How Actors and Riot Police Make Bad Partners

IMG_2414Reposting of Theater Plus blog No. 167. As I re-read this post, a story I really love, I realize that – for me, at least – this starts the countdown to the murder of Boris Nemtsov. What that really means is that the beginning of the third term of Prez Putin began the countdown to the murder of Boris Nemtsov, for Putin become prez for the 3rd time two days before this incredible incident happened. Politics went nuts at this point and, in less than three years, Netmstov was dead. There was a sense of hysteria on the street this day of which I write – all of it caused by confused, one-track-minded policemen running amok. Donatas Grudovich, an actor and director who created the wonderfully bizarre street extravaganza which caused the police to lose their minds, was as impish as ever. He had the nerve, in nervous times, to put on a black mask and hold up crooked mirrors to let people see themselves. What a provocation! And it was. It caused a ruckus. Incidentally, you won’t read about this anywhere else, as far as I know. Moscow’s theater journalists have a way of missing the forest for the trees, and of creating forests out of paper trees. In this case, the former, nobody bothered to record this incident for posterity. If I’m tooting my own horn, here, so be it. What can I say? I wrote about what I witnessed. I kept my eyes open when I did my job. I captured a good deal of the performance in still shots and video. There are links to the video below in the body of the post. I offer a few of the stills above and below. 

10 May 2012
By John Freedman

If you occasionally come to this blog space you may recall how a couple of weeks ago a twist of fate made me a player in a production created by Donatas Grudovich. It was a show called “Disco Dictatorship: We Will Live to See Endorphins in Nameless Anonymity,” and it included scenes of police abuse and other topical themes. Who knew then that Grudovich would soon find himself a key player in a show “staged” by the police?

I ran into the actor/director on Tuesday afternoon on Chistoprudny Boulevard. He was walking around scoping the area as a low-key, impromptu political gathering went on around us. Young people who had been chased by riot police out of Staraya Ploshchad near Kitai-Gorod hours before had moved here to sit beneath a statue to Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbayev and sing songs by Viktor Tsoi and Yury Shevchuk.

I hailed Grudovich and asked what was up. I knew his Partisan Theater was supposed to conduct a street performance earlier in the day, but I had looked all over the boulevard, not seeing any traces of them.

Grudovich said the schedule had been pushed back from 3 p.m. and that his group would now begin around 6 p.m. at the monument to playwright Alexander Griboyedov near the Chistiye Prudy metro. I asked if his wandering troupe would make it as far as where we were standing by the statue of Kunanbayev and, with a laugh, he said, “If they don’t arrest me first.”

Ha-ha.

The boulevard was circled by dozens of police vans, some filled with riot police in full gear, some empty, waiting to swallow up potential arrest victims. Despite alternating periods of pouring rain the atmosphere was festive, although everyone knew that could change at any moment. Grudovich, furthermore, knew what I could not at that moment – that his guerrilla street theater performance might not be to the liking of the authorities at all.

Performance time. Roughly 6:40 p.m. Grudovich and his crew emerge alongside a stage next to the statue of Griboyedov. They are in futuristic, all-black gear, their heads and faces covered in the kinds of knitted masks terrorists might wear. They carry distorting mirrors of various shapes and sizes and, as they head down the boulevard, they aggressively chant odd strings of words, such as, “Black-white. Nameless. Something entirely different grows!” or “We live in Moscow, we are trapped and everyone can see it!

Bystanders are amused and confused. Some, it must be said, are worried. The quiet protesters at the other end of the boulevard don’t realize that there were theatrical events scheduled for this day. The closer Partisan Theater comes to the protesters, the more the latter grow concerned. Is this a provocation? Are these skinheads or thugs? Are these representatives of the pro-Putin youth group Nashi?

A visibly concerned protester hurries around instructing people to ignore the antagonistic people in black and get back to singing songs and chatting aimlessly. Photographers, of which there are swarms, horde around Grudovich and his actors, laughing, frowning, harrumphing and questioning what is going on – all the while taking pictures and video in a frenzy.

