Exploring The Civic Position (Teatr.doc - Up To Date)
quo vadis Teatr.doc Since its foundation in 2002 the Moscow theatre Teatr.doc evolved from an originally purely underground company experimenting with new methods of playwriting into a well respected stable "address". Teatr.doc works as an open space: creative team comes up with a project that is then approved by the theatre management. Artists work without salary, and their subsequent wage is based on the number of sold tickets. Even if there is a rule that no scenery or costumes can be used during the shows, and that the age of performers has to correspond with the age of characters, the authors associated with Teatr.doc have to keep searching for new ways of stage representation. It is also due to the fact that every time they work with a different authentic material (which they usually collect themselves). But even their poetics has changed. The initially dreaded "chernukha", characterized by an interest in the darker side of life, and an abundance of vulgarisms in the texts, gradually ceased to be one of the main features of their work. Image of an apocalyptic world in which heroes search without any success for a glimpse of light shifted into focus on man in a particular real life situation.
Despite of the official proclamation of the freedom of speech in Russia, there is still not enough of it. Critical voices point out that if majority of people have access just to pro-government information then freedom of speech is more fictional than real. Teatr.doc enables the confrontation with facts that are interpreted by an author but according to the verbatim method the author doesn't take a strong stance but offers a whole spectrum of opinions. The goal is to enable audience to make their own judgment without any manipulation. Even if Mikhail Ugarov, the founder of Teatr.doc, acknowledges the historical contribution of a directorial theatre, he calls it repressive. He rejects authorities which tell people what's right and wrong: „I absolutely refuse to conform to an author's will; I am starting to trust only fragments of street talks, which no one comments on. That's where I find more sense and truth than in some humanist's thoughts on how our world works." We can say that in Russian society Teatr.doc plays the role of an absent independent media. Ugarov doesn't consider interest in everyday reality that surrounds us as something inferior; on the contrary, he sees it as an indication of a higher culture (while the desire for the sublime and sacral he attributes to primitive cultures).
From most Russian directors and theatre reformers Ugarov differs in his minimal interest in theatre aesthetics that he subordinates to social and political issues. At the same time he tames any efforts of showing off, and teaches his artistic companions that in order to create good art they have to step aside and let the material speak on its own. And that they have to approach the material as sensitive listeners and citizens with their own life experience. My article deals with their recent political productions; however, Teatr.doc also tackles other themes. Just last year they produced three such productions.
In The Abduction, Konstantin Kozhevnikov explored what happened with his friend who was involved in a kidnapping of a child. The production 9 Months, 14 Weeks offers an insight into a life of pregnant women. The material was collected by men who thus were able to experience different stages of pregnancy with their wives and partners. In the production all female characters are performed by actors.
The production Light My Fire goes beyond typical repertoire of the company: "Six performers embodied their rock idols, as well as their parents and their musical partners to tell their own stories," as wrote the reviewer Yelena Kovalska.
the tragedy of a fight with inevitable fate The political theme is present in a play about Sergei Magnitsky's case in a production entitled Hour 18. Magnitsky worked as an auditor for Firestone Duncan, a company that provided legal services to William Browder's Hermitage Capital Management Foundation. In summer 2007 the Russian Department of this Foundation was accused of tax evasion. During the commanded house search all documentation was seized. New registered owners of the documents subsequently reclaimed a tax overpayment of 5 billion rubles from the state. Magnitsky successfully investigated this suspicious operation but instead of praise he was arrested and accused of helping William Browder with tax evasion. In custody he was diagnosed with gall stones. In spite of the deterioration of his health condition, and his frequent requests for health examination, the prison doctors refused to provide him with the necessary medical care, and didn't even give him the medicine brought to the prison by his mother. In November 2009, after 11 months in custody, Magnitsky died. During the last moments of his life for an hour and 18 minutes he was in his prison cell together with eight prison officials. They were called there by doctor Hauss who then left the cell to return later just to confirm Magnitsky's death. What happened behind the walls is a subject of speculations. The tragedy of the situation is enhanced by the fact that shortly after the investigation started and some surprising facts appeared, Browder offered Magnitsky and other lawyers to stay in London. It was clear that in Russia they would be probably prosecuted. Magnitsky was the only one who declined the offer. Not only in Russia the case caused a public outrage, and it became an example of Russia's attitude to human rights. In the fall 2012 American Congress adopted the Magnitsky Bill, by which all Russian officials believed to be involved in Magnitsky's death are barred from entering USA or from using its bank system. Russia reacted by passing the law which blocks the adoptions of Russian children to USA.
