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The New Drama: Space for Discussion







The moment it sprang up in Russia the New Drama received a very strong response, acquiring numerous supporters and even more numerous opponents. The New Drama was pointed many fingers at as amateur, for reflecting only the "dirty" reality ("black trash"), deficit of profound ideas and very low artistic standards.


Some of this finger pointing was not entirely unfair. The majority of the "new dramatists" came out from provinces and didn't have respective literary or just generally humanitarian education. Characters of their plays were the homeless (Songs of the Peoples of Moscow) migrants (Alexander Rodionov's The Fight of the Moldavians for a Cardboard Box), prisoners (Konstantin Kostenko's Claustrophobia ) solders (Alexander Arkhipov's The Demobilization Train), teenagers from problematic families (Vasili Sigarev's Plasticine , Yuri Klavdiev's The Bullets Collector )… These personages began to speak of themselves and of the world they lived in in the language of the Street.


Critic Alisa Nikolskaya quite cleverly compared the New Drama with rock music: "The New Drama is doing to theatre the same thing as rock musicians did to all the academic arts - they “shook them up". In one very good book I read that rock music was not the method of changing the world but the form of shouting at it. Until a certain moment the New Drama was not the instrument of changing the world, but exactly the above. The authors of the plays shouted about things that ached in them badly."


The birth of the New Drama was directly connected with the situation in which the society and its cultural institutes found themselves in at the turn of the century. The collapse of the Soviet ideology was accompanied by the proclamations of democracy, freedom and glasnost in all spheres of life. Many venues sprang up then for discussions and never-ending debates about what was going on in the country and what is happening to the people. But the changes that were underway in politics, society, economic and culture badly hurt the majority of the country's population and caused a dramatic crisis of the social and cultural identities, collapse of social institutions, economic crises. Swift stratification of the society quickly ridded the people of the euphoria of declared freedom to the effect that people stopped trusting the new authorities.


While the society was confronted with the new, in the Soviet times unknown problems (homelessness, pan-handlers, gangster wars, political instability, economic crises, lost of orientation in the new social/cultural settings), theatre was trying to escape from the "filthy", "trite" and incomprehensible reality and find itself "cherry orchards".


Theatres' repertoires featured predominantly endless interpretations of the classics or sheer "theatrical trash" - a term coined by critic Marina Davydova.


"Theatrical trash" was the direct result of theatre being turned into an entertainment industry that helped people idle away their free hours and at the same time show up as "cultured folks".


Theatre ceased to be genuine, the way it was in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Back then it was the focus of cultural and intellectual activities. In a way theatre was a replacement for free press and in a large measure functioned as a venue for political and social debates.
Under the impact of all these factors a paradoxical situation shaped up in the 90s when one could talk about everything and in any manner, but he didn't find someone he could talk to.


In particular Soviet theatre was used to speak in the Aesopian language, which in the given situation sounded quite ludicrous.


In the meantime the existing structure of the repertory theatre in the USSR proved to be quite inaudequate in relation to the younger generation of directors. There were no open venues, the state financing of cultures was absolutely scanty. The arts became a kind of superfluous luxury that the state couldn't possibly afford.


The situation with drama was also critical. In the classical Russian "directorial" theatre playwrights were basically depraved of all rights. The situation with drama was also critical. In the classical Russian "directorial" theatre playwrights were basically depraved of all rights. In the 90's Yelena Gremina was later one of the founders of Theatre.doc and New Drama Festival complained that at that time playwrights couldn't find like-minded directors of the same generation to stage their plays. Gremina: "With perestroika the generation of directors parted company with dramatists. Writing plays became a marginal occupation".


The New Drama in Russia owes its materialization in the late 90's to the initiatives of the older generation playwrights and to the Lyubimovka playwrights' festival. Then everybody was aware of the acute deficit of plays. After an few years interval Yelena Gremina and Mikhail Ugarov resumed the festival that in point of fact was launched back in 1989 by the elder colleagues. The festival again functions as "launching pad" for new playwrights and the place for contacts between them.


Right here the Presnyakov brothers met director Kirill Serebryennikov. Maxim Kurochkin and Vasili Sigarev first made names for himself in Lyubimovka. The list could be continued.


In the meantime Moscow ceased to be the sole center of the New Drama. Functioning as such centers began YEKATERINBURG where Nikolai Kolyada founded his school; Tolyatti where Vadim Levanov helped grow up a whole generation of young playwrights (the Durnenkov brothers, Yuri Klavdiev). At about the same time, in 1998, Alexey Kazantsev and Mikhail Roshchin started the Center of Dramaturgy and Directing, its purpose being to carry into effect the ideas of young playwrights.


In 1999 the New Drama project was started under the auspices of the Golden Mask Festival, the Royal Court Theatre of London and a group of playwrights. A whole series of contests for playwright were launched. The first Documentary Theatre Festival was held in Moscow in December, 2000. The laboratory/seminar experiments were continued in the Lenin's Hills in October, 2002. And in March 2002 Theatre doc., Russia's first documentary theatre, opened in a small basement of a house in the Patriarch's Ponds. Other available venues included the Meyerhold Center and since 2005 Praktika Theatre.


The new drama actually ceased being a marginal trend and even became fashionable after Kirill Serebryennikov directed the Presnyakov brothers' plays Terrorism and Posing as a Victim at this country's central stage - the Moscow Art Theatre. Then followed new productions in other theatres in and out of Moscow though their part in theatres’ repertoire still remains very low.


