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Life’s a stage: exploring documentary theatre’s role in the new east

Life’s a stage: exploring documentary theatre’s role in the new east

Since the turn of the millennium, documentary theatre has been on the rise across east Europe. As London prepares to host productions from Russia, Bulgaria, and Ukraine, we ask how this intensely personal and sharply political art form speaks to life in the post-communist world

5 October 2015

“It was all over dumplings,” Olesya Khromeychuk begins. Her co-performers laugh. “It’s true,” Jaroslav Hrustalenko responds. “I was queuing after her for food at the Ukranian Club— she was taking thirteen portions — and we started chatting. She said there was this theatre group and I asked if I could come. She said sure.” “I thought he would never come,” Olesya admits. Clearly everyone is glad that Jaroslav did take her up on the offer.

I’m in a small hall in the Ukrainian Institute in west London, watching the actors of the Molodyi Teatr (Young Theatre) prepare for the upcoming performance of their show Bloody East Europeans as part of the Peripheral Visions series at London’s GRAD Gallery. As they act out their knockabout tale of life amongst London’s east European communities, they sing and dance, argue among themselves and place paper bags over their heads. The jokes flow freely, poking fun at the characters’ “unpronounceable” names and predilection for vodka. Yet at several points the mood darkens as the narrative turns to issues such as sex trafficking and police racism. I ask Uilleam Blacker, the show’s writer and a lecturer in Russian and East European Studies at University College London, about striking a balance between wit and woe. “That’s the reality,” he says, gesturing to his assembled co-stars. “It comes up a lot when you guys talk about your experiences. Really funny and absurd things happen, but people do have bad experiences.”

Lesya Liskevych, one of the Ukrainian cast, agrees. “It’s us. That’s who we are. We’re immigrants from east Europe. This feels like actually telling a story about yourself even when it’s not your experience.” Olesya, the show’s director, explains how she contributed stories that she’d heard while working for five years at an organisation that helped refugees. The desire to share these stories — as well as the friendships formed over dumplings — has fed into Bloody East Europeans. These principles of truthfulness, openness and community are at the heart of documentary theatre. The term refers to productions that use documentary material — such as interviews, memoirs, news reports — as the basis for its script, whether in the service of fiction or a kind of theatrical reportage. It’s an art form that has gained a particular prevalence in the new east in recent years.

Peripheral Visions is a series of performances by ensembles taking place at the GRAD Gallery in London in October and November of this year. Alongside Bloody East Europeans (9 October), the gallery will host Moscow-based artist Talgat Batalov’s one-man show Uzbek (23 October) and Bulgarian group Theatre Replika and their piece We Are the Rubbish from Eastern Europe (12-13 November). Organised by Molly Flynn, an academic and actor who has herself worked with Batalov in Moscow on the show The Burden of Silence, and centred around the unifying theme of migration and immigrant experience, the series showcases the young talent drawn to this sometimes brutally honest form of theatre.

Much of this current interest can be traced back to a series of workshops run by delegates of London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1999 in Moscow. This initial exposure led to the foundation of Teatr.doc, Russia’s first and most celebrated documentary theatre company, and an influence across the region. The company has forged a reputation for controversial political work, such as One Hour Eighteen (first released in 2010 and revised in 2012), which features testimonies relating to the death in custody of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, and has chaired workshops in provincial cities such as Krasnoyarsk and Krasnodar. Away from this hard-hitting material, shows about everyday life and romantic catastrophe have proved equally popular: for instance, Office Fuckery, a regular series on the sordid and banal lives of white-collar workers.

While a worsening climate in terms of media freedoms and funding in the last two years has seen the closure of several Moscow venues for documentary theatre, including a programme at the human rights-focused Sakharov Foundation, Flynn claims that the movement is picking up in other countries. Replika and fellow documentary theatre advocates Vox Populi have received critical acclaim for their work in Bulgaria, while a new centre for documentary theatre is set to open in Kiev this year under the guidance of German director George Genoux and Ukrainian playwright Natalia Vorozhbit.