As early as in November 2009 Novaya Gazeta published Magnitsky's diaries and its editor Dmitry Muratov came with the idea to produce a play about the lawyer. The text was created by Yelena Gremina, the key author of Teatr.doc and wife of Michail Ugarov. Based on her words, originally Magnitsky should have been one of the characters of the play but later on they had an idea to frame the play as a court trial with those who decided Magnitsky's fate: „If the system, which enabled a murder of a human being, is still strong enough to keep killing people then we want to testify against it at least in theatre. “ In the interview for the Bolshoi Gorod magazine Yelena Gremina explains why Teatr.doc relented from its aesthetics that emphasized an impartial view: „During an interview Kirill Serebrennikov said that to truly hate somebody is 'old school', something from the 20th century. But I am not a superman, and I took a stand of those oppressed in prison. The contemporary playwright shouldn't probably experience such emotions since even oppressors have very likely their part of the truth. Even the person who tortured someone using an empty champagne bottle has his truth, and some young, 21st century will write a play about this truth that no doubt will be very successful. But it will definitely not be me."
At the beginning of the production a question is asked: „Is it possible that a person who wears a state attorney's uniform or a doctor's white coat or a judge's black gown ceases to be a human being?" We as an audience find ourselves present at the meeting of a fictional court. Before the court appear the judges Alexei Krivoruchko and Yelena Stashinova, the investigator Oleg Silchenko, the physician Alexandra Hauss and the ambulance crew that transported Magnitsky shortly before his death to a medical examination (but the doctor prescribed only pain killers, recommended psychiatric examination and confirmed Magnitsky's return to prison). Each of them defends his/her stance, and most of them refer to the fact that they simply abode the rules while doing their work. For example, Stashinova claims: „No. I am not a human being. I am a judge. And during the trial the judge isn't considered a human being. She is an executor of the state authority." The investigator Silchenko says: „Just look at it from a different point of view! It's their fault! Those behind bars, their relatives and friends. It is you bribe everyone! You are convinced that everything can be bought! That's your own arrangement! That's why hot water costs more at our Tversky court than it does, for example, at Taganka." In real life everything in prison has to be paid for. On the day of hearing prisoners don't get any warm food just something similar to instant Chinese noodles. They don't get any hot water to pour over it but they can buy it for 5 000 rubles. For the cup they pay the same amount. When Magnitsky asked for a glass of hot water the judge Krivoruchko replied that he didn't get any receipt confirming that Magnitsky needed a special diet. This is what Ugarov used as a frame of his production. Krivoruchko goes to hell where he appears at court mechanically repeating words about his innocence and begging in vain for a glass of hot water to pour over the noodles. At the end he gets the hot water but it is poured into his palms. The journalists often interpret this moment as an act of revenge that Ugarov confirms, and says that he wants to believe in post-mortem reckoning. In the production the mutual believe that neither one of the people involved did anything wrong that they just followed the orders becomes a kind of a shared crime.
The authors (Yekaterina Bondarenko and Anastasiya Patlai who helped Gremina with research) acquired the material from interviews with some participants of the case. Since none of them allowed the interview to be recorded all material was recorded ex post (Teatr.doc calls this method „Dictaphone in the Head“). On top of that the authors had at their disposal 60 pages long document of the Public Interest Oversight Board, a non-profit organization observing the respect of human rights that agreed with direct use of the material in the production.
Subsequent discussions with audiences are also part of the production, and they are often viewed by the creative team as its most valuable part. The discussions are presented by politicians, journalists or theatre reviewers. Ugarov describes situations when during discussions disagreeable opinions appeared claiming that everything done in Magnitsky's case was in accordance with the law. But he emphasizes that it is necessary to distinguish between law and justice. During one of the discussions an investigator spoke up, and she argued that judge Silchenko acted correctly. This statement invoked such a unanimous negative reaction among the rest of the audience that she started to justify herself by saying that she only spoke as an investigator but personally had a different opinion.
