Moscow’s Teatr.doc: The Tiny Theatre that Can’t be Closed? (2015)

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This piece, written in 2015 at the request of the editors of The Stage magazine in the UK, and published under the title of “Not Putin’s Favorite Venue,” makes for bittersweet reading now. This was Teatr.doc at its feistiest, it’s most resilient. It had just been forced out of its original space in central Moscow by the authorities, but it was bravely and actively developing a second space that promised to be even better. What was ahead – in the extremely near future – we did not yet know. (Just a few months after this piece was written and published, Doc was forced out of its second space and had to move on to a third.) But all of that, as dramatic as it was, pales in comparison to the deaths of both Mikhail Ugarov and Yelena Gremina in the first half of 2018. Teatr.doc continues to function as we speak, but the next year or two will truly answer the question: Can Teatr.doc be closed?
I include below the sidebars that the editors asked me to put together as additional information. All photos here are by Yelena Demidova. They show the reconstruction work that was done at the new, second space, in order to prepare it for opening on February 14, 2015. The first photo below shows Yelena Gremina with Oleg Karlson, who donated his work as an architect to the theater’s renovation project. The second photo below shows playwright Maksym Kurochkin rolling up his sleeves to get some real work done. 

Moscow’s Teatr.doc: The Tiny Theatre that Can’t be Closed?
The Stage
February 12, 2015
By John Freedman

For years – that would be about twelve, in fact – people marveled that Moscow’s tiny basement theatre known as Teatr.doc could get away with its often provocative fare. The mantra was that Doc, as the venue is affectionately known in Russia, was too small to warrant anyone’s attention in the government, or too independent to touch even if the impulse were to arise.

“Nobody can close Teatr.doc,” co-founder Mikhail Ugarov once told Radio Svoboda, a remnant of the old Radio Free Europe which continues to broadcast these days as a Russian-based media outlet.

“Our theatre is not state-supported,” Ugarov continued in 2011. “They cannot replace our director with an order. Although in our country you can close anything. That’s what firemen are for, tax inspectors, the sanitation department – special services for carrying out repressions, which is basically what they do. Courts can accuse you of extremism, they’re also part of the binary system. But we haven’t been closed yet.”

Indeed, Teatr.doc, founded in 2002, continued to enjoy a comfortable immunity even as laws and Russian government rhetoric attacking free speech, and those who dared to employ it, grew harsher and harsher beginning in 2010.

Then, to responses of shock and anger in October, Yelena Gremina, the theatre’s other co-founder, informed readers on Facebook that the Moscow Department of Properties had cancelled Doc’s lease. What immediately sounded strange was that the decision to break the lease had been made in the summer of 2014, but no one bothered to tell Doc. Also bizarre was the fact that the official reason for breaking the lease was that Doc had made unapproved structural changes to its space. The problem with that was that the only structural change ever made – adding a new exit directly onto the street – was carried out at the demand, and under the supervision, of the Moscow fire department.

Once Doc discovered the news of its eviction, it was given approximately two months to vacate the tiny series of basement rooms that comprised a stage, a rehearsal room, a conference room and a foyer. A hue and cry went up among the theatre’s supporters in Russia and throughout the world. Open letters of protest in Russian and English grabbed over 6,000 signatures, including those of Tom Stoppard and Hollywood actor Bill Pullman. No one doubted that the move was an attempt, finally, to shut the theater down.

Gremina, who openly talked about the government’s hostile strategy in the last months of 2014 is cagey about the topic now. “I know nothing specific,” she says. “Nothing but vague threats. As I was told in the Ministry of Culture, ‘Haven’t you had enough? Next time will be a lot worse.’”

She is quick to add, however, in her gentle, but unflappable way, “We don’t have a relationship with the government because we are not a state-funded theatre.”

“It was probably no individual production or any single event that set things off,” suggests Maksym Kurochkin, a prominent Moscow-based, Ukrainian playwright and close collaborator of Doc. “Surely it was just an accumulation of irritations that the authorities finally could not ignore.”

Doc’s productions over the years have included an investigation of the botched response to a grisly 2004 terrorist attack on a school in Beslan (September.doc); a farce about the relationship between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (BerlusPutin); a slashing documentary play about Sergei Magnitsky, an attorney investigating government corruption who was murdered in a Moscow prison (One Hour, Eighteen Minutes); and numerous unflinching performances revealing the squalid conditions in Russian prisons, orphanages and backstreets.

Through these and other plays Doc has discovered and developed an extremely large number of writers, directors and actors – Ivan Vyrypaev, Nina Belenitskaya, Natalya Vorozhbyt, Lyuba Strizhak, Pavel Pryazhko, Yury Muravitsky, Sasha Denisova, Marat Gatsalov – who have gone on to achieve major success both in subsequent work at Doc, as well as at such mainstream houses as the Moscow Art Theatre, the Mayakovsky Theatre, the Stanislavsky Theatre, the Gogol Centre and the Alexandrinsky in St. Petersburg. Many, like Yury Klavdiev, Alexander Rodionov and Vyrypaev, have had significant impact on contemporary Russian cinema.

