Mikhail Ugarov shows his audience a cartoon of a rat in a hat eating a wedge of cheese. Speaking in understated tones, he recounts how the framed illustration before us had been salvaged from the wallpaper of his theatre’s previous home on Tryokhprudny pereulok. It was a tradition there, we learn, for actors to place their palm on the image before stepping out onto the stage. “It’s like the seagull!”, shouts one audience member, referring to the iconic Moscow Art Theatre logo. “Sure”, the artistic director responded, “Let it be our seagull.”
On 14 February 2015, Moscow’s leading documentary theatre collective celebrated its 13th anniversary by throwing open the doors to its new performance venue. Teatr.doc, or simply “Doc” as it is known to those who frequent it, has been recognised internationally as one of Russia’s most prolific, innovative, and socially engaged theatre companies. With over 200 people in attendance the night of the opening, the newly renovated, open-plan theatre is filled to capacity with the support of friends, followers, and documentary theatre devotees.
In its short, 15-year history, documentary theatre has come to the forefront of Russia’s theatre avant-garde. Since the early 2000s, more and more young Russian theatre artists have taken to drawing on real-life material in order to explore the intricacies of their everyday experiences onstage. “Documentary theatre” is used as an umbrella term to describe different types of plays that make an explicit claim to being rooted in factual material. Such plays often incorporate verbatim interviews, historical documents, or autobiographical narratives and address topics as varied as romance, family, history, and current events.
What follows Ugarov’s auspicious introduction is a variety show of sorts. Actor Alexei Yudnikov acts as master of ceremonies in a hardhat and overalls, a reference to the extensive renovations undertaken in the new space in preparation for the opening. His comic interludes introduce previews of new plays set to premiere in the coming season, as well as vignettes written specifically for the event.
The mood is celebratory and warm. With the exception of the rat talisman, a remnant of the theatre’s former home, the evening’s festivities contain only hints at the adverse circumstances that preceded the company’s move across town.
It was last October when Teatr.doc co-founder and director Elena Gremina announced on her Facebook wall that, after 12 years of tenancy at their makeshift basement black-box theatre in the centre of town, the theatre’s lease had been unexpectedly and unilaterally terminated by the city’s Department of Property. The days following Gremina’s online post saw a torrent of responses from both the public and the press. Many people were convinced that the decision to terminate the theatre’s lease was a conscious attempt on the part of city officials to silence the work of Russia’s most politically active theatre artists.
Admittedly, there are controversial productions in Teatr.doc’s current repertoire. Among them are One Hour, Eighteen, an imagined trial of the prison and medical staff involved in the final days before the death of attorney Sergei Magnitsky, and Two In Your Home, a play depicting the house arrest of Belarusian poet and activist Vladimir Neklyaev. Despite the political nature of some of Teatr.doc’s shows, however, one had to wonder: what kind of threat to the authorities could this underground theatre company housed in a tiny Moscow basement really be said to pose?
The final event officially scheduled at the soon to be vacated Teatr.doc was a screening of the Ukrainian documentary film Stronger Than Arms, on 30 December. There were fewer than two dozen audience members in attendance at the event which was held, in part, as a fundraiser for the imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov. Almost as soon as the video started rolling, voices were heard in the hall and a team of police officers entered the room accompanied by an NTV news team.
The officers claimed there had been a bomb threat in the building but proceeded to check all audience members’ passports before evacuating the theatre. Next, several representatives from the Ministry of Culture arrived ostensibly to determine whether the film was in violation of anti-extremism laws. While the bomb squad “searched for explosives” backstage (damaging the theatre’s property in the process), the Ministry of Culture reps watched the full documentary on the screen in the theatre.
Through their theatrical practice, the artists at Teatr.doc have built a community of people who wish to think critically about their society and about themselves. If the work at Teatr.doc can be said to chip away at any element of the country’s current culture of propaganda, nationalism, or apathy, it is not merely the contentious subject matter of the productions onstage that poses the real threat. It is additionally the experience of civic engagement that lends the work at Teatr.doc its unique potency in the contemporary Russian context.
As Teatr.doc playwright and director Talgat Batalov wrote in the week after the theatre’s lease was first terminated, “What do they think, Teatr.doc is just a building? Not to be sentimental, but Teatr.doc is people, it’s an incredible community.” Batalov’s words certainly rang true the night of the opening as enthusiastic cheers of “S novim dokom!” (Happy New Doc!) closed out the evening’s festivities.
With over ten premieres planned for the coming season, Teatr.doc’s artists continue their innovative and groundbreaking work with as much energy and resolve as ever. On the night of the opening, it seems to me that Moscow has grown emptier. The streets outside the theatre are quiet and the mood around town is dark. Fortunately for Muscovites, however, the lights are on at 3 Spartakovskaya street and Teatr.doc’s doors remain open.