No More Drama

Theater has long been at the center of political struggle in Russia. The theatricalization of life was one of the key aims of the Russian avant-garde, which embraced the 1917 revolution in part because it promised to transform everyday life into living theater. With the advent of socialist realism in the 1930s, Stalin turned theater into an instrument of state propaganda, but restrictions loosened again in the period of late socialism, from the 1960s to the 1980s, at which time theater acquired a near sacred status in Soviet culture.

“Who in Russia lives well?”

Idiots at the Gogol Center. Photo by Alex Yocu.

“It’s all the Kremlin’s fault!” says a young man as he prepares to burn down a toy model of the Savior Tower (the iconic clocktower that rises above the main gate into the Moscow Kremlin). We never learn much about Gavno (Shit), nor about the motley group of friends with whom he lives in a sort of urban commune. Among them are Cuba, who is straight but pretends to be homosexual; Pixel, who fakes autism; the obese nympho Madame; and Elisey, the group’s princely but tortured ringleader. When not quietly channeling their inner idiots (or “holy fools”) at home, the friends stage provocative actions around Moscow. Madame scolds a swim fitness instructor for exposing her “children” to the female body; Masha walks into an Orthodox church and begins to thrash about as if she were possessed; Elisey invites patrons at a café to throw punches at a defenseless Pixel. When Gavno, in a wheelchair, convinces two road workers to hold his dick while he urinates into a manhole, then gets up and calmly walks away, the story turns tragic. The workers beat him to death as his friends helplessly look on. What had begun as an attempt to escape (or expose) the violence of contemporary Russian life has only resulted in more of it.

Adapted from Lars von Trier’s film of the same name, Kirill Serebrennikov’s Idiots can be seen at the Gogol Center, which has emerged as a hub of experimental theater in Moscow since Serebrennikov took over as artistic director in 2012. Idiots is at once an intellectual and a profoundly lyrical production, fusing European postdramatic theater with Russian New Drama—an eclectic and hard-to-define movement whose most important unifying trait may be a determination to speak openly about the darker sides of contemporary Russian reality. As spectators first make their way into the spacious black box theater they are confronted with a set that feels instantly familiar: а pair of plain office desks, a microphone, and a metal cage. They have seen it before in news reports on controversial show trials—most famously, the trial of feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot. Flanking the square set are four TV monitors displaying the ten rules that make up Serebrennikov’s “vow of chastity” (von Trier’s Dogme 95 manifesto served as a model)—rules prohibiting the use of decorations, of illusion-making devices, of imitation, etc. Serebrennikov will playfully break most of these rules in the course of his show. If you want theater to fulfill expectations, you should stick to the Mossovet Theater. Or to Broadway.

Idiots was a huge hit at the 2015 Avignon Theater Festival in France, where it was featured in the official “IN” program (the first Russian show to be featured in almost a decade). And yet, just as with Andrei Zviagintsev’s Oscar-nominated film Leviathan in 2014, it did not get much love from the Russian Ministry of Culture, which refused funding for the company’s travel expenses to Avignon. The fact that this even became a news item might come as a shock to readers in the United States, where decades of neoliberal economic policies have led to the steady erosion of public arts funding. But in Russia, where most theaters operate almost entirely on public money (one of the more enviable legacies of socialism), the ministry’s refusal was perceived as yet another sign of the regime’s hardening cultural politics—part of a wider authoritarian turn that began after Putin’s return to power in May 2012. As the culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, made clear in a June 17, 2015, article for the newspaper Izvestiia, the regime will no longer appropriate funds for works of art it deems in conflict with national interests. With its mock burning of the Kremlin (among other equally provocative scenes), one can understand how, from the ministry’s point of view, Idiots might look suspicious.

Theater has long been at the center of political struggle in Russia. The theatricalization of life was one of the key aims of the Russian avant-garde, which embraced the 1917 revolution in part because it promised to transform everyday life into living theater. With the advent of socialist realism in the 1930s, Stalin turned theater into an instrument of state propaganda, but restrictions loosened again in the period of late socialism, from the 1960s to the 1980s, at which time theater acquired a near sacred status in Soviet culture. As Marina Davydova, a leading expert on Russian theater, observes in her 2005 book The End of a Theater Epoch, “Russia in the period of late socialism was not a literature- but a theater-centric country.” While censorship was strong, and many Western authors remained taboo, Soviet directors began to test the boundaries of artistic speech through the camouflaging techniques of Aesopian language. Ordinary citizens went to great lengths for the chance to see Russian bard Vladimir Vysotsky in the role of Hamlet at the Taganka or, with the introduction of glasnost, to attend a new play by Liudmila Petrushevskaya. Outside Moscow, too, amateur theater circles flourished (my own parents first met in one such circle in Baku). In a country without a functioning civil society and, officially, without religion, theater became a substitute for the church, the parliament, and the free press.

