ONCE UPON A TIME…. OR AS IT IS SAID IN RUSSIAN, “Zhili byli,” meaning “they lived, they were”—a young playwright originally from Minneapolis decided to pack up her bags and move to Russia. “I didn’t study abroad in college, so it felt like my junior year abroad as an adult,” says playwright Meg Miroshnik, who, in 2005, decided to live briefly in Russia with her husband, who was a native speaker. They settled there for two years, where Miroshnik studied at Moscow State University.
She noticed that women outnumbered men in Moscow. “At the time, the average life expectancy for a man in Russia was 58. There literally were more women than men,” says Miroshnik. Russian women also had a duality that fascinated the playwright. They had entered the workforce much earlier in history than American women, but at the same time, “there was this hyper-femininity about them,” she explains. “It’s unthinkable, for instance, for a Russian woman to go to the grocery store in tennis shoes; high heels felt like a very important part of their presentation.”
The multi-faceted Russian woman, seemingly delicate yet incredibly strong, forms the foundation of The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, a 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize finalist. It premiered at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in 2012 and is now running at Yale Repertory Theatre through Feb. 22. A shortened Russian-language version is also in repertory at Moscow’s Playwright and Director Center.
The play follows a Russian-American girl, Annie, as she travels back to her motherland. There she discovers a world where reality and fairy tales collide. Her aunt is really Baba Yaga and her neighbor Masha lives with a bear (a reference to the Russian folk tale “Masha and the Bear”). The play explores the tension between the romantic Russia of the past and the quickly modernizing Russia of the present. “I was overwhelmed by the pace of life in Moscow,” recalls Miroshnik. “You could see this abrupt historical shift. A beautiful, curvy historical building would one day, suddenly, have a Revlon billboard plastered over it.”
Fairytale Lives will be directed at Yale by Rachel Chavkin, who recently helmed the War and Peace–based Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 in New York City. One of Miroshnik’s goals is to create meaty roles for women. Fairytale Lives boasts an all-female cast, and her newest play, The Tall Girls (due at the Alliance Theatre in March) is cast predominantly with women. “My plays are offering a chance to all of these amazing female performers, who don’t usually get to be central to the story,” she offers.