“How on earth did you ever get to go the Soviet Union?”
In 1989 I was married to a musician (David) who had a performing partner (Deborah). Their specialty was teaching and performing for American children, mostly in New England but also on grant-funded trips to schools as far away as Alaska. Deborah loved to travel and even before the internet existed, she was a genius at researching grant opportunities. That is how she came across a Request for Proposal from the EPA- yes, the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States.
This grant opportunity was a small part of Ronald Reagan’s effort to embrace Russia’s new policy of glasnost (defined as “a Soviet policy permitting open discussion of political and social issues and freer dissemination of news and information.”) Mikhail Gorbachev had been the leader of the USSR since 1985 and there was every reason to believe the Cold War years were finally over. In hindsight, as I think about this grant project, I picture a bunch of US government officials gathered in a room, trying to dream up the least controversial international contact imaginable. “Let’s see, we could start with kids, everyone likes kids, and then maybe some kids’ entertainers, and the focus could be something really basic, like air…” The idea of an artists’ ambassadorship was created, using artistic expression to reinforce how children in America and children in the Soviet Union could easily agree on how important clean air and water and soil were for all of us. It would be the ultimate photo opportunity, showing that the future of our planet was safe when handed over to bright-eyed, earth-loving children of the world. So that is how the EPA funded eight Americans (two puppeteers, two musicians, two children, and two spouses) to travel to the Soviet Union and work in schools for two weeks in Moscow and two weeks in Tbilisi. That was the plan.
The four artists (David, Deborah, Will, and Susan) were an amazing creative team, and put in a year’s worth of work before we even left New Hampshire. Will and Susan were professional puppeteers, married, with two children. They were well aware of Russia’s long, rich history of puppetry, including complex shadow puppets which Will and Susan would be using, so they knew the theatrical bar was set very high for them. David and Deborah (the two musicians) had been friends with Will and Susan for a long time and had performed with them often. Susan was fluent in Russian, so the four of them set about creating and rehearsing bilingual performances and classes that were fully integrated with art, music, dance, and puppetry, honoring the cultural reverence for the earth that was evident in both American and Russian folk tales. The two other spouses (Ash, Deborah’s husband and I, David’s wife) attended many of the rehearsals and were trained as back-up performers/ technicians in case of emergencies (which did happen). Our job and the job of the two children (Hannah, ten years old and Andy, two years old) was to be charming, help carry trunks and instruments and suitcases, and be amiable errand-runners when needed. (Andy’s smile and huge brown eyes opened doors when both English and Russian failed us all.)
So that is the background. Three couples, two young children, a mountain of vital equipment, and eight time zones. What could possibly go wrong?
Part 4 to follow…