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Analysis & Opinion
16.09.09 The Theatre Of Discussion
By Albina Kovalyova

Russia holds an important place in the history of world theatre. Great playwrights and theoreticians like Anton Chekhov and Konstantin Stanislavsky have been studied in nearly all corners of the world. Yet despite this great theatrical tradition, little is known about Russia's new and innovative playwrights and directors. Last week the experimental theatre festival “Lubimovka” presented emerging works that revealed fresh approaches to theatre that not only challenged traditional rules, but also added new ways of discussing serious issues in Russian society.

Theater Doc is a simple little theatre located at the epicenter of the show biz world in down-town Moscow. Just two minutes walk away is the much larger, and now more renowned and richer experimental theatre Propaganda. But the atmosphere in “Theatre Doc” is different.

Its director and co-founder Elena Gremina believes that what makes the place stand out is its dedication to the new. “There only a few non-government independent theaters and ours is unlike the others because it has to do with living dramaturgy and authors, and new works are presented here,” she said.

As the theater's name suggests, all the plays it produces contain some element of non-fiction. The methods differ according to each playwright's preferences, but one common approach is for the authors to collect documentary footage and interviews with subjects, which the actors then use to produce their characters. The idea is that when the actors directly “reenact” the footage, the audience is presented with the “material,” rather than an interpretation of it. This leaves room for the audience to take varying messages from show, and provides room for debate.

But borrowing from reality does not mean that the playwrights are cheating their way out of the hard work of writing scripts. “Everyone thinks that documentary theatre is very simple, that people just go out with a dictaphone to collect material and then recreate it on stage. But actually this is a hugely laborious process, much more so than traditional theatre,” Gremina said.

Audience interaction is also hugely important. At most of the performances during the “Lubimovka Festival,” the final round of applause was followed by discussion of what had just been seen.

One such production was “The Motovilkhinsk Worker,” a documentary work about the lives of factory workers in the Perm region. The writers, who had visited the Motovilkhinsk metal factory several times to speak with its employees warned the audience that it was still “a work in progress.” But it had already established themes such as hopelessness, fear and dislike of what is foreign and different, rampant alcoholism, and the huge gulf between the factory's management and its workers.

After show was over, the audience was invited to comment. It started off very positively, with one audience member praising the production's authenticity. “Thank you, you have shown me what it was like to work in a factory. I worked in one for a year, and this is really what it was like for me,” he said. But when the audience discussed whether the factory workers were represented sympathetically, a debate started. While some people felt sympathy for the helpless workers, one woman launched into an angry tirade against the characters. “They do not deserve our sympathy at all!” she said. “I have met many people like these workers and they do not care about anything beyond their vodka. They are hopeless alcoholics. And this is why our country's production is at such a poor level.”

The creators themselves declined to offer their own motives and interpretations. “We did not want to explain much, we just wanted the material to speak for itself,” said Mikhail Durninkov, the show's co-author.

The strength of this form of interactive theatre is that the audience is challenged to think about what it has seen more directly than many may be used to. But one risk of that is that the discussion will become more memorable than the official show.

In “Duma,” which has been shortlisted for the drama section of the prestigious literary prize “Debut,” author Anna Kashina used the setting of the Russian parliament to touch on the absurdities of Russian bureaucracy. In the first part of the play, the heroine, who has just started a job as assistant to a State Duma deputy, spends long hours calling various ministries just to get something rather simple (like submitting an article her employer's has written) done. What should be a relatively straightforward procedure becomes an epic journey through Russian bureaucracy, during which she encounters confusion, bouts of rudeness from government employees and misinformation.

Again, the initial reception was extremely positive. “I have many family members working in the government,” one woman said, “and what they tell me is exactly what I have seen today.” But one man stood up and accused the author of making up fairy-tales. “Have you actually worked in the government?” he demanded. When Kashina declined to answer, he told her that “it is not like that at all,” though he did not specify his own connection to the organs of power. Presumably he had some, however, because when his neighbor disagreed with him he threatened to “make sure this kind of thing is never shown here again.”

Such heated debates are not uncommon in “Theatre Doc.” The documentary method, intentionally devoid of the subjective interpretations of a show's creators, does indeed provoke very different responses. Yet the platform remains very small and the theatre is struggling. Many of the staff work for free and the performance space is very limited. “We are a poor theatre, and if we were richer we would buy a bigger building, because there is simply not enough space now. Often people have to watch from outside, peeking through the windows, because the space is unable to seat them all,” said Gremova.

That does not mean Theatre Doc lacks talent or professionalism, however. The company includes professional playwrights such as Alexander Rodionov, who has worked with the famous film and theatre director Kirill Serebrenikov.

Indeed, Mikhail Ugarov, one of the founders of Theatre Doc, believes that lack of money is no hindrance to the standard of the productions. “When people were paid for their work in the theatre - even though the pay was dismal - they produced work of worse quality than when they subsequently worked for free,” he said.

Some of the financial difficulties are alleviated by sponsors attracted by the theatre’s unique approach, and are ready to support it. The Ministry of Culture, for example, made the “Lubimovka” festival possible. “You can see that this place is very popular and it is full house even at three in the afternoon, when most people are still at work,” said a ministry spokesperson.

The audience members appear to be mixed. Many are clearly documentary theatre professionals who know each other and are already associated with the theatre, but there are also others from very different backgrounds. “Internet blogs reveal that many of our audience members never go to the theater,” Gremina said. However, it is unclear to what extent the documentary approach would be accessible to people who have not seen anything in this style before. Would they be able to understand such a work? “It depends on the work,” Gremina said, “some of the shows are aimed at professionals who are very familiar with this theme, and some shows are meant to be seen by people who have never encountered this genre of theater.”
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