The presence of the Russian Theatre in the blogosphere is colossal. It began ten years ago, and it is already impossible to understand how we lived without it. How did everything work without Facebook? Blogs are utilized by theatres and festivals, directors and actors, employees and managers, playwrights and critics, loving audience members and anonymous theatrical detractors. The after-show, a continuation of the evening’s performance, unfolds on Facebook from ten p.m. to one in the morning daily. Artists and audience swarm the web, all for the pride of being the first to post the latest news. Reposts climb into the hundreds. Communication is constant.
While the blogosphere might have turned out to be a solution to only the most immediate problems in Russian theatre, in fact it turned out to be a universal medicine for all the theatre’s ills at once. How did it all begin? Theatre activity in the blogosphere started immediately with the appearance of blogs, somewhere in 2003-2004–first with Livejournal, then on Facebook and Vkontakte (Russia’s version of Facebook, better designed for Russian users). And at this point it is impossible not to take a brief tour through history, to speak about the realities of Russian theatre in the 1990s, the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet regime.
Times were hard for Russian theatre. The theatre world was suffering from an economic collapse, and as a result theatres were drawn into the commercialization and “boulevardization” of their repertory; the big stars and the bright lights were used as a draw. The drain of intellectual audience members (in large part due to the abrupt impoverishment of the intelligentsia, a process which continues to this day) preceded the exchange of the traditional intelligentsia for “simpler” audiences without viewing experience. The theatre ceased to be a place of “influential thought,” a crucible of aesthetics, a place for discussion. And these changes were felt most strongly in the theatre’s relationship with their audiences. The 2000s (especially the second half) became years of a kind of re-conquest; of taking back that which had been confiscated, lost. But there were other changes that are of greater interest: in the 1990s, all the information and communication technology which successfully pollinated the colossal territory of the Russian government ceased to function, a territory with a population containing thousands of individuals with varying levels of theatrical education. Books and journals were no longer published, and even if they were, the method of distributing them was either in shambles or the theatres no longer had the ability to print them. In many cities (even more so, in several of the poorer theatres) the internet, simply put, did not exist. The number of exchange programs between cultural institutions that lost government funding and support dwindles to zero. For Russia, where travel time from city to city can take hours if not days (and for some theatres, travel options are limited to flights or travelling during the “cold season,” when the rivers freeze over), this becomes a colossal problem. This cultural insulation is not a joke, nor a myth. Moreover, the ties that bound the former Soviet Socialist Republics together instantly dried up–today, it is difficult for Europeans to even imagine the degree to which theatre in Central Asia is insulated, isolated from the rest of the world. Equally difficult to imagine is the striking contrast in the overall situation when compared to Soviet times.
All of this was felt hardest by contemporary playwrights–plays were simply no longer physically distributed, they ceased to make their way into theatres or to be published. In a word, by the end of the 1990s, Russian theatre had fallen into a total communication abyss, getting out of which became one of the main challenges and missions of the next theatre generation.
Of course, it was the internet that closed that fateful gap. The internet gave theatre a fantastic, (and more importantly) free technology that allowed it to conquer the problems of geographic isolation, and the very real lack of any consolidated processes. The first to cry out about the need for change in Russia were the playwrights; those who had suddenly become inaccessible, losing their contact with living theatres. At that point, the theatres, in the midst of the difficult realities of the post-soviet years, had turned away from the problems of the present, losing the need for a modern “hero of the day” to take the stage; on one hand, the theatres embraced the boulevards (and bright lights), and on the other took a more nostalgic tone. In the mid 1990s, a new movement appeared in Russia, gaining more and more momentum with each passing year; the “New Drama” movement, which the playwrights themselves had embarked upon, trying to attract the attention of theatres and directors to their new texts, to a strange new aesthetic of young creativity. The first to start working in the blogosphere were the New Dramatists, who understood the colossal influence of their new resource. Through their individual blogs, and later through their very own Livejournal communities “New Drama and New Theatre,” a quick exchange of ideas and news was facilitated, and a wealth of information about new premieres and theatre festivals across Russia and beyond was accumulated. Here, playwrights found their directors, and actors their plays; theatres made their way into festivals by using the community, new names of new theatre critics blossomed, their contact information readily accessible. But, first and foremost, the blogosphere became a global medium for the distribution of plays and information about new texts. The playwriting competitions at that time (“Eurasia,” “Lyubimovka,” “Free Theatre,” “Premiere.txt,” among others) tried to bring order to the process and used their own system of selection to choose plays from the blogosphere. The question “Where can I find a new play?” received a new and definitive answer: online. At the very least the short-lists of the winners of all the competitions were read by a majority of theatres interested in new drama.
