What the Russian theatre critics won’t tell you

This new Moscow online journal is devoted to theatre. But it’s more like an activist project than a traditional arts magazine. Русский

Elizaveta Spivakovskaya
2 March 2017

Set design from the archives of the State Museum of Children’s Theatre, Moscow. Photo CC-by-NC-2.0: Elizabeth / Flickr. Some rights reserved.The first issue of Giraffe magazine, launched in November 2016, was a manifesto. The publication sets a distinctive tone — it’s all Sunday afternoon nonchalance and self-deprecating irony. Giraffe’s texts are generally on theatrical themes, but they touch on much more: the time we live in, the links between theatre and other forms of art and spheres of life.

The articles published by Giraffe magazine aren’t strictly academic, nor are they journalistic in style. Instead, they’re connected by the environment of free-thinking that produced their authors — the majority of Giraffe’s authors hail from the faculty of theatrical history and criticism at GITIS, the Russian Academy of Theatrical Arts based in Moscow. Indeed, GITIS has been in the headlines in recent months due to a high-profile student protest after the newly appointed rector announced the merger of two faculties, the faculty of theatre history and criticism and the faculty of theatre management and production.

Anya Zhuk, the chief editor (and ideologue) of Giraffe, is a recent graduate of the faculty of theatrical history, and told me more about the origins and aims of this magazine.

I’ve seen your manifesto, but what needs to be read between the lines? What’s Giraffe’s mission?

Giraffe was created in order to listen to how we should respond to life. For me, with my background and education, that means artistic life. But I’m convinced that in some moments a person becomes more than they are.

After this recent incident at GITIS, for example, many people realised that they had to do something — and that meant breaking their personal boundaries. Before practicing absolute anonymity (for the first month we didn’t attribute authors’ texts), we simply uploaded two large portraits — that was our opinions in their purest form.

These days, in the media practically everybody writes texts in reaction to specific developments and events. It seems to me that people have grown hungry for their own rhythm, which is as necessary as news itself

The reality we live in isn’t an easy one, and I want to create a space that will react to it in a lively way. When I founded Giraffe, I wanted to open up a discussion that I’d like to participate in myself.

How does Giraffe differ from all the other online publications about art and culture? What did you feeling was missing in them, as a reader?

These days, in the media practically everybody writes texts in reaction to specific developments and events. It seems to me that people have grown hungry for their own rhythm, which is as necessary as news itself. I wanted a publication with a slower rhythm… unhurried, but still productive.

Who writes for Giraffe? Is there some regular pool of contributors?

I want to gather people from different professions linked to art criticism under one roof. And I hope that there are enough such people that every one of them can write something personal, in their own handwriting and their own style. I’m looking for people with very different intuitions, topics of interest and rhythms — so that the reader can always find something that speaks to them. One by one, our audience will come to appreciate and trust the publication.

We have developed our own aesthetic of anonymity: when we wrote our first articles, we signed them under our own names. And then when authors contribute their second articles, we attribute them to “(first name) Giraffe”, highlighting their belonging to a certain community of ideas.

Where do the boundaries, if any, of Giraffe’s interests lie?

Well, in a life that revolves around theatre, there are a certain number of topics to talk about. The process of identifying an entirely new trend or theme is very tough — indeed, it can last a lifetime. A vivid example of this for me is the theatre critic Alena Karas, who brought the subjects of memory and trauma [links in Russian] to our theatrical discourse. Of course, these are incredibly important topics, but it was only after several years of constantly seeing her public performances that I understood how crucial they are to theatrical life.

A Russian artist needs a home to work in. These days, it’s easier live in another country and then long to be back in your own home(land), rather than see it doesn’t care for you at all

The most important thing for me is that everybody finds their own source, their own inspiration as an author. So, we started to discuss what pains us. And that’s how the theme of the first “issue” came into being — emigration.


A giraffe at the Moscow Zoo, 2005. Photo: Dmitry Fedoseev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

It’s a subject to be understood in the broadest possible sense — as the transition from one space to another. A Russian artist needs a home to work in. And these days, it’s much easier live in another country and then long for that home(land), rather than see how that home doesn’t care for you at all.

Our relationships with our parents and our homes are always the most complicated. I founded Giraffe with the “here and now” on my mind, and that’s what I discussed with the authors. At the moment, we’re preparing an English-language version of the site.

What exactly does “issue” mean here — that the site is updated on a weekly basis?

For us, an issue is simply a topic we’ve found. We work with a lot of people connected to the theatre, cinema, music. We’ve also published a video loop about graffiti, for example. The author Tanya Morales graduated from the Rodchenko Art School in Moscow, and then moved on to the British Higher School of Design. She’s experienced two attitudes to modern life that don’t combine too easily; at the British school, they’re taught that art is a product, and that if you can’t sell it successfully, you’re not worthwhile. The Rodchenko school teaches the very opposite.

One of our tasks at Giraffe is to create a journal that can address these various — commercial, non-commercial — art forms, but doesn’t become a product itself.

Who are “we”? Tell me a little about your fellow editors.