Reopening of the cause and efforts to condemn Magnitsky even three years after his death inspired Teatr.doc to prepare a follow-up production called Hour 18 - 2012 that opened in November 2012. After acquainting members of the audience with case facts they are asked to act out a dialogue between Putin and Barack Obama. The goal is to delay the aforementioned Magnitsky Bill coming into effect. They can freely improvise and use their imagination to create the dialogue between the two politicians who will decide about their fate. The play concludes with the story of a former prisoner who is still alive only due to Magnitsky's death since after the case certain reforms were eventually come to force. The last words of the play belong to Magnitsky's mother who expresses her concern that she might end up being found responsible for an alleged crime of her son. Both productions were accessible free of charge so that - as Ugarov says - even those whom the plays are about could come to see them.
some fun in a gloomy mood The BerlusPutin production is based on a satirical play entitled The Two-Headed Anomaly (L’Anomalo Bicefalo) by Dario Fo. The play is basically a set of clownish scenes during which two characters (in original Fo and Francesca Ramo) try to outsmart each other. It is a kind of theatre within theatre situation: a director is shooting a political satire about Berlusconi and an actress whose only goal is to make money. The delicate topic worries the actress. She doesn't want to demean herself, and the director has to keep trying to persuade her. During his effort and subsequent rehearsals the story of Berlusconi unwraps. Berlusconi invites Putin to his residence, and they both become victims of an assassination. Putin dies and Berlusconi ends up with partial brain contusion. Doctors manage to save him by replacing the damaged half of the brain with Putin's hemisphere. The outcome of the surgery is a hybrid who doesn't remember anything but in whose speeches appear the memories of someone else. The actress plays Berlusconi's wife and director represents all male characters - the doctor, the priest and Berlusconi. Fo wrote his play so that it would be possible to update its content and add new events via improvisation.
In the Moscow version performed by an actress from the Moscow Art Theatre (MCHAT), Yevdokie Germanova, and an actor from the Vakhtangov Theatre, Sergei Yepishev, Putin survives with a half of Berlusconi's brain. The structure of the play stays the same just the political circumstances are slightly changed.
During the first phase of the play's adaptation the authors explored Berlusconi's cases, which the text refers to. Then they searched for similar materials concerning Putin. As the director Varvara Fayer said later on it proved that both Berlusconi and Putin acted very similarly in their personal and political lives. As en example she mentioned Berlusconi's complex of being too short compensated by his soft spot for tall women. „When he takes one of them to a restaurant he puts a pillow under his buttocks to look taller." Putin wants to be modern James Bond so he likes to be bare-chested at any occasion and show off his muscles. They both also pamper their looks - Berlusconi underwent hair implantation and Putin a Botox treatment. However, according to Fayer the biggest problem during the adaptation was acting. Dario Fo's work is based on commedia dell'arte which is very alien to Russian tradition. Therefore Fayer had to find psychological motivations of the characters for actors. When - in their version - the actress is chosen by the director she is firstly agitated and excited, and then suddenly disappointed when she discovers what role she is supposed to act out. She came to make money, and spend them on Christian Dior, and now she has to deal with a sharp political satire. She is shocked when she finds out from the director that she will play Putin's wife Lyudmila. Both journalists and artists in Russia know very well that they could pay dearly for any mentioning of Putin's personal life.
