Life after the presidential elections for Russia’s new writing theatres

A blog by Noah Birksted-Breen

“I’ve just got back from Russia, supported by a StepBeyond grant from the European Cultural Foundation – where I met with Elena Gremina, who many consider to be Russia’s foremost political playwright, most famous for her play One Hour Eighteen Minutes, a landmark documentary play about the death of whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in state custody, which Sputnik will be producing in November this year in London (see our Productions page).

In an email to me after the Presidential election in March 2012, Elena wrote (I’ve translated it): “random arrests by police has increased after the elections. It’s a good motivation to keep working – but it would be better without it”.

I was keen to speak to Elena about how the current protest movement, as well as the increasingly oppressive laws being passed at the moment, affect herself and other playwrights. On the positive side, she reassured me that most emerging playwrights are more or less insulated from political influence because they’ve had to fend for themselves from the start. Her own theatre, teatr.doc, which she co-founded with her husband theatre director Mikhail Ugarov in 2002, has only ever worked on modest private funds.

The real difference now, she told me, is that for the first time the theatre community has been irreparably divided – into those who will vocally support Putin and those who are taking a stand against him, and she felt a strong sense of intentional ‘divide and rule’ about it. She mentioned that some very extreme and violent language, from normally rational playwrights, has been circulating in the social media networks.

Since 1991, Russia’s new writing scene has never been monolithic – there are always artistic and aesthetic differences, I’ve witnessed shouting matches between playwrights in post-show discussions and iconic playwrights dismissing key theatres in the new writing scene as ‘dried up’ – but the size of it, and its sense of mission, has generally given this fragile part of Russia’s theatre ecosystem a sense of unity of purpose.

New playwriting in Russia is not a given, not an integral part of the mainstream, in the way we take for granted in the UK. There aren’t large or even medium-sized theatres dedicated to supporting emerging playwrights. New writing tends to make main stages as an exception to the rule – classics, adaptations and auteur-led devising is the mainstay of Russian theatre, not new playwriting, despite Russia’s great tradition of it in the past.

So, what will this black-and-white dividing line mean for the studio theatres committed to new playwriting? Can a mutually supportive network of new writing studio theatres position itself as a significant force in Russian theatre as a whole, gaining acceptance for their work, parachuting new playwrights into larger venues as a matter of course, and laying the groundwork for new talents to be discovered? There’s no clear answer to these questions – and these seem to be the worries hanging above those who have spent their time, talent and sometimes personal incomes in painstakingly building up a new playwriting infrastructure not only in Moscow but other cities across Russia, too. As an outsider, I find myself wondering: will Russia develop a new generation of playwrights whose talent is of international significance, or will it abandon emerging playwrights for another few decades? The theatres which have survived so far won’t falter now. But the prospect for Russia’s emerging talent is much bleaker with a community divided.”

London, July 2012

Many thanks to the trip’s sponsor:

  • About Us

    Sputnik is a British theatre company dedicated to sourcing, translating and producing new Russian drama for British audiences.

    There are several strands to Sputnik's work including:
    - producing new Russian plays in the UK
    - programming and organising the Russian Theatre Festival in London
    - developing Russian playwriting through commissions and exchanges
    - outreach work bringing drama to disadvantaged young people
    - cultural events with Russian literature and music

    Why Russia?
    Russia has a history of theatrical innovation. Russian playwrights have played a significant role in shaping modern European theatre.

    Contemporary playwriting in Russia has been going through an important and innovative period since 1991 with a prolific output by predominantly young dramatists.

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