“Propaganda disintegrates on contact with these things”: Kyiv and Moscow directors on the power of documentary theatre to create dialogue

Documentary theatre makers from Russia and Ukraine recently held a theatre festival in Kyiv. Here, two directors speak on documentary theatre, war and co-participation. RU

Tetiana Bezruk
20 December 2018

Performance “New Antigone”. Photo: Maria Boteva. All rights reserved. In mid-November, the Moscow-based documentary theatre Teatr.doc, in collaboration with PostPlay Theatre, held a theatre festival in Kyiv in memory of its artistic directors Elena Gremina and Mikhail Ugarov. As part of this festival, testimonies of detainees, prisoners and people who have experienced war were performed for Kyiv audiences.

Directors Zarema Zaudinova (Teatr.doc) and Den Gumenniy (PostPlay) discuss the politics and principles of documentary theatre.

Do you call your theatres “political theatre”?

Zarema Zaudinova: I don’t consider Teatr.doc political theatre. There are no politics in Russia – there’s just the total power of the security services.

We are talking about a reality that the authorities seek to eliminate: our rulers tell us that people are not important and their lives have no value. But we talk about something different: we know, for example, about Beslan and those who besieged it. But there is another context, when the school was stormed and the children who died there. We also know about the mothers’ protest there. The authorities are rapidly trying to forget it all, but we go out and tell people about it.

Our New Antigone show, based on the events of the 2016 protest in Beslan, includes monologues by journalist Elena Kostyuchenko, who was with the mothers at that time. Elena Gremina inserted pauses between the fragments of monologue, to allow them to sink into the audience’s consciousness – otherwise it would be impossible to absorb it all. It’s as though they shot a slow motion film for you and you let it run through yourself. Any propaganda splinters and disintegrates on contact with these things.

The fact that Teatr.doc is a tiny Moscow theatre for marginals and intellectuals is another question. But there is the internet, and we give our audience open access to all our shows online. So yes, it is political theatre – depending of course on what you understand by the word “politics”.

Den Gumenniy: PostPlay is, first of all, a critical theatre. There is a particular discourse in society, we are immersed in it and work with it. Our aim is to give our audience a good shake. People who go the theatre in Kyiv are a little well-off, a little dozy and very tired of war. What we present to them on the stage is designed to wake them up. And our little theatre is beginning to disturb our audiences’ world views. They are starting to show signs of dissent, their thought processes are beginning to work.

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Den Gumenniy. Source: Facebook.In our show Militiamen, we hear a monologue of a Donetsk fighter, who headed the security team for the Oplot battalion, and, I’m sure, killed Ukrainians and tortured them in cellars, and here he is pronouncing this monologue in the centre of Kyiv. That’s a political story in itself. There’s no deliberate provocation on our part here. When we create a show, we don’t think about how it will work, and how audiences will find it provocative and the press will write about it. We are simply telling the story of a man. But the story becomes political simply by default. It can’t leave its audience indifferent.

Would your theatres be able to do the same thing in a conventional theatre, with a large audience?

ZZ: Life is effort in time. This effort is concentrated on the stages of PostPlay Theatre and Teatr.doc, as on any other stage. For us, Teatr.doc is a civic theatre. It is first and foremost about people in the context of time, the context of reality, the context of the story we’ve all stumbled into. And we call this “the Department of Pain”. Life is always painful for everyone. That’s something we need to remember. People are alive; they’re not just a function. Pain intensifies our questions to the universe; the area of the complex and unknown expands. And the more it expands, the more complex it becomes. The world isn’t black and white.

Classic theatre is also about pain, but this pain is inert. We take 19th century pain and talk about it as 19th century pain. So why does this bother us today? Not because we were told that this was a classic and made us watch it when we were 16, and not because it was on the school syllabus. This is a problem not only for theatre, but also for education and for the language used by theatre to talk to its audience. It’s like the Soviet media – there was the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper the organ of the official Soviet youth organisation, and at the same time there was samizdat, which spoke to everyone in ordinary human language. And it’s the same today.

“The only difference between our theatre and a traditional theatre with curtains and a backstage is how people communicate with one another”

DG: Any theatre is a means of communicating with an audience. The only difference between our theatre and a traditional theatre with curtains and a backstage and so on is how people communicate with one another. In conventional theatre, communication is always vertical, whereas we are very horizontal and the people who put the shows together are on an equal footing with the characters on stage and the audience. I’m always nearby, I never allow myself to rise above these characters and view this “animal parade” from above. Look at these happy homeless people, these girls who volunteer, and these women from Beslan. The main thing is how I talk about these people, and then it doesn’t make any difference whether I’m in a big 300-seater auditorium or a tiny 40-seater one.

That’s not important: what’s important is the position that I, as the author, take when I speak.

ZZ: Theatres with wings and so on always give conventional answers to everything.

