The Access Point in St. Petersburg: Interview with Filipp Vulakh, Yulia Kleiman and Alexei Platunov

by Nikolai Pesochinsky*

The seventh Access Point festival in St. Petersburg during the summer of 2021 has been described as a “forum for site-specific and immersive art.” Simply put, the festival performances placed game events in non-theatrical spaces and engaged the spectators in active participation. Experimenting with urban space, these events utilized the surrounding environment to develop artistic plots. Over twenty creative projects in the festival energized elements of the urban environment as they carried spectators into spaces that are usually inaccessible to the public.

In the following interview, we speak with the general producer of the festival Filipp Vulakh, and the curators Yulia Kleiman and Alexei Platunov.

Alexey Platunov and Yulia Kleiman. Photo: Alexandr Ignatovich

Would you describe the festival performances as a form of theatre which guides participants along specific tracks of creativity?

​​FV (Filipp Vulakh): We have often said that Access Point is a festival of the arts, including but not exclusive to the theatre. Our hope is that more traditional theatre critics will not categorize our work as outside the realm of the theatre, and our sponsors, especially state sponsors, will not question our use of public money. Yet, we don’t view our work as strictly theatrical, as we challenge participants to cross the boundaries of the theatre which cannot be traversed through any other art form. However, most of the artists who develop projects for Access Point view themselves as members of the theatre community.

Filipp Vulakh. Photo: Alexandr Ignatovich

YK (Yulia Kleiman): I prefer to think of the theatre as a crossroads where several forms of practice meet. Contemporary theatre interfaces not only with other art forms but also with domains of sociology and psychology through the active participation of the spectators. For example, during the performance of Russian Emigration Center (M. Meshcheryakov, A. Bykov, A. Mishchenko and E. Tatarenko), people filed numerous papers in different cabinets as an absurd requirement for emigration. The aim was to achieve a deeper sociological understanding of our relations with our homeland and our expectations of the future. In that sense, 33 Sisters (Nemxat theatre company), directed by A. Shumilin, could be analyzed not only as a theatre event (which it was, indeed) but also as an attempt to make empathetic contact among strangers and conduct therapy sessions with performers. During the digital performance Herd (A. Kireeva, N. Altman) spectators made decisions continuously about problematic people in a dystopic setting.  As such, the experience involved both psychological training and sociological research, as it deconstructed instruments of xenophobia.

Russian Emigration Center. Photo: Polina Nazarova

Did the urban locales unfold as theatrical spaces?

FV: I would say “yes” for the seventh festival but “no” for the earlier events. My feeling is that the emancipation of the theatre from the confines of the theatre house is no longer a major goal. Even the most rigid of institutions have appropriated the idea of working site-specifically. However, the variety of urban landscapes is key to the festival as well as to regular theatre venues.

33 Sisters. Photo: Polina Nazarova

YK: I would say “yes” and “no.” Although we used non-theatrical space for most of the productions, in some performances we focused on the specific meaning of a precise space. For example, for Flights,by I. Moschitsky, it was important to proceed from the telegram-channel to the local train and then to a location outside the city; yet, the focus in general was more on the problem of escaping from civilization in general, rather than on specific local places. However, Ticket to the Movie by the group Vokrug da okolo was performed at the legendary movie studio Lenfilm, and as the content of this production was fully connected with women’s invisible work here, the space where performers and spectators wandered—yards, corridors, basement—inevitably took on the role of the character itself.

Ticket to the Movie. Photo: Polina Nazarova

Regarding the concept of public participation, when it was artistically efficient to utilize this idea?

FV: At least two productions, one in the curated Main program and another in the Flow program, could be considered as prototypical examples of immersive theatre. It is important to note here that a performance with a high degree of public participation is not exceptional simply because it involves people; as this practice has become more common, it is no longer shocking. Rather, public participation functions as one of the colors on the palette, beautiful, however, when used appropriately.

YK: Our greatest artistic and public success of this year, School Simulator, directed by P. Kurkin, was a production that immersed the audience into school life. The number of spectators was the same as the number of performers, the latter of whom embodied school students following exclusively a school routine at close proximity to the spectators. It was quite instructive to gaze into the secret reality of a teenager.

However, the strongest points for me were moments when a school student suddenly passed a message to me and then quickly asked me for advice. After that, the student implemented my advice during a dramatic situation. I started to feel very deeply the student’s vulnerability (as well as that of any young man or woman of the same age) and the uselessness of any advice that we as adults would be so proud to offer. But I also felt a deep involvement with this period of life when young people are bright and audacious, take risks and function at a very fast pace.

