Toys Theater — Russian Performers Who Are Deaf

Circa 2005

No one forgets that instant of childhood joy upon entering a toy store filled with noise-making race cars, colorful plastic food, elaborate toy train layouts and enough feather-soft stuffed animals to fill a small zoo. Children may grow up, give away their teddy bears and claim to be adults, but there is always a remnant of that spark, a tiny voice that comes alive on holidays or vacations and says, “I want to play!”

Oleg Golovushkin, creative director of TOYS Theater, an all-deaf ensemble from the Baltic town of St. Petersburg, refers to that universal desire when explaining why TOYS Theater adopted its name. “Toys are for all. Kids, parents, teachers, senior citizens—they all have toys of their own.” With no spoken lines and the pervasive use of music, dance, mime, gesture and visual effects, TOYS Theater employs the universal language of humor and play in a manner that appeals to both deaf and hearing audiences of all ages.

In the spirit of fun, TOYS Theater invites audiences to play along during performances; actually, they insist on it. “We welcome participants. It’s what we want; it’s why we perform. When we’re on, people in the seats stand up and interact if they want to, and they often do. There are no cultural barriers, no age barriers and no language barriers.” Each performance is a mixture of various kinds of visual theater, including dances, clown acts and drama, which pulls audiences into a magical romp and provides a glimpse into Russian and deaf cultures.

STARTING OUT IN LENINGRAD

TOYS Theater was first formed in 1985, when its historic home city of St. Petersburg was still known by the communist moniker of Leningrad. The St. Petersburg Cultural Center for the Deaf received government money to fund a traveling theater of the deaf, and there was a call for actors to audition. The final slate came to four performers. After 20 years, those four actors are still together.

Their first script cast three of them as quintessential toys, giving rise to the group’s name. Troupe member Alexander Filimonov played a clown that flitted across the stage with a huge windup key on his back. Loudmila Romanovskaya and Ilya Goltsov portrayed dolls—one an innocent memento of childhood and the other its counterpart, a bratty boy given to good-natured mischief. Rounding up the foursome was Vassily Solonitsky, a cook who deftly served up laughter.

The embryonic theatrical group wanted to carve out an identity beyond the commonality of hearing impairment. Visual arts were the group’s forte, and they understood that dialogue, home or abroad, would neither bring them their broadest possible fan base nor allow for interaction with the audience. The essential ingredient of interactivity was accessibility, and they wanted to be able to involve the audience, no matter who filled the seats on a given night.

What nobody could foresee was the survival of the fiveminute toy pantomime. Though it has undergone years of creative transmutation, today it acts as the group’s flagship sketch and prelude to a 90-minute show.

check this out

From 1985 until 1992, TOYS Theater toured only the western states of the USSR, in addition to the capital of Moscow. “Travel was restricted by the government,” remembers Golovushkin. The troupe had to submit an itinerary, which was reviewed for compliance with communist ideals. “We would perform only in front of audiences and in locations approved by the government.”

When the communist government fell, freedom came; however, that salvation also meant upheaval and ushered in a socio-economic climate unfamiliar to everybody. Dependent on state support, the theater saw its finances turn upside down as the Cultural Center for the Deaf quickly lost much of its public funding.

“Those under the communist government were used to knowing where money would come from,” said Golovushkin. “Like a canary that grew to adulthood caged and cared for, freedom terrified it into a panic.”

TOYS Theater took a look at their new reality: they had to operate on a fraction of their budget and could no longer expect the state to cover their expenses. They needed paying customers. With changed goals, the thespians ventured beyond Russian borders to find new audiences.

OH BRAVE, CREATIVE NEW WORLD

TOYS Theater’s first performance outside of Soviet reach was in neighboring Finland. In time they expanded to Germany, Holland, Poland and Norway, then farther—to North America, where they have toured for five years, and to Australia.

In retrospect, Golovushkin believes leaving home was one of the best things to happen to TOYS Theater. It took a fresh audience for them to realize they had been facing creative stagnation during their later years in Russia. “We have added sketches, changed many, kept what worked and thrown out what didn’t, and much of that has been influenced by the feedback and reaction of the audience,” says Golovushkin. “Our audience members, deaf or otherwise, have been wonderful. They come up to us and tell us they have come for the third or fourth time. Sometimes we communicate in sign language, sometimes we just gesture with each other, but both sides get their point across. Their input means a lot and it’s why we’re still touring America—the audiences here have been unbelievable.”

Indeed, TOYS Theater came to New York in 2000, and to their surprise their calendar of U.S. bookings has stayed full. Schools and community-based organizations are their most frequent hosts; however, their tours have included performances at the National Association of the Deaf Biennial Conference, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the Russian Cultural Centre (considered the official home of Russian culture in the United States).

