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Nicola McCartney: Russian Plays Had a Profound Effect on How I Write My Plays (2014)

Reposting of Theater Plus blog No. 275 (arbitrary). So here we are: the end of the Theater Plus blogs. A few more stray ones may turn up yet – I know some have gone missing over the years. But we’ll formally declare this the end of this particular reclamation project. This post, a video chat with Nicola McCartney, was another that I put together for the NITEnews site. As I said in my last repost, I hoped this new connection was going to be long term, but life happened and it was not.
From here on out I will use this blog space to publish new materials or republish other old stuff that has gone scarce.

By John Freedman
November 26, 2014

This is the latest installment in John Freedman’s TheaterPlus video blog, which now appears sporadically, but exclusively, on the NITEnews website.

Nicola McCartney is an Irish playwright and director based in Scotland. But by her own admission, Russia has been the site of some of the most rewarding work she has done in the last decade.

She made the first of many trips to Russia in 2004 when she was asked to share with Russian partners the techniques of the Class Act project. Class Act, McCartney explains is a “social theater project” that originated at the Traverse Theater in Edinburgh, “a major hub of new writing in the U.K.”

Although I had heard much about McCartney and her work, and we were often in the same city at the same time, it was not until a few weeks ago that we actually met to shake hands and talk. This happy occasion occurred at a conference, “Back to the USSR? Drama and Theatre in Ukraine and Russia,” at Oxford University. And it gave me the opportunity to sit Nicola (stress the first syllable) down in front of my shaky camera and ask her to tell me about her experience with Russian drama and theater. What follows is something of an annotated digest of what she had to say. To listen to her comments without my interruptions and interpolations, click on the embedded video above.

McCartney had been working with Class Act – which we’ll explain in a minute – in Britain since 1997. But following up on an invitation from Russian translator Tatyana Oskolkova and Anna Genina, an employee at the British Council in Moscow in 2004, she set out for the unlikely city of Togliatti, in the south of Russia, where she worked to launch the first Russian Class Act project with playwrights Vadim Levanov and Vyacheslav Durnenkov.

Class Act is a program that puts playwrights in schools where they “teach kids the fundamentals of playwriting,” McCartney says. “The five-minute plays are staged by professional actors and directors.”

There are, McCartney points out, four main principles to the program.

  • To find future playwrights;
  • to develop new audiences;
  • to foster self-expression and the ability to work in groups;
  • to cultivate personal and social education and development.

In Britain, where the program was developed, Class Act has been shown to have a positive impact on literacy and social engagement among children who have participated. The Togliatti project, according to McCartney, was a “tremendous success” and it has continued to grow and change over the last decade. “There have been permutations, such as ‘klass drama,’ Russia’s own unique way of doing Class Act.”

Aside from McCartney’s testimonials, I frequently see and hear of Class Act ripples running back and forth across Russia’s vast territories. To this day Vyacheslav Durnenkov teaches classes and runs tutorials, sometimes in schools, sometimes in prisons or orphanages, but always using tools he picked up working with McCartney.

In October 2013 I was witness to a fascinating project that grew directly out of the Class Act program. In it writers, directors and actors engaged by Denise Rosa’s Perspektiva, an NGO in Moscow, worked for a week with physically-challenged young Russians, during which the teenage and sometimes pre-teen youths wrote plays that reflected their experiences and aspirations. For those interested in more on that, see my “Turning Lives Around with Theater,” originally written for TheaterPlus when it was published by The Moscow Times. [It is reposted here on this site, too.]

“It is a joy to see the way social theater has completely taken off in the last 10 years,” McCartney tells me. “I feel that in some small way I have contributed to that by sharing the methods I use.”

These days McCartney is working to bring Russian and Ukrainian writing to Scotland. With her colleagues Alexandra Smith and Sasha Dugdale, McCartney is “putting together a triptych of plays in Russian and Ukrainian with prominent Russian and Ukrainian playwrights who have been instrumental in the Class Act programs.”

“In spring of 2015,” she continues, “we will produce new works by Yury Klavdiev, Mikhail Durnenkov and Natalia Vorozhbyt. They will be staged at Glasgow’s Oran Mor in the award-winning “A Play, A Pie and A Pint” season.

For the record, the plays are Take Out the Rubbish by the Ukrainian Vorozhbyt, Thoughts Spoken Out Loud from Above by Klavdiev, a native of Togliatti who now resides in St. Petersburg, and The War Hasn’t Started Yet by Durnenkov, Vyacheslav Durnenkov’s brother who also hails from Togliatti but now lives in Moscow.

“Russian plays are incredibly refreshing to me,” McCartney says. “The way they experiment with form and voice is completely unique and original. It has had a profound impact on the way I write plays myself.”

McCartney appreciates “seeing the methods that Russian writers adapt in their own work.” And she believes that this give-and-take among cultures is needed today more than ever. “It is important to keep dialogue and exchange open at this time when global relations are under such strain,” she says.