It is also worth noting that the blogosphere sparked a significant amount of private initiative in the realm of theatre. Taking into account the fact that it united entire communities of volunteers into doing pro bono work while at the same time proving incredibly influential, the internet succeeded in bringing a number of people together to do free community work. The dramaturgical movement in the first ten years of its existence was a completely private initiative; people were interested in communicating, making friends, chatting, planning events together, the common goal of which was finding a way to unite modern plays with the theatre. The ultimate triumph of this private theatre initiative was the creation of an entirely private project–The Sergey Yefimov Theatre Library. Today, it is an independent website with four terabytes of plays, separated into different criteria, complete with an effective search engine and a news ticker. It is a library which is free to use for all interested parties and for whom it is professionally necessary. As a rule, it is the main source from which today’s theatre repertories are filled. In Russia (no matter how horrible it may sound to Western literary agents), dramatic plays are distributed easily over the internet, move around quite a bit, and unfortunately are rarely published. And so this library was created (and I cannot stress this enough!) by an actor/fan from the folk-theatre, Under the Smoke Stack, in the city of Chelyabinsk. Sergey Yefimov personally paid for the web-hosting of this new resource, constructed the site himself, and filled it with plays–everything that thousands of theatres have been using in the post-soviet landscape. As it turned out, this was a feat not a single public or state organization dedicated to consolidating theatre life in Russia was able to accomplish: neither the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, nor the Union of Theatre Workers.
The blogosphere also heavily influenced the profession of the theatre critics, placing in their hands a new instrument with new possibilities for contacting their readers. The economic problems affected everything, including the more traditional mass media: most publications dedicated solely to theatre disappeared, the boundaries of culture in Federal mass media were drastically cut, and many cultural publications during the course of the 2000s were abruptly corrected to begin taking a safer, anti-liberal position, sharply constraining the breadth of their content. In response to this decapitation of professional theatre criticism and publication, the answer was, once again, the blogosphere. In the blogosphere, reactions to theatrical events are published with less responsibility than one would find in a print magazine. The exchange of information is faster. In the blogosphere, there is no limit to the volume of articles one can publish. Here, one can receive feedback on an article, correct mistakes and misunderstandings. All mass media outlets that have a blogosphere presence and, of course, all internet media fervently use this resource for information exchange, varying degrees of open discussion, and intellectual content.
