Tag Archives: Yelena Gremina

Mikhail Ugarov’s Moscow Debut

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A few thoughts today on what is gone, what is lost, and what suits my present frame of mind (I suspect not only mine). Not long ago I walked past this spot next to Pushkin Square. It’s nothing at all. Less than nothing now. What once was here is long gone. What once provided me a reason to be here has long disappeared. Nothing is the same that once was here, just as no one is the same who was once here with me. All these “nothings” bring to mind one of my favorite songs by a Nobel Prize winner. The song is only partly about what I plan to print below, but it does connect well with the frame of mind that I currently find myself in (see my previous post if you can’t guess the reason for that): “Now, too much of nothing,” writes Bob Dylan,

Can make a man feel ill at ease
One man’s temper might rise
While another man’s temper might freeze
In the day of confession
We cannot mock a soul
Oh, when there’s too much of nothing
No one has control.

You see the wooden cover over what used to be (may still be underneath) stair steps? There was a bar down those steps. I spent a few hours there one evening, that’s it. Later they moved out the bar and moved in a shopping center. Then they moved out the shopping center and boarded things up. That’s called “business” – big and small – in Russia these days.
Anyway, that bar you can’t see because it isn’t there once hosted a small group of quiet revelers. There were five of us. The date was June 11, 1997. The occasion, now that I think about it, was no small thing. It was the Moscow debut of playwright Mikhail Ugarov. These days Misha Ugarov is one of the most famous theater makers in Moscow. He’s so famous, in fact, that the Russian government refused to let him travel to Berlin a few weeks ago to accompany a production he had directed. They claimed it was because he owed back fees on an old apartment. But if you look at his Facebook page the night before he was turned away at passport control at Sheremetyevo airport, you’ll see that he had some sharp words for the FSB (that’s the present-day KGB for those of you who don’t keep up with things Russian). Coincidence? Maybe.
Misha Ugarov and his wife Yelena Gremina are the founders of what is surely Russia’s feistiest, bravest, most honest theater. It’s called Teatr.doc and it has become world famous not only because the authorities have persecuted it repeatedly over the last few years, but because they have produced some of the most important theater productions of their time; they have midwifed some of the most powerful writers of their time; they have given kick-starts to some of the most talented directors of their age; and they have schooled many of the top young actors in today’s Russia.
I trust you get my drift. Misha Ugarov and Lena Gremina are national treasures, especially at a time when their nation rarely treasures anyone but bootlickers.
Well, there was a time when Misha Ugarov was no regular guest in the Moscow theater world. By the mid-to-late ’90s he had written a half-dozen plays that many admired, and a few had been produced in other cities (St. Petersburg, especially). But he was anything but recognized. The change from a man looking in from the outside to one of the most active and respected theater practitioners of his day came only over the course of many years. When Misha’s first play was produced in Moscow, there was hardly anyone there to see it (the house held a grand total of 40 people). The play, a kind of ironic fragment knocked off of Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, was the gentle, but acerbic, tale of three monks getting in for more than they had planned. It was called Doves, both ironically and not, and it was staged by the bad-boy director of the moment, Vladimir Mirzoyev, at the Stanislavsky Drama Theater, a place, perhaps bizarrely, where I now work (although it’s called the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre these days).
Mirzoyev had just opened another show days or weeks before and he was stretching himself a bit thin. I happen to know a bit about it because my wife Oksana Mysina was a performer in the other show, a play called That, This Other World, written by our friend Alexei Kazantsev. I heard plenty of tales. Still, Doves premiered on time as planned, while Other World struggled to get itself going.
Oksana and I were big fans, I would even flatter myself to say friends, of Ugarov’s and Gremina’s. We had known them a long time, having watched Gremina’s plays make their way onto some of the smallest and biggest stages in the nation’s capital – all at a time when playwrights in Russia got no respect at all from theaters, directors, actors, critics, even the doormen and women at stage door entrances. We were thrilled to see Misha finally making his Moscow debut and were among the first people to take our seats in the hall. But that was just the beginning of the night that ended at that now non-existent bar below the editorial offices of Izvestia newspaper, across from Pushkin Square. Also long gone are the productions of Doves and That, This Other World. Mirzoyev no longer works at the Stanislavsky, but I do. Gone are the days that Misha was unproduced in Moscow. Gone is Kazantsev, one of Ugarov’s mentors, he died a decade ago. Gone are the days when you could not hear yourself think in a Moscow cafe because the music was so loud. Gone are the days when bars and restaurants were opening up like crazy; these days they’re closing down with almost the same ferocity. And yet, when I recently stood before that wooden cover over stairs that once took me down into a dark, rather cheap, entirely empty bar on June 11, 1997, I had a moment when I felt like I was existing in two planes of time at once. And it was then I remembered that I had probably written something about this evening in a diary that I kept from about 1990 into the early 2000s.
Today, with Bob Dylan ringing in my ears, I went back into an old hard drive to find my old diaries and sure enough, there it was. In this entry made June 13, 1997, the second half rather matter-of-factly tells a brief story about Mikhail Ugarov’s Moscow debut. You can read it below the photos (note that I refer to Oksana Mysina as “O”).