Golovushkin proudly recalls a Washington DC performance that was practically a homecoming. “We were invited to the Russian Embassy, and prior to taking the stage we all were excited. VIPs were everywhere, and the audience was in the hundreds. I took a quick glance at the faces: diplomats and businessmen of all levels. They had serious, frozen expressions. Then the actors went on. I kept on watching the diplomats and businessmen, sitting with their wives and colleagues. Their expressions melted into something from awe to exhilaration. The performance ended and the audience quickly became formal again and gave a formal type of applause, but that was fine with me; I knew we had reached them. They had seen something new, and they would not forget it.”

Golovushkin recounts another memorable performance at a Pennsylvania school for students with special needs. “When we arrived, we were warned that the students could be unruly, and many required personal, one-onone supervision,” remembers Golovushkin. “Then we started, and to the school staff’s amazement, something happened that not one of them had seen before. The entire student body went quiet. And they watched us with intense, unbroken interest for 90 minutes. We loved every moment of performing for them.”

check this out

On a visit to an inner-city elementary school in Boston, students showed support differently. Golovushkin tells, “Many were obviously underprivileged and probably were deprived of the arts. When we performed, they went wild and clapped and wanted in on everything. They stood up and waved their arms and laughed. The administrator came to us midway and asked if we could be less enthusiastic. We never dreamt we’d excite kids that much!”

Also on TOYS Theater’s resume are performances at the 2005 Deaflympics in Melbourne, Australia, and at Deaf Way II, a week-long arts celebration and symposium held the summer of 2002 in Washington DC. Both were international events with approximately 10,000 attendees.

TOYS Theater has traveled to an estimated 30 states and performs almost every weekend from early spring through late fall. In the time between, they return to Russia to visit family.

MORE THAN TOY CHARACTERS

All four actors and Golovushkin himself come from different parts of western Russia. Filimonov, a carpentry wizard who is responsible for many of the props, was born in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) and went to the local school for the deaf. Solonitsky attended an oral school for the deaf near Moscow and oversees all the musical components. Goltsov helps construct props, and Romanovskaya is a talented seamstress, designing and creating the costumes; they went to the same school for the deaf in St. Petersburg and are the only ones who knew each other prior to TOYS Theater.

Artistic director since 1994, Golovushkin is a photographer by profession and contributes to marketing endeavors when not occupied with logistics, bookkeeping and sales. Born approximately a thousand miles east of Moscow, he was educated at an oral school for the deaf, then studied pre-law at college. The call of the arts, though, was too great, and he spent eight years in photography, jumping at entrepreneurship with the dissolution of communism. For two years he struggled to run his own photography business, then found that the Cultural Center for the Deaf needed an executive director who could lead it in the post-communist era. Equipped with a unique set of qualifications—business management experience, a love for the arts and a basic legal education—he won the post, eventually leaving it in 2000 to manage TOYS Theater full-time when their U.S. tour kicked off.

check this out

The four actors and Golovushkin all communicate in Russian Sign Language, as does their producer, Marina Fanshteyn, who was born in Kiev but immigrated to New York City 15 years ago. Videoconferencing enables TOYS Theater to conduct business with the producer in sign language, even if the actors are in Cleveland one week and Sacramento the next.

In all their time in the states, the performers have remained true to their roots, conversing in Russian and taking turns cooking home dishes. But a great deal of adaptation has occurred. For starters, their inventory of two suitcases apiece has grown into an extensive collection of props and costumes that don’t all fit in their seven-seat minivan. And after years of immersion it is no surprise they all have developed a manageable grasp of American Sign Language.

Because troop members also take care of the technical aspects of performing, TOYS Theater can avoid hiring crew, which keeps booking fees low. Friends and other connections support the troop by lending word-of-mouth advertising, providing lodging and advising the actors about American living.

Golovushkin hasn’t the faintest idea where the next few years will take TOYS Theater, but neither did he five years ago, or ten years back on the day he started. For that matter, neither did any of the actors the day they auditioned. “A lot has changed since 1985,” he reminisces. “We may not get funding from the government anymore—we may not get much money at all here—but we love performing. That is what hasn’t changed. We are Russian. We are deaf. But wherever we go, to our audiences we are performers.”

by Glenn Lockhart

Glenn Lockhart has contributed articles to ABILITY since 2003. Deaf since birth, he communicates primarily through sign language. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and works in business development for the telecommunications relay services unit of MCI.

sharing is caring

we did our part - now do yours and share

like a good neighbor, share

Related Articles: