Some Reflections on Theatre in a Post (Pre-) Pandemic Moscow

Alla Shenderova*

Trans. Yana Meerzon and Aisling Murphy


From the end of March to the end of April 2020—that is, the first month of quarantine—I wrote three critical interventions which focused on the issue of liveness in theatre. Having watched numerous archival recordings of theatre productions on screen, I tried to understand what remains specifically “live” and “theatrical” in all of them. I made some fast conclusions and offered a few predictions. But the situation has drastically changed. Now, having read these texts, I understand that some of the things I promised then have since come true; they exist as a time capsule of sorts. I present here these reflections on liveness in a sort of temporal vacuum—a memory of how things were when the pandemic hit.
Keywords: COVID-19, contemporary theatre, criticism and lockdown

I. Three Sisters in Quarantine: How Do We Watch Online Performances Without Feeling Somehow Robbed?

My opinion on this is split. Some consider online broadcasts to be “the perfect vaccination of the population against theatrical art”in other words, a mere surrogate. Others vie for advice: when, what, and where to watch. Let us take an example: The Chamber Theatre (Kammerspiele) in Munich posted a recording of Susan Kennedy’s Three Sisters. This 2019/2020 season blockbuster has already been invited to many festivals around Europe, though there is, of course, a separate question of whether or not they will run at all. In late autumn, the production is due to come to Moscow. I am certain the management of the festival must be concerned: this recording played online and was probably stolen and downloaded by a number of viewers. The tour is now in danger, and it is quite possible that tickets will not be sold; it is somehow already stale.

Three Sisters, Chekhov’s play directed by Susan Kennedy

But after watching Three Sisters on my laptop, I am convinced that we will want to see Three Sisters live; this show, which describes our new digital reality, works on the screen. Yet watching it strongly provokes you to speculate how it might work if you were inside the house. Simply put: it would be better to watch it in 3D. This is conclusion number one.

The performance begins thusly: in total darkness, some strangely familiar sounds are heardthe sound of a booting computer or an expanding (or is it crumbling?) universe: you have to decide. Three women in white crinolines and black masks appear in swirling clouds. The performance itself is a succession of slides, separated from each other by cosmic blackness and a mechanical voice that intermittently announces: “cut.” The characters utter Chekhov’s lines, and Vershinin speaks about human life 300 years later; his voice emanates from the phone hung on the wall.

This staging simulates film. The action feels flat; it is getting louder and closer and somehow removed. (I doubt it was difficult to film.) However, if you watch this performance on video, you will never understand how it is made. And you definitely won’t have enough time to enjoy the pictures, in which live robots, in sterile white, behave the way we probably all will after quarantine. They try to get close to each other but must comply with the physical distancing code embedded within them. Their puppet-like gestures are ethereal, giving only the illusion of touching. “You’re always busy, we don’t have time to talk”a slightly altered phrase by Natasha, addressed to Olga, which sounds like a metaphor for our current state of being.

We are always busy. But we are always in touchremotely.

But something else is happening today, something important. The notorious self-isolation due to the pandemic has given the average viewer the opportunity to touch an array of contemporary performances which they could not even imagine before. So, when the quarantine is over, it will be much harder to feed this newly sophisticated audience with claims on newness and experiment.

II. Opera vs. Dramatic Theatre

And so, I decided to give preference to watching opera online, as, according to professionals, opera loses less when broadcast. The performance is shot from as many points as possible. Such methods are more expensive but easier to edit. Watching such video feels less like being forced to look at what is happening on stage from only one perspective.

At this mid-April point of my quarantine, I was operating under a strong belief: traditional (psychological) theatre loses much of itself over video. But: the more skillfully it is done, the less it seems to be transmitted “on tape.” Last year, after the death of Eymuntas Nyakroshus, his Uncle Vanya (1986) aired online. I had never seen this production live, but from the stories about it I could construct a whole image. So, I hesitantly started watching the video in Lithuanian with no subtitles. The innovative Uncle Vanya proved to be the model psychological performance, where every Chekhovian line seemed to have just been invented in response to the emotion or movement of a performer. I lost myself to the recording and simply forgot about the language barrier.

