‘The Dragon’ Coming to Madison

A team of UW-Madison faculty and students is reviving Russian playwright Evgenii Shvarts’s 1943 play The Dragon. This staging, an English translation and adaptation of the Russian original, is the culmination of a longstanding vision of UW-Madison professor Manon van de Water. The performance is being coordinated through the course Literature in Translation/Theatre & Drama (LitTrans/T&D) 423: Slavic Drama in Context.

The Dragon opens Tuesday, October 25 at the Fredric March Play Circle in the Memorial Union, running through Sunday, October 30. Evening performances begin at 7:30 p.m. on October 25 – 28, with matinee performances at 2:00 p.m on October 29 and 30. There is a preview performance Friday, October 21 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased in-person at Memorial Union and Vilas Hall. In order to stimulate theatre for youth, the production team has worked diligently to make The Dragon accessible. Tickets are $10 for the general public and $5 for students. Each adult ticket purchased comes with a free children’s ticket. Use the promo code “Dragers” when purchasing online to add a free children’s ticket to your purchase.

Director Jen Plants (right) gives instruction during rehearsal
Director Jen Plants (right) gives instruction during rehearsal. Photo credit: Mitch Schwartz

Van de Water is a Vilas-Phipps Distinguished Achievement Professor; the Chair of the Department German, Nordic, and Slavic; and the Director of Theatre for Youth within the Interdisciplinary Theatre Studies Program. This production of The Dragon emerged from the confluence of van de Water’s appointments. She has wanted to stage The Dragon since arriving at UW-Madison in 1997. Her research focuses on Russian Theatre for Youth and The Dragon perfectly fits the mission, as she puts it, “to offer quality productions that respect young people’s capacity to construct meaning, both on an emotional and intellectual level.” After her appointment as chair of the recently restructured Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic, van de Water finally had the resources to begin her production of The Dragon.

The Dragon is being staged largely by students in LitTrans/T&D 423. Claire Mason, a graduate student in Interdisciplinary Theatre Studies is serving as producer. She and van de Water had previously worked on a class  reading of The Dragon with incarcerated people at the Oakhill Correctional Institution as part of the Oakhill Prison Humanities Project. The class reading was enormously well-received. “I fell in love with the play through their eyes,” Mason says. The experience at Oakhill was revelatory and Mason realized, “Because it worked so well with the incarcerated people at Oakhill, we wanted to bring it to more of Wisconsin.”

The townspeople sing a song of praise for the Dragon
The townspeople sing a song of praise for the Dragon. Photo credit: Mitch Schwartz

Mason is one of 13 students staging The Dragon for credit through LitTrans/T&D 423. The class consists of both undergraduate and graduate students. The course is designed truly as an interdisciplinary endeavor. Van de Water explains that students are handling myriad tasks in addition to performing. Some students are not performing at all, in fact, but even the actors are helping with integral production tasks like program design, lobby design, post-performance discussion, educational materials, promotion, and website management. Three additional graduate students are performing in the play for no credit. “The interdisciplinary synergy is really amazing,” van de Water emphasizes. “It’s liberating to work in such a supportive environment where you can experiment.”

Cultivating this environment is Director Jen Plants. Plants is a senior lecturer in the UW-Madison Department of English, where she teaches playwriting. She also wrote the adaptation of The Dragon for this production, cutting down the original play and updating some of the cultural references. To foster the supportive, interdisciplinary environment, Plants lets people work toward their strengths. “I’m not directing a play, I’m making a company,” as she explains it. “If you treat people like artists, they make art. The impulse for art gets burned out of us as we grow up, but it’s still there, for every single person. And you can rekindle it if you treat people like artists.”

Lancelot (played by Katie Norman) pledges to vanquish the Dragon
Lancelot (played by Katie Norman) pledges to vanquish the Dragon. Photo credit: Mitch Schwartz

Van de Water and Plants agree that The Dragon is a particularly appropriate context for inspiring youthful creativity. The play was written during the era of Socialist Realism, a movement mandated by the first All Union Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934. Soviet writers were forced to create works with linear storylines, clear distinctions between good and evil, and heroes conquering the evils of capitalism. This mandate resulted in a revival of fairytales, with the genre’s archetypes adapted to promote Soviet ideology to children. Shvarts became a master of the “Soviet fairytale,” penning a dozen plays between 1925 and 1958. Three of these plays, including The Dragon from 1943, became controversial for their more adult themes, particularly their confrontation of totalitarianism. Although Nazi Germany was the ostensible target of Shvarts’s critique of totalitarianism, The Dragon and two other plays were banned in Russia for the implicit connection to Stalin’s regime. These plays were not produced in Russia until Khrushchev’s Thaw and are only performed sporadically to this day.

As a fairy tale, The Dragon is an archetypal story about the hero Lancelot’s battle to vanquish the dictatorial Dragon. Van de Water was particularly drawn to The Dragon during the 2011 protests of Governor Scott Walker and Wisconsin Act 10. “The theme of turning a blind eye to government corruption was very poignant,” she says. But van de Water was unable to get the play picked up during the protests. When political conversation about totalitarianism emerged during the current presidential campaign, van de Water prioritized securing a production of The Dragon before the election. “One may contemplate what allegory The Dragon will stand for now, in Russia, under the Putin regime,” van de Water says. “One may also contemplate what The Dragon means here and now, during this historic election in the United States.”

The Dragon (left, played by Scott Campbell) makes its entrance
The Dragon (left, played by Scott Campbell) makes its entrance. Photo credit: Mitch Schwartz

For van de Water and Plants, the strength of The Dragon lies in its appeal to both children and adults. “The play is hilarious, but very challenging. Children enjoy the dragons and knights, but there are a lot of elements that adults enjoy too,” van de Water explains. “There’s humor, juxtaposition between fantasy and reality, and anachronism between the fairy tale and modern technology.”

The Dragon is funny and experimental. Adults and kids can enjoy it together, so it promotes conversation about what theatre for youth can be,” Plants concurs. Plants says that she is interested equally in the performance itself and what people talk about afterward. “I want our production to be thought-provoking. On one level, The Dragon is a simple fairy tale. On another level, it is a biting critique, of how your will and sense of possibility change under authority.”

The Dragon is sponsored by UW-Madison’s Theatre and Drama Graduate Student Organization; Interdisciplinary Theatre Studies Program; Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic; and Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia.

The Dragon and Lancelot settle terms for their battle
The Dragon and Lancelot settle terms for their battle. Photo credit: Mitch Schwartz

After its run at Union Theatre, The Dragon will also have performances at Taliesin’s Hillside Theater. These performances are being hosted as field trips for Wisconsin schools. Through sponsorship by the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment and the Taliesin Preservation, the play will be performed at no cost to the students. The sponsorships are also covering the cost of buses to transport students to and from Taliesin. The long list of partner organizations is invigorating for van de Water and the production team. “So many constituencies are excited,” she says. “Giving back to and involving the community in the University is important and rewarding. It helps the students really see the impact of their work.”