Theatre professor Walter Schoen and his wife, Mary, often share a chuckle about life never turning out the way one might expect. His wife has been known to ask rhetorically, "Who'd have thought a boy from Philadelphia would grow up to direct plays in Russia?"

Schoen has spent over 25 years working in the theatre but it's only been in recent years that he's found himself directing classic American dramas in formerly Soviet towns with names like Samara and Saratov.

When Schoen was working with the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, he developed a friendship with Paolo Emilio Landi, a well-known Italian director who often worked in Russia. Over the years, the two remained in touch and, with the help of the Office of International Education, Schoen invited Landi to direct a play at the University of Richmond as a visiting international scholar. Landi traveled to Richmond several times over the course of the next few years and, along the way, introduced Schoen to a number of his Russian contemporaries.

One of those introductions resulted in an invitation. In 2004, the Samara Drama Theatre invited Schoen to direct an American farce, "Sly Fox," based on "Volpone," the 17th-century English play by Ben Johnson. Schoen was accompanied by Richmond theatre professor Reed West who served as the production's designer.

Unlike most American theatre companies, Russian theatre companies maintain a permanent repertory of as many as 40 or 50 plays. Every two weeks, the company's artistic director determines the line-up for the next fortnight or so, and the actors quickly brush up on the performances. Some plays will remain in a theatre company's repertory for decades. The Saratov Youth Theatre, for instance, has been performing Maurice Maeterlinck's "The Blue Bird" since the 1920s.

Each year, Russian playhouses introduce a handful of new works to their audiences. If a new play meets with extraordinary popularity, it might be added to the theatre's permanent repertory — a high honor for any director. Schoen and West were elated when they learned that "Sly Fox" had been put into the Samara Academic Theatre's permanent repertory, ensuring that audiences would enjoy their rendition of the play for years to come.

With a successful Russian production under their belts, Schoen and West were approached by other directors interested in staging American productions.

"There are certain American writers, such as Tennessee Williams and John Steinbeck and Mark Twain, who are hugely popular in Russia. Before the fall of communism, people used to sneak around Tennessee Williams plays in brown paper wrappers but since the fall, there's been a blossoming interest in all things international, not just American," says Schoen.

For his second crack at directing a Russian play, this time for the Saratov Academic Theatre, Schoen chose Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie." It's a classic American drama that nearly all Russians are familiar with because it's taught in the majority of high schools. It also relies on a relatively small cast of characters — a plus since Schoen was to direct the play at the end of the season when he'd been told he'd have access to fewer actors. Lastly, it's a play that Schoen is intimately familiar with, having directed it before. Experience, he says, can't be overrated when directing a play in a language you don't know.

"Before I travel, I receive a copy of the play in Russian. I create a script that juxtaposes the English play with its Russian translation, line by line. The theatre employs a translator for rehearsals but soon, we're all speaking the same language — the international language of theatre," says Schoen.

If it sounds like a rehearsal with actors who speak only Russian and a director who speaks only English might get chaotic, Schoen argues that you'd be surprised. In spite of the language barrier, "The Glass Menagerie" was ready for its premiere five days ahead of schedule. The play opened over three days with opening night parties galore and people coming from as far away as Moscow and St. Petersburg to see what "the American" had done with the play.

The play received rave reviews from across the country and, after only eight performances, the company determined that "The Glass Menagerie" would be added to their permanent repertory. That recognition would have been quite enough for Schoen and West but after they returned to Richmond, they learned that the play was selected to be performed at the Volga/Saratov Regional Theatre Festival. The play was named an outstanding production at the festival — an honor that meant the play would travel to Moscow to be performed at a national festival. In Moscow, it received more positive reviews and a standing ovation following its performance.

With two hit plays under their belts, Schoen and West have become somewhat of a sensation among their Russian counterparts. Invitations to direct more American plays in theatres across Russia have been coming in.

And so, 25 years after his career in theatre began, Schoen finds that it's taken on an international flavor. The only thing he'd like to do now is learn to speak a little more Russian.