The concept of “documentary theater” has existed for more than 90 years in theatrical, cultural, and public discourse. In the last decade, the documentary theater has become more and more rooted in the minds of the modern audience, becoming a common practice. In the mass consciousness, the documentary theater is mainly associated with the term “verbatim”.
Verbatim (from the Latin ―verbatim – “spoken”) is a technique for creating a theatrical performance that suggests the rejection of a literary play attracted from outside. The material for each performance consists of interviews with representatives of the social group to which the heroes of the planned performance belong. Transcripts of the interviews make up the outline and dialogues of the verbatim (documentary play).
Documentary theater, unlike traditional theatrical practices, does not create, but comments on reality. One of the first documentary theaters in Russia was Teaтр.doc, created in Moscow in 2002. His concept was “the stage as a mirror of the world”, and the goal was for the viewer to recognize himself and perceive himself as part of society. In this way they created empathy, which is sorely lacking in Russian society. In addition to being an important artistic phenomenon, Театр.doc has also become a social and political actor in Russian society. In today’s Russia, the theater (not only documentary) has become another civic institution. On its stage, Театр.doc produced a reflection on many political events of our time, as well as a reflection on the events of the past that led to the current situation. Among staged documentary performances were «БерлусПутин» (2012), «Болотное дело» (2015), «Сентябрь doc» (2016) «Час 18» (2015), «Как мы хоронили Иосифа Виссарионовича» (2015). The performance «Час 18» (2015) dedicated to the last painful hours of the life of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky (he was slowly dying in a prison cell from pancreatitis for 1 hour and 18 minutes) was based on Magnitsky’s letters where he complained about the conditions in the prison cell. The theater, in this case, not only explores the tragedy of a person but also becomes another media describing and analyzing the situation in the country.
The performance “Болотное дело” was based on interviews of participants and their relatives in the famous protest on Bolotnaya square. It passed the voices of these people to the masses as if it was expanding the participants of Bolotnaya square protests to the theaters’ audience.
But not only contemporary events and personal interviews become the basis for a documentary performance. For example, Dmitry Volkostrelov staged the play “Пермские боги” (2019) at the Perm Academic Theatre-Theatre. This performance belongs to the type of documentary performance based on historical documents and sculptures of the Komi-Permyaks. In the performance “Хорошо темперированные грамоты” (2018) staged by the “театр post”, Dmitry Volkostrelov used birch bark manuscripts from the 11th–15th centuries and music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
In the Russian documentary theater scene, a lot of things were created under the influence of European documentary theater; the influence of the theatrical group Rimini Protokoll was one of the most significant.
Documentary theater in Russia is very popular, especially among the active urban population. This is connected, of course, to the reaction to social, economic and political events, but also with the field of discussion, expression, and protest, which is narrowing day after day. This practice is returning from the past. For example, the playwright Sergei Tretyakov with his partners from the widely ranging association of avant-garde artists “The Left Front of the Arts” began to use the interview as the basis for the performance in the 1920s. And it was the Soviet theater of the 1920s that started to comprehend the events of the past and present by using the methods of documentary theater. One can cite as an example “The Overthrow of the Autocracy ” – a propaganda production of 1919 conducted by the studio of the Theater and Drama of the Red Army under the direction of Nikolai Vinogradov-Mamontov. Theater director Nikolai Evreinov in his texts of the early 1920s mentions the idea of a theater of staged memories (today, it would be called psychodrama).
The past is also comprehended by the methods of documentary theater. As a striking example, I would like to give the following experience. This is the theater laboratory “Archaeology of Memory” at the Sakharov Center (curated by Anastasia Patlay), which in 2017 initiated the drama workshop “Memory of the Great Terror”. The task of the laboratory participants was not to create texts for the scene. With the help of drama, the participants interacted with certain historical documents, for example, the diaries of the repressed. Here, the important result was not the stage play but the experience of interaction between the participants and the texts. In their production of “Молодая Гвардия”, Dmitry Yegorov and Maxim Didenko consistently deconstructed the Soviet myth about the Young Guard, using, among other things, the Soviet documents and interviews.
Even though documentary theater is primarily a phenomenon of professional theater, it can also be an activist practice, especially when it is comprehending the memory of the Second World War, the “difficult past”, etc.