Russian culture, she points out, “is a culture that has much to teach us,” pointing specifically to artists “such as Yelena Gremina, Mikhail Ugarov and other writers writing from the heart and responding to the system in a courageous and truly inventive and ingenious way.”

“I always feel that the most inventive work I see in theater is a response to some kind of censorship,” she suggests. “Censorship stretches the creative muscle to genius levels often.”

“Not that we want censorship,” she adds quickly, “but there is a peculiar thing about social taboos and social censorship and political censorship that make an artist respond much more creatively, and think about the form much more creatively than just verisimilitude or reflecting life as it is.”

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Sasha Dugdale Recalls the Origins of New Drama in Russia (2014)

Reposting of Theater Plus blog No. 274 (arbitrary number). This is rather embarrassing. I’m writing an introduction to a blog that already has an introduction. A bit much. But there’s nothing to be done about it. By this time my blog at The Moscow Times was dead. Relatively recently, a new website called NiteNews had joined us and I wrote for them whenever I could. I was bummed about losing Theater Plus and so I reached out to NITEnews (in the person of the great Doug Howe) and asked if they would like to publish the blog’s continuation. The answer was yes, and so I put together two video blogs for them right away. You see the first of them here. Life is life, though, and I never was able to muster up a head of steam on this renewed project. And NITEnews went the way of all flesh before long, so that’s that sad story. Everything else you need to know about the video with, and text about, the influential Sasha Dugdale, you can get by reading and watching. 

By John Freedman
November 17, 2014 (approximate)

Back when I used to publish a blog called TheaterPlus on the website of The Moscow Times, I would often do what I called “video blogs.” That is, I would train my little camera at someone interesting and I would coerce them into sharing their knowledge of, interest in, or thoughts about, Russian culture. I also called this my “Blair Witch Project” because that justified my shaky hand and other frequent glitches, such as the extraneous sounds of passersby and the hand strap banging against the camera body in the video above. I like to think these peculiarities only enhance the importance of these videos as unrehearsed, eye-witness, first-person accounts of cultural history being made. Having lost my ability to post TheaterPlus on its former host, I am happy to relaunch it as a project I will do from time to time for NITEnews.

 

Sasha Dugdale is now a poet, a playwright, a translator and the editor of the journal Modern Poetry in Translation. I can say I knew her when. I knew Sasha when she worked in the office of the British Council in Moscow. This was at the turn of the century. In terms of contemporary Russian drama, this was almost a prehistoric age. I didn’t exactly lose track of Sasha when she returned to England well over a decade ago. I was more than aware that she became one of the most important translators of new Russian drama into English. Working with the Royal Court and other organizations, Sasha was the first to bring the works of Vasily Sigarev, the Presnyakov brothers, Ivan Vyrypayev and a host of other important Russian dramatists to British and American stages. As such when I crossed paths with Sasha at a conference, Back to the USSR? Drama and Theatre in Ukraine and Russia, at Oxford University in early November, I leaped at the chance to sit her down in front of my camera. I asked her to recall what she remembered about the birth of new Russian drama when she was there to help midwife it. What follows is a selected digest of the comments Sasha made. To hear her whole story in her own voice, go to the video above.

According to Dugdale, “two frequent visitors” to the British Council in the late 1990s were playwright Yelena Gremina, a future co-founder of the now-famous Teatr.doc, and playwright Alexei Kazantsev, who was the artistic director and founder of Moscow’s Playwright and Director Center. The strong reputation of new writing in England, including “in-yer-face” dramatists like Caryl Churchill and Mark Ravenhill, had reached their Russian colleagues and they wanted to know more. As such, Dugdale went back to London and, working with Elyse Dodgson, the head of the international department at the Royal Court Theater, set up a series of seminars and workshops in Moscow.

“The first event,” Dugdale recalls, “was a discussion with Graham Whybrow, the literary director at the Royal Court. It was supported by the Golden Mask [festival] and [Russian translator] Tatyana Oskolkova.” Moreover, Dugdale remembers Whybrow’s comments about the powers and the rights of British playwrights in British theaters striking the attending Russian writers as “revolutionary.” Russian writers, never invited to rehearsals, only occasionally invited to premieres of their shows, and often not paid a kopeck for their works which often came out under titles assigned by directors, could not believe there was such writers’ heaven as Britain seemed to them.

So successful was this first discussion that Dugdale, the British Council and the Royal Court set up several more workshops over the next year or two. They were headed by Stephen Daldry, James Macdonald, Rebecca Prichard and Dodgson herself.

“Elyse Dodgson mentioned verbatim, after which Lena Gremina came to us and asked for a workshop in verbatim,” Dugdale said.

What happened then surprised everyone

“It kind of went wild, it was crazy,” Dugdale recalls. “I don’t think any of us were prepared for that. The degree of engagement with verbatim and documentary theater was completely unexpected. And, of course, like anything in Russia, it took its own course completely. It had a very different life form in Russia. It didn’t really obey the laws of verbatim, or it did occasionally but it didn’t have to. It was very free and liberating and it became very important for a lot of people in new writing.”