The funniest element of the production is Putin's transformation into the good person who doesn't remember anything after the surgery. As Fayer says, minus and minus resulted in a plus. The merger of two negative hemispheres brought a positive effect. Putin arrives in a monastery to visit his wife (the director reacted to the rumors surrounding Lyudmila who hardly ever makes a public appearance), and begs her to describe in detail what political actions he implemented in their country. And since this moment he becomes the 'good guy'. He is horrified by all his misdeeds, and he intends to correct them. But before that he wants to uplift his mood by sex with Lyudmila who rejects him with the use of words often cited in the show's reviews: „I won't let myself be raped, I am not Russia!" Putin sets off for the State Duma where in front of its members he gives a penitent speech as if he was there to fix everything. This moment of the production is created by a projection. Thanks to film montage we can see the real State Duma and the actor Yepishev, who is playing the healed Putin, by the speaker's desk. Putin's transformation scares his colleagues who begin to exert pressure to undergo a new surgery to restore his original identity. The surgery is carried out but not with a full success, since Botox flows out of Putin's ears and he looks like the good dwarf Dobby from Harry Potter. Putin again loses his memory, and again tries to put everything in order but this time it means going back to the original order – to reality.
To enhance the comical effect both the original and the Russian versions use multiple changes of identities. At the very end of BerlusPutin we find out that the director is an actor hired by the "higher authority", and that an actress is a spy, a member of pro-Putin organization DZAPU (Voluntary Protectors of Putin). She was ordered to participate at the film shoot so that she could prevent its realization. However, her efforts to disrupt the director's work lead to an unplanned effect - the movie ends up being even better than expected. Hillary Clinton appears as a "higher authority" in the form of a projection and congratulates the actress to becoming a movie star. That again turns the whole situation upside down: the intended secret plan of the spy-actress didn't work out but the fake one did - not only she made money as an actress she also gained worldwide fame. Clinton's appearance also corresponds to the Russian myth about an American enemy. Since Clinton commented negatively on Putin's politics, many TV channels started to claim that she bribed the Russian opposition. People at demonstrations reacted with banners: „I came to this demonstration because Hillary Clinton paid me in kind." (In Russian slang "payment in kind" also means sex). The production also reacts to the NTV television station documentary entitled The Anatomy of Protest, which claimed that people who came to this demonstration were paid by the opposition. The authors of the documentary talk to a woman who allegedly works in film industry, and who was bribed by the opposition to provide "extras". There are also shots of crowds on the street - each person is paid one thousand rubles and supplied with cookies, for which these people (who are incidentally dressed in expensive coats) literally fight. In the production Hillary Clinton turns to the audience saying: „Don't leave, I know you are not the audience, just actors paid by USA for playing mass scenes, therefore now you will be all rewarded with cookies." The film is actually used in the production as well. The projections serve as "a peep-hole" into reality: we can see shots of underground groups, thus the real reactions of people to Putin's government, as well as the footage of the demonstration where the actress Yevdokiya Germanova recites a monologue from Lysistrata with fast-deployment units behind her back.
Varvara Fayer says that the production has to be perceived as a wit based artwork not as an agitprop. The spectator doesn't come to learn new facts; he/she knows them anyway. Laughter is the only possibility how to fight the overall depression and despondence which results from the helplessness to change anything. The production was premiered on February 14th, 2012 during the ongoing demonstrations which started in Russia in December 2011 to protest against the forged elections. The reactions to the show included criticism that the show was inadequate as a political theatre. According to this criticism, one can't be satisfied when the answer to authoritarianism is just an ironic fairground farce.
the fight with the system and the right of individuality So called 'witness theatre' is a new genre in Teatr.doc's work, and it extends experiences gained during the collection of materials for Hour 18. The need to deal with this kind of theatre was definitely enhanced by the events of the previous year - the trial with Pussy Riot, and the protests demanding fair elections. Reality is no longer mediated through the actor as artist but is passed directly on the stage by eyewitnesses. There are usually more of them present in order to keep the plurality of views. The impact of such shows consists in the spontaneity of the testimonial because witnesses describe the events shortly after they experience them without much chance to interpret them intellectually. Since it is impossible to frequently repeat these kinds of shows with the same intensity and effect, the genre of witness theatre shares another attribute with the verbatim method: what is said on the stage is either an utterly authentic report of an event expressed for the very first time, or at least a newly formed opinion on it.
