The Future of Theatre and Performance Is Queer, but in Russia This Sounds Unimaginable

Here’s the context in which queer artists live in Russia: In 2013, a federal law “banning propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors” was passed, which allowed for random fines and cases against activists, artists, and ordinary citizens. Its most unpleasant effect was an escalation of discriminatory rhetoric from officials, as well as an increase in the level of rejection of LGBTQ+ people, which naturally led to an increase in violence. In 2020, Russia amended its constitution; initially, it was supposed to include a definition of “marriage as the union of a man and a woman” in the country’s main law, but the authors were shy and added wording about the need to “protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.” Legally this does not change anything, but the whole discussion around this phrase only strengthened the hegemony of so-called “traditional values,” which automatically implies even greater discrimination against alternative sexualities and gender identities. At the same time, in the Chechen Republic, which is legally part of Russia, security forces simply kill and torture men suspected of being homosexual.

The majority of the fines and arrests via homophobic actions by security forces were imposed on political and social activists, but artists also suffered. Most recently, the criminal case against the queer artist and director Yulia Tsvetkova—who, in the town of Kosmolsk-on-Amur, a long way from Moscow, runs the teenage activist theatre company Merak, which produces plays on social themes—has been pending for two years. The claims against Tsvetkova began with a play, Pink and Blue, in which children discuss gender stereotypes in society, and continued because of her feminist blog and completely innocuous body-positive drawings about the features of the female body. For these, Tsvetkova was prosecuted for distribution of pornography.

That case still hasn’t come to an end, both because of the wave of support for Tsvetkova and because it is insane in and of itself, but the judicial system in Russia simply does not know how to back down (in 2019, there was less than 1 percent of acquittals). Tsvetkova has already been fined and faces up to six years in prison on the charges; she recently went on a hunger strike. Other high-profile trials against queer artists in Russia in recent years are hard to recall, and there is a simple explanation for this: queer art as an open and vibrant movement in Russia simply does not exist.

Queer art as an open and vibrant movement in Russia simply does not exist.

Management in Russian Theatres

There are about 650 theatres in Russia that run entirely on money from the state and municipal budgets (i.e. under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture). Another hundred or so are non-state theatres with their main source of income regular subsidies from the state. The same is true of the rare museums and galleries that are able to commission work from theatrical or performance artists. We live in a situation where the vertical of power is a source of homophobic politics, and at the same time it determines not just the survival of the vast majority of theatres, but the presence of specific individuals in leadership positions in those theatres.

The concept of turnover of power is as unusual for cultural institutions in Russia as it is for political ones, so any conditional theatre director is primarily interested in keeping his or her seat. Common sense tells any artistic director or intendant that if a work were to appear in his or her theatre not just to reflect on the LGBTQ+ position in Russia, but simply to demonstrate same-sex relationships or gender variation (although theatre directors in Russia do not understand much about trans issues or gender fluidity), the so-called “orthodox activists” and conservative civic organizations (read: drinking thugs on the payroll of local governments and law enforcement agencies) will be outraged, and then the theatre’s management will be removed in order to hush up the conflict and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Somebody might ask: “Well, the management of Russian theatres are afraid of such a scenario because surely there have been precedents, right?” Not a single one. How is that?

Two shirtless men standing next to each other on a balcony from their bedroom.

Image from INSIDE by Dimitris Papaioannou.

The police state’s strikes against civil society in Russia are often chaotic. At protest rallies, the police detain and beat random people in packs so that the impression is (quite rightly) anyone can be detained and beaten. Courts impose fines and jail terms for posts on social networks completely randomly, often for posts that are many years old—again to create the impression that anyone can be detained for any absurd reason. This creates an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty, in which even more effective self-censorship is added to the direct censorship of the media and institutions. It turns out that the heads of theatres and art institutions are forced to think not about how to attract an audience (subsidies will cover everything anyway) and not about how to produce an important performance, but rather about how their productions will not cross the double line, because this is the only thing that can have real consequences for them.
 

Against Stanislavsky’s System

I’m a Russia-based writer, curator, and artist, and in 2019 I had my first and last collaboration with a state-sponsored theatre in Russia. I had conceived of and curated a performance laboratory different than what’s typically done—instead of getting young actors and directors to recreate dramatic theatre, I asked participants—who could be anyone, regardless of age or experience—to create whatever project they wanted with one caveat: no one could go on stage. That kind of post-human performance had already existed for many years, for example in works of directors like Heiner Goebbels or Romeo Castellucci.

The lab was supposed to last for a week and we presented about forty projects by different artists. One of the performances was called thirty-first, which was scheduled for 31 May, and was dedicated to Article 31 of the Constitution, which affirms the right of Russian citizens “to assemble peacefully, without weapons, to hold meetings, rallies and demonstrations, marches and picketing”—obviously something that has been violated by the Russian authorities for a long time.

