Government disapproval brings its own reward, particularly for writers. Ask Vaclav Havel. Well, don't bother--everybody knows about the dissident playwright turned Czech leader. Ask Alexander Buravsky.
When he started writing plays in 1980, the Soviet Ministry of Culture banned his works. Then along came perestroika. Political maverick Boris N. Yeltsin allowed a production, and Buravsky found himself the toast of Moscow with a hit play called "Speak Out."
As the lanky, soft-spoken playwright recounted his breakthrough, an ironic smile flickered on his lips. "The fact that my plays were forbidden for many years gave me some kind of advertising," he said in university-trained English. "That is how I could push them very fast on the stage."
Fast indeed. Following "Speak Out" in 1986, a political drama set around the time of Stalin's death in 1953, five more of his plays reached production over the next two years alone: "Tinfoil Stars," "Under the Table," "The Guest House," "We Play for Money" and "Liberty: Year Two." All had movie stars in them. All were mounted at elegant Moscow theaters.
Since then, the 37-year-old Buravsky has seen his plays translated and staged across Europe--in Poland, West Germany and France. Now he hopes to launch a career in the United States with his seventh and most recent play, "The Russian Teacher," which will receive a New-SCRipt reading tonight at South Coast Repertory in an English adaptation by Keith Reddin.
The original version, which opens Tuesday in Moscow (Story, F16), came to the attention of SCR's David Emmes last April on a trip to the Soviet Union, where he saw it in rehearsal.
"Before this one, I wrote about the French revolution," Buravsky said, referring to "Liberty: Year Two" (given a reading Dec. 20 in Los Angeles as part of the Mark Taper Forum's "New Work Festival '89"). "It was very serious. Tragedy. Bloodshed. Robespierre. Danton. And so on. I decided, that's enough. I want to be funny, but at the same time not to be stupid. It was a kind of challenge to speak of serious things in a funny way."
The idea for "The Russian Teacher" struck him while he was pondering the contradictions of a society in which no private property is allowed because the state owns everything, yet its citizens busily commandeer what they need for all sorts of commercial enterprises.
"If you are on a Moscow street, for example, it is very difficult to get a taxi," Buravsky explained. "So when you are waiting with your hand raised, suddenly a black limousine will come to a stop and take you. It is not a taxi. It belongs to the Communist Party or the Central Committee or a government ministry. The chauffeur has nothing to do all day. He brings a bureaucrat to the office and takes him home. In between, the limousine is his private property. You give him money and he takes you."
Buravsky recalled riding as a passenger in one of these gypsy cabs when it was flagged down for speeding. Without any prompting from the chauffeur, the playwright surprised even himself by suddenly becoming an impostor. He played a party official on his way to an important meeting, which achieved the desired effect. "We went free," Buravsky said.
But he also got to wondering what role he might have taken had the limousine been a prison van. Would he have played someone on his way to jail, perhaps an arrested politician? And that led him to imagine a more bizarre situation.
What if he were a surgeon in a hospital on the Black Sea, a luxurious resort area where accommodations are difficult to find during the height of the vacation season? What if this surgeon were to take advantage of the room shortage and rent out the beds in the orthopedic ward of the hospital as though it were a hotel? What if the people who check in, among them a Russian teacher, suddenly had to play the roles of patients with broken arms and legs because of an imminent inspection?
"It was just my fantasy," Buravsky said. "I don't use symbolic phrases to say our Socialist country is this way. But there is a subtext that we are locked (in a ward) and we are forced to play roles different from who we are."
In a society where professions are decided early, the Jewish, Moscow-born playwright believed until the age of 14 that he would be a cellist like his grandfather, Isaak Buravsky, a renowned Soviet musician. But after studying cello for 10 years at the Moscow Central School for gifted children, Buravsky made a discovery: "I wanted to read words in my books, not only notes."
Shifting to language studies in high school, he went on to Moscow University and graduated with a journalism degree in 1975, he said. For several years he worked at Soviet Screen magazine as a feature writer. Eventually, he began turning out unproduced play scripts.
"There were many people who wanted to use what I wrote before perestroika, " Buravsky recalled. "Even in the Ministry of Culture there were people who wanted to help me. But they wanted me to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, to go through the censorship.
"My editor, a very kind woman, used to say to me: 'I'm helping you. Why don't you help me?' I tried. I'm not so strong that I refused altogether. I wanted to see my plays on the stage. But I couldn't. So I earned my living not only as a journalist. I wrote for comedians."
Getting nowhere with his plays, Buravsky managed to shift course once again. In 1984 he gained admission to the Soviet Union's sole graduate school for film makers and screenwriters, where only a dozen or so applicants are accepted each year. On graduation, he said, their future in the movie industry is virtually assured.
In fact, Buravsky already has four produced movies: "Down Main Street With an Orchestra," "The Amateurs," "Freedom Is Paradise," and "The Gambler," which he co-directed and is still in post-production.
But despite the glamour of the movie world, theater remains his first love. To write screenplays, he said, "is to work as a professional. But to write plays is to be an artist."
"With movies I feel I am serving a huge team of people," Buravsky explained. "Everyone is always in a hurry (because) movies are expensive to make. Or maybe it rains. Your character needs a raincoat. That means a bad mood. You must rewrite for the director, for the cameraman and so on.
"But with a play I feel I am serving myself."
A staged reading of "The Russian Teacher," a satiric comedy about perestroika by Alexander Buravsky, will be given at 7:30 p.m. at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $6. Information: (714) 957-4033.