Thus: conclusion number two. The best examples of psychological theatre, if they are filmed well, are timeless. However, one bad framing of the camera, one magnified insincerity, and you are (almost) lost.

III. Visuality

Many visual artists turned to theatre directing starting in the 1960s. Robert Wilson received a diploma in architecture and design, for instance, while Romeo Castellucci, Jan Fabre and Christian Lupa, who all graduated from Fine Arts faculties across Europe, ultimately chose theatre as “the main thing that unites all arts.”

Take the case of Lupa’s theatre. Despite his background in fine arts, Lupa works mostly in realms of psychological theatre, in which the actor transforms themselves into a character. At the end of a rather lengthy production of Persona: Simone’s Body (about philosopher Simone Weil), the ghost of Simone appears from the darknessappears, and even seems to exist, onstage. In live performance, at this moment, the audience relishes in the tension. But the film does not (or really, cannot) convey this. Watching this production on a screen, I was worried this effect would disappear. But to my great surprise, at first the audience watched in tense silence, and then they gasped in true fear: the ghost materialized, and they believed it.

Krystiana Lupa, dir. Persona. Simone’s Body. WithMałgorzata Braunek, Maja Ostaszewska, Andrzej Szermeta, Adam Graczyk, Małgorzata Maślanka, Jolanta Olszewska, Marcin Tyrol, Marcin Bosak/Piotrek Polak.

Hence, conclusion number three: even the most complex performance can be enjoyed on video if you already know something about the director. When you have seen one or two of the director’s performances live, you can finish the third in your imagination.

IV. Freedom of Choice

Modern theatre gives spectators freedom. If you want, you can engage in the action directly, as in participatory theatre, or you can observe it from a distance. Often, you do not have to understand everything for the performance to resonate; it resembles a dream in which there are gaps of meaning, so the audience is left to seek meaning on their own.  

Romeo Castellucci is one such director: his staging creates these gaps of meaning and thus provokes audiences. But no matter how ambiguous, the visual picture is so exquisite that we enjoy the performance as a masterpiece of painting.

Let us take Mozart’s Requiem, which Castellucci directed for the 2019 Aix-en-Provence Festival. In the prologue, an elderly woman goes into oblivion before our eyes under Lacrimosa (literally: dissolving in the air, as in the case with illusionists). But the director breaks free of this private tragedy; the woman is alive again, appearing as four ages at the same time, and the chorus mourns the extinct plants, extinct animals, decayed civilizations and dead languages. Mozart’s Requiem turns into Castellucci’s mourning for our civilisationMozart’s ingenious music seems to be unpacked completelyreceiving the expansion and philosophical insight it contains. You do not have to think about it, though, when you watch the play. You just listen to Mozart and admire it.

Mozart’s Requiem, directed by Romeo Castellucci

Hence my fourth conclusion: good modern theatre is close to fine art. The frame of the recorded shot, in this case, replaces the frame of the painting.

V. Theatrical GlobalizationForecasts and Predictions  

The forced closure of the theatres has triggered a digital theatre boom, which in turn has started a new theatrical globalization. It is too early to talk about its consequences, but something can already be predicted.

Let us start with mythswith gods and titans. While in isolation, Robert Wilson and Daniel Hope came up with the Stay Home performance. It is refined and concise. Wilson reads, or rather, melodically recites, the text, repeating as a mantra: “Stay home,” “Stay together,” “Let’s make masks,” “It’s time for unity,” “The mask of unity.” Each phrase seems to stem from the previous one, and sometimes contradicts it. Unity is imaginary, so let us at least depict it, make a mask of unityright? Or should we do the opposite? How many viewers, so many interpretations; this is the main principle of contemporary art.

Stay Home performance, with Robert Wilson and Daniel Hope, 2020

From here, one might want to propose some “forecasts” for new theatrical globalization:

First: Isolation will teach us to have our own opinion; while watching, you cannot depend upon the look on your seat-neighbor’s face, the gasps of those behind you.

Second: Traditional theatre will not go anywhere. Once people are no longer afraid, they will go back to theatre. The half-remembered words “ritual,” “collective experience,” “catharsis” will be used again.

Third: Large state-subsidized theatres will survive more easily than small independent troupes. But small independent troupes are more flexible; the small form is cheaper, and the demand for chamber productions, where you can finally see everything and touch something, will be great.

