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A new drama in Moscow

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Teatr.doc – a pioneer of ‘New Drama’ in Russia – has recently been evicted from its basement home in Moscow. But is it all an act?

 

Alexey Krizhevsky
14 January 2015

Teatr.doc is on the move. Having performed its last plays and a holiday evening, the theatre packed its bags and left the tiny basement in the centre of Moscow – its home for many years. The director of the independent theatre, Elena Gremina, found out that the city had cancelled their lease agreement quite by chance. In fact, the agreement had already been terminated on 12 May 2014.

In total, more than 6,000 people signed an appeal to the Moscow city authorities in defence of the theatre, including 200 people from the world of Russian theatre (such as Alexander Gelman, Nikolai Kolyada and Evgeny Grishkovets). Western playwrights such as Tom Stoppard also came to their aid. And their appeal was a modest one: extend the lease agreement with its former conditions for another five years. But the intercession of the great and the good failed to save Teatr.doc, and the authorities remained deaf to their pleas.

‘New Drama’

Not so long ago, Teatr.doc’s situation was rather different. Alongside Gogol Centre, the Mayakovsky Theatre, and the Meyerhold Centre, Teatr.doc had secured an important place on the new theatrical map of Moscow.

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BerlusPutin. (c) Polina Koroleva via teatr.doc

Organised in 2002, Teatr.doc emerged from a series of master-classes held in Moscow for Russian actors, directors and playwrights by London’s Royal Court (the principal school of verbatim theatre) in 1999-2000. Initially, Teatr.doc stuck to a single method: practically all its plays were created on the basis of long interviews. That is, the actors, director, and playwright were focused on preserving the speech of their informants.

The founders of Teatr.doc, Mikhail Ugarov (playwright, director) and Elena Gremina (playwright), also went on to help found the ‘New Drama’ movement in Russia. Gremina and Ugarov were involved in the ‘New Drama’ from its very conception, hosting readings of texts at Lyubimovka (a festival devoted to new plays) and performances at the New Drama Festival. As the name of this movement hinted, Russian repertory theatres were faced with a crisis as they made a transition from a director-oriented theatre to a writer-oriented one. These efforts helped the new generation of Russian theatre artists acquire a new, modern voice, and to launch a new language onto the Russian stage.

These efforts helped the new generation of Russian theatre artists acquire a new, modern voice.

At Teatr.doc you could watch plays such as Alexander Rodionov's The War of the Moldovans for a Cardboard Box (which used interviews with migrant workers), or Elena Isaeva’s musical Doc.tor, based on an interview with a provincial doctor about his life and work. Exhibits, written by Vyacheslav Durnenkov, told the story of how a large corporation tries to transform the residents of a small town into (chained) purveyors of Russian exotica. Olga Mikhailova's TolstoyStolypin: Private Correspondence took the audience back a century via the imagined correspondence of Lev Tolstoy and Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin.

However, Teatr.doc soon departed from the constraints of method, and ‘reality’ became a key concept for the theatre. The theatre, however, approached ‘reality’ somewhat differently, conducting courses on therapy through theatre (acting and writing) in prison colonies for youth offenders and older prisoners. And in schools, Teatr.doc has been breathing new life into the classics via the state-funded programme Theatre+Society.

While this lively and challenging independent theatre neither ducked its political battles, nor went out of its way to make friends with the authorities, people in power – on occasion – sought their advice. Sergei Kapkov, the Moscow minister of culture responsible for the gentrification of the Russian capital, is sympathetic to their cause. Under the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, Elena Gremina was invited to join the Presidential Council on Culture.

A game of cat-and-mouse

Yet, for all its hard-hitting reputation, the current harassment is unparalleled in the theatre’s 12-year history. But there have been conflicts before.

In response to the staging of September.doc (about the Beslan tragedy in 2004), the Moscow Ministry of Culture stopped its grant funding. Teatr.doc responded by touring Europe with a play based on statements made online by Russian nationalists, Chechen separatists, as well as Ossetian and Ingush activists.

In 2005, a security service agent sat in on the rehearsals for Pure PR, a play on the work of Russian (and pro-Kremlin) ‘political technologists’. According to the agent’s own words, he was tasked with ascertaining whether state secrets were being leaked. That said, there was no question of evicting the theatre at the time.