All of this changed in the decade after the fall of the Soviet Union—perhaps unfairly regarded as a period of stagnation for Russian theater. Historians cite various reasons for theater’s decline in the 1990s. The rate of emigration among the intelligentsia was high; the economy was in free fall; new social and civic institutions, however imperfect, had begun to emerge; and theater now had greater competition from other media, such as commercial film and television. John Freedman, an American theater critic who has been writing from Moscow for more than two decades, observes that the collapse of the former administrative system left gaping holes in theaters’ budgets: “Subsidies for production, salaries, and infrastructure were slashed or wiped out, and nothing was instituted to remedy the situation. Inflation hit so hard that even theaters with money at the beginning of the month were not sure it would be worth anything the next.” He also recalls that the unprecedented rate of social and political change had a “stunning” effect on the Russian public, that “historical disclosures made daily, even hourly, on live television in the early 1990s were so grippingly dramatic that theater attendance plummeted.” Those who did attend theater wanted to escape, rather than relive, the hardships of post-Soviet life. As a result, Russian theater completely lost touch with contemporary reality.

This is not to say that Russia lacked quality experimental theater in those years; in fact, as Mark Lipovetsky and Birgit Beumers point out in a recent study, Russian theater in the early 1990s was “transforming, assimilating the artistic energy of new theater studios that emerged during Perestroika,” many of which were later transformed into larger theaters with a charismatic (male) director at their helm. These “auteur” directors, however, saw it as their mission to introduce Russian audiences to ideas and texts that had been forbidden in the Soviet Union. They had little interest in the work of young playwrights, who were shut out of their experimental theaters no less than from the mainstream entertainment industry.

The movement that eventually came to be known as New Drama—and that led many to see the turn of this century as the beginning of a new “golden age” of Russian theater—has its roots in the private initiatives of playwrights such as Mikhail Roshchin and Alexei Kazantsev, who sought to nurture young talent by founding an annual dramaturgy festival (Liubimovka, 1990–), a journal of new dramaturgy (Dramaturg, 1993–1998), and a theater (The Playwriting and Directing Center, 1998–) in which young and experimental artists could showcase their work. Liubimovka especially became an important forum for the alternative theater crowd. A reading of Olga Mukhina’s Tanya-Tanya at this festival in 1995 led to the movement’s first breakout hit. And at the 2000 festival, a relatively unknown TV director from Rostov-on-Don named Kirill Serebrennikov created a sensation with his staging of Vasily Sigarev’s Plasticine. Serebrennikov went on to direct two other influential works of New Drama: the Brothers Presnyakov’s Terrorism (2002) and Playing the Victim (2004). Both were staged at the prestigious Moscow Art Theater.

Arguably the best-known work of New Drama, thanks to a film Serebrennikov made of it in 2006, Playing the Victim exhibits many features that have come to define the movement: aimless and socially alienated heroes, the use of obscene language (traditionally taboo, and, as of 2014, illegal, on the Russian stage), a matter-of-fact portrayal of sex and violence. Estranged from his mother and unable to form meaningful relationships with anyone around him, the play’s Hamlet-like hero, Valya, makes a living reenacting the final movements of murder victims for a homicide investigation team, pretending, at different moments in the play, to be stabbed, drowned, shot, and pushed out of a window. His strange job offers him “inoculation” against death, he explains, but it can also be seen as a way of muffling the sense of meaninglessness that pervades his life: “You need to put out . . . these sensations . . . Switch off my oxygen supply, please!” he tells his girlfriend after asking her to suffocate him during their sexual games. Such statements call to mind the nihilistic heroes of contemporary British playwrights, such as Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane, but they resonate more strongly in the context of post-Soviet Russian reality. Valya’s case becomes symptomatic of a wider social (dis)order in which even trivial conflicts are resolved with violence. If the legitimizing myth of the Putin regime has been that it steered the country away from the chaos-engendering violence of the 1990s, Playing the Victim seems to suggest that it did so by making violence routine.