The first big project to grow out of the workshops was a multiauthor play called Moscow – Open City. It changed over time and at any given moment there might be as many as 16 authors represented in the short scenes that comprised the play. “The very young Maksym Kurochkin was a part of it and many others who became established playwrights,” Dugdale explained.

Roughly around 2000 or 2001 Moscow – Open City was brought to London to be shown at the Royal Court, an event that coincided with the appearance in Russia of Vasily Sigarev’s seminal play Plasticine. These unconnected, but parallel developments lead to the presentation of full productions of several Sigarev plays in London (Black Milk winning him the Evening Standard Theater Award for most promising playwright in 2002), as well as Terrorism and Playing the Victim by the Presnyakov brothers, and Oxygen by Ivan Vyrypayev.

Also traveling to London as part of various workshops at the Royal Court were Yevgeny Grishkovets’ Lozha Theater from the Siberian city of Kemerovo and the all-female theater called Babii, or Broads, from Chelyabinsk in the southern Ural Mountain chain. These theaters “made a tremendous impact on London, although I don’t know what they’re doing now,” Dugdale pointed out.

Referring to the point in time when the Royal Court and verbatim drama came to Russia, Dugdale concluded, “Like any revolution, when you’re there to witness it, you don’t really know quite what you’re living through. But when you look back on it you see the influence it had on Russian theater and, through that, on world and European theater. I have no doubt that it made a lot of difference to the quality of new writing around the world because it was so different, so unpredictable, so wild, so much it’s own thing…”

New Era Looms After Golden Age of ‘New Drama’ (2014)

MukhinaReposting of Theater Plus blog No. 273 (approximate). Actually, this surely was not a Theater Plus blog anymore. I don’t find it anywhere on my computers, but I accidentally happened upon it on the internet, where it was reposted by Johnson’s Russia List on August 3. I’m arbitrarily putting it into the Theater Plus cache. The date of August would imply it was one of those articles I left behind for the print issue of The Moscow Times when I went on vacation. I don’t think I’ve ever been in Moscow on August 1. As for the piece below, I don’t believe I overstated things. The “new drama” community has only continued to disperse as years have passed on. Maksym Kurochkin (Ukraine), the Presnyakov brothers (Germany) and Ivan Vyrypayev (Poland) left Russia. Mikhail Ugarov died. Vyacheslav Durnenkov rarely writes new plays anymore. Olya Mukhina was never prolific, but it’s been ages since her last work – “Olympia.” Vasily Sigarev has essentially moved into film. And one of the directors who staged several of these writers, Kirill Serebrennikov, is under house arrest as the Russian state looks for a way to put him in prison. Finita la commedia, as Chekhov wrote. As for the looming new era – I’m waiting… My photo above shows Olga Mukhina watching a reading of her play “Olympia” in Sept. 2013 at the Lyubimovka Festival at Teatr.doc.

By John Freedman
August 1, 2014 

It has been an astonishing run. But doesn’t every run come to an end?

The number of major playwrights that Russia put up over the last 15 to 18 years may make all other eras in the history of Russian drama pale by comparison. If this hasn’t been a golden age, then quickly sell off your hoard because gold is no longer a standard.

It began with Olga Mukhina’s “Tanya-Tanya” in 1996. For the first time in nearly a decade a consensus was reached: A living author had written a very good play. The floodgates weren’t raised, but everyone sensed something had changed. Maksym Kurochkin’s “Kitchen” came along in 2000 like The Beatles’ “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” killing off any lingering doubts that contemporary drama lacked power, scope, subtlety and an ability to draw large crowds.

That’s when the floodgates blew. Vasily Sigarev’s “Plasticine” knocked socks off in 2001, followed by the banner year of 2002 with the Presnyakov brothers’ “Playing the Victim,” Ivan Vyrypayev’s “Oxygen” and Mikhail Ugarov’s “Oblom Off.” The appearance of the brothers Vyacheslav and Mikhail Durnenkov in 2005 was a watershed, as was the appearance of their Tolyatti neighbor Yury Klavdiyev in 2006. The run of major discoveries continued with Pavel Pryazhko and his play “Panties” in 2007, Yaroslava Pulinovich’s “Natasha’s Dream” in 2009 and Yelena Gremina’s “One Hour Eighteen” in 2010.

And I’m just skimming off the top.

So, what could possibly bring this juggernaut to a halt? Virtually every writer mentioned, with the exception of the Presnyakovs, continues to turn out new work regularly, while interesting newcomers like Lyuba Strizhak and Valery Pecheikin join their ranks. What’s to worry?

The first thing that comes to mind is the recent law banning obscenities in artistic works. One of the great achievements of drama of the 2000s was that it liberated Russian stage language from old taboos. That’s not just depriving a writer of a few choice lexical items, it’s more about putting a grumpy-faced censor into his or her head. It’s a lovely way to mess with the fragile process known as the creative act.