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June 13, 1997
…The night before we attended the premiere of Vladimir Mirzoyev’s production of Mikhail Ugarov’s Doves. I had forgotten this, but it was the first professional production of an Ugarov play in Moscow. He’s been staged all over Russia and in many theaters in Germany, but nobody in Moscow had got around to him until now. The production is quite nice, small and intimate like the play itself. Mirzoyev backed off his usual heavy-handed approach, leaving the text and characters almost exactly as written. The few directorial touches which he did add – such as one of the characters walking around flapping his arms and cooing like a dove – were on the money. There was some feeling that the show came off a bit too understated, but that’s only if we’re getting picky.
Much worse was the treatment Ugarov got from the theater. By the time he and his wife Lena Gremina came into the hall (which only seats about 40), all the seats were full. Nobody lifted a finger to do anything about it. The theater’s literary director (whose job it is to deal with authors) sat in her chair and looked off in the other direction. Misha and Lena finally left. He went to the actors’ dressing rooms and apologized, “Sorry guys, but I won’t be able to watch today. They don’t have a seat for me.” Mirzoyev heard what was going on and he finally asked someone to sit on the floor to give Misha and Lena seats.
The same kind of treatment continued after the show. Mirzoyev pulled Misha up on stage for the bows, but it ended there. Nobody had arranged any banquet of any kind. Everybody moved off into their own groups, leaving Misha and Lena standing there alone. I found them standing on the street by themselves, while Mirzoyev was surrounded by a bunch of actors. It was pathetic. I went up to Misha and Lena and asked if there was going to be a banquet. They said no, and asked me if I would photograph them next to the poster. I did so and went back into the theater looking for O. But even before I found her, I realized things couldn’t just end like that. So I turned around and went back out on the street. Misha and Lena were still standing there forlornly. I said I had no money, but I had a credit card, so let’s go someplace and celebrate. They happily accepted. I ran back inside, found O and invited Masha Kivva, one of O’s partners in That, This Other World, to come along. We headed out to look for a place to park ourselves.
That is no longer a problem in the new Moscow. There are restaurants and bars on every corner. But, as luck would have it, every one we stopped at was full. We did find one place with nice soft seats in the back, but no sooner did we sit down than the waitress came up, plopped a menu down in front of us, pointed to some lettering and left without a word. We read there that we were to be charged $6 a head for a cover charge for a musical program that was to begin soon. I figured, to hell with the cover charge, but if the music was going to be loud, what would be the point of staying? So I got up, found the waitress and said, “Uh, is your music loud? Because we came in here to talk.” She looked at me for a second trying to decide if I was a moron or not and said, “Our music is VERY loud.” I thanked her and we left.
We passed up another place or two because they were all full, but finally, I think it was nearly an hour later, we found a bar with NOBODY in it. Normally, that would be a bad sign, but after our sojourn, we were delighted. Actually, Masha Kivva thought maybe we ought to keep trying to find a better place, but Lena reminded her that, with our luck, the next step would probably be buying a bottle of port and huddling together on a park bench. We stayed and had a very nice evening.

Hardly an earth-shattering story. But one whose muted tones suit these photos and my prevailing mood. I usually don’t let others’ words draw conclusions for me, but I’m okay with Bob doing it this time, with the chorus from “Too Much of Nothing”:

Say hello to Valerie
Say hello to Vivian
Send them all my salary
On the waters of oblivion.

