Editor's note: The author of this profile twice served as Urnov's dramaturg.
Yury Urnov knows apocalypses. He directed Anne Washburn’s post-apocalyptic drama Mr. Burns, a post-electric play at the Wilma Theater, in 2018. However, being Russian has prepared him more for the uncertainty and chaos of an apocalyptic pandemic. “We are permanently living in this feeling of apocalypses all around,” he says of his home country. “Even on a very sunny day with no coronavirus, everyone lives in this internal environment of the world falling apart.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Urnov’s work favors high stakes, risk, and provocation. “That’s kind of the point [of theater], that we can do things in this environment that we probably shouldn’t be doing in real life.”
Over the next three years, Urnov will bring that philosophy to the Wilma as one of three co-artistic directors who will lead the company alongside co-founding artistic director Blanka Zizka. Called “The Next Chapter,” this leadership model also includes Philadelphia playwright, director, and performer James Ijames and Brooklyn-based director Morgan Green. Each will serve as lead artistic director for a season, with Urnov piloting the 2020/21 season.
Urnov received his MFA from the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts in 2000 and has directed steadily across Russia, Europe, and Africa. “I’m born into the directorial system where interpretation is what is happening, meaning-wise,” he says, citing German provocateur Thomas Ostermeier and Polish auteur Krystian Lupa as influences. The theater he strives to create is festive, exciting: “something that is not feeding the more sober daily system of our society. Something on its margins, but also extremely attractive and vibrant.”
Leading the way
In 2009 he moved to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar in Residence at Maryland’s Towson University, serving as a director and cotranslator of plays from the New Russian Drama, a movement at the turn of the millennium that pushed theater in provocative and political directions. He later found artistic homes at several experimental-leaning companies across the country, such as Washington, DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, where he is a company member, Austin’s Salvage Vanguard Theater, and San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater.
He began working at his latest home, the Wilma, with their resident artist company HotHouse around five years ago. Urnov appreciates the continuity and shared vision that working with a company of artists allows, particularly in an art form as ephemeral as theater. “The training, the experience, the theatrical language that they’re working on together, the aesthetic, stays with the actors.” Furthermore, he says, “it’s a very supportive environment, very forgiving, where you can try and fail. That’s a huge present for a director.”
Urnov and his new colleagues are planning for the future, including changing course if they must. This includes their annual fundraiser, Fête 2020, which will broadcast online May 3.
Urnov sees digital performances as positive moves toward greater access and inclusiveness. “Hopefully, some rules with recording productions and sharing them will change and open this other door for broader audiences," he says. "That’s what theater is lacking.”
What, When, Where
The Wilma Theater’s Fête 2020 will feature Martha Graham Cracker and stream online May 3. More information is available here.