Elena Gremina obituary

Playwright and founder of a Moscow theatre that challenged the Russian government

The Russian playwright and screenwriter Elena Gremina, who has died aged 61 of heart failure, was one of the founders of Teatr.doc, the Moscow theatre that acted as a powerhouse of new writing. The other founder was her husband, Mikhail Ugarov, who died of a heart attack last month. They were at the centre of a rallying force of artistic opposition to the Russian regime, staging openly critical works that challenged rules imposed by the state, and giving others the space and support to do the same.

Gremina pioneered the theatre “documentary” movement in Russia in the 2000s, and encouraged a whole generation at a time when many of the country’s state theatres wanted nothing to do with young playwrights. She was devoted to developing new talent and networks of like-minded people, and could be leonine in her defence of younger colleagues.

The impetus for her documentary approach came out of a collaboration with the Royal Court theatre, London. She suggested this while I was working at the British Council in Moscow, which is how we met, and between 1998 and 2001 we organised many workshops and seminars. With the help of the Royal Court we took Russian playwrights to the UK, and practitioners, including the theatre’s artistic directors Stephen Daldry and Dominic Cooke, visited Russia to work with groups of writers.

When Elena and Mikhail heard Elyse Dodgson, the international director at the Royal Court, discussing verbatim techniques in theatre – the use of oral testimony, edited to make a piece of theatre – it came as a revelation. It had long been their concern that Russian theatre had atrophied and had ceased to register the political and social turmoil of the times, and verbatim technique seemed a way to reconnect theatre with its society.

Akyn-Opera, a 2014 production given by workers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Akyn-Opera, a 2014 production given by workers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Photograph: Teatr.doc

They rapidly set up groups of writers to travel the country and record interviews with people at the front line: mothers of conscripts lost in Chechnya; Murmansk after the Kursk submarine tragedy; women prisoners; homeless people; immigrant workers. In 2002 they founded Teatr.doc, together with Alexander Rodionov, Gremina’s son from an earlier marriage, in a derelict basement in the centre of Moscow. Fellow playwrights helped paint the space and build a stage, money was raised for lights and props, and the doors to one of Moscow’s most influential theatres were thrown open.

From the start Teatr.doc was a success: the basement was almost stiflingly crowded every night, with people who could not get in crouching in the yard and looking through the windows. The documentary work was raw, honest and powerful. After a performance there was often a discussion of the subject. Russia was full of unexplored stories and histories and the resulting theatre was vital, compassionate and alive to the sufferings of others. Not all the work was literally verbatim, but plays such as Ivan Vyrypaev’s Oxygen and Anna Yablonskaya’s Pagans had the same poetic urgency as the documentary work, dealing with the here and now, focusing on the word and the voice.

Teatr.doc made international friends, and its plays went on to be seen in Paris and Berlin, with performances in Britain at the Royal Court and by the RSC. The UK performances of works by writers such as Natalya Vorozhbit, Mikhail Durnenkov and Vasily Sigarev are a direct result of