Emiliia Dementsova*

During the New Year countdown, looking back on the old year, we normally indulge in reverie about the year to come. Trying to forget all the bad things, to leave all the failures behind, hoping the coming year will be better and more successful than the one we leave behind. 

2019 was decreed the “Year of Theatre” in Russia, so I shall be thinking first and foremost about theatre as I listen to “Couranty”—the Kremlin Clock, housed in the Spasskaya Tower of Moscow’s Kremlin—as it chimes in the New Year.

We have a saying in Russia, “If he beats you, it means he loves you.” In Russia, the theatre is an object of great love, which must be the reason why it gets such a sound flogging so often, thanks to the efforts of our inventive bureaucracy—and, sometimes, the public. The Year of Theatre is intended to encompass the entire country: St. Petersburg is to host the Theatre Olympics in 2019; the A.P. Chekhov International Theatre Festival is to be held as usual; the National Theatre Award and the Golden Mask festival will celebrate their 25th anniversary—the winners of both contests will go on a regional tour; the Arlekin festival will showcase theatre productions for children; and, as usual, young actors from all over the world will gather at the international summer school for advanced studies in theatrical arts, run by the Union of Theatre Workers of Russia.

One of the central features of the programme is the Theatrical Marathon, an event which is to travel over all the regions. It will start in March 2019, in Vladivostok, to finish in Kaliningrad, in November. For the local public, it means the best shows of recent years will be brought to their own cities. They will have an opportunity to meet leading actors, directors and other theatre makers at public events, master classes and educational seminars. Besides, there will be plenary sessions, where it will be possible to discuss vital theatrical issues and projects related to the Strategy of Development of the theatrical business up until 2030.

How I wish the coming year could bring Russian theatre up to a completely new level, away from the firing line where it is a sitting target, not for art critics, but for the authorities, with their legislative experiments, quite disastrous at times. So, at the approach of the festive midnight, during the New Year countdown, I will, according to Russian custom, be making wishes—a wish for each of the 12 chimes of the clock. I am not at all hesitant to make my wishes out loud. I do not fear that, if I reveal my wishes, they may never come true; on the contrary, I strongly believe that the collective will may contribute to the implementation of what I have envisioned. So, here are my twelve theatrical wishes:

1. Let Themis pay fewer visits to Melpomene

Themis (Θέμις), A Greek Titaness, described as the “Lady of good counsel,” the personification of divine order, fairness, law, natural law and custom. Photo: Public domain (web)

The trial of Kirill Serebrennikov and other defendants in the so-called case of the “Seventh Studio” was not only a serious blow to those involved. It had considerable impact on Russian theatre, in general. A lively, alert, bold theatre, moving in step with the times, became endangered. There are people who want to chase it back into the basements, drive it underground, as has happened to Theatre.doc, which now exists not “thanks to,” but “in spite of.” Naturally, Serebrennikov’s case considerably united the theatrical community.

Melpomene, the muse of Chorus and, later, the Muse of Tragedy, for which she is best known now. Photo: Emiliia Dementsova

Lev Dodin was quite justified in mentioning the fact at the presentation of the Europe Theatre Prize. He spoke on the subject through the interpreter standing next to him, since the system responsible for delivering translation to the guests of the event through headphones turned out to be incompatible with the name “Serebrennikov,” and it was omitted altogether. There must have been some technicality preventing the official interpreters from pronouncing this name, just as the government-supporting media seem to be unable to do so: even if they cover the trial, their coverage is biased against the defendants, and smacks of an inculpatory approach.

Lev Dodin was among those who took the floor and supported Serebrennikov during the Premio Europa closing ceremony in St. Petersburg (Oct. 17, 2019). Photo: Public domain (web)

And yet, representatives of different theatrical schools, of diverse beliefs and styles, have united—judging the moment as historically relevant, and the situation as one in which keeping silent would be a crime (though there are some who choose to keep silent). Serebrennikov’s case, the case of his “Seventh Studio,” is a dark page in the history of theatre in our country. It is not an isolated incident, but an illustrative one.