We have two editorial boards. One is responsible for editing texts, for stylistic changes. The other is the design collective, which ensures that the essence remains unchanged. My personal example here is Amy Winehouse. When she went on stage, she just sang. She couldn’t really do anything else — that was her essence. She wasn’t able to create a product herself; her entire image was created by others — directors, choreographers, musicians. And without that form, there would have been no performance. I’d like authors from Giraffe to sing well, but I still spend a lot of time on giving the publication a unified form.

What’s your audience? Who are you writing for?

We founded our publication for the intuitive and intellectual reader. As I see it, there are two types of people — some understand the world through essence, others through form. I want Giraffe to appeal to both, to people on different wavelengths. These days, readers are tired of incessant advertisements, and of native advertising mixed in with real articles by real authors. We want to create “a zone of trust” between the reader and publication. It’s important for us to maintain independent expert opinion on the site.

We also ask that our judgements not be seen as political. When we’re critical, it means we want movements and tendencies [in art] to continue and adapt, not to die out. We work to create art anew, not to destroy the old. Our goal is simply to observe the fascinating development of art, in all its directions. We seek readers who are interested to watch that process alongside us.

The debate around the GITIS faculty of theatrical history and criticism was closely connected to the current rector’s belief that theatre criticism is a field in crisis, and is in need of renewal. What do you make of his declaration?

As I see it, the protest at the faculty of theatrical history and criticism was a reaction to the rector’s view that the faculty needs to “identify itself”, as it were.

But there’s no problem with identity here. In fact, the field faces exactly the opposite problem — theatrical criticism is extremely closed, perhaps even self-obsessed, and has shuttered itself away from change and new ideas. Any other criticism could have been made, but don’t tell theatre critics that they don’t know who they are.

Theatre students from St. Petersburg protesting in defence of their colleagues at GITIS. Photo: tvc.ru / YouTube. Some rights reserved.

Producers and theatre managers are exactly the same — they know very well who they are. It’s not that the two fields and faculties have fallen out, it’s that they both need change in very different ways. In that sense, the protest was logical enough — it’s becoming clearer that the rector’s policy is more aimed at blurring disciplinary boundaries and attracting Big Names to the institution, rather than addressing existing problems.

There’s a global division afoot between mass professions and individual jobs. The latter, where the skills and gifts required for success occur once every few years, have to survive in globalisation

When it comes to education at the faculty, I’ve nothing to say against the theatre experts and dramatists — but I do see big problems in the press. I gathered together writers in the field who hadn’t yet been able to find proper work (or hadn’t tried to). Several had already written dissertations, so I asked them to write their thoughts. They turned out to be very impressive specialists. A cultural critic, after all, isn’t somebody who rushes around, chasing stories, but somebody who takes the time to reflect and lead a reader through their thoughts. 

What kind of place does Giraffe magazine give authors to find their own voice, to write about theatre or whatever their particular passion?

I saw “Lungs”, Katie Mitchell’s play, in Berlin. It was a minimalist installation featuring two small black wooden tables, upon which actors sat on bicycles, pedalling and chatting to one another. They talked about ecology, giving birth to children, and any number of other topics. For the first couple of minutes I felt that I’d got the point and was already a bit bored. Over the course of the next three days in Berlin, I almost forgot that I had seen the production at all. But it seemed to me as if I was overhearing the heroes’ discussions in crowds; that I had simply taken in the chatter of this city as if by osmosis. Over four days, the play had gradually and imperceptibly opened itself up before me, and I saw that it had been a very modern, very perceptive piece of art. That’s when I understood that we shouldn’t write immediately about plays we have just seen.

Many theatre critics see a play, go back home and resume talking about whatever they want to talk about. And I’m left wondering what the authors of that play left “for themselves” after they wrote it.

Is Giraffe magazine a volunteer-run project?

No. All of our authors are also motivated by a financial interest. In some ways, Giraffe is an attempt to run a creative project as a business model. A volunteer-run creative endeavour, unsupported by a coherent internal structure, is doomed to fail — sooner or later. We’re now looking for sponsors, and although there is a commercial aspect, I still want our project to be an artistic and creative space. We’re looking for partners who value their reputation and have a high sense of creativity in their work. It’s a small project, so I think we’ll find something.

You said that you’ve already decided on the topics of the next two issues?

Yes, we’ve identified two issues that we’re really itching to cover. One is, simply, “time”. Or rather, time as a category of time, in terms of how it’s interpreted and performed in different artistic genres; its changes and leaps.

We also want to talk about education, the transfer of knowledge. And that’s not simply about official systems of education, schools and universities — for example, we’d like to reflect on how different cultures are transmitted among populations, and different concepts of education: whether teacher-student, self-learning, or the movement towards online study. 

In recent decades, the global need for higher education has radically altered, turning traditional structures of education upside-down. There’s a global division afoot between mass professions and individual jobs. The latter, where the skills and gifts required to be successful occur once every few years, have to survive in globalisation. 
For that, we need the state to pay attention and lend a hand in the difficult process of keeping institutions like GITIS afloat.

I believe that theatrical education can still attract the attention from government officials in Russia, especially if they’re interested in maintaining a high level of expert specialists. But the overarching theme here is freedom of choice for young people. How is tradition passed down, and how is this freedom affected? You’ll soon be able to read our authors’, our giraffes’ thoughts on this. And they’re likely to be of very different positions — we’re a very diverse crowd, and we love to argue with one another.

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