In their attempt to find out the true reasons for the current and seemingly wilful decision of the city authorities to make them homeless, Teatr.doc turned to their acquaintances in the world of journalism and the cultural bureaucracy. According to Elena Gremina, all their contacts pointed to the ceiling as if to indicate the real source of dissatisfaction. Of course, nobody named representatives from the Presidential Administration directly, but its current residents have all the motives necessary to be ‘unhappy’ with the theatre.

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Doc.tor. (c) via teatr.doc

The last two years have seen two particularly interesting plays premiere at Teatr.doc: One hour Eighteen and BerlusPutin. One Hour Eighteen presents a stripped-down, gripping account of who killed Sergey Magnitsky, and how. Alternating with real and imagined monologues of the judge, investigators, and medics, the play takes us to the heart of the tragedy in which Magnitsky – the lawyer who discovered the largest tax fraud in Russian history – was systematically abused and later murdered in prison. While state Russian media remained largely quiet on the subject, the authorities nevertheless found it necessary to place Magnitsky on trial for tax evasion in March 2013 – after Magnitsky’s death in 2009.

‘What can’t be done on TV and the newspapers, we can do in the theatre.’

As Mikhail Ugarov said in his presentation of the play: ‘What can’t be done on TV and the newspapers, we can do in the theatre. We are protected by the presumption of invention.’ The play, written by Elena Gremina, was shown at the UN’s Headquarters in New York, as well as various theatres in the US and UK.

The authorities would have ample ground to find BerlusPutin offensive. A farcical carnival adapted from Italian satirist Dario Fo’s play Two-headed Anomaly, BerlusPutin follows Silvio Berlusconi's brain as it is transplanted into the head of Vladimir Putin after his dying in a bomb explosion at an international summit. And just as Russian politics is turned upside down as a result, so is the personal life of the Russian president. At once appearing in the mask of Dobby from Harry Potter, or with his 'manly' chest exposed, Putin begins to speak in two languages and watches – helpless and surprised – as his political opponents take power.

Playing to full houses for two years, BerlusPutin was performed at Moscow’s OccupyAbai during the wave of protests in 2012. The breaking point of 2012 – the violent dispersal of the demonstration against Putin’s inauguration on Bolotnaya Square and the court cases that followed – is the focus of Teatr.doc’s next play, and participants of Bolotnaya could make an appearance on stage.

The theatre that isn’t afraid

These two plays alone were likely to have stuck in the minds of those behind the persecution of Teatr.doc. Persecution or no, the theatre has already found a new and permanent home (due to open in May), and has already signed contracts with several spaces for separate projects.

Despite the risks, there is, though, still a circle of people in Russia who love this anarchic environment where you can create all kinds of cultural projects – so devoted that they’re prepared to fix up any of the ruins the theatre is considering for a future home. No one from this circle has panicked or fallen into depression, quite the opposite – they are mobilised and motivated. The theatre has 10 premières planned in only the first half of the season. Indeed, Teatr.doc’s call for financial assistance through crowdsourcing has already raised considerable money from supporters.

However, the final days of 2014 saw fresh ink added to Teatr.doc’s troubled relationship with the authorities. On 30 December, the theatre planned to show Stronger than arms, a documentary film about Ukraine's Maidan movement, made by the Babylon’13 group of documentary filmmakers. Teatr.doc hoped to show the film and collect donations in support of the family of Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director who is currently on trial in Moscow. Arrested by Russian security services in Simferopol, Crimea in May 2014, Sentsov, allegedly acting under the auspices of the far-right Right Sector, is accused of planning terrorist acts on the newly-minted Russian peninsula,

Just before curtain rise, however, the police intervened, citing a 'bomb threat' on the basement theatre. Several people close to the theatre were detained in the process (including playwright Maxim Kurochkin and the director Vsevolod Lisovsky), and stage props and a computer were removed during the ensuing search. The Moscow Ministry of Culture also requested that the theatre give an explanation of its actions, and present its documents for inspection. Moreover, the basement theatre was sealed off temporarily as a result. Notwithstanding, the premières for January are set to take place, regardless.

Until recently, the theatre adhered to the slogan ‘Theatre without the acting'. Now that political reality has started to act up with Teatr.doc, a new version of the slogan has emerged: ‘The theatre that isn’t afraid’.

 

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