. During World War II the theatre was used as a hospital.
Georgy Tovstonogov became director in 1956 under Khrushchev, and BDT reached its prime. The company led in originating ideas for the Soviet intelligentsia, using Aesopian, metaphorical language to tell the truth about the country.
Coinciding with the demise of the USSR in 1989, Tovstonogov passed away. However the theatre was not ready for the new life. Amidst the challenges of the 1990s, the new leaders of BDT—Kirill Lavrov and Temur Chkheidze—did their best to keep it going. They only partially succeeded. Though BDT did not compromise its high standards, audiences were abandoning it; the theatre was remembered solely in the context of its former glory. It became a relic of the past.
In 2013 Andrey Moguchy, one of Russia’s most distinguished directors, took over as Director of BDT. His arrival marked the beginning of a renaissance for the theatre—joyful and mesmerising. Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, the Bolshoi Drama Theatre is again recognised
as a powerful theatre with a top-notch repertory company of 70 actors. The best contemporary directors contribute to its repertoire. Lectures, masterclasses, inclusive performances, and theatre laboratories for teenagers and schoolteachers are held. BDT now looks to the future with renewed confidence and joy.