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Documentary theatre in twenty-first-century Russia

Since the early 2000s, Russia’s most innovative theatre artists have increasingly taken to incorporating material from real-life events into their performance practice. As the Kremlin’s crackdown on freedom of expression continues to tighten, playwrights and directors are using documentary theatre to create space for public discussion of injustice in the civic sphere and its connections to the country’s twentieth-century past. This book traces the history of documentary theatre’s remarkable growth in Russia since its inception in 1999 and situates the form’s impact within the sociopolitical setting of the Putin years (2000–). It argues that through the practice of performing documents, Russia’s theatre artists are creating a new type of cultural and historical archive that challenges the dominance of state-sponsored media and invites individuals to participate in a collective renegotiation of cultural narratives. Drawing on the author’s previous work as a researcher, producer, and performer of documentary theatre in contemporary Russia, Witness Onstage offers original insight into the nature of the exchange between audience and performance as well as new perspectives on the efficacy of theatre as a venue for civic engagement.

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Performing memory in twenty-first-century Russia

Chapter 2 considers the consequences of Russia’s complex memory culture as depicted in the two productions Gruz molchaniia (Legacy of Silence, 2010) and Vtoroi akt. Vnuk (Second Act. Grandchildren, 2012). Produced by Moscow’s Sakharov Center, these two plays were the first documentary productions to draw audiences into explicit dialogue about the Gulag and Stalinism. By placing the growing scholarly discourse on Russian cultural memory into dialogue with notions of embodied memory as they have developed in performance studies, this chapter illustrates how, through the presentation of historical narratives, Russia’s documentary theatre artists offer audiences renewed access to the past via their performance in the present.

in Witness onstage
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History, belief, and the theatre of enactment

Chapter 4 addresses the intricate relationship between commemoration and enactment through consideration of the play Pavlik – moi Bog (Pavlik – my God, 2008) which uses the legend of all-Soviet pioneer hero Pavlik Morozov as a vehicle through which to explore the resonance of history and mythology in one’s experience of everyday life. This chapter illustrates how the play instigates a process of exposure through which the intimate interlacing of past and present, mythology and reality, is brought to the fore. In its attempt to untangle the threads of national and personal histories, Pavlik – my God exemplifies how Russian documentary theatre encourages audience members to question their own presumptions about the past and, in doing so, the nature of belief in the present.

in Witness onstage
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New Sincerity and the performance of post-Soviet national identities

Chapter 5 analyzes the 2012 play Uzbek, an autobiographical solo-show about the author’s experience as an Uzbek migrant at the age of 19. Untangling the themes of the play, this chapter illustrates how, by artfully playing the space between sincerity and irony, Uzbek draws out the paradoxical nature of official documents in contemporary Russian culture and thereby addresses the precise complexities of the form in which it is performed. In this way, the chapter demonstrates how Russian documentary theatre artists ask their audiences to consider the contradictory status of documents as material testimonies that represent the untrustworthy aspects of official discourse in post-Soviet culture and, simultaneously, as influential arbiters of individual experience.

in Witness onstage
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The origins of Russian documentary theatre

Chapter 1 narrates the history of documentary theatre in Russia. Though the emergence of the form is traditionally traced back to a series of Royal Court workshops on verbatim playwriting in 1999–2000, this chapter refocuses the form’s own particular heritage, considering that Russia’s twenty-first-century documentary theatre-makers draw on the example of such twentieth-century theatre artists as the Symbolists and the post-Vampilov generation, in that they share a distinct investment in blurring the boundaries between lived experience and its theatrical representation. Situating Russia’s documentary theatre practice within its national and international historical context, Chapter 1 presents a framework within which to consider why the form came to prominence in the first two decades of the new millennium and explores how it operates in its particular cultural and temporal space.

in Witness onstage
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The pursuit of justice in Russian documentary theatre

Chapter 3 investigates how the notions of justice and testimony come to bear on Russian documentary theatre practice through analysis of a series of productions that use either real or imagined trial transcripts as the basis for their performance texts. At its center is analysis of the play Chas vosemnadtsat (One Hour Eighteen Minutes), which uses verbatim and constructed texts to stage an imagined trial of the prison and medical staff involved in the final days of attorney Sergei Magnitsky. Through its analysis of One Hour Eighteen Minutes, this chapter investigates the interdependent nature of reenacting the past and the performance of justice in the Russian documentary theatre repertoire.

in Witness onstage
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Theatre and protest in Putin’s Russia

Chapter 6 analyzes the series of events that have taken place since Teatr.doc was first evicted from their performance space in 2014. A twisted narrative that includes a falsified bomb-scare, multiple investigations by the Ministry of Culture, several more evictions, and numerous other instances of bureaucratic bullying by Moscow city officials, the history of Russian documentary theatre took a distinctly political turn after Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. Additionally, this chapter brings into view the gradual development of an emotional regime throughout the Putin years that has placed freedom of expression increasingly under threat, and illustrates how detailed consideration of the creative movement informs our understanding of the structures of feeling that emerged in these years.

in Witness onstage
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The Introduction to Witness onstage maps the structure of the book and sets out key concepts used in its analysis of the Russian documentary theatre repertoire. It provides an overview of scholarship on documentary theatre as it has developed internationally before situating the form within its specifically contemporary Russian context. This introduction also describes how the author’s work as a performer, producer, and translator of Russian documentary theatre has informed her approach to research. Lastly, the introduction to Witness onstage outlines how, through a performative practice of anamnesis, Russia’s documentary theatre artists seek to engage audiences in an active process of transformation.

in Witness onstage