It was a sight to make a stage manager hyperventilate. A line of actors—half naked, covered in mud—stood straight, opened books in their hand. One by one, the inside of each book was set on fire—what looked and sounded like real fire. They stood there for a few minutes, letting the books burn in their hands.
This was Act II of Kafka, a hallucinatory three-hour look at the life of the author, directed and designed by Russian auteur Kirill Serebrennikov from a script by Valery Pecheikin. The torched books referenced Franz Kafka’s having burned about 90 percent of his own work, and upon his death telling his friends to burn the rest. As Kafka’s books burned, the show’s Kafka lay dying, and two chorus girls with blue marabou feather headdresses mournfully sang “Tennessee Waltz.”
What do a Prague novelist and American country music have in common? I cannot tell you. But I can report that the 400-member audience at Gogol Center in Moscow loved it; they gave the performance a standing ovation. “I would like to bring the world to purity, to truth,” the play’s Kafka says. If Kafka did that posthumously through his writing, in Russia the medium for truth seems to be the theatre.
It was my third day at the 2017 Golden Mask Festival in Moscow, to which companies from around the country bring work over a two-month period, building to a juried awards ceremony for the best of the fest at the end. The Golden Mask was established in 1994 as a way to celebrate all kinds of Russian live performance. This year, from Feb. 14 to April 19, the festival’s 23rd iteration presented 74 works, chosen by an “expert council” of artists and critics from among 614 productions in the 2015-16 season.
Nestled within the fest is the Russian Case, a program curated for international attendees. This showcase of selections from the larger festival features notable productions that curators believe put Russian theatre’s best feet forward (including some not part of the Golden Mask). In my five days there (March 30-April 4), I saw just eight productions of the 23, alongside other journalists, artists, and curators of international festivals. The Case has become such an institution that live translation via headsets for non-Russian speakers is now fairly standard (in the past, it was not universal).
The festival’s longevity is a testament to the strength of Russian theatre. As theatre critic and Russian Case co-curator Kristina Matvienko said via a translator in a panel discussion, “Theatre has started speaking to social, political issues. Theatre is no longer in the ivory tower.”
That fearlessness on the part of Russian theatre artists has led to an increase in audiences, including that most coveted of demographics: the under-40 set. One had only to look at the audience at Gogol Center, where I saw Kafka on a Saturday night. Walking into the center, I saw an exposed-brick interior with two bars hosting a mix of age groups: gray-haired folks, young men in skinny jeans, and young women in sundresses (I even spied a female couple holding hands).
The youngest crowd I saw was at Extempore. Gogol. Dead Souls (The Story of a Present), directed by the famed Dmitry Krymov. This absurdist take on the friendship between Pushkin and Gogol featured puppets and children’s toys. Grade-schoolers in the audience were giggling openly; in one memorable moment, three were brought onstage to jump on mini-trampolines. Had they even read their Gogol and Pushkin? Are Russian children more sophisticated than American children? Or are they, and their parents, just up for anything?
According to many Russian artists I spoke to, theatre in Russia has become a haven for intellectuals interested in edgier, more politically astute work, in comparison to the more “safe” medium of film, which is more subject to government regulation and oversight.
“Cinema is a thing that’s speaking to large audiences, and that way it is much more under control,” director Filipp Vulakh explained to me over wine. He runs St. Petersburg’s Access Point Festival, which presented a production of Brecht’s Refugee Conversations in a Moscow subway station. Because theatres serve smaller audiences, he said, “They’re a little out of governmental control. So that’s why it’s a little franker—a little more open-minded. This is really why it’s much more demanded by younger artists, who are really sensitive to those things.”
Just because theatre enjoys smaller audiences than film or television does not mean it is a fringe activity. In Russia, the artistic directors of theatres regularly appear on television news shows, theatre productions occupy the front page of the newspapers, and theatre critics are still influential. Directors like Krymov and Andrei Moguchy have found fame nationally and abroad. Krymov’s Opus No. 7 came to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in 2013, and Serebrennikov took his The Idiots to the Festival d’Avignon in 2015. (Note: I tend to cite directors because, while Russian theatres regularly produce classics by Chekhov or Ostrovsky, there is a notable dearth of living Russian playwrights, at least as represented in the Russian Case program—Kafka’s Pecheikin was the only exception. In Russia, it seems, the directors are the stars.)
And, even decades after the end of the Soviet Union, theatre continues to be funded by the government. John Freedman, the U.S.-born critic who covered Moscow for decades and has since written for London’s The Stage, estimates that Moscow has more than 170 theatres; approximately 100 of them are funded by Moscow’s Department of Culture, and 16 are supported by the federal Ministry of Culture (out of 160 theatres it funds nationwide). The remainder operate without state funding.
State funding, of course, comes with strings attached. In the past few years, the Ministry of Culture has started to turn its attention more to theatre, in response to the art form’s increasing popularity. As critic and Russian Case co-curator Alyona Karas said in a panel discussion, via a translator, this year the Ministry of Culture wanted to exert more influence over the programming of the Golden Mask; four representatives from the ministry were on the expert council.
“We had a lot of arguments,” admitted Karas, visibly chagrined. “The program of the festival was the result of terrible compromise.” She paused, then clarified through her translator: “Not terrible, but complicated.” That increasing pressure led two prominent directors, Serebrennikov and Konstantin Bogomolov, to refuse to participate in the Golden Mask (though both were represented in the Russian Case).
Karas conceded that this year’s lineup was more conservative than past years, with more shows selected for their patriotic tone.