“Very strange!” one photographer said to me in confusion. “It’s a theater,” I responded. “It’s a performance.” He immediately ran back to the cluster of people around Grudovich and began snapping photos again.

As the Partisan Theater troupe turned and headed back to the stage where they began their procession, I returned to the protesters. You see, there was another stage being built next to them and another theater – Nikolai Roshchin’s ARTO company – was scheduled to begin the first of two performances in about 90 minutes. I was curious to see how preparations were coming.

But before we carry this story forward, some background information must be brought to the fore. The fact of the matter is that this whole evening was a disaster waiting to happen. It was a perfect example of the inevitable occurring because the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand and left foot are preparing to do. Here is the picture more or less as told to me by Yelena Tupyseva, art director at the popular Aktovy Zal space in Moscow, and one of the organizers of some of the day’s theatrical events.

The Moscow Culture Committee originally decreed that a full day of cultural events would be held on May 1 as part of May Day celebrations. When the committee learned, however, that there were numerous trade union processions scheduled for that day, they moved the May Day theatricals to May 6. That became a problem, however, when it became known that Russia’s political opposition scheduled a major protest, the so-called March of Millions, on May 6, the day before Vladimir Putin‘s inauguration as president. Responding to that in a timely and honorably cautious manner, city authorities made the fateful decision to move the performances again, this time to May 8.

What no one could have foreseen was that, following the violent clashes between riot police and protesters on May 6, a spontaneous sit-in would begin on Staraya Square on the evening of May 7 and would be broken up by riot police on the morning of May 8. The demonstrators who escaped arrest there regrouped at Chistye Prudy – right between two stages being built for the long suffering cultural program overseen by the Culture Committee. The theater people, of course, had no idea that a protest was coming to its doorstep. The protesters, of course, had no idea that they were about to set up camp in between two theater stages. Above and beyond that, one can only assume that Moscow’s storm troopers knew very little about any of this.

How else does one explain, then, that as Partisan Theater was completing its performance, riot police arrested two of the actors and stormed into the group’s dressing room in a tent and confiscated props and other belongings? Grudovich, speaking to me on Wednesday, explained that he was still on stage completing his performance when he saw riot police haul his two colleagues away. Grudovich and Tupyseva both pointed out that they were able to free their colleagues within two hours and later retrieved the theater’s confiscated belongings.

But the damage was done. Patience was running out. The clock was ticking. The arrests of the two Partisan Theater actors set into motion a mass action by the police that, within a quarter of an hour, would bring chaos to Chistiye Prudy.

At approximately 8 p.m. plainclothes policemen quietly approached Nikolai Roshchin, whose ARTO company was preparing to preview segments of a new show called “Theater and its Double” after two weeks of rehearsals and preparations.

“People came to us,” Roschin told me on Wednesday, “and said, ‘We are preparing to break up the demonstration,’ and they instructed us to close down our performance. They asked, ‘Who are you with?’ because they thought we were part of the protest.”

Indeed, according to Roshchin, some members of the technical team building the stage were arrested along with their materials and equipment. They were taken to the Basmannaya court and later released.

It so happened that at this time my wife and I made the fortuitous decision to duck into a coffee house for a cappuccino. We had been on our feet for six hours and wanted a rest. No sooner did we sit down than my wife looked up and asked, “Where is everybody going?” I looked out the door and saw hundreds of individuals walking briskly south, away from both stages. Seconds later, like spooked gazelles, everyone burst into a run. Scores of riot police in helmets, bullet-proof vests and wielding batons were hot on their trail.

Within 15 minutes the park in the boulevard was virtually clear of people, if you don’t count the swarms of policemen and women undulating back and forth. I, of course, didn’t yet know about Roshchin’s conversation with the authorities. But after watching the usual mop-up exercises over the next hour, with arrests being finalized on the sidewalk in front of our coffee shop vantage point, I didn’t have much hope that we would still see those scenes from “Theater and its Double.” At that moment I received all the confirmation I needed: I saw that the same people who had been building the stage for the ARTO Theater were now tearing it down.

Thus ended a day of theater and politics, each blending into the other, on Day Two of President Putin’s third term in office.

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