The performers were from the collective Takeaway Theater. One went into the woods ten kilometers from downtown Moscow and the other went out onto Red Square; both were carrying ironic placards that read “Against Stanislavsky’s System,” while two cameramen streamed their pickets into the small stage of the Taganka Theatre, where an audience sat and stared at the screen. The participants were detained and taken to the police, where the live broadcast was interrupted; the news about it appeared in the federal media and a few hours later I, as curator, was asked by theatre management to publicly apologize and say that the performance had not been planned, or else I’d have to accept the premature closure of the lab.

I thought the performance was marvelous and of course I wasn’t going to apologize, so the lab was closed the same evening, two days before the end, with security escorting the participants out of the theatre in twenty minutes. This is self-censorship. And this situation has made it impossible for me personally to work and make money in state theatres in Russia, because that’s the level of compromise I’m just not interested in.

Three actors with their heads and shoulders on the ground and legs up. They're surrounded by the audience and some plants.

Image from The Garden by Zh-v-Yu.

The problems in the lab started before thirty-first. On the first day, we had showed Oleg Martynenko’s project Crystal Odyssey. The author had recorded audio of a four-hour psychotherapy session, recounting how he became a victim of homosexual rape; the audio was broken up into fragments and played in the theatre from several audio sources simultaneously in total darkness. It was an absolutely poignant work, nothing like that had ever been shown in Russian theatres. There were about twenty people at the performance, and we didn’t do a live broadcast because it was in the dark. And yet the next day the deputy director called me in for a talk and asked me “not to cross any more red lines,” not even to say out loud what the event was about.

This creates an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty, in which even more effective self-censorship is added to the direct censorship of the media and institutions.

Why Queerness Onstage Is Impossible in Russia

In Moscow alone, I can count about ten large theatres where the artistic directors are homosexuals (of course, men; there are really few women in these roles). None of them are open. An openly gay person in a management position at an institution subordinate to the Ministry of Culture is an impossible situation in Russia today. Western diversity movements encourage the appointment of minorities to leadership positions, with the implication that these people will bring their expertise to the institutions, making their projects more diverse.

In a sense, this is what happens in Russia: closeted queers come to run cultural institutions and bring with them their experiences of lying, silence, double lives, self-censorship, and internalized homophobia. Everyone understands everything, but basic things cannot be said out loud. I live in St. Petersburg and I can’t recall a single play in the repertoire of local companies about queer themes. In Moscow, there seem to be exactly two such plays: All Shades of Blue by Konstantin Raikin and Come Out of the Closet by Nastya Patlay. The first is an absolutely dull dramatic play in which the director also dismisses the queer theme, saying that “it’s not about gays, it’s about love of neighbor.” The second tells documentary stories of coming-outs, and productions of this play have been disrupted repeatedly by “orthodox activists,” and its audience is extremely small.

I know Russian queer artists who work in contemporary dance, theatre, and performance art, and they can’t go to any theatre and say “we want to do a performance or a play on a queer subject” (that is, if they think of it; they usually do not). They have to do work on very safe topics or, for example, choreograph for other directors who do plays about life, death, and love (of white heterosexual people). There are no private cultural institutions in Russia that would be able to commission such works and not be afraid of pressure. Private queer festivals like Side by Side are regularly disrupted by the police under the pretext of bomb threats to buildings.

There are almost a thousand independent theatres in the country, but according to the notion of social isomorphism, they totally copy the institutional structure and ideology of their big brothers. As a rule, these theatres are run by middle-aged men who bribe their acquaintances (or young actresses willing to do anything) for free labor “for the idea”; 99 percent of everything these theatres show is unwatchable— “wise men interpreting the world and telling you how to live” kind of thing. Naturally, there is no question of gender or queerness.

Two male actors in a device on different levels, facing and holding each other.

Image from Kjell Theøry - Prologue by ATOM.

Against the “New Ethics”

The theatre community in Russia is very rigid. There is a relatively large conventionally liberal part of it that does not agree with the politics and rhetoric of the state but is busy surviving and fighting the so-called “new ethics” (a very popular Russian media phrase). To put it plainly, these individuals say they are against sexual, economic, and psychological violence in the industry, but they also believe Western society is going crazy with cancel culture, and they will not succumb. Apparently, each of them understands that theatre in Russia is built entirely on violence, and that if you let the victims talk, then everyone in the community will be responsible.

Most of these individuals are of a fairly mature age, and the topics of queerness and feminism are like nothing to them, because in Russia society is very poorly informed even about homosexuality, let alone about queerness or gender theory. For example, in an interview for Meduza, one of Russia’s most celebrated “contemporary theatre directors” literally says, “I have absolutely no interest in all these topics like feminism and gender issues.”

In some of Russia’s major theatres, it is still common to see the representation of the homosexual as a man with a beard and painted lips, wearing women’s clothing, speaking in a caricatured high-pitched voice. Russian male directors think this is funny. And when resources and access to venues are concentrated in the hands of rigid older men, this naturally makes the representation and work of queers in theatres and performance venues impossible.