I ask Flynn how much the rise of documentary theatre in Russia, which has coincided exactly with the rule of Vladimir Putin, can be attributed to the country’s political situation. “Documentary theatre does provide something in Russia that it doesn’t necessarily provide here, where there is more freedom of speech. I think some of its vivacity has grown from that.” More than that, she claims, it addressed the personal sensation of historical change common to east European, post-communist societies. “The form speaks to anxieties around how historical narratives are revised and represented. What it does is attribute agency to individuals’ stories over the kind of macro-narratives and official discourse that get altered according to political needs.” In a country like Russia, where the corruption and altering of documents — in particular identity documents, an issue which Uzbek explores with mordant wit — holds such cultural significance, documentary theatre has a special role to play.

When I speak to Milko Iovchev, Irina Andreeva and Blagoi Boichev of Theatre Replika about their approach to documentary theatre and its place in Bulgarian culture, they agree with Flynn’s assessment. For them, too, the importance of “true stories” is heightened by the difficult legacy of the communist past. “There is corruption in all these [post-communist] countries, low public awareness, poverty. But the focus is different in different countries,” Milko says. Irina agrees: “There is a lot of space and material to make documentary theatre and films, because there are a lot of problems, a lot of things that you can confront. There are social paradoxes at every corner.”

The historical similarities and localised differences between nations such as Russia, Ukraine and Bulgaria have given rise to shows that trade in the same broad themes while varying greatly in form. Talgat Batalov describes Uzbek as a kind of stand-up comedy; Bloody East Europeans borrows from vaudeville musicals; while We Are the Rubbish from Eastern Europe is darker, more nakedly emotional. Directed by George Genoux and supported by the Bulgarian Goethe Institute, the show is a combination of two projects. The first, Rubbish, depicts the lives of people who live off of garbage on the streets of Sofia, the second, Exodus, tells the stories of Bulgarians who are on the verge of or who have already left the country. The actors reproduce the sense of desperation of ordinary people who feel abandoned or rejected, their faces lit onstage by harsh spotlights as they laugh, cry and scream. “I was so blown away by the performances and by how present, honest and genuine their delivery of their stories was,” says Molly Flynn. “It’s a kind of performance that I’ve never seen in the UK or the US.”

Replika’s aim is to “test and provoke”. “It’s important for people to be more connected with reality,” Irina says. Milko continues: “It’s very important that people feel that there is someone in front of them who’s not playing [a role], who’s very honest with them. Then they feel like they can be very honest also. It’s complicated in Bulgaria — there are so many social issues and people are so used to them that they don’t even mention them anymore. When they see seven young actors who speak in the way we do, they also feel more confident that they could do something with their lives.”

A commitment to the importance and integrity of individuals’ stories also underpins the musical comedy of Bloody East Europeans. “There are lots of stories about east Europeans [in the media], but east Europeans rarely talk,” argues Uilleam Blacker. “It’s very rare that someone actually asks them what they think.” Actor Maryna Malevych: “Sometimes British people haven’t had a chance to see how we’re living actually, and why we came here.” Her co-star Lesya points out that, “sometimes you have to hit people hard, to make them wake up and think, ‘These are real people, they have lives and they’re just trying to survive.’” Hence the play’s mockery of the British tendency to lump east Europeans into one homogenous, dehumanised category. “That’s the thing,” stresses Olesya Khromeychuk. “There is no east European community. It doesn’t exist, not in London or anywhere else. There’s barely a Ukrainian community. But there’s a perception of east Europeans.” This perception is what the honesty of documentary theatre hopes to address.

When I ask Molly Flynn to define the impulse behind the documentary theatre phenomenon, she pauses for a few moments before settling on “a desire for a genuine connection.” In bringing these shows to London, she hopes to conduct an “experiment” in the kinds of positive confrontation that Replika claim can only come from documentary material. “We don’t want the performance to be a confrontation with the English audience, pointing the finger and saying: ‘You are treating us badly.’ No, it’s a little more elegant than that,” Milko Iovchev says. And what of the company’s self-identification as a “protest group”? “We just want to make socially valuable theatre,” Irina Andreeva responds. The phrase captures something at the heart of this vibrant and challenging artistic phenomenon. “Is the real protest in fact to stay and deal with the situation?” she continues, and I realise that she is interrogating me as much as he is herself. “For me that is the question.”

For more information on the Peripheral Visions documentary theatre series, visit GRAD.

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