Kafka’s Serebrennikov had a blunter assessment of representatives from the Ministry of Culture. “They’re assholes,” he told me via phone after the festival. “It’s too problematic to me—it’s better not to take part at all than to explain why.” As artistic director of Gogol Center, which is just four years old, he’s seen a decrease in government funding for their productions due to their increasingly overt political content. “We get only the minimum for what they give to the theatres,” Serebrennikov said. “Other theatres get 400 million rubles [about $7 million] for a year; we get 77, 78 million [about $1.4 million].”
That means they depend more than ever on ticket sales (and they sell out regularly), so providing free tickets to Golden Mask jurors was financially prohibitive. “They just take a lot of free seats, and we were losing a lot of money,” he explained. “It’s rather practical.”
So how do you create art in the face of censorship? First, Access Point’s Vulakh cautions me against using that word.
“I would not use this term,” he said. “We say we have no censorship in Russia.” But there is a line: In 2014 President Vladimir Putin signed legislation that issued a fine whenever a theatre production, film, piece of music, book, or blog contained profanity. That may be why, during The Field by Belarusian playwright Pavel Pryazhko (at Theatre of Nations, directed by up-and-comer Dmitri Volkostrelov), audiences laughed at what seemed like serious moments simply because the Russian words for “fucks” and “fucking” were liberally spoken onstage. The company didn’t mind paying the small fine for the transgression (nor did the producers of Kafka—there’s also a fine for onstage nudity). Shows are required to post an age rating.
What happens when a theatre crosses one of those lines? Look no further than Teatr.doc, an independent, non-state-sponsored company evicted from its longtime home in 2014. The space was owned by the city of Moscow, and the reasons for the ejection, given as “safety concerns,” were obvious: One show some years ago, BerlusPutin, analogized a shirtless Putin with the corrupt Italian prime minister, and the more recent Exit the Cabinet criticized gay conversion therapy—a no-no in a country that bans as “propaganda” any content that depicts LGBTQ lifestyles as normal. Teatr.doc didn’t present at this year’s fest.
“If you break the regulations, the instructions, you are at risk of cutting the funding,” explained Tamara Arapova, who oversees the Russian Case. “And they can do that, because there’s no objective law or principles of funding.” She added, not quite clarifying, “There are and there aren’t.”
Even under increased scrutiny, Russian artists are pushing boundaries. Kafka, for example, may seem innocuous, but when you’re a Russian who’s aware that the world press now regularly describes living there as “Kafkaesque,” just the show’s title makes a point. “Kafka forever!” exclaimed Serebrennikov. And everywhere: “I think the same in United States. Now you understand what we mean—you understand Kafka much better than before Trump’s election. Now you’re living in Kafka as well.” He laughed as I groaned.
It’s not as if a sense of political helplessness is new to Russians. On a Sunday afternoon I sat in a 99-seat black box at Theatre OKOLO for Magadan/Cabaret from director Yury Pogrebnichko, in which a cast of eight sang folk songs. They weren’t happy songs; they were primarily composed by prisoners in the Gulag—a chapter of Soviet history considered to have been a necessary evil by the current Russian government. Though ennui seemed to pervade the piece, a woman in the front row wept openly throughout. Those songs, and the collective trauma they evoke, clearly still resonate powerfully with Russian audiences. Magadan would go on to win the fest’s award for best small-scale production.
If that wasn’t pointed enough, one of the final shows I saw could be read as a roar against conservatism. Andrei Moguchy, artistic director of St. Petersburg’s Bolshoi Drama Theatre, staged his entry at the Maly Theatre, where the seats are plush red and the house lights are perched on gilded candelabras. The piece was an adaptation of Ostrovsky’s The Storm, about a young married woman named Katerina terrorized by a strict, religious mother-in-law. Katerina has an affair and commits suicide to avoid the shame.
Moguchy’s production, which won him the Golden Mask prize for best director, is stylized—with Kabuki elements and actors dressed like figures in a van Eyck painting. But its motivations were not muted: The Golden Mask website describes The Storm as “a concise reply to the Ministry of Culture concerned about the promotion of the Russian classics.” Classic or not, it could hardly escape notice that Ostrovsky’s play is a scathing critique of an overly conservative society. And in Moguchy’s take, it’s almost a jubilant one: When the protagonist drowns herself, she doesn’t so much dive into the river with a pitiful cry as happily dance and sing her way into the afterlife. Only through death is she free from the restraints placed upon her. The political implications were not subtle.
It’s a balancing act most Russian artists had to learn in the Soviet era, and increasingly must remaster: to make their point without attracting undesired government attention. They’re also pushing the form forward, incorporating more ensemble work and mounting shows in nontraditional spaces.
I would have loved to see more contemporary Russian playwriting and more women among the male-dominated auteurs (out of 23 works in the Russian Case, only one was helmed by a woman, Irina Kondrashova: Walk in the Dark, a two-person puppet show at the Cultural Centre Khitrovka, a small black box on the outskirts of Moscow). But most artists I spoke to were optimistic, which comes as a contrast to the “end is nigh” sentiment I hear from many U.S. theatre artists.
“A lot of people want to attend thea-tre, to watch performances, to be part of the theatre world, and it’s good news for us,” said Serebrennikov. “So I think Russia, it’s still the motherland of theatre.” Though government scrutiny tires him, he said the audience fuels him. “When people are asking me why I don’t go somewhere else to work, or why I’m still working in Russia, I say: Look at the audience of Gogol Center. It’s very difficult to get the same somewhere else.”