A playwright once said “I can’t read magazines–it’s all yesterday’s news.” This aphorism perfectly highlights the difference between traditional print media and the theatre blogosphere. Printed articles remain thought through and carefully analyzed. The blogosphere, in contrast, is more informative with elements of analysis. And the question of “why do we even need critics?” is indeed often posed when you take into account the fact that publishing an article online will yield more feedback for the critic than the paper version of their review. And it should be noted that a sense of necessity to the public, desirability, and usefulness is also incredibly important to us in our profession, although not always obvious. But what else is important about the Russian theatre blogosphere? It represents the destruction of the typical hierarchy of theatres, cities, and regions. We still live in either a soviet or byzantine tradition of hierarchy and subordination. No matter how one tries, how much fame one achieves, or how far into the depths one falls there are still theatres, cities, and territories which will dominate the system regardless. Russia is a country that suffers greatly from center-leaning tendencies, from centrism and the model of cultural hierarchy. In this sense, the blogosphere is a new democracy, where events and news are set on an even playing field, where the rights of all are equalized according to what is interesting today. In the blogosphere, news from regional theatres might become today’s informative discussion about important current events, even though not a single state mass media outlet will carry the story; you won’t read it in the news, won’t hear about it on the television. Here, everyone has a chance to be heard, to accumulate an enormous number of “likes.” For a provincial theatre, this represents an incredible chance to stand toe to toe with the theatres of the capital, at least on a virtual level. This becomes especially important at a time when it is incredibly difficult to publish news about life in the regional theatres in federal and state publications which are always more focused on the West than the Esast. Thanks to blogs, a new generation of young critics has been developed; in the blog world, small, basement theatres can be more important and meaningful than the Bolshoi or the Moscow Art Theatre. For Russia, this is an unprecedented possibility, demolishing our stereotypes. For Russia, it is a gift from the heavens.
In general we should also mention the fact that the new theatre generation of today is the Facebook generation, the generation of bloggers. Directors, actors, and critics have all been raised in an atmosphere of openness (along with taking responsibility for your words) and the possibility of instantaneous reaction (not always pleasant). They are accustomed to public discussion of their creativity and are not afraid to be unjustly ridiculed. The blogosphere is one more place where the theatres can meet their audiences (Russian theatre is often accused of being antisocial, unwilling to communicate with their audiences, yet another problem), and only the most closed, the most isolated of theatres see evil in the blogosphere. Open-minded theatres are, on the contrary, ready to use this resource: the blogosphere has given every audience member the instrument of the critics–the ability to express their views. This method of communication has clearly shown us that the audience is not made up of idiots (as it is often convenient to assume), and widens the dialogue about theatre. The blogosphere in Russia is incredibly polarized; in the situation of a media crisis where all the state mass media news outlets quickly lost their independence, the blogs have become a kind of “mega-journal” where it is possible to learn about what is happening throughout the country without Putin’s propaganda filters. And it is this unique combination that has returned social importance to the theatre, the voice of the public. Different interpretations of reality are taken from the blogosphere, artistically adapted into contemporary drama. In the blogs, the theatre has once again become an instigator of social discussion, something that has been absent from the theatre world since Gorbachev’s perestroika.
The theatrical blogosphere works on a principle of self-renewal; it constantly refills itself with new content. This is a blessing, but also occasionally a suspicious benefactor. Important news is blurted out without being vetted. Fake Facebook profiles emerge, imitators, disinformation. Enlivened by debate, people of the theatre take their arguments into the virtual world. Anonymous trolling occurs, along with primitive boorishness and snitching. Theatre scandals become “internet-icized,” but in many ways this last point is a blessing, as the blogosphere continues to hold real power. One incident in particular comes to mind, supported by and large by the internet, when the people of the Russian theatre world banded together and were able to remove the rector of a Russian theatre institute who had been appointed by a thoughtless order from the Ministry of Culture and set to run the largest theatre school of the country. Blogs have become immensely powerful, an alternative to the government–a power not supported by the state.
 Pavel Rudnev Theatre critic, theatre producer Born in 1976. Graduated from Russian Academy of Theatre Arts in 1998 as a theatre reseacher and critic. From 2005 to 2011 artistic director of Moscow Meyerhold Center, the first open venue in Russia. Now he is working for Moscow Art Theatre and Moscow Art Theatre School as a special project director. From 1995 published more than 1000 articles on contemporary theatre and drama. Specialized in new Russian and world writing. From 2003 he gave courses of theatre critics in Russian Academy of Theatre Arts, also used to hold seminars on contemporary theatre and drama.
Copyright © 2014 Pavel Rudnev
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