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Yelena Gremina/Mikhail Durnenkov rooms, Oxford, UK

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I took these photos on November 7, 2014, more or less thinking I would put them away for 20 years and come back to them as if they were relics – assuming I’m still alive in 20 years. But then I realized that today is the ideal day to pull these photos out, still green, as yet unencumbered by the lovely lichen of legend, but quite timely. You see, Yelena Gremina, a playwright and one of the co-founders of Teatr.doc, and Mikhail Durnenkov, a playwright and head of Teatr.doc’s Lyubimovka new play festival, stayed here in these rooms at Wolfson College, Oxford University for three November nights in 2014. And today, February 14, 2015, Gremina and Durnenkov will be among the most prominent people welcoming guests to the opening of Teatr.doc’s new home in Moscow on Spartakovskaya Street 3.
It so happens that I was with Gremina and Durnenkov (as were Mikhail Kaluzhsky, Alexandra Polivanova, Ukrainian playwright Natalya Vorozhbyt and several other talented and fascinating people) when they – well, we – appeared at a conference entitled “Back to the U.S.S.R.? Drama and Theatre in Putin’s Russia.” It was hosted by Julie Curtis, Noah Birksted-Breen, Sasha Dugdale and Philip Bullock, all of whom have made significant contributions to the making or study of contemporary Russian theater.
As anyone who reads the posts on this space probably knows, I ran around Oxford in the short few days I was there photographing as many places connected with Russian culture as I could. It was as I came back from photographing the hotel in which Anna Akhmatova once stayed that I realized I had an opportunity to get one step ahead of history. Just as I was fascinated to know where Akhmatova had rested her weary head and feet after receiving her honorary doctorate in 1965, I assumed that those who follow me would one day be intrigued to know where Gremina and Durnenkov were quartered during their stay at Oxford. It was easy enough to record that information. I merely followed Misha Durnenkov back to his room one day under the pretext of small talk. We photographers have to do that sometimes – prevaricate in order to get what we crave so badly. After I saw Misha back to his room and ascertained that he was occupying room D, I asked which room Gremina was staying in. “The one next to me,” Misha answered, somewhat suspiciously. “That one there. Room C.” As the quizzical look still lingered on his face, I asked if I could photograph him in front of his door. Before he could say “yes,” I snapped the picture so as to capture for all times that slightly baffled look of his. Like, “Okay, but what the hell are you doing?”
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Wolfson College is a modern building ensconced among the old and very old buildings that make up the town of Oxford and the university named after it. It is quite attractive in part because of the extraordinary English talent for making greens and gardens. I don’t know that the architects can take much credit for that, but the gardeners certainly can. The inner quad is a lovely, rolling green with a few strategically placed trees. It stands at the very end of Linton Road near the Cherwell Boathouse on the River Cherwell. On the outside a kind of a lagoon wends off the river up close to the building, as you can see in the final image below. For those who require more information to fill out the future legend of Durnenkov and Gremina at Oxford, I can tell you that on the evening of Nov. 8 there was a fireworks display celebrating Bonfire Night (you can Google it, it’s interesting) and Misha and Lena both viewed the show from their rooms, the windows of which are on the third floor just to the right of the L-bend in the last photo below. Misha told me the next day on our 2-hour bus ride to the airport that the view was quite impressive. For you sticklers out there, I think I can even quote Misha directly. I believe he said, “The view of the fireworks was great.”
To my knowledge the only fireworks connected with the re-opening of Teatr.doc tonight will be theatrical. I’m told there are something like 16 different scenes being rehearsed by various actors and directors. Since this will only happen in about 2 hours I only know specifically about one as yet – a short skit written by Rodion Beletsky, directed by Anastasia Patlay, and starring Alexei Maslodudov and my wife Oksana Mysina who will play a post-death Joseph Stalin encountering a petty bureaucrat whose job it was to close down Teatr.doc. You see, Teatr.doc has been forced to reopen in a new space because Moscow’s authorities did their damndest to shut it down in the final months of 2014. This was one of the primary topics of discussion at the Oxford conference – what would happen to Doc? Well, now we know. It is alive and well and it reopens tonight. It’s about time for me to put on my tux and tails, grab my camera and head out for another historic event involving the always surprising people of Teatr.doc.

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Teatr.doc, Moscow

Note: Click on photos to enlarge.

