Spring 2020

Secret Lives of the Late-Soviet Stage: the Archive and the Repertoire

Listed in: , as COLQ-248

Moodle site: Course


Boris Wolfson (Section 01)


How can an archive tell the story of a cultural practice that resists the very idea of being archived? If performance, in Peggy Phelan’s formulation, “becomes itself through disappearance,” what might it mean to document this endless disappearance? And what can we learn about the relationship between performance as an artistic project, theater as a cultural institution, and the everyday, intimate existence of those who made performances happen from examining such an archive? We will examine these questions through the lens of the Alma Law Soviet Theater Collection at the Amherst Center of Russian Culture. Over the course of nearly thirty years, Alma Law (1927-2003), the best-informed American scholar of Russian and Soviet theater in her generation, amassed a treasure trove of materials that chronicle the theater scene of the late-Soviet period. Hundreds of interviews with actors, directors, designers, playwrights, critics, and scholars working in Soviet theater at the time, which Law conducted during her frequent research trips to the USSR, are complemented by video and audio recordings of live rehearsals and performances, thousands of photos and over a hundred reels of microfilm. They give us access to very rare testimony about the “backstage” existence of a crucial cultural institution. What kinds of things can we actually learn from these diverse pieces of evidence? The tutorial will begin by exploring key methodological insights from the fields of performance studies and cultural history, which will help us formulate the research questions that we will pursue, individually and in pairs, as we examine Law’s notebooks (diaries and drafts), and card catalogs. These materials were originally created in English, so no knowledge of the Russian language (or Soviet culture or theater studies) is required. Students who are able to read Russian are highly encouraged to participate and will receive research assignments that allow them to employ their proficiency. This tutorial builds on the work, in the spring and summer of 2018, of the pioneering group of Amherst undergraduates who produced a comprehensive inventory of Alma Law’s diaries from one key period of her travels (the early 1990s, when she was working closely with the legendary theater maker Yuri Lyubimov) and an inventory of the hundreds of personalities, on both sides of the ocean, with whom she worked on her Soviet theater-related projects. The research conducted by that group makes it possible to take several important new steps in conceptualizing the material and shaping the first scholarly study of the archive and the world it captures. This course is part of a tutorial series that engages Amherst students in substantive research with faculty in the humanities and humanistic social sciences.

Open to juniors and sophomores interested in research. Limited to 6 students. Spring semester. Professor Wolfson.

If Overenrolled: Preference will be given to students likely to engage in senior honors or independent research projects.


Attention to Research, Transnational or World Cultures Taught in English


2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2018, Spring 2020