While the success of Mukhina and the Presnyakovs showed that contemporary playwrights were finally breaking into the mainstream, the majority of their colleagues continued to be shunned by the establishment. At the turn of the century, several new theaters appeared to help remedy this problem—by far the most important being Teatr.doc (founded in 2002). Trained by the English Royal Court Theatre in the verbatim technique, a method for constructing plays based on interview transcripts and other documents, Teatr.doc’s founders introduced audiences at their tiny basement theater to heroes never before seen on the Russian stage: migrant workers from Central Asia, prison inmates, prostitutes, sexual minorities. From the start, Teatr.doc also made a point of using theater to respond critically to social and political crises. It was only at Teatr.doc, for example, that one could see a documentary play about the 2004 terrorist school siege in Beslan (September.doc, 2005), the text of which was compiled from commentaries posted in Russian, Chechen and North Ossetian chat rooms; or about the prison murder of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky (Hour 18, 2012). And it was at Teatr.doc that Varvara Faer premiered her audacious political satire BerlusPutin (2012), which was then performed at the Occupy Abai protest camp in Moscow.

The New Drama principle that theater should reflect (or reflect upon) social reality has had a transformative effect on contemporary Russian theater, once again making it, as Davydova told me, “the most important of all the arts in Russia.” The revolution begun by New Drama playwrights has influenced the work of theater makers only tenuously associated with the movement. The director Konstantin Bogomolov, for example, has become well known for his merciless satires of Russian society, creating challenging postmodern “trash-epics” by rewriting old classics. His 2013 reimagining of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband exposed the hypocrisy and violence at every level of Russian society, which the show portrays as a loveless prison (represented by a string of barbed wire that tops the minimalist set). In Boris Godunov, which premiered in 2014 and can be seen as a response to the failed 2011-2012 protest movement, Bogomolov provokes angry shouts from the audience by displaying the words “The Russian People are Sheep” on two large screens, letting ten minutes pass before his coy Godunov (clearly modeled on Putin) finally appears to accept the crown. Later in the same show, Bogomolov interrupts a conversation about war with Poland in order to have pallbearers escort twelve coffins across the stage: a stark reminder of the toll of war at a time when Russia refuses to acknowledge that it has soldiers dying in Eastern Ukraine.

It should not come as a surprise that political gestures like Bogomolov’s have provoked a backlash, which has grown in force with the worsening political situation internally and abroad. The 2014-2015 season, especially, was rich in events that have rattled the theater community, ranging from the merely grotesque, such as the placing of a pig’s head at the entrance to the Moscow Art Theater (part of a performance action by the right-wing Orthodox group God’s Will), to the more troubling, such as the attempt to press criminal charges against the director Timofei Kuliabin for his “blasphemous” staging of Wagner’s Tannhäuser.

In May of 2015, the “independent fund” Art Without Borders (an Orwellian name, given that its activities are aimed at curtailing expression) organized an exhibit in Moscow that featured photographs of controversial productions paired with the amounts each theater received in public funding. The exhibit was quickly taken down after drawing condemnation from the theater community, but the same group later filed a complaint with the office of the public prosecutor, which issued summonses to the managing directors of six Moscow theaters. It instructed them to report on twelve of the productions featured in the exhibit—including Bogomolov’s An Ideal Husband, Konstantin Raikin’s All Shades of Blue (based on a tragic coming-out play by Vladimir Zaitsev), six shows by Serebrennikov, and Kuliabin’s Tannhäuser—which were being investigated for signs of “obscenity, propaganda of amoral behavior, [and] pedophilia.” Though the summonses did not have any immediate consequences, the culture minister, Medinsky, later commended the exhibit as a positive example of “citizen activism.” Medinsky himself has been leading the effort to put pressure on several important theater institutions, including the Golden Mask festival and the journal Teatr; and there is a campaign underway to discredit Serebrennikov.

Perhaps hardest hit, however, has been Teatr.doc, which was evicted from two separate theaters in the span of six months in 2014-2015. Both evictions were based on dubious premises: supposed fire code violations and other such nonsense. The real reason was that the authorities did not like them mounting shows about the Maidan revolution in Ukraine and about political prisoners arrested at the Bolotnaya Square protest on May 6, 2012. “There is currently a war being waged over the representation of reality in Russia,” Mikhail Ugarov, the artistic director of Teatr.doc, told me when I met with him in June, adding that the mere appearance of the words “Maidan” or “Bolotnaya” in a show’s title is enough to provoke a reaction. The theater’s team has put on a brave face, even playfully changing Teatr.doc’s slogan from “a theater where no one acts” (the emphasis here being on authenticity) to “a theater on the move.” The truth is that the evictions have cut a deep hole in Teatr.doc’s already meager budget, forcing it to turn to monthly crowd-funding campaigns just to stay afloat.