This is not to say that there are no queer events in the field of dance, performance, and theatre in Russia at all. They do happen, but they are always either closed queer parties or weird underground performances for small groups of people. They don’t get reviewed in the media and bloggers don’t know about them, so they are hardly ever archived on the map of queer art. Moreover, unfortunately even queer events in Russia either reproduce heteronormative stereotypes or simply add nothing to the conversation, both from an artistic and a documentary perspective. This is a sad but completely legitimate situation.

I very much hope to see Russian and Eastern European queer performance artists emerge over time (…) but it seems that we have a long way to go.

Places Where Queer Performance Exists

It is with all of the above context in mind that I decided to make a cross-media project, QUEER THE STAGE, about queer performance worldwide—its past, present, and future. I’ve been writing about theatre since 2016, and obviously I’ve watched a lot of it. In 2019, I even published a book describing and theorizing the landscape of contemporary theatre, dance, and performance based on hundreds of works. So when I started researching queer performance, I was sure that no powerful theatrical experiences were waiting for me. I was very much mistaken. The immersion into queer performance—not just by queer artists but by those who work directly with themes of queerness, gender, and the post-gender world, and demonstrate unconventional types of corporeality and sensuality in the events—was amazing. It was as if I was discovering a new type of art altogether.

An actor with long black hair in a leather bodysuit, wearing black nail polish and holding flowers.

Image from Thirio by Euripides Laskaridis.

Very often these works are already surprising in the way they are made—through horizontal processes, where performers are collective authors of the work—rather than in what they show. For many queer authors, it is important to dissect the process of work production. Russian theatre, unfortunately, is still in the grip of apoliticality and literature-centrism, and our theatre criticism lives on in the Soviet school of reviewing: describing exclusively what happens in the play and not touching at all how theatre is made. And, in Russia, it is made on violence, almost slave labor, poor salaries for actors, unjustifiably high director fees, non-existent production management, corrupt connections, absurd personnel decisions, and an absolutely unjust distribution of resources.

My research was based mainly on the work of European and American artists because that is where the most openly queer art takes place; my project covers very few artists from South Africa, Japan, and China. This is explainable: the freer the position of the queer community in a country, the more opportunities there are to be a public queer artist. I very much hope to see Russian and Eastern European queer performance artists emerge over time—able to perform more openly and talk about queer life and subject matter—but it seems that we have a long way to go.

As a writer and curator of queer performances, I have never experienced pressure or threats but this is, of course, pure luck. For example, my comrades and I did the play I Saw a Red-haired Boy and My Head Exploded at Theatre.doc, based on the book Mannelig in Chains by queer author Ilya Danishevsky. We had openly queer and genderfluid performers, and there was always an absolutely magical space at the show where gay couples lay right on stage next to the performers and cuddled; you never see that in Russian theatres. And last fall twenty performers and I did a five-hour site-specific performance It’s Not Fun Anymore in Krasnodar, a very macho kind of town, where hitting on women in the streets and catcalling is almost the norm, and the population is very homophobic. The performance was based on queer and femme poetry, prose, and essay, and luckily the show brought together a similarly minded audience and there were no problems. But if the event had been advertised using a queer theme, problems would have been guaranteed.

In my practice I work not only with performance art, but also with digital media. Last December my team and I released an augmented reality performance—SITTING IN A ROOM. I AM., a documentary story about universal basic income—in the form of an app for iOS and Android. And QUEER THE STAGE exists in two formats: a YouTube video and an interactive story on the web with game scenes. For example, in the chapter on queer failure, the user literally finds himself on a 3D “queer-playground” where he cannot pass through the gates of heteronormativity but can literally fly over obstacles. Artists and performance art in Russia either don’t use digital technologies and new media at all, or they don’t use them consciously, but I wanted to show that it is possible for indie artists to create technologically complicated projects. That’s why I combined the history of queer performance with the practices of game design.

This project radically changed the way I see the arts and my place in it: I am convinced the inevitable future of theatre and performance art is queer. Queerness gives theatre, and art in general, the knowledge and experience of a new world. A world in which cooperation is more important than competition, care is more important than manipulation, love takes all sorts of forms, and difference is embodied literally on a corporal level, not just in language. In the case of Russian theatre, queerness is the only thing that can save it. It’s not just a naive hope; I’ve read and written a lot about the radical imagination, but living in Russia for twenty years under one president, you become cynical in this sense and see that change is not happening everywhere with adequate speed.

 

Queerness as the Future for the Stage

Queer performance is produced the way art should be produced today, with care for all participants in the process, horizontal organization, and attention to labor rights and a comfortable psychological environment. Unfortunately, even feminist theatre and performance seems to be insufficient in this sense. Often the narrative of women’s empowerment descends into the reproduction of heteronormative myths about the Great Creator and patriarchal hierarchies. Queerness, on the other hand, plows through these processes in their entirety.

One of the books I read while researching queer performance is called Fear of the Queer Planet. Clearly, a queer planet is our goal for the next hundred years. As for closer goals, it’s not even that performance and theatre have to become immanently queer. It seems to me that they always have been, and it’s time to finally see it and say it out loud.

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