The first show that didn't even had a title opened on December 30th, 2011. Immediately after their release from custody the members of the opposition took part in it: Ilya Yashin, one of the leaders of the Solidarnost opposition movement, together with other activists, Pavel Yelizarov and Vsevolod Chernozub, and Peter Verzilov, the Voina Group activist and the husband of Nadezda Tolokonnikova, the imprisoned member of Pussy Riot. They were detained for fifteen days after the demonstration on December 5th, 2011. The production included a truly theatrical plot - one of the witnesses was a young man originally utterly ignorant to politics that just happened to walk across the crowded street during the demonstration on his way for a date, and was also detained. In custody the other detainees explained to him their political views, and he left the prison already as a supporter of the opposition.
Less than two months later, on February 21st, 2012, the female punk-rock group Pussy Riots performed a wild anti-Putin dance at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. In the middle of August the members of the group were convicted by the Moscow Court of intended hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for which two of them were sentenced to two years imprisonment. As early as on August 27th Teatr.doc staged the show about the trial called Chamsud: The Sequel. (In Russian the title is wordplay since it combines the name of the court which convicted the group and the Russian expression for vulgar person.) Advocates Nikolai Polozov, Mark Feigin, Violetta Volkova, Nadezda Tolokonnikova's husband, Peter Verzilov, and journalists from Novaya Gazeta appeared on the stage. At first, Ugarov and Fayer - as directing presenters - asked the audience about which participants of the trial they would like to find out something. A list of people was created, dominated by the judge Marina Syrovova. Even a guard's Rottweiler dog that threw up in the courtroom appeared on the list. During the trial the member of the group Yekaterina Samusevich hired a new advocate who pointed out that her client did not even perform at the church since she was detained before she actually had time to enter "the stage". Based on this fact she was freed. However, that actually confirmed the legitimacy of the original verdict, and weakened the unity of Pussy Riot. In connection with that Fayer tried to find a way to repeat the show. Her first attempt was to involve the advocate Volkova whom Samucevich repudiated.
On November 4th, 2012 The Case of My Friend. The Cause of Leonid Razvozzhayev was premiered. It dealt with the case of Razvozzhayev, a mate of both Sergei Udaltsov, an activist of the Left Front, and Ilya Ponomarev, a member of the State Duma and the Left Front. Razvozzhayev was detained on October 12th, 2012 in Ukraine while seeking political asylum. In the second part of aforementioned documentary The Anatomy of Protest these three activists were accused of dealing with a Georgian Chairman of Defence and Security Committee Givi Targamadze who supposedly financially supported the protest assembly. Torture and threats to kill his wife and children forced Razvozzhayev to sign the confession confirming the authenticity of the "documentary". Presently he is in custody. In the Teatr.doc's production the witnesses were Razvozzhayev's close friend - writer Sergei Shargunov, and the members of the Public Interest Oversight Board.
does Russia need political theatre? This is the title of the discussion which took place during the last year's Moscow International Book Fair. Both the transformation of theatre after the end of Soviet era and its subsequent social decline during the 1990's were mentioned. In this respect the difference between the large classical stages supplying audiences with entertainment and the small independent theatres trying to reflect the reality was further discussed. However, it seems that the machinery of the system doesn't manifest itself only at the higher levels but also at the lowest ones. Young members of the Russian Orthodox Church that stormed into Teatr.doc after the production of Chamsud with intent to force the audience to repent delivered statements almost identical with those heard from the judges during the Pussy Riots trial.
Yelena Gremina: Hour 18, an additional research by Yekaterina Bondarenko and Anastasiya Patlai, directed by Michail Ugarov, Teatr.doc, Moscow, premiere June 4, 2010.
BerlusPutin, based on The Two-Headed Anomaly by Dario Fo, translated by Paolo Gruzovin and Svetlana Belova, adapted and directed by Varvara Fayer, stage design Anna Yefremova and Konstantin Kasatov, Teatr.doc, Moscow, premiere March 14, 2012.
Chamsud. The Sequel, directed by Michail Ugarov a Varvara Fayer, Teatr.doc, Moscow, premiere August 27, 2012
The Case of My Friend. The Cause of Leonid Razvozzhayev, directed by Michail Ugarov a Varvara Fayer, Teatr.doc, Moscow, premiere November 4, 2012
English version of the article from Svět a divadlo magazine, issue 2, volume 2013
translated by Blanka Křivánková