Of paramount importance was the New Drama Festival that for the first time opened in 2002, giving the name to the movement in theatre that by that time had basically taken shape. This movement grouped together actors, directors, other practitioners, first in theatre and later in film.


To date the New Drama is no longer regarded as merely a collection of modern plays. One can now speak about the organized movement with its own structure and with never-ending contemplation of the aims it is called to achieve. This contemplation manifests itself in heated debates about the place the New Drama holds in the present-day world of theatre, course it should follow and is prospects for the future.


However, regardless of this reflection the "new dramatists" have up till now failed to legibly explain what is the difference between them and simply modern playwrights. The most wide-spread opinion is that the new drama has to do with something that happens in "the-here-and-now".


The ongoing efforts to specify what "the-here-and-now" means have revealed the two substantially different visions of the subject the New Drama is dealing with. For some "the-here-and-now" means the eternal questions that are interwoven with the realities of the present day. For others "the-here-and-now" means distinct manifestations of the disturbing and traumatizing actuality. The latter point of view is expressed in the reflections of one of the ideologists of the New Drama Mikhail Ugarov: "The New Drama is not the same as contemporary dramaturgy, although I know that not all will agree with me. There is just a modern play that carries no serious social message. The New Drama is different in that it is socially oriented. This orientation defines its aesthetics. This social orientation is a vital necessity because we here don't have a society. Maybe it is too much to say. Some kind of society we do have. But all too often one has the impression that it doesn't exist at all. On the one hand, this situation demands that this kind of theatre must exist. But on the other, it is a kind of dead circle: when there is no society this theatre is impossible by definition. And if it does exist, it is given a hostile reception. You have seen the festivals become the scene for confrontation. When I read articles I understand that these confrontations are not about the aesthetics. The position of the opponents can be summarized as follows: 'I hate your New Drama, because theatre is not supposed to speak about such things. Such things must be talked about by politicians, journalists, public organizations. And the job of theatre is to make this evening pleasant for me".


It is precisely the uncompromising rejection of the "what-can-I-do-for-you" function of theatre that brings together the supporters of the both aforementioned viewpoints. Even when a production reflects your own thoughts and experiences, rather than the pressing social problems. And this is what makes the New Drama very different from the theatre, which, according to Marina Davydova, is typified by the so called "new humanism". This time of humanism gladly accepts the man with all his shortcomings and doesn't expect him to aspire for lofty ideals. There is no humanism in the New Drama, first and foremost in relation to the viewer who himself becomes its object.


The New Drama productions present the "unpleasant reality", its problems and contradictions, which are often being shifted to the outskirts of modern human consciousness, present all these in a form that a man's consciousness simply cannot ignore.


First and foremost, this is achieved through the verbatim technique that was initially borrowed from the documentary theatre and later became wide-spread. The language and the reality behind it are easy to recognize to the effect that one "enters" not only the realty of the performance, but also the realities of the present-day existence. The latter become articulated, take shape to the effect that vague anxieties give way to real fear.


However the times when the New Drama was producing shocking effect by dramatizing marginal occurrences are being gone. And it is not only because the New Drama is experimenting and searching for new forms. The society has changed. Playwright Mikhail Durnenkov: "In the beginning I thought we were engaging in something very revolutionary, raised the problem of rotten socks in the temple. Later I realized that the notion of purity is very vital for us in the sense that in the temple you can't swear or bring rotten socks into. But the problem is that I can express my notion of God only with the help of these rotten socks, because I live among them". But today's knowledgeable viewer will hardly be shocked if "dirt from the street" is brought into the temple of theatre.
The reality lacks the conventional "lofty ideals", or at least the kind of "ideals" that would be shared by the majority and find not nominal, but also emotional support. The New Drama does not try to "propagate" these ideals. It only formulates the questions that the viewer must answer himself. In the situation when "there is no society", but rather there are common concerns, raising the questions that would be heard and comprehended capture the pubic attention.


The territory of the New Drama is public space of the discourse that has not a very long history or any common ideology. This seems strange since in every organized community there must be some "social glue" that keeps this community from falling apart. More often than not this "glue" is a set of convictions that are shared by all.


But on the other hand, it is impossible to imagine a group of creative personalities, each of them strictly following one and the same rules, especially considering Russia's characteristic bias against any ideology. As Yelena Gremina put it: "I'm terrified by manifestoes".
From her point of view the New Drama writers share the feeling that the New Drama must continue. Playwright Yuri Klavdiev: "The New Drama has changed lately as a result of the writers' awareness of their responsibility and subsequently of their obligation to keep working. The discussions became centered not only on the question whether it is normal or not to pronounce the word "dick" on stage". Public debates have been held between participants in the movement, specifically within the framework of the New Drama Festival that will be held for 6th time this Fall.


The New Drama's experiences of holding public deliberations are in a way unique, for they have been focused on a variety of issues, including the place and mission of the New Drama in the cultural context of today.


As sociologist Daniel Dondurei said at the previous edition of New Drama Festival "…the modern culture is structured in such a way that a phenomenon can present itself on if there is an adequate reflection of it'. Considering that the New Drama movement is well-organized and used for public reflection one can conclude the in the rather short period of time the New Drama has taken shape not only as a theatre movement, but also as a social institute and a cultural trend.


Therefore, regardless of the pessimistic assessments of some theatre practitioners, this movement can't just peter out. It has good prospects for the future development in the absence of clean-cut common ideals and principles, but in the presence of permanent venues for debates and reflections.

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