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This post aims to look at the present as if it were the past. It will be easy to do, because Moscow’s ground-breaking Teatr.doc, although it is alive and well, is on the verge of great changes. A murky, backroom conflict with the authorities in Moscow – specifically the Moscow Property Department – has led to the demise of Teatr.doc as we know it. I emphasize “as we know it,” because founders Yelena Gremina and Mikhail Ugarov are currently taking steps to find a new space for this little playhouse whose influence on Russian drama, theater and film in the 2000s is enormous. The city chose to break off its rental agreement with Teatr.doc, forcing it off of the stage it has occupied since 2002. There are all kinds of reasons tossed around as to why the city wants Doc, as it is commonly called, out of the center of Moscow. Is it too politically bold? Does it occupy a space the city could receive much more money for? Does somebody not like someone personally? The official reason is that Doc allegedly violated safety rules when putting in a new entrance door from the street. But it was the Moscow fire marshal who demanded that they do that, and all the construction work was carried out under the guidance of officials. In short, the real reason as to why Teatr.doc is vacating its famous quarters is still yet to be determined. But the fact that it will no longer occupy this space, beloved of its army of fans, is incontrovertible. When the December schedule is played out, Doc at this space will be no more.
It is (was) a theater that is (was) hard to find the first time you went. Only a tiny little black sign with an arrow at the bottom gave you directions back into a tiny courtyard it would never occur to you to go into otherwise. (Even that wasn’t there in the beginning, of course.) And, a few steps later, when you reached the tiny courtyard, nothing here really looked like it had anything to do with a theater. In the last few years stencils of “Teatr.doc” appeared on window blinds and the door, but for years there was only a tiny little sign by the door, almost as if someone wanted to keep the place incognito.
Doc, once it got going, was anything but incognito. Young people made a bee-line for this place almost from the very beginning. Here was a space where they could hear and see people talking about hard issues in a language that was familiar and accessible. Shows here touched on difficult social issues such as homelessness, murder, prison life and such. Over the years the shows and readings and evenings hosted here became more and more political. This is not the place to write a history of Teatr.doc, but suffice it to say that such productions as September.doc (about the Beslan terrorist attack at an elementary school), One Hour Eighteen (about the murder to muckraking attorney Sergei Magnitsky in prison), BerlusPutin (a spoof of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi) and Two in Your House (about the aftermath of rigged presidential elections in Belarus) could not possibly have been pleasing to the authorities. Nor could they have been happy with the many politically charged evenings, such as those organized by Varvara Faer to bring attention to the plight of Pussy Riot, when the members of that group were still in prison.
But all of this – and this is a lot – cannot come close to giving a sense of the importance of all the new play development projects hosted by Doc. The major one was (and, one assumes, will continue to be) the Lyubimovka new play festival, which has run every Sept. for many years. Over the last decade and half I think it is safe to say that Doc, through its various play development works, has unleashed 400 to 500 new plays into the world. It has been a place that discovers new writers as well as helping established writers try out their new work. Maksym Kurochkin, one of those whom Gremina considers a co-founder of the theater, has used Lyubimovka virtually every year to unveil some new, wonderfully wild work. You can sort of see Maksym in the second photo below, chatting with my wife Oksana Mysina near the entrance to the performance space. Beneath that you see a typical use of the stage space – this was for a production of Kurochkin’s Circuit Breaker, mounted by the Brusnikin Studio, but it could have been for any number of Doc’s barebones shows.

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On some days or evenings, one suspects that the walls at Doc bulged outwards. Look at the photo immediately below. This was taken during the reading of Yury Muravitsky’s Pornography a couple of years ago, presented at Lyubimovka. That’s the stage you’re looking at. And those are spectators packing the stage – leaving the actors only a tiny space on which to move. And, yes, that is a photographer taking pictures from outside through one of the windows, while below her a spectator who couldn’t get into the hall found a decent vantage point from which to follow the goings-on. It was at this very event that I counted, I believe it was, 136 people in the hall. The two outside topped the attendance off at 138. It is an example of how a tiny stage fit for about 50 or 60 spectators could handle more than twice as many. The next photo below shows Doc’s minuscule foyer, including the table where Vika Kholodova has sat selling tickets and handing out comps for I-don’t-know-how-many-years. On the right you see a few of the dozens of awards and plaques that the theater has earned over the years. Finally, below, is the stage entrance door. Behind it is the cramped little dressing room, if it can be called that. When the theater is overflowing with spectators at a reading, this door will be thrown open so that another eight to twelve people can stand on chairs or a table and peer from behind the backs of others in front of them to get a feel for what is happening. When that door closes for the last time later this month it will be a shame. And from that point on, the little basement at 11/13 Tryokhprudny Pereulok, Bldg. 1, will pass into history.

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