This Thursday was a day of deep contemplation for anyone involved in Russian theatre. We lay playwright, director and teacher Mikhail Ugarov to rest. Misha, who died of heart problems four days earlier, was 62, a too-young escapee from the increasingly harsh realities of life in Russia.
Along with hundreds of friends and colleagues, my wife and I went from the morning church service to the civil service, burial at Troekurovsky Cemetery and a memorial dinner at Teatr.doc, the tiny but internationally-renowned theatre founded by Ugarov and his wife Yelena Gremina. In all, it was 12 hours of standing, weeping, laughing, waiting and thinking. Increasingly, my thoughts took me back 17 years to a brief, seemingly chance conversation I have never forgotten.
It was mid-December 2001, and a press conference announcing the coming year’s Golden Mask award nominees had just ended at the Marriott Hotel in the centre of Moscow. I stuffed my things in my briefcase and prepared to leave. Then I saw two figures walking toward me. There was nothing surprising in that, they were two longtime friends, the wife and husband playwright team of Gremina and Ugarov. Why wouldn’t they come say hello? But there was something different this time, and I recognised it immediately. They were coming at me with purpose. Misha especially.
Misha immediately launched into a spiel that felt prepared. Actors on Russian stages cannot speak in real Russian because playwrights invariably employ an artificial language that has long not existed in daily life, he told me. It’s all literature and lace, not natural speech. If theatre and drama are going to continue to have meaning, we must get rid of the perfume in our plays. Our goal, Ugarov continued as Gremina stood beside him, was to bring real, contemporary, spoken Russian to the stage.
The conversation struck me as incredibly strange. It was prefaced with barely a cursory “Hello,” and Ugarov rattled off his thoughts as though running through the outline of a speech in his head. I was fascinated and got his point. But this isn’t the way casual conversations happen. It felt much bigger than that.
The “A-ha!” moment was not long in coming. In February 2002, a small group of writers led by Gremina and Ugarov, joined by Olga Mikhailova and Maksym Kurochkin, announced the opening of a new theatre. It had the somewhat jarring, even confusing, name of Teatr.doc. How do you actually say this when speaking? Teatr-tochka-doc (theater-dot-doc in English), or just Teatr-doc (theater-doc)? People fumbled with it for a while, but before long it was just Doc. That was more than enough to identify the phenomenon. And what a phenomenon it became.
Ugarov and his compatriots at Doc sought to introduce a whole new manner of acting. The theatre took as its slogan, “the theatre where no one performs,” or, “the theatre where no one acts”
Someday, Ugarov’s biography will be written. He packed an enormous number of accomplishments into his life and many of them changed Russian culture forever. The founding of Teatr.doc was, of course, the most famous. But he was also a teacher, director and playwright. His dozen or so plays are among the most beautiful to be written in Russian in recent decades. Several of his productions as a director were landmarks of their time — the first being Oblom-Off, an adaptation of Ivan Goncharov’s great 19th-century novel Oblomov, which premiered in 2000.
His impact as a teacher of writing, acting, directing and film-making was also enormous, and many of his students are making significant impacts in their chosen fields. The depth of feeling he inspired in people was revealed earlier this week when an appeal from Teatr.doc for funds for his funeral raised almost a million rubles in under 24 hours. Whether Ugarov liked it or not, he is recognised as the father of a new drama movement, a far-reaching trend with the declared purpose of nothing less than the reformation of Russian theatre. As a leader, with Gremina, of the increasingly important Lubimovka Young Russian Playwrights Festival, he helped give birth to hundreds of new writers.
But it will be up to Ugarov’s biographer to tell those stories. I want to look more closely at Teatr.doc, which I saw spring from Ugarov’s head as an almost fully formed idea one winter’s day.
Teatr.doc was not the first playwrights theatre in Russia. It was preceded by an influential little place called the Playwright and Director Centre. But Doc was different right from the beginning. Its name telegraphed its purpose — it intended to focus on documentary work as the basis for a new kind of theatre. This also meant that the theatre’s work would be socially-oriented. In time it would become political, which, of course, would bring problems with the Russian authorities.
Ugarov and Gremina sent young writers out into the field, rather like the Narodniki, the Russian populists, did in the late 19th century. Suddenly, in a major city dominated for decades by Chekhov, Ostrovsky and Shakespeare, a whole array of plays about miners, mothers in prison, factory workers, homeless people, and alienated teenagers began to appear. Traditionalists were horrified. Miners and prisoners don’t speak a gentile form of Russian, and many believed that only gentile Russian should be spoken on stage.
Moreover, Ugarov and his compatriots at Doc sought to introduce a whole new manner of acting. The theatre took as its slogan, “the theatre where no one performs,” or, “the theatre where no one acts.” Doc, fuelled by Ugarov’s vision, believed in documentary veracity, both in language and in stage presence. While this brash attitude infuriated the more conservative members of the Russian theatre community, it attracted young people in droves. It also had an effect on Russia’s established theatres. We began seeing “documentary” plays staged in places that previously would never have done anything of the sort.
Ugarov and Gremina sent young writers out into the field, rather like the Narodniki, the Russian populists, did in the late 19th century
Teatr.doc was located in a small basement near Pushkin Square and, at first, the stated capacity was just 50. That became 70, then whatever number could be squeezed in. I once witnessed a reading of a new play attended by 138 people, plus three more peering in through a window from outside. Spectators — young and old — came to Doc because, regardless of the specific success or failure of any given production, one could always expect an honest, unvarnished look at the world. Doc was a breath of fresh air. It was a place where sincerity reigned.
The socially-oriented productions of the early years morphed into openly political productions as the Putin era advanced. One of Doc’s most famous productions, One Hour, Eighteen Minutes, took on the murder in prison of the muckraking attorney Sergei Magnitsky. It was written by Gremina and staged by Ugarov in 2010, just six months after Magnitsky’s death. By now, Doc was an international phenomenon. Theatre pilgrims from all over the world came to touch the walls, join the crowds, see the productions, and to meet Ugarov and Gremina. The pair were invited to share their work and ideas at festivals, seminars and symposiums all over the world. They were championed not only as innovators, but as important political activists.
All of this, ultimately, could not fail to attract the attention of the authorities. The Moscow city government drove Doc out of their famed basement space near Pushkin Square in late 2014. Doc defiantly reopened six weeks later in another space. Five months later, in the summer of 2015, on the basis of a production about the protestors jailed after demonstrations on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Sqaure that turned violent on May 6, 2012, the authorities drove them out of their second home. This time, Gremina and Ugarov reopened Teatr.doc just one week later.
At Ugarov’s funeral, different thoughts were shared about Doc’s future. They ran from one extreme to another: “Doc is dead without Ugarov,” and “Ugarov’s legacy must be continued.” Time will tell what the history of Teatr.doc will be after the death of Ugarov. But the history of Ugarov and Doc from 2002 to 2018 is already written. It changed Russian theatre.