Okay, you say, but what will we watch online after quarantine? Now the theatres have opened their archives and are broadcasting for free what was previously only available for money or not at all. Will everything go back to normal after quarantine and we will be disciplined in paying for subscriptions?

Fourth: There is likely to be a new genre of online opening night. Not additional to the on-site premier, but equal to it, with digital free passes for critics, paid access for viewers, newspaper reviews and branches of discussion in social networks. Exclusive online opening nights will be in the sense that the audience will not see such a performance. This performance is still quite alive and makes the box office revenue, but the performers are very expensive and difficult to put together (as often happens at the opera). Such premieres will fuel interest in the theatre and noticeably expand its audience, and the show can be a promo for the next, already live premiere of the same team.

Fifth: After isolation, many of us will have an online addiction and increased sense of self-performativity.

Just imagine: on Thursdays you gave a lecture to students at Zoom. Once or twice a week you went liveto hear Pushkin aloud, to share the recipe for making cheesecakes, to show exercises to the press or to take part in some new performative project. And what happens when, all of a sudden, all of this is over? For all the refinement of the theatre, art is rough, incredibly resilient and thriving. It adapts to reality. Like a vacuum cleaner, it drags everything into itself, and at the output produces an unexpected, sometimes very refined synthesis.

So, a new genre of on-line immersive theatre will soon appear. You will say: this is nonsense, for immersive theatre involves the viewer. This is how you will be involved: with VR and AR glasses. Like in a video game based on role-playing, you will choose to go right or left, to be a fox or a deer.

On the other hand, going online will allow creators to not only save on rent and salary, which in the coming seasons will be very important, but even earn. As a result, a new genre will emerge—something in between the theatre, cinema and computer game. If you want: go wander around the Rostovs’ house from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but if you feel like testing your nerveswatch, hiding behind the door, as Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov crushes his landlady.  

Sixth: The creators of video games will have a new competitor.

The launch trailer of What Remains of Edith Finch

Today, there are many games on the market, designed for different categories of gamers. Think of the foggy forest in What Remains of Edith Finch, clearly designed for fans of Tarkovsky. But what if the immersive online performances will also master different aesthetics: from the gloomy philosophy of Romeo Castellucci’s plays to psychological lace? Would they be a surrogate? Of course. But the unique value of the original sources will only increase.

During the fall, as most Moscow theatres have re-opened their seasons, it has become clear that the level of live performances has fallen. All these productions have been made during lockdown using Zoom as a rehearsal spacea rehearsal space of lower-than-normal expectations of quality. It does not feel right to criticize them; to perform at the end of the rehearsal process knowing you or your partner might end up in the hospital is almost an act of heroism.

So, I would prefer to finish this intervention using the words of Richard Schechner (from his lecture on the Tochka Dostupa festival): “We will only understand the meaning of lockdown and COVID-19 after it is over. When this storyor when this historywill finish. At the moment, we cannot even begin to understand its whole trajectory.”

And that’s just it: we cannot even begin to understand these trajectoriesof COVID-19 or of live performance. At the moment, both seem grim, with cases going up and quality of work going down, but as Schechner says: for now, we simply wait. 

*Alla Shenderova is a journalist, theatre critic and editor of the journal Teatr. She also writes for the newspaper Kommersant. She studied computer science at RGGU and theatre criticism at GITIS. She has written several hundred articles in professional theatre and political journals about contemporary theatre. Her articles appeared in the journal Plays International & Europe. She teaches at the British Higher School of Design in Moscow and is a member of IATC/AICT. She is a member of the jury for the Youth Theatre Form of the Baltic, Georgia and USSR. She was a curator of the “Friendship of Nations” program at the Inspiration festival in Moscow in 2019. She has repeatedly collaborated with the Golden Mask festival as a jury member (in 2013 and 2019), as well as other theatre festivals across Russia. She has given public lectures and courses such as “Then and Now: Where and When the Modern Theatre Is Moving from” (Manege, 2019) and “Theatre during the Public Shocks” (Minsk, 2020). In 2017, she held a Fulbright scholarship at Dixie State University in Utah, U.S.A.

Copyright © 2020 Alla Shenderova
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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