As if that weren’t enough, Teatr.doc has frequently organized one-off theatricalized events calling attention to human rights violations in Russia. These evenings provided support to Pussy Riot, when its two main members were still in prison. They included readings of plays or documents about journalists and lawyers murdered in the line of duty. Sometimes evenings consisted of film showings, such as one in November that provided the first opportunity for Russians to see Putin’s Mama, a controversial documentary by Dutch filmmaker Ineke Smits about a woman in Georgia who claims to be Vladimir Putin’s mother.

Gremina, ever the edgy diplomat, insists that Doc’s repertoire is too diverse to be pinned down in any single description. “We take on all kinds of different themes. We put on popular documentary productions about love in the big city, pregnancy and giving birth, workers and doctors, migrants and office workers, the problems of aging and adoption. Some of our shows are harsh. But some are quite light and cheerful.”

That is when the fighter in Gremina awakes and she adds, emphasizing her final words, “Our space is a space of freedom. Including the freedom to take on any theme we want.”

That air of freedom and exploration established Doc’s reputation.

“I would say it is the only model of a democratic theatre in our country, a place where you can just come in from the street and be heard,” says Vyacheslav Durnenkov, whose play The Drunks, written jointly with brother Mikhail Durnenkov, ran in 2009 at the RSC. “I’ve seen it happen many times that people come in from nowhere and create projects or productions that become famous.”

Varvara Faer, whose staging of BerlusPutin and theatricalized evenings in support of Pussy Riot have been highlights of Doc’s offerings, notes that Doc “is an island of theatrical tolerance, of innovation and experiment. It provides the opportunity to immerse yourself in a stream of life unfettered by lies. It is a sign that all is not dead, not all is lost. There are lively, young (and not so young) people around you with excitement in their eyes.”

As Doc’s lease on its old space ran out at the end of December, the police had one more nasty surprise up their sleeve. Joined by employees of the Ministry of Culture, they raided a farewell gathering that included the showing of a documentary film about Maidan, the Kiev revolt that overthrew the sitting Ukrainian government last year. The police claimed they were investigating a bomb scare, although, rather than evacuate the premises, they held attendees captive inside the building while ostensibly searching for the bomb. Later they detained the evening’s host Kurochkin for questioning, finally releasing him only around 5 a.m.

By this time, however, Doc was already looking far ahead into the future. In early January Gremina announced she had leased another space on the other side of the city. It would open, she declared forcefully, on February 14 – the same day the previous space opened in 2002.

Furthermore, Gremina announced that Doc would premiere no less than ten new shows between February and season’s end in July. If the Moscow authorities intended to silence Teatr.doc, they would appear to have failed miserably.

“We now know how many friends Doc has,” Kurochkin states. “That’s an important lesson. It means we can’t put things off. We have to write plays right now and stage them quickly. It goes without saying that Doc’s new space will be a ‘place of strength.’ However long it may last, every day of its existence will be a form of support for normal people. Doc has no chance anymore of not remaining in history as a legend. There are going to be twice as many shows now and three times as many spectators. Doc’s voice will be louder and its friends will be stronger.”

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Sidebars
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Five Facts about Teatr.doc

  • Founded in 2002 by playwrights Yelena Gremina and Mikhail Ugarov upon inspiration from Royal Court workshops on documentary drama, and with the stated goal of replacing “literature” in theatre with “real, spoken Russian.”
  • Since 2006 has hosted the prestigious, annual Lyubimovka festival of young writing, one of the most important venues for discovering new writers and new texts in Russia.
  • Produced over 70 new plays in its first 12 years.
  • Hosts readings of 50 to 60 new plays each season.
  • Has won three Golden Mask Russian national awards for theatrical excellence since 2010.

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Profile: Teatr.doc

Managing Director: Yelena Gremina
Artistic Director: Mikhail Ugarov
Theatre policy is set by Gremina and Ugarov with input from informal advisers Maksym Kurochkin, Mikhail Durnenkov, Olga Mikhailova and others
Financed by: grants, donations, ticket sales. Currently running a crowdfunding drive on website Planeta.ru that has raised over 742,000 rubles (£7,100) in six weeks, even as the ruble has lost half its value against foreign currencies
New address: 3 Baumanskaya Street, a small, one-story, free-standing structure
Square footage of new space – 525, a loss of 40 square feet over the former basement space
Key contacts: teatrdoc.ru, http://www.facebook.com/teatrdoc

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Further reading

Newsweek, May 2012
Putin on Stage: Russian Theater Performs DarioFo’s ‘BerlusPutin’

New Theatre Quarterly, November 2014
The Trial That Never Was: Russian Documentary Theatre and the Pursuit of Justice

Open Democracy, January 2015
A New Drama in Moscow

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