In his article for Izvestiia, Medinsky wrote that the state will not fund, but neither will it ban, works of art it deems contrary to “traditional values”—a claim obviously belied by its persecution of the privately-funded Teatr.doc. Arguing that if a state does not feed its own culture, “it will end up feeding a foreign army,” the culture minister, who also presides over the Russian Military-Historical Society, then shifts into high odic mode to describe the people’s jubilation at the recent unveiling of a new tank. And yet, Medinsky reluctantly (one feels) concedes, it is the Bolshoi and the Moscow Art Theater that shape “that cultural-historical identity, without which every tank is but a piece of metal, no matter how technologically advanced.” The message is clear: the Ministry will seek to regulate Russian theater as just another unit in the power vertical. From the golden age straight to the age of bronze.

But will it succeed? After all, the country’s theater industry, much like its economy, has become so tightly integrated with the rest of Europe, tastes and expectations have been altered so radically, that it is hard to imagine a return to the isolation that Russian theater endured during the cold war (an isolation more complete than that of literature or film, media that are more amenable to illegal forms of distribution). Even the most tense year for Russian theater in two decades has not passed without a number of encouraging developments, such as the restoration of the old Stanislavsky Theater, which reopened this winter as the breathtaking Electrotheater Stanislavsky, and landmark productions by renowned Western artists, including the German group Rimini Protokoll and the American Robert Wilson.

Theater critic Pavel Rudnev has used the aviation term “decision speed” (the speed beyond which a plane’s takeoff cannot be safely aborted) to help describe the current state of Russian theater. “Today’s Russian theater has surmounted [this speed],” he writes. “One is seeing the accumulation of elevation, the accumulation of spectators, the accumulation of ideas; theater will not be able to reverse course without serious consequences.” This does not mean, of course, that Russian theater won’t be forced into all sorts of emergency maneuvers. Rudnev himself has recently suggested that it has begun to develop a new allegorical language, reminiscent of the Aesopian language of the late Soviet period, and to explore new themes, particularly that of the “salvational dream.” If he is right, this would mean a radical break with the principles instilled by New Drama, which sought to awaken audiences through the language of the “direct utterance” (priamoe vyskazyvanie). Russian theater could once again turn into the innocuous or, as Davydova calls it, “naphthalene” theater of the past. The plane may not crash, but neither will it soar.

For the time being, however, the theater community remains defiant. On July 31, I attended a preview of a new show at Teatr.doc that played to a packed house comprising friends and fans, including Serebrennikov and Zviagintsev. Entitled 24+ (a jab at the new age restrictions introduced by the Ministry of Culture), the partly-improvised piece featured five characters who discussed their sexual experiences with a frankness rarely encountered on the Russian stage. The central part consisted of a long erotic scene between a threesome of actors (two men and a woman) performed nude on a large mattress placed just inches from the audience. “Love without borders as an experiment in utopia,” read the advertisement for the show. As the plot revealed, the experiment proved unsuccessful (perhaps a sign of lingering conservatism even among the intelligentsia), but what mattered was the attempt to start an adult conversation about such topics at a time when the regime is staging an assault on “nontraditional values.”

The show may also signal a new desire on the part of Russian artists to search for alternatives to the present order, social and political. Many continue to look for models in Western Europe and the United States, but, with the centenary of the 1917 revolution approaching, some have begun to draw inspiration from Russia’s rich tradition of utopian thinking. Teatr.doc now holds a regular Festival of Utopias and has initiated a series of public lectures by activists from the group Open Left. The St. Petersburg director Andrei Moguchy recently adapted Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s revolutionary novel What is to be Done? for the stage, inviting audience members to linger after the show for a discussion about what new utopian projects are needed today. And in September, Serebrennikov premiered a much-anticipated piece based on the work of 19th-century civic poet Nikolai Nekrasov. Taking as their model the utopian Narodnik (or To the people!) movement inspired by Nekrasov, Serebrennikov and his actors travelled to the poet’s old haunts near Yaroslavl, asking ordinary citizens they met along the way, “Who in Russia lives well?” Such projects add a revolutionary twist to the dream theme noted by Rudnev. The aim, to paraphrase another utopian thinker, is no longer to merely represent contemporary reality, but to change it.

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