Next you take away money and access to distribution. Moscow’s Teatr.doc, ground zero for many of the best plays of the last decade, has declared that it will no longer be able to compete for government grants for its innovative festivals, readings, seminars and productions. What will happen to the writers Doc has nurtured and the plays it developed?

Finally, toss a shooting war, almost a civil war, into the mix. The patently absurd Russia-Ukraine conflict has wreaked havoc on those in the artistic community, traumatizing them in ways that may never heal.

So you’ve planted the seed of doubt in the writer’s head, you’ve cut the flow of sustenance for the work, and you’ve divided former friends and colleagues into warring factions. That’s a bad omen for anyone thinking about growth and progress.

The avant-garde led by the new playwrights of the 2000s was dubbed “new drama.” It’s an amorphous phrase that causes as much confusion as clarity. But there is no denying that the bold, iconoclastic writers who tilled new ground by stretching the limits of language, by introducing controversial new themes, and by expanding the genre of drama to include many methods heretofore unknown in Russia, had, indeed, done something new, and their business was drama.

The brash plays of the Presnyakovs, Sigarev, Kurochkin, Klavdiyev and Pryazhko though differing among themselves, occupied a unified territory of works that challenged much that came before them: value systems, manners of style and senses of propriety. They harnessed their arrogance and anger for the sake of art. They ridiculed the easy, the lazy and the commonplace. They sought new approaches to moral problems, often on the burned-out ground that their characters inhabited.

Do I think that all this will now come to a halt? Emphatically no. But I do think we are leaving – or have left – an era and are moving on.

The community of theater writers is under attack; key values and aspirations no longer unite it. Forget the fact that old friends may now be enemies; more important is the fact that each separate camp now has different goals. How, for example, will we reconcile Ivan Vyrypayev’s increasingly stoical plays that ridicule pointless, in his view, political engagement with Natalya Vorozhbyt’s “Maidan: Voices of the Uprising,” a hymn to civic activism? Both writers, it’s important to say, were poster kids for the new drama movement.

I suspect there won’t be a reconciliation. A break has occurred, and now we wait to see what comes next.

The Nightmare of Being a Russian-Language Ukrainian Playwright (2014)

Kurochkin_Ugarov_funeralReposting of Theater Plus blog No. 272 (approximate). This is the second piece I wrote based on interviews I did with Ukrainian playwrights Natalya Vorozhbyt and Maksym Kurochkin. I was prompted to do the interviews by a request from American playwright Caridad Svich who was then editing a series of articles for the TCG website on the topic of crossing borders. I realized I had a great opportunity to record for posterity one of the most fascinating and agonizing aspects of that time – the position of the Ukrainian writer who writes in Russian as Russia waged a war against Ukraine. (I apologize to Max and Natasha for describing this situation as “fascinating” – but I am always a historian before I am a journalist or critic or chronicler, and the fact of the matter is that this is a fascinating, truly gripping topic. About which more in a moment.) The interviews I did with Natasha and Max were so good – both are gifted writers and thinkers – that there was too much material to fit into a single piece. So I wrote one for TCG (republished out of order on this site July 17, 2017) and the one that follows, done for The Moscow Times. Now, as for the “fascination” of this topic: Ukrainians and Russians have been joined at the hip forever. Two similar, intertwined cultures that have fed each other richly. The Russians have been condescending at times about Ukrainians and Ukrainian culture, but they have never stopped plumbing the culture for the gold it provides. The dominance of Russian language meant that many writers from Ukraine chose to write in Russian. Nikolai Gogol is the standard-bearer, of course, one of the great “Russian” writers. The great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko chose to write in Ukrainian. Of course, these writers lived in the 19th century, a very different time. This throwback to an imperial time, the almost automatic choice of Ukrainians to write in Russian, did begin breaking down in the 20th century. Many prominent writers in Ukraine began to chose Ukrainian over Russian for their literary language. But the draw of Russian and the power of Moscow still were in effect to some degree in the 1990s and 2000s. Both Vorozhbyt and Kurochkin, natives of Kiev, chose to write in Russian and moved to Moscow to begin their writing careers. Vorozhbyt bailed before the Russo-Ukrainian War began. Kurochkin struggled a bit longer with the forces acting on him, but, he, too, finally could not remain in Moscow. He returned to Kiev in 2017, three years after the piece below was written. Vorozhbyt now tends to write in Ukrainian. Kurochkin has begun writing some in Ukrainian, although has not abandoned Russian entirely. The hardships that the war brought about for them were inconceivably painful and destructive. The future will tell us how much creativity those hardships also released upon them. But that is another story for another time. This was a piece (as was the longer piece I wrote for TCG) that captured a devastating moment in history. I can’t end this overly-long introduction without mentioning a comment Kurochkin made during his most recent trip to Moscow in April 2018. He arrived on the morning of April 5 to attend the funeral of his friend Mikhail Ugarov. He left again that evening on the 8 p.m. train to Kiev. During a gathering at Teatr.doc following the burial, Max stood and said a few words about Misha and Doc and Moscow. He concluded with a phrase of not knowing when he would come back to Moscow and the entire room shouted at him, “Come back!” Partly in jest, but partly not, Max snapped: “Give back Crimea and I’ll come back!” My photo above shows Kurochkin throwing the traditional handful of dirt on Ugarov’s coffin, April 5, 2018.

  • By John Freedman
  • July 20 2014 18:15

 

“I don’t know what to do about it, John. It is a nightmare and it is hell. And something in me has been broken irreparably.”

Thus responded Maksym Kurochkin, a Ukrainian Russian-language playwright, to my question about what he is experiencing these days. As his comments starkly suggest, recent months have not been good for anyone nurturing blood or cultural ties to Russia and Ukraine.

The winter standoff on Kiev’s Maidan Square pushed the so-called brotherly nations of Russia and Ukraine apart even before the shooting started. The annexation of Crimea by Russia in March exacerbated the situation. The downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on Thursday over eastern Ukraine made a dire state of affairs even worse.

In the theater world, old friends have become alienated while colleagues have taken up positions on opposite sides of the barricades, figuratively and literally.

But what do you do when that battle rages inside of you? What if, like Kurochkin or Natalya Vorozhbyt, another well-known Russian-language, Ukrainian playwright, you straddle the increasingly burned-out ground between Russian and Ukrainian culture?

Kurochkin and Vorozhbyt were born in Kiev, products of a multinational culture, and both became leaders in a remarkable revival of Russian drama since the year 2000. Kurochkin had three new plays open last season, one at Teatr.doc, another at the Meyerhold Center and a third at Breaking String Theater in Austin, Texas. Vorozhbyt’s latest play was “Maidan: Voices of the Uprising” at the Royal Court Theater in London in May.

“My mother is from a Ukrainian-speaking village near Nikolai Gogol’s birthplace,” Vorozhbyt explained. “Papa is a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. But I was brought up from earliest childhood by my grandmother and grandfather, so my first language was Ukrainian.”

Kurochkin tells a different, but nonetheless, similar, story.

“We spoke Russian in our family,” Kurochkin says. “But mother studied Ukrainian fine arts. And father studied Ukrainian ethnography. I am very pleased with my parents. Like true Kiev natives they freely switched back and forth between Russian and Ukrainian when it was necessary. I studied in a Ukrainian school. And when I began reading a lot, I often could not remember which of the two languages the books were written in.”

According to Vorozhbyt, there was in the 1980s a concerted push to make Russian language dominant in Ukraine.

“When I went to a school in Kiev in 1982, about 80 percent of the schools were Russian,” Vorozhbyt recalled. “That is what the policy was, an effort to suppress the national culture.”

As a result, she admits it was only natural that she began writing her first poems, stories and, later, plays, in Russian. This choice was fortified when she was accepted into the literary institute in Moscow. “I did not think about language then,” she declares.

Kurochkin attempted to write his first works in Ukrainian. But an acquaintance gave him some advice that changed his direction as a writer.

“I showed my texts to the writer and poet Roman Kukharuk, whose opinion I valued, and continue to value today. He said my Ukrainian texts were constrained,” Kurochkin explained. “And he was right. I had very little living oral practice. I took as my model literary Ukrainian, the norms of which were actively beginning to change in the early 1990s. The language was throwing off Russian influence and beginning to develop. My ‘Soviet’ Ukrainian lagged behind reality.”

Vorozhbyt recognized changes were taking place in Ukraine when she returned to Kiev in 2004 after a decade in Moscow.

“Throughout that period of independence a new wave of Ukrainian-language prose writers and poets arose. I read them with great pleasure. Nobody in Russia knew them but they were eagerly translated into European languages. And they did not look toward Russia. At all.”

“In connection with the anti-Russian mood,” she continued, “many of my Ukrainian friends have purposefully switched to Ukrainian exclusively. The pain and hurt and protest that I feel make me want to do the same. I very much feel that moment has arrived. Then I think, damn it, Russian is my language, too. Why should I have to give it up? I love it. I write in it. Protest against myself? I won’t do that.”

Kurochkin suffers from similar conflicting impulses.

“I am a Ukrainian playwright,” he declares unequivocally. “But I am connected to the processes that are occurring in Russian theater. And it is honorable to have a relationship with the best of Russian drama. Russian new drama for me is undoubtedly a progressive force.”

 

Cultural Battle Goes on, Gogol Center Under Attack (2014)

IMG_6795Reposting of Theater Plus blog No. 271 (approximate). Is Russia Europe, is Russia not Europe? Are there shared values? Are there common methods of approach to culture? I was asked to participate in a EU-organized forum about these questions in July 2014, and I must say I found myself in an awkward position when my co-speaker Inna Prilezhayeva began spouting platitudes. I had to be the grump in the pack. And at the time of the forum I didn’t even know some of the latest developments that were going down. My photo above shows Inna Prilezhayeva speaking to a panel of European Union Cultural attaches in Moscow in July 2014. 

  • By John Freedman
  • July 06 2014 00:00

As a law took effect last week banning obscenities in works of art, and as Russian parliamentarian Yelena Mizulina — the author of the so-called anti-Magnitsky law banning adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens — pushed creating a law that would require individuals to use their passport to gain access to the Internet, we continued to see signs that the turmoil lately engulfing Russian culture and media is not about to let up.

Once again, Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky singled out a favorite punching bag for criticism — Moscow’s Gogol Center. Speaking at a session of the presidential council on cross-national relations, he ridiculed Kirill Serebrennikov’s production of Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” which begins with a comic prologue depicting drunken men attempting to get a broken wagon back on its wheels.

And for the first time in its storied 12-year history, the independent Teatr.doc, which has declared it will not obey the anti-obscenity law, has indicated that recent government policy changes could threaten the theater’s existence.

“Beginning in spring 2015 Teatr.doc will not be able to win a single grant, regardless of the quality of our projects,” wrote the theater’s managing director Yelena Gremina on a newly established Facebook page entitled Who Would Like to Help. The theater will host fundraisers to make up for the substantial loss in financing they expect to face next year. The first of these events will take place July 18, with tickets costing 1,000 to 10,000 rubles for the opportunity to hear major contemporary writers read from their latest works.

As fate would have it, I came home to learn about these latest developments after participating on Thursday in a conference hosted by the European Union Delegation to the Russian Federation. Chaired by Tomas Reyes Ortega and Soren Liborius, it devolved into a discussion about whether Russia’s current cultural politics are a hindrance to its relationship with Europe, or whether this is a time of increasing clarity in Russia’s perception of itself and, therefore, a prime time for renewed international cooperation.

Inna Prilezhayeva, project director at the Association of Culture Managers, put forth the notion that Russia today is not anti-European, that its values are compatible with those of Europe and that this is the ideal time for Russian and European collaboration.

As the second invited speaker, I found myself in the position of being a downright sourpuss. I could not help but bring up the flurry of repressive actions, measures or language used by the Russian government or its officials over the last six months in regards to artists and their work.

Aside from the anti-obscenity law, these have included numerous attacks on Gogol Center and the Taganka Theater; two issues of Kultura newspaper accusing dozens of directors and playwrights of perversion and evil intent; the banning of a showing of a documentary film about the Pussy Riot protest punk group; the banning of numerous theatrical events at the recent Moscow International Book Festival; a proposal to outlaw the “unjustifiable” use of foreign words in the media and the arts; and accusations that the Golden Mask Festival offered an “anti-government performance” during one of its evenings celebrating its 20th anniversary.

This, I said — and as I have written in these pages in the past — is too similar to dangerous and deadly periods in Russia’s past to ignore. As I spoke at the conference I still did not know about Medinsky’s comments or the fears raised by Teatr.doc.

In fact, the culture minister’s claims were more than just controversial, they were very strange. He fired his latest salvo at the Gogol Center while making his main point that, specifically, Russia’s Young Spectator Theaters should be held under greater control so as to stop them from tormenting schoolchildren with experimental interpretations of the classics.

What Medinsky either didn’t know, or didn’t care to clarify, was that the Gogol Center has nothing to do with the official chain of Theaters Yunogo Zritelya, or, Young Spectator Theaters, throughout Russia. In any case, as quoted on the “http://km.ru/” website, the minister declared that Russian classics should be presented on stage “in a technologically contemporary manner, but without essential distortions, without eccentricities in the guise of an innovative reading.”

So, while kicking the Gogol Center apparently just because it’s there, Medinsky’s declaration actually might have been an assault on Moscow’s Theater Yunogo Zritelya, where directors Genrietta Yanovskaya and Kama Ginkas have won international renown for their inventive productions of Russian classics. Or it might be a warning for other well-known Russian Young Spectator Theaters in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg or Krasnoyarsk, all of which have played an important role in developing the art of theater over the last decade or more.

In this increasingly repressive atmosphere, Teatr.doc’s moves to ensure its survival are understandable. Declaring that she is not afraid of what the future has to bring, Gremina wrote on Facebook, “but we don’t simply want to survive, we want to continue working productively. For that reason we are now thinking about the cold spring of 2015 that awaits us.”

Speaking informally after the EU-hosted conference, Helena Autio-Meloni, the cultural counsellor at the Finnish Embassy in Moscow, summed up thoughts I heard from several attendees. “These are the most difficult times I have known in 30 years of dealing with Russia,” Autio-Meloni said, “but we must not be deterred by that. There are great people here who share our values and we must do everything we can to support them.”

Moscow’s Culture Codes

QR codeReposting of Theater Plus blogs No. 270 (approximate). As I stumbled to the end of my blogging experience at The Moscow Times (I remind you that these columns were no longer called “blogs” on the site, and the “columns” that I wrote were already numbered), I found myself swinging back and forth between hard political business and “escapist” stuff about culture in Moscow. That was the influence of a new personal blog I began writing in May 2014 and which I continue to write today. My photo above: A QR code on a fence on Tverskoi Bulvar provides access to a website full of information about the Moscow home in which Russian revolutionary Alexander Herzen was born in 1825.

  • By John Freedman
  • June 29 2014 16:27

If you have walked anywhere in Moscow you have seen them, the blue squares with the qr codes in the middle and the white writing on them. If you have a smart phone you may have even tried accessing the information those codes provide access to.

But there is also a way to tap into at least some of that information even if you’re sitting at home in Moscow or vacationing across the seas. And there is a lot of information to be had.

I, for example, came home from a walk a few days ago and typed in the code (qr.mos.ru/100038) that I saw on a fence in front of the monument to the revolutionary writer Alexander Herzen in a courtyard on Tverskoi Bulvar. It turned out that the information was not about the monument itself, but about the two-story yellow building right next to it. Herzen was born there in the corner room on the second floor in 1825.

As the webpage on the Know Moscow site tells the story, Herzen lived here until September of the same year, “the illegitimate child of the Moscow nobleman Ivan Alexeyevich Yakovlev and Henriette Wilhelmina Luisa Haag from Stuttgart. Subsequently, as an adult, Herzen would come here to visit his cousin Alexei Alexandrovich Yakovlev.”

From there the story expands to tell of other famous people who lived or visited here, as well as of the building’s role in Russian literature. For those who didn’t know, this is the place that Mikhail Bulgakov described satirically as the writer’s club in his novel “The Master and Margarita.”

In addition to the informative text, there is a photo gallery of the building and its environs, an interactive map that allows you to pinpoint the location, and an audio feature that allows you to listen to the text about the building if you prefer that to reading. All of the texts, printed and spoken, are in Russian.

But having navigated this single page about the Herzen home, you have only scratched the surface of the website.

A bar menu along the top of the page provides several other entry points to information about Moscow’s cultural history. The choices include Homes, Routes, Museums, Territories, Personalities and Authors. The latter link provides information about some of the people who have written for the site, or who have conducted walking tours in the Routes section. They include the musician Alexei Kortnev, the film director Alexander Mitta, and the actress Yulia Rutberg.

The page devoted to the famed Taganka Theater, located in the Homes section, is especially rewarding for its small photo gallery. There is one shot of the building as it looked in 1912 when it was a movie theater, and two street snapshots taken during the height of the theater’s popularity in the 1960s and 1970s. Featuring a wooden facade and very few posters advertising shows in repertory, it looks very different from the playhouse we know today.

The richest section on the site is probably the one titled Personalities. It does not offer exhaustive information about all famous Muscovites by any stretch of the imagination, but it still is a treasure trove of information and photos. Here we can learn about the poet Marina Tsvetayeva, the architect Giacomo Quarenghi, the Nikitin brothers circus artists, the novelist Boris Pilnyak, and dozens of others.

The page devoted to writer, journalist, publisher, shoe repairman, entrepreneur, penniless wanderer, soldier and circus actor Vladimir Gilyarovsky is a great place to learn some of the basic facts about one of Moscow’s most beloved writers. Gilyarovsky is widely agreed to be the best chronicler of life in Moscow that the city has ever seen. His stories, sketches and essays, written in the late 19th century were wildly popular with the public, though not so appreciated by the authorities.

The Know Moscow site tells about an incident in 1887 when the writer’s book “Slum People” was burned publicly.

“Gilyarovsky attended the auto-da-fe of his book and was able to pull a few pages from the fire. The writer later recalled, ‘They burned my book and I lost all interest in writing belles lettres. I gave myself over entirely to journalism, rarely, however, writing poetry and stories, but never again with the same passion as before. I was famous, but I didn’t have a kopek to my name.'”

Gilyarovsky learned the hard way that Moscow does not believe in tears. Fortunately, others have made it their business to tell his and other prominent Muscovites’ tales in innovative and entertaining ways. With a smart phone, a tablet or a plain old-fashioned computer, you can have some of Moscow’s greatest stories at your fingertips.

Few Russian Artists Bother to Fight Creeping Trend of Censorship (2014)

Obscene2Reposting of Theater Plus blog No. 269. Here’s another piece following the developing story at the time – the impending ban on obscenities in theater and other performance places. As I’ve said, it pretty much petered out without ever having any serious effect. However, I was reminded by my friend Anna Lengyel that it did have an impact on a touring Hungarian production at the time. Here is what Anna wrote to me a few days ago:
“I know for a fact that it did have an effect on the guest performance of Béla Pintér and Benedek Darvas’ brilliant work
The Peasant Opera. They censored the hell out of its Russian subtitles, thereby castrating what the New York Times’ Charles Isherwood called “its bluntly vulgar humor that reveals the private pathologies behind the pretty myths of bucolic village life.”
Fortunately for all of us – aside from the eager beavers who closed shows or censored them before the law even took effect – this was a rare case of the law having any repercussions. (I repeat for the record: the hit film
Leviathan also suffered – it was released right around July 1, 2014, with expletives crudely beeped out.) My photo above was taken the night in early June when the Meyerhold Center hosted an evening of satire and song in order to “say farewell” to obscenities in art as a law banning expletives prepares to take effect on July 1, 2014.

  • By John Freedman
  • June 22 2014 18:58

As we approach July 1, the day after which obscenities will officially be banned in Russian art, the Russian creative community is doing what it can to make sense of a concerted push on the part of the government to regulate the arts and artistic expression.

By writing the phrase “doing what it can” I am both honoring those who take the time and spend the effort to speak out, as well as pointing out the limits of what can be, and is being, done.

On Monday the Meyerhold Center will convene a discussion that will go far beyond the matter of banned language, and will take on the much-maligned state project, “The Foundations of State Cultural Policy.” This public event will feature statements from Vladimir Tolstoy, one of the authors of the government declaration about culture’s place in society, and from Alexander Rubinshtein, a member of the working group that is putting the declaration together.

Also expected to participate are representatives of Moscow theaters, journalists, students, government officials and other interested parties. According to Yelena Kovalskaya, art director at the Meyerhold, the complete transcript of the discussion will be published on the gazeta.ru site and on the working group’s official “discuss-the-project” site.

On Wednesday last week the Gogol Center hosted a public discussion featuring several prominent Moscow critics and cultural figures. Also participating, along with Gogol Center artistic director Kirill Serebrennikov, was the renowned Polish director Grzegorz Jarzyna. A video of the entire 90-minute event is posted on YouTube.

Earlier this month both the Playwright and Director Center, with performances of Alexander Pushkin’s “obscene” poetry, and the Meyerhold Center, with a satirical evening of performances featuring snippets from works that employ expletives, sought to stake out territory opposing increased government interference in artistic matters.

But despite these notable efforts, what we are not seeing is a mass movement. We are not seeing large numbers of individuals gathering to protest. We are not seeing big-name figures — whether artists or not — speak out against the creeping trend of censorship.

After all, as bizarre and absurd as it sounds, these efforts to regulate artistic expression come amidst a veritable barrage of other, frankly, unbelievable moves by the Russian government to control the habits and behavior of its citizens.

We all have fond memories of the suggestion by senators months ago to ban the import of women’s lace underwear. Last week another such law was proposed by more diligent lawmakers with nothing better to do — if they have their way, the import of sneakers and high-heeled shoes will be banned.

Then there is the law put forth last week by the State Duma’s Culture Committee that would ban the “unjustifiable” use of foreign words in Russian speech and writing.

As was pointed out by Ksenia Norall, a Facebook friend of mine, this law, had it existed in the 1860s, would have put a serious crimp in the working process of one Lev Tolstoy as he struggled to find the all-important first words of his novel “War and Peace.”

For those who have forgotten, allow me to quote the very first sentence of this novel, considered by many to be the greatest ever written: “Eh bien, mon prince. Genes et Lucques ne sont plus que des apanages, des pomestia, de la famille Buonaparte.”

Yes, the only Russian word in the first sentence of this great Russian novel is “pomestia,” or “estates.”

The critic and teacher Pavel Rudnev recently commented on current events on his Facebook wall: “State officials are doing everything in their power to radicalize art. To see that a counterculture ripens in damp basements. To ensure that young hooligans go ballistic from the hypocrisy of dandruffy, sanctimonious old men wagging their fingers at those who can do what old people can’t. So be it then, art will radicalize. Instead of growing more subtle and becoming more varied, it will become more aggressive and will attract aggression.”

Indeed, it is a sight to behold — the Russian government machine encouraging and unleashing forces of deadly violence in and against the former “brotherly neighbor” of Ukraine, while threatening at home to take away citizens’ lace underwear, high-heeled shoes, bad language and foreign words.

There is something terribly wrong with this picture and what it says about where Russia is headed. As I watch this circus play itself out, I keep thinking that no great satirist of the ilk of Mikhail Zoshchenko or Ilf and Petrov would have been capable of envisioning such nonsense.

Our great contemporary satirists, such as Viktor Shenderovich or Dmitry Bykov, are only able to respond to developments with quips and ripostes. As it turns out, brilliant as they are, they haven’t half the imaginative powers of Russian parliamentarians looking for still another joke law to top the last joke law. Shenderovich, for example, could recently do nothing but share someone else’s photo of a hip-looking young Russian man stomping on the American flag as he affectionately fondles his U.S.-made iPhone.

But that, in fact, is precisely where we are headed — into a world of impossible contrasts, filled with mixed, mutually-exclusive messages and the complete breakdown of meaning in our words, our images and our actions.

Listen to this, if you think I’m overstating it: Even as the ban against expletives in art is set to go into place, the Russian constitution still proclaims that censorship itself is banned.

Praise be to Rudnev for seeing in all this a positive sign. As the counterproductive and counterintuitive efforts of the Russian state continue to pile up, we can expect a new counterculture eventually to lead us out of the darkness.

Okay, then. We’re waiting…

By the way: If you’re reading this in the United States and you are visited by the desire to gloat about Russia’s problems — don’t get me started… Don’t even think about it.