New Russian Drama: an interview with Graham Schmidt, an American theatre director

Interview with Graham Schmidt
By Aleena Karim, MA student at Birmingham University

AK: How would you define New Russian Drama in a single word?

GS: Fresh. I know that this term does not describe a specific theme or style, but as far as I can tell, there was no single theme or group of themes or unifying style that holds these plays together. New Russian Drama was, however, fresh relative to the plays that were being staged at the time. To have a group of young playwrights developing their own, independent style (separate from the large public stages in Russia), was a singular and vital event in the life of Russian theater, and the best commentators at the time described it in this way. Specifically, Yelena Gremina was interviewed on Russian television and used this particular descriptor. She knows as well as anybody else.

AK: Do you think that New Russian Drama is different from contemporary Russian drama?

GS: Yes. Contemporary Russian drama refers to any play that’s being written in the recent past. New Russian Drama refers to a specific group of playwrights and a specific series of events and festivals (most importantly, the New Russian Drama Festival that was attached to and an outgrowth of the Golden Mask Theater Festival in the early ’00’s). Just because a Russian play was written between 2000 and 2010 in Russia, does not mean that it’s part of New Russian Drama. John Freedman has done a lot of this research and was a major figure in disseminating New Russian Drama; he is the most important figure with whom you can be in touch, who is not a Russian playwright.

AK: What is your stance on the use of obscenity in new drama?

GS: Obscenity is often a feature of New Russian Drama because New Russian Drama was often a “verbatim” or “documentary” form of theater. These styles of theater were central because they were popular in Russia in the late 20th century at certain hubs of the New Russian Drama movement (particularly Theater.Doc). This style uses interviews with Russians that are assembled into scripts. Since such a style of theater reflects the way that people talk, and people often utilize obscenities in Russia, obscenity featured in the plays.

AK: What is most likely the societal percentage of acceptance for boldness encountered in new drama? How does a common Russian man react to portrayal of violence in every possible way?

GS: Violence in New Russian Drama can be bracing and difficult. For me, it’s less problematic per se, and more problematic when it is exploitative or abusive or directed on stage toward people who themselves are minorities. Sometimes the portrayal of violence, even when it is, according to the playwright or the playwright’s supporters, written from a critical perspective, can simply reinscribe the impulses that cause such violence in society. A perfect example is Yury Klavdiev’s Slow Sword, which hinges on the portrayal of a violent rape. There’s just no way to stage this scene that does not promote violence, or cause the audience to experience pleasure from viewing the violence. That’s not something that I could responsibly do, as a director

AK: What impact have you seen on society as a whole of depicting real life issues in drama?

GS: I don’t know enough about Russian society to be able to answer this question in detail, but I do have the sense that the circle of playwrights associated with New Russian Drama has helped form a subculture of theater-makers the critiques and provokes structures of power, which is a net positive for Russian society.

AK: What challenges does the Russian drama fraternity face for being daring like funding, publishing or staging issues? I also heard of Putin’s ban on foul language in literary genres…

GS: They face tremendous challenges. You have noted the smears that Russian playwrights have faced in the press; they have also been threatened with having their theaters closed down. Theater.Doc, the most influential of the “New Russian Drama” theaters, is currently fighting (unsuccessfully, it seems) an effort by the City of Moscow to shut down their theater space.

AK: Being a director yourself, how much do you think is problematic to get the actors perform linguistic and physical violence of NRD? I mean there are a number of linguistic delicacies involve too…

GS: Again, violence is not problematic per se, and some portrayals of violence are very beautiful. One of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had in a theater was at a production called Plasticine, directed by Kirril Serebrennikov, who portrayed a male-on-male rape as a sort of dance. It was shocking, disturbing, absolutely non-exploitative, absolutely affecting to me as an audience member. However, portrayals of violence that re-inscribe societal prejudices or chauvinism are impossible to justify, and thus impossible to convince actors to stage…everything depends on the reasoning behind the staging of violence. Actors are reasonable; they will do what they feel is right.

Aleena Karim is a student from Pakistan enrolled in MA Literature and Film at University of Birmingham. Her research interests include contemporary Russian drama, as well as ‘New Russian Drama’, and power hegemony in contemporary literature especially theatre and film. She completed a BA dissertation on the prevalent trends in New Russian Drama in the light of Michel Foucault’s Genealogy.

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    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
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    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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