Russian theatre has a long and colourful history. Although the concept of “theatre” did not exist in the culture until the 17th century, audiences had long been entertained by traveling performers and royal jesters. As theatre and later ballet took shape under the sponsorship of royal families, Russian theatre culture began to leave its mark on the international scene. Even under Soviet rule local playwrights and choreographers found expression on the stage, and today this rich heritage continues to develop in theatres around the country.
One of the earliest roots of theatre in Russia is found in an old Slavic tradition in which people would sometimes change their clothes during the Christmas, Maslenitsa and Ivan Kupala holidays to confuse or scare away evil spirits. Many folk rituals in medieval Russia also included entertaining performances from musicians, acrobats, jesters, mummers and singers. Creative bands of artists known as “squads of merrymen" would travel around performing for curious audiences.
The most popular entertainment genre at the time was folk comedy. Boyars and princes, royals and government officials including Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich, Dmitry Pozharsky and Ivan Shuysky hired talented folk jesters to permanently live and work in their homes. The hired performers acted as court jesters, entertaining the nobles and their guests.
In contrast, wandering jesters lived off donations, mostly of food, from spectators. They provided standard comedy at every village holiday or fair, their improvisations often a prelude to further festivities and fun. Comedy puppet shows performed by the jesters were likewise very popular, particularly the characters of a bear and a goat holding wooden spoons. The puppet performances were accompanied by folk songs and the telling of well-known fairy tales.
But not everyone was pleased with the performers, for their antics often contradicted the Russian traditional way of life. The Orthodox Church eventually condemned the wearing of short clothes and masks and proceeded to persecute many of the folk artists. In the mid-17th century wandering jesters began to abandon their occupation, with many turning instead to music.
Yet it was just a matter of time before established theatre would fill the void left by the abolishment of impromptu folk performances.
Russian theatre acquired a professional face during the 17th-century reign of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich, when an imperial theatre was founded by a Lutheran pastor named Gregory. By degree of the tsar, Gregory recruited a group of talented artists and began to teach them short comedies. Many residents of a nearby German settlement were hired for the performances, which were accompanied by instrumental music. For the first time in Russian history props were used for performances in which a linear, cohesive plot was portrayed. The artists sang and danced as they enacted various scenes, and theatre in Russia began to be perceived as a mirror which reflected modern life.
The imperial theaters were funded by the royal court. Foreigners in particular were invited to join the troupes, and as a result many of the props and theatrical elements were borrowed from the Western stage.
The success of this new style of performance art soon prompted the birth of other types of theater:
School theatres: The first school theatre was formed at the Slavic-Greek-Latin Academy. It was known to stage holiday performances involving the entire school body, with the teachers writing the scripts and the students performing on stage.
Serf theatres: These performances became a unique phenomenon of Russian culture. Some noble families opened their own private theatres in which serfs, including women, performed. Praskovya Zhemchugova-Kovaleva was a serf actress who, after receiving her freedom, left the popular Sheremetyev Theatre, married Count Nikolai Sheremetyev and became a countess.
Public theatre: In 1702 Peter I ordered the creation of a public playhouse, so a comedy theatre was built for him on Red Square in Moscow. It was not long before professional and amateur troupes alike began to form in all regions of Russia.
With the official promotion of theatre came other notable developments. In the latter half of the 18th century large audiences first began attending theatrical performances, which by this time had become an integral part of Russian culture.