School Simulator. Photo: Alexandr Ignatovich

AP (Alexei Platunov): I’d like to add that this performance poses a theatrical paradox. It features a total immersion experience with game-design tools that utilize a high level of detail, an open world structure and diverse online activities, thereby fulfilling Stanislavsky’s dream much more effectively than could any classical costume drama. It also foregrounds the main agenda of modern theatre. We might ask ourselves what exactly its main purpose is. In my view, its purpose is to serve as the perfect instrument for creating the most credible second reality, or to function as a secret weapon to confront Guy Debord’s La société du spectacle.

Who are the creators of these performances?  And since some are professionally trained in theatre schools, why did they come here?

FV: Eligible participants can come from any professional background related to the performing arts, as long as they work with a Russian language text. The resulting production can take the form of a new staging made for local audience or an adaptation made in Russian. No translations are accepted.

YK: It was pleasantly surprising that The Access Point was able to attract rising stars of the theatre on the basis of its reputation, even without offering substantial honorariums. When directors propose their projects to us or accept our proposals, they are fully aware of better economic opportunities in the state theatres; in the Festival, however, directors have the unique experience of experimenting with non-theatre locations, involving the audience and so on. They are also provided with highly professional technical support and marketing strategies, and they can connect closely with an audience interested in such types of works. State conventional stages simply don’t produce this type of theatre.

With regard to the theatrical component of the festival performances, what are some examples of innovative dramaturgy, innovative directing art and innovative acting?

AP: I have seen that the new generation of artists is much more concerned with basic ethical principles and issues of social justice than with new theatrical forms. But even with that specific focus, there are some innovations worth mentioning. For example, the performance Playbook | Commonplace by P. Kardymon and E. Kulikova. It happens while you are reading a specially prepared book, which includes links to sounds and videos, google maps and some interaction too. That performance proves that the marginal genre of “playbook” (where your imagination is the main venue) can generate the same intellectual and emotional intensity experienced by the audience in more conventional Russian theatres.

There is also Kostya the Robot, a rare example of a post-anthropic performance which features non-human agents; in particular, robots and manipulators interpret Chekhov’s deeply humanistic play, The Seagull. And finally, School Simulator, discussed above, exemplifies the theatre of the future, where the open-world principle influences all of its components as a compound theatrical mechanism.

Kostya the Robot. Photo: Anastasia Usacheva

Could some of the ideas presented at the festival enrich conventional theatre, or somehow expand it with more participative practice?

FV. Conventional theatre has actually been enriched.

YK:  All of these innovative elements should be merged with the conventional theatre.  In discussions I’ve had with actors from so-called conventional theatres, I’ve understood that the most talented performers don’t want to be part of such airtight structures forever. I believe that all of us, both the theatre professionals and the audience, deserve a variety of experience. And while participatory practice can be a real challenge for actors, it can also be quite enriching.

The festival involved numerous locations, dozens of participants, special arrangements for involving audiences, and it lasted for three weeks, with several parallel events every day. What were the means of support? 

FV: The City Hall has supported the festival since it was founded in 2014. The Prokhorov foundation, Russia’s most sophisticated private foundation, has also supported the production of innovative material at the festival since 2017. For the two last years, we’ve been co-funded by the Presidential Grants Foundation. The Theatre Union of Russia helps us with grant monies and thereby assigns us a recognized status. And through our interactions with international organizations, institutions such as Pro Helvetia, the Goethe Institut and Institut Français have become our partners. Another important circle of supporters includes the venues, which very kindly offer their premises to us without charging any fees.

Is our Access Point similar to any other festivals in the world, or does it have its own unique features?

YK: I see some parallels in approaches and ambitions with the Latvian Festival “Homo Novus,” where most of the events are site-specific and created especially for the Festival.

FV: The idea for Access Point was inspired by the Manifesta event of 2012, hosted by St. Petersburg, which offered a Pandora’s box of public art. Our approach has been shaped by the Ruhr Triennale as far as both aim to utilize the landscape and discover its beauty. The particular artists who embrace site-specific theatre in Russia are mostly independent, so forums such as Impulse in Germany, for example, are an important point of reference for us. 

AP:  As it fulfills the requirements of most modern European site-specific festivals, Access Point also endeavors not only to support and promote the independent theatre of St. Petersburg but also to promote its underground theatre movement, even when that movement itself has lost its momentum.