Serebrennikov during his trial. Photo: Emiliia Dementsova

Directing is a tenuous business; its dependence on the tools of the trade is great, and, besides, as history demonstrates, the tools of the authorities are also something to be taken into account. The director is not forbidden to think, make up, envision his future productions, but no production will come into being without trying things out this way and that, without talking things over, without the drive of the collective will.

In Le Dernier Métro, the hero, while hiding from the Nazis in the cellars of his own theatre, was still able to control the staging of the shows. He was cut off from the world, but not from his art. Serebrennikov is allowed to take walks in the vicinity of his residence, but the place where his heart lies—the theatre—is forbidden territory for him. Konstantin Stanislavsky once, in conversation with Solomon Mikhoels, remarked, “To fly, the bird first and foremost needs to breathe freely. . . .” Serebrennikov is denied access to the air-supply. Yet, other theatre people are not all that free-breathing either.

One of the many court hearings in the case of Serebrennikov. The public in the corridor of the court. Photo: Emiliia Dementsova

During his confinement under house arrest, Serebrennikov has managed to stage several productions (in Moscow and at Opernhaus Zürich) that have earned the applause of both Russian and European audiences. He has completed the feature film he was making, he has earned several awards, all that while the main award—his freedom—taken away from him. Once again, he has shown, through personal example, that thinking is uncontrollable, even if attempts to break the thinker himself may be successful.

In the courtroom, Kirill Serebrennikov says that the worst punishment for him is being banned from his work, and the law, repeatedly prolonging his house arrest, hurts him in this most vulnerable spot again and again. Yet, state-of-the-art technology allowed him to continue directing even under conditions of house arrest. This exemplary case of remote directing from behind stone walls came at a considerable cost for the director, and cost Russia dearly in terms of her image and reputation.

Enjoying his freedom, Serebrennikov could have done much; he could have produced work that would have made our country famous on international stages. Lev Dodin talked about the artist’s experience of suffering, and the collective suffering that occurs around his person. Unfortunately, in our country, suffering seems to be an inevitable stage in the biography of any gifted person. If, in the future, there are more exceptions to this “rule,” it will be most welcome.

Judicial escorts Serebrennikov. All shades of black. Photo: Emiliia Dementsova

2. Let the seeds of censorship, both in low and high places, be destroyed. Let translators translate what was actually said, not what they were told to translate. Let the media refrain from retouching cultural news, ranking theatres according to some imaginary loyalty scale

The theatre does influence the public, that’s indisputable, but the reverse is also true: in recent years, the public in Russia has been wielding considerable influence over the theatre. And when I say “influence,” I don’t mean the effect that the audience’s bursting into applause or angry shouts may have upon the development of any performance, or the fact that shows that fail to win the public close and get excluded from theatres’ repertoire. Critical reviews don’t have as strong a sway over theatre life as letters from audience members: letters addressed to the office of the Public Prosecutor, or other governmental bodies of similar calibre, in which the writers demand that their addressees have this or that show shut down, and the author punished. People who work in theatre now know the articles of the Russian Federation Criminal Code that cover offending religious feelings inside out—the offence that is mostly alleged by the vigilant public against those directors who are alert to social controversies and touch upon socially raw spots. The “Free Word” association produced a report entitled “Russia, 2016-2017.”

Actor Alexei Kravchenko as Minister Robert Ternov, in a scene from An Ideal Husband: A Comedy at the Moscow Chekhov Art Theater (RIA Novosti/Sergey Pyatakov)/RIA Novosti

Violations of and government imposed restrictions upon the freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of expression, with one of the chapters devoted to censorship in theatre: the “culture managing” governmental bodies acting dictatorially, depriving “harmful” art of state subsidy, censorship introduced due to “feelings of the believers being offended.” Those public organizations that claim to be defending the rights of members of the audience whose religious feelings can be offended by art bombard authorities with complaints on a regular basis, simultaneously trying to earn notoriety by staging public actions, often mischievous and sometimes sinister, aimed at ruining this show or that. I won’t name these organizations, lest these hoodlums get publicity in a respectable international periodical. But, I would like to point out that, with Konstantin Bogomolov’s production An Ideal Husband allegedly offending religious feelings, the attacks on this theatrical production didn’t stop even after Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre (MKhT) had won its case in court.

Near Moscow Art Theatre. Single picket against the production An Ideal Husband. Phrase on poster: “Let us stop blasphemous ‘arts.’ Make sodomy a crime again!” Photo: Konstantin Bogomolov

The incident at the presentation ceremony of the Europe Theatre Prize, when translators, whether intentionally or by accident, omitted to pronounce Serebrennikov’s name, also looks symptomatic. Sadly, in a society deficient in freedom, the supposition that the interpreters had been previously instructed to do as they did is more believable than allowance for an unfortunate failure due to insufficient professional training All in all, the Russian theatrical community, as well as the general public, are rather fed up with being under constant informational shielding—when federal TV stations scratch out everything negative from the cultural (and not only cultural) news. Not to upset people, presumably. This shielding-from-everything-unpleasant attitude is understandable, but one cannot but feel like resisting it tooth and nail. Nowadays, it is easier to learn real news about the real life of cultural institutions in the social networks, where people who care report from the courtrooms, or inform the public about disgraceful incidents or cases of malversation or malpractice in theatres. In other words, networks speak up about things that average theatre-goers, who are not involved in some art community, are totally unaware of.

3. Let audiences not fall behind our ever innovative theatre

The Year of the Theatre is also the Year of the Audience. The spectator is a co-creator of the performance, just like the actor. Contemporary theatre won’t stand for its audience to stay unconcerned and apathetic, but will demand from it the maximum degree of involvement. Unlike the actors, the spectator is “a player who plays many roles,” and thus has to know how to tune to each new show, how to be sensitive, daring and prepared for the discoveries that are to be made. I teach a class at the Moscow School of Journalism, titled “Profession: Theatregoer,” and its objective is to teach theatregoers to understand and accept theatrical experiments and forms that are most diverse. The theatre can do without the director, the playwright, the designer, and even the actors, but not without the public; that very public which has so often been reproached for lack of comprehension, narrow-mindedness (the stalls and the gallery alike), ignorance and shallowness. Yet, without it the theatre can’t exist.

The theatre is anxious for such a spectator, who will come not to doze off in their seat, but prepared for the work of joint exploration, for labor done with one’s heart and with one’s mind; open to new things, unafraid of learning and accepting truths about themselves, which are not always pleasant. Contemporary theatre, any real theatre for that matter, resists human selfishness, making people listen to the opinion of another, look from a new point of view at the familiar, at things that had been hammered into their heads. Understanding theatre as strictly entertainment, a leisure facility, a medicine for melancholy and cure for idleness, as an appetizer before dining at a restaurant or a hotel—let this prejudiced, one-sided and totally ungrounded attitude be overcome. Let one kind of theatre refrain from attempts to devour another kind, or drive it back into the basements.

4. Let there be money, if not lots of money, then at least sufficient money

Salaries in theatre are indecently small. There are theatres in the country where people earn twelve thousand (about $178) a month. And payments of salaries are often delayed. This problem has been a burning one for too long, in many regions, especially remote ones. Insufficient funding and lack of money lead to reducing, out of necessity, the number of performances.

In many regions, theatres cannot go on tour, because local authorities do not participate in theatrical activities in any way—that is to mean, they do not allot theatres any money from the local budgets. That is why young talented artists are afraid to seek employment in theatre. Theatre buildings are also in sad condition, and in crying need of repairs and restoring. At the same time, regular audits of budget funds spending have become a bogeyman for theatres that scares them stiff. Nowadays, nobody is certain which is the harder job, make a theatre production or do the financial statement about the budget fund spent on it?

5. Let there be more theatrical awards and initiatives—not locked in desperate struggle with each other, but collaborating for the common good of the theatrical industry

This year, the Ministry of Culture publicly announced that it withdraws its support of the Golden Mask award. The Ministry has, for quite a time, been voicing its displeasure at this award, given by the Union of Theatrical Workers—complaining discontentedly that the awards invariably go to radical artists (including Kirill Serebrennikov) and that traditional, conservative productions are ignored. Which, of course, is not true—the lists of winners for recent years prove it beyond doubt. Now, the Ministry of Culture will have a separate theatrical award of its own.

Russian painter Vladimir Lyubarov “Masks.” Photo: Vladimir Lyubarov website

Whether this new award is to become a landmark, indicating the coming of a clearly marked dividing line that separates pleasing and comfortable theatre from theatre that takes its audience out of its comfort zone remains an open question. But many are apprehensive.

As for joyful events, there was the presentation of the Yury Lyubimov Public Award, and the Yury Lyubimov International Theatrical Award. It is organized with great care, reverently and responsibly, with the widow and collaborator of the master, Katalin Lyubimova, handling everything on which Lyubimov’s personality has left its mark, never allowing any retouching or damaging of his memory. It is a pity that she has to work practically alone. The Fund doesn’t have any permanent sponsor or patron so far, and the efforts of the volunteers are not enough. I hope the situation will change. The Foundation has a lot of good and useful ideas, and it must survive.

Program material from the Yury Lyubimov award ceremony. Photo: Emiliia Dementsova

As for the International Theatrical Award, which was established by the Lyubimov foundation jointly with the International Institute of Theatre, for explorations of new theatrical aesthetics, it was given to theatre director Anatoliy Vasiliev, who, in his address, said that his life seems to be divided into three episodes: “Before Liubimov,” “Together with Liubimov,” and “After Moscow.”

Musing over his own experiences as an exile and the difficulties that clouded both his own and Lyubimov’s theatrical careers, Vasiliev remembered Kirill Serebrennikov, whose thorny biography was enriched by the authorities and now features prosecution by the law. The whole ceremony was dominated by a large portrait of the master that loomed on the stage facing the public. The eyes of the portrait looked alive; they were eloquent, maybe even somewhat reproachful, yet loving all the same. “To believe firmly in your own way, despite all the hardships” was his will; the will of one who never turned off his way, as director and man.

Anatoly Vasiliev won the International Theatrical Award, established by the Lyubimov foundation jointly with the International Institute of Theatre. Photo: Public domain (web)

6. Let cultural news return to the front pages, let theatrical reviews not be reduced to tweets and let them be written not by journalistic Jacks of all trades and masters of none, who write indiscriminately about accidents, fashion, sport and … theatre

Opportunities to publish a text about theatre or culture are, unfortunately, becoming scarcer. In most periodicals, the sections on culture were “optimized” and turned into life-style columns. There is practically no space reserved for large, detailed reviews. Against such a background, blogs and personal sites seem a blast of the sweet air of freedom, and some theatre bloggers have actually started to gain popularity. They create a rich palette of opinions, but, unfortunately, bloggers do not always write responsibly and often lack professional expertise. That has caused a rift between bloggers and professional critics, which often manifests in sticking to traditional, or, on the contrary, novel information delivery tools when reaching for their audiences. Another example: only a foreign periodical has found it possible to publish this very text. Russian-speaking media couldn’t find room for it.

Performance from the Yury Lyubimov award ceremony. Photo: Emiliia Dementsova

7. Let tours and festival movements continue to prevail over the hermetically sealed conditions of Russian theatre

Theatre always existed thanks to the possibilities exchange offers; thanks to mobility. Since the days of its infancy, it was open to the turnover of practices, ideas, considerations, activities. It is a platform for communication, for exchanging ideas, for partnership. The task of contemporary theatre is to create a communication environment where people, things, events can create connections. Its main intention is to establish connections between people of different cultures, mentalities, backgrounds, and so on; to find the “common denominator” in perception, to create a “shared experience,” the general discourse—which is the main question in today’s world, because everything including philosophy, politics, economics, and cultural studies, turns on communication.

If we turn to history, we can recall the role that the Bolshoi played by touring in the U.S.A. during the Cold War. Today, touring activities go on on a smaller scale, though this year Vakhtangov theatre’s tour made quite an impression in the States. Festival movements are on the rise. International theatre festivals are ideal not only for sharing experiences and best practices, but also for voicing this or that message a participating country intends to communicate.  For this purpose, the festival mechanism is much more efficient than that of traditional touring, since, at a festival, any show will draw not just the local public, but audiences comprising people from all over the world, representatives of the participating countries, members of diplomatic delegations, and so on.

8. Let theatres outside Moscow or St. Petersburg never feel forgotten and abandoned

Geographically relevant remoteness breeds segregation, even on the level of information sharing. Theatres in the more remote regions and their audiences often find themselves in isolation and go on as best they can, unaware of the tendencies, news and vectors of development in contemporary world theatre. And, of course, they get substantially less funding.

9. Let theatre for the youngest theatre-goers get as much attention as possible

Hopefully, the Presidential programme that aims at supporting theatre for children will achieve full-scale implementation: theatre has to recruit its public at early age, and the young have to be introduced to the theatrical arts.

10. Let new technologies not be rejected indiscriminatingly. They are not the enemy of the old theatre

This is a complex wish, that comprises: exploring and exploiting virtual space as a new creative medium and an environment where the audiences are hanging about; blending (interaction) of virtual and real genres and technologies; developing visual culture; improving theatrical culture by means of information and communication technologies; upgrading such creative processes as directing and scenography by applying new technologies relevant for staging; using means such as computer generated simulation and multimedia programming for shaping the general image of the show; upgrading the training process for the staging professions.

11. Let theatre not be turned into a standardized manufacturing department

The Ministry of Culture has published two executive orders on their site: #602 “Approving generic industry-specific worktime standards for jobs done at performing arts organizations,” and #603 “Approving recommended guidelines for forming the prescribed strength of the personnel at performing arts organizations, with consideration for special features of the industry.” Industrial standards were worked out for such jobs as making the design and scenography for a theatre piece (or some other production or performance), where every detail of the art-creating process is described minutely, and the time period for the above-mentioned art-creating activity is set.

For example, making a table for a setting is to take 22.8 hours, and doing 1 square metre of landscape painting to make a backdrop representing a winter landscape of several planes 1.2 hours.

12. The goals that are set for the coming Year of the Theatre are noble and lofty; to familiarize a wide range of social strata, including the young and the adolescent, with real, true art; to enhance the number of tours, and the number of guest performances at regional theatres

Allow young actors to show what they can do; to make theatre a part of life of everyone. . . . The enumeration can go on and on. And these are only titles that describe real problems in a sketchy way, just brief drafts of solutions. Yet, if they come true, the year 2019 will become a milestone in the history of theatre. According to recent official data, the number of guest performances has shown 20% growth in the last couple of years.

Vladimir Medinsky, the Minister of Culture, has said that, in 2015, the number of guest performances at federal level nearly reached the one thousand mark. The financial situation of the country is not easy, yet people continue to go to the theatre. In the last three years, the sum earned from ticket sales has grown by 70%. Such figures look very inspiring for the theatre-workers—we are not done for, after all.

The official emblem: https://2019.culture.ru. No one knows why, at the back of the emblem of the year theater in Russia, is Opéra de Paris

Well, in a year, we shall see what wishes and plans have come true, and we shall also be able to divine—like when playing a Russian patience—what there was, what there shall be, what will have come to soothe the heart. . . . Emotionally torn between Sonia’s “I do believe it, I do . . . ,” from her final monologue in Uncle Vanya, and the final line from Bulgakov’s The Days of the Turbins, “What’s a prologue for one man is an epilogue for another one,” I still will raise my glass to make a toast to Russian theatre, wishing it may never become a theatre of military operations. 


*Emiliia Dementsova is theatre critic, creative editor, lecturer and researcher. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the MSU. She is a columnist for leading Russian publications and European StagesThe Hollywood ReporterThe Conflict ZonesThe Theatre Times, among others; scholar of the Oxford Russia Fund and Theatre Union of Russia and Ministry of Culture; grantee and participant of the project “With and From One Another: Exchange of Cultural Actors” (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich). She has received the International Press Club award and the Russian national literary award, the Golden Feather.

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12 Seconds to the Year of Theatre