DG: The best theatre is never only about today, it can show me my direction for tomorrow. When I talk about the here and now, it’s also a conversation about the future. Let’s do a show about Crimea. Let’s talk about when Crimea returns to Ukraine. Or what to do when the war in Donbas ends. We can at least begin this dialogue. Geopolitics can change in an instant. When did the USSR collapse? On 19 August 1991. I don’t believe that on 16 August 1991 people were ready for the collapse and thinking about the future.

Are your audiences also co-participants in this future?

ZZ: I don’t believe in the future. There is no future, you never know what will happen tomorrow. I have a different relationship with my shows. I always had Elena Gremina and Mikhail Ugarov beside me: you could talk to them and discuss things and you’d always know that was important to them too. I didn’t have such an enormous number of questions as I have now.

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Zarema Zaudinova. Source: Facebook.I made my first animated documentary about Chechnya at a documentary animation workshop in Kazan. A member of the audience wrote to me: “You know, I really liked your film. We have a literary workshop: could you come and tell us how to talk to yourself?” And you sit in disbelief: after all you did this thing for yourself. For yourself, in the first place, as a writer. But then someone else is also interested. And that’s always surprising. When audience members say “What’s happening?” they are co-participants in a lack of understanding. Whether their questions coincide or not, doesn’t matter – a lack of convergence is also a form of interaction. I’m interested in finding out who our audience members are. It’s always interesting.

DG: When people visit Teatr.doc or PostPlay Theatre, it’s not usually for entertainment. They have already prepared themselves: “I’m going to have to do some work here.” How does PostPlay Theatre work? It simply makes a theatre-goer a proposal. I propose that we talk about where we are through the subject of female volunteers and soldiers and their stories, a story reshaped by war, and still being reshaped because the war is still going on. And then let’s find out who we are, and the questions, “Who am I?” and “Where are we going?” surface of their own accord.

What do we consider participation, partnership? If someone comes to one of our shows, they have to sit, work hard and think, and this is clear from the start. Otherwise, why come here? If you want entertainment, Kyiv has enough beautiful bourgeois theatres to be going on with. It all depends on the individual, and the way they think and work.

ZZ: Thinking is a pleasure.

DG: But it can be dangerous: you can find yourself saying, “We’re so independent and cool, and you’re not”, and that’s very egotistic. It’s important that we don’t distance ourselves from the common cause or say: “Our theatres are different, and you’re doing your nut about it.” We’re connected.

“We are just creating a little planet of lack of understanding on the 'sole of the policeman’s shoe'”

ZZ: You said mentioned horizontal theatre yourself. This is a horizontal world. When we were having some organisational problems with the festival in Kyiv, people helped us: within an hour and a half later they’d sent a banner we needed printing for a show. It was printed for pennies, someone sitting in a courtroom helped do everything. There’s your horizontal world for you.

DG: And the communication of the future.

ZZ: Yes, that’s what we’re talking about. Not about us being cool and you not, or us being contemporary and you being old hat.

Perhaps this is the communication of a crisis period, when people in Ukraine got used to coping with different tasks very quickly?

DG: I think everything here is like Alice in Wonderland: we need to run very fast just to stand still.

ZZ: There will never be a world where someone isn’t in need of help. The whole world is in crisis, it’s the end of an era. Why is everyone up in arms over gender issues like feminine word endings? Because relationships are changing along with the era. So now you’ll hear people asking, “Who never had their bum grabbed?” And everyone’s bum will be up for grabs. It’s a change in era and human consciousness. Ok, we’re in a time of crisis, but a story about people coming along to help out is a classic moment that has nothing to do with crisis.

Perhaps this is about trust?

DG: We’re living through a new humanism, when the means of communication puts the individual at the centre of attention. We don’t need the old constraints any more. I remember being on the Maidan on 20 February 2014, when we were carrying the dead and injured to the fountain from the farthest barricade, on Instytutska Street. What do you think I was thinking about? The fact that I had just one autumn coat, and I had to be at work the next day. I had to make sure I didn’t get any blood on my coat because I had an appointment at a newspaper office and it would look very odd if I turned up in a blood-stained coat.

“We’re living through a new humanism, when the means of communication puts the individual at the centre of attention”

ZZ: And if you had written that you needed a coat, someone would have brought you one. There’s no other guiding light apart from the individual.

DG: It’s a means of identification. You are the same. Not because your skin is the same colour as mine: you are the same because you are a human being.

What do your theatres have in common?

DG: They are both horizontal theatres, with similar ethical positions.

ZZ: I was taught to love horizontal theatre. I was recently at a conference in Oxford and something very strange happened: I was talking about how Teatr.doc works with political prisoners and someone in the audience said: “But Russian theatre is a patriarchal institution; how can you work in it?” And I had to think how do I work in it? But I live in the country, not the theatre. We are entering a horizontal world where there is no vertical of theatrical issues. But problems around new drama and how to produce it haven’t gone away.

DG: It’s not so much that Teatr.doc and PostPlay Theatre don’t engage with these issues: it’s just that they don’t define us. They do always exist in the background, but they don’t destroy the horizontal nature of our work.

Where does the war fit into your theatres?

ZZ: War occupies its own space. That is to say, we talk about it and do it regularly. It’s not a taboo subject, which is already quite something. Because if we stay silent about it, it means we accept it – that was a central pillar of Elena Gremina’s principle of “If we stay silent, it means we agree”. But we don’t accept that people being tortured, and that Oleg Sentsov, Alexander Kolchenko and all the others are behind bars. And even one show – and we have several – is already an enormous statement, given that the subject of war is rarely explored in our theatres.

DG: Human rights activists got our actors and directors out of Crimea because the FSB had them fully in their sights: they were being called in for questioning and all they could do was flee. That defines theatre as well. The present situation, as I see it, is that there is a war in Donbas, but Kyiv, on the one hand, actively avoids any discussion of it and does all it can to ignore it, while on the other, its propaganda machine is beginning to exploit it. The human factor is lost in both situations.

Our show Girls-girls consists of 12 stories of women soldiers and volunteers. It’s not about the war, but about these young women, how people change and what war does to them. We ditch the rhetoric and talk about the people.

ZZ: War in a theatre’s repertoire is one thing. War in the life of someone who works in theatre is quite another.

There are two thousand answers to the question of what space it occupies: it occupies everything or nothing, it has corroded the whole left side of our internal organs. I keep talking about it all and don’t understand any of it: neither the war, nor the torture. But I feel the need to speak about it, and speak loudly. Torture and war are my whole life now. I’d like to read newly translated books, but I have to write an article about torture, Chechnya and something else as well. The war never ends. My father is Chechen, he experienced torture in both the First and Second Chechen wars. I can’t talk to him about it, I just don’t have the words.

Journalists Egor Skovoroda and Alexey Polikhovich perform in our show Torture, which we put on on the day of the Russian presidential elections. They both write exclusively about this issue: one of them works for OVD-Info, the other for MediaZona. What do they do? They describe total horror, and they talk about this horror on stage, which is a different medium and requires a different technique. This technique makes your life a little easier – you have spoken aloud and that’s already a lot.

DG: We are also looking for ways to speak about it all – not because we are so cool, but as a way to get our heads around it. I can’t say we are bringing order to this chaos.


The play "Human Rights Defenders". Photo: Maria Boteva. All rights reserved.ZZ: We are just creating a little planet of lack of understanding on the “sole of the policeman’s shoe”.

One of the shows at Teatr.doc is a reading on the Bolotnaya Square case, where people who served prison sentences in connection with the 2012 protest tell the stories of their arrests, trials and prison experiences. PostPlay Theatre has a one-person show called The Identity Card, which is performed by a Crimean director who moved to Kyiv from Simferopol. Do the actors and audience members use these to work through their own traumas?

ZZ: It makes me cross when a person is reduced to the concept of “trauma”. It’s a word I hate, just as I hate the phrase, “theatre as therapy”. Theatre is a mass of things. The people who served prison sentences for Bolotnaya talk about themselves on stage. But they don’t say “I have experienced trauma”, they say “I’m bigger than my trauma”. They talk about how they were thrown into prison and about how, once you’re there, they try to turn you into an informer. I must avoid reducing our complex and fantastical world to a single concept.

DG: We need to define our “toolkit” – not just what we say, but how we say it. I am not a trauma: I have one but it doesn’t define me.

ZZ: For me, having a witness on stage is the best thing in documentary theatre. An actor can distance themselves as they say “Here I was an idiot, and here I was in pain”. In our Bolotnaya Square show the person on stage has no training in acting, not even a minimal actor’s toolkit – and that means there’s no distancing from the events. And when both eyewitnesses and actors come onto the stage you immediately see the difference. It’s a really strong moment and it works for these people themselves. It says: “You are someone interesting, people are listening to you, you are valued.”

I wanted to ask you about Oleg Sentsov. How can you cope with your powerlessness regarding his release? We all know that his fate depends on just one person, but the whole world is in solidarity.

ZZ: I can’t cope at all. The theatrical world, the world of writers and directors... it’s dreadful. He began his hunger strike two days before Elena Gremina’s death. I remember those two days: Ugarov had just died, Sentsov had begun his hunger strike and Elena Gremina was in hospital. The old world had passed away. You are nothing, you are powerless. You had nothing to help. There was no Gremina, who had talked been talking about this for four years, and no Ugarov, who had said that 2014 was a watershed for everything, the year when the abyss became only too obvious. And it made no difference whether you lived in the world of the theatre or not, you were powerless.

DG: I am very grateful to Oleg for not becoming a hero, for not turning into a living monument.


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