Apart from the artistic vision that motivated these special events, did any of the performances address key sociopolitical issues?  Were any of the performances concerned with current social issues?

YK: The exhibition Party Songs (TRAAVIK.INFO), by Norwegian director, artist and writer Morten Traavik, was surely a socially significant project. Key components were photographs of a rock concert, organized by Traavik in North Korea, which featured the rock group Laibach, the documentary movie Liberation Day and a presentation of Traavik’s book, A Traitor’s Guide to North Korea. Of course, North Korean political realities resonate strongly with recent historical events in Russia; however, while the parallels are interesting, they are not always straightforward.

FV: The participants of the festival this year did not pay enough attention to the peculiarities of the environment in which they performed and to the rules that it set. In some cases, the participants even tried to question these rules. And that made things dangerous. This is not to blame the environment where the performance took place. The environment became “monstrously” sensitive and sometimes aggressive when art intruded.

After you made the selection of the projects, were there any unexpected developments that surprised you?

YK: I was pleased with the quality of the laboratory held in Ivangorod, a small town that borders with Estonia. Although Ivangorod is known for its innovative spirit, participants in the performances were surprised to see how extensively the city could be temporally transformed. During his first meeting with the laboratory participants, the artistic director, Gian Maria Tosatti, asked everyone in attendance to write letters to their relatives as if they were all living fifty years ago. It quickly became clear that the usual roles and skills do not work here, everything is completely unpredictable.

Laboratory of Borders. Photo: Polina Nazarova

The final performance of the laboratory lasted eight hours. Seven settings created by the teams were lined up along a route according to a highly original temporal arrangement: very different episodes, as if by chance, were united through the articulation of a timeless gap. This falling out of time, conveyed by various means, expressed the quintessential atmosphere of Ivangorod: the fragility of spatio-temporal categories, embodied in installations and performances, made it possible to conceptualize the city as a dystopic community in action, suggesting the fears and anxieties which many of us experience nowadays, in various contemporary sociopolitical settings. The laboratory participants worked well collaboratively in the most unlikely team structures, and for many of them the experience was truly unique, not only strategically but also artistically, in the sense that performances were enacted in physical spaces with great expressive capacity to guide those performers who were open to its effects. The minimal use of props was intentional and low key, thus allowing each of the locations to express its own identity and the participants to perceive its essence. The laboratory in Ivangorod turned out to be exactly about this—the ability to perceive.

The Runners. Photo: Polina Nazarova

Is there something that you would like to avoid in the next festival?

YK: This year we had to cancel all parties and all public discussions because of the COVID pandemic. The absence of spontaneous communication among participants made it very clear to us that such meetings are crucial to the festival structure, and we all felt this absence. I also think we could do just as well with a smaller program of events: in fact, it sometimes seemed as if there were too many events this year. But the main challenge we face is reckoning with political censorship that we always feel and that inevitably defines us as an institution. We already know that there are topics, words, names and events that we simply can’t mention, and the amount of censored material is increasing all the time.

FV: The time to decide if the next Access Point will take place has not yet arrived. The will to create the festival is not enough: Access Point thrives on a dialogue between the city and the artists. We will endeavor to organize a new festival when we are certain that all relevant parties truly want to engage in such dialogue.

During the course of this interview, we did not mention the educational program that is organized in tandem with the festival performances. As part of the festival program, scholars are invited to give presentations on the theory and methodology of contemporary theatre in its broadest sense.  We hope that in future Access Point festivals we can offer a range of opportunities for large numbers of critics from around the world to meet in St. Petersburg, virtually and perhaps in person as well. 

*Nikolai Pesochinsky is Professor in the Department of Russian Theatre Studies of the Russian State Institute of Performing Arts, where he teaches history of Russian theatre, performance analysis, methodology and history of theatre research. He has published articles on Meyerhold (such as “Concept of Acting in the Theatre of Meyerhold,” “History of Meyerhold’s Methods,” “Meyerhold in Theatre Criticism,” and “Love to Three Oranges”), as well as articles on methods of theatre research and contemporary directing. Не edited and contributed to a textbook on theatre criticism. He was awarded a Fulbright Exchange scholarship and taught as Visiting Professor at Wesleyan University, Korea National University of Arts, Aarhus Universit, among others.  He is elected a member of the Executive Committee and of the The International Association of Theatre Critics.

Copyright © 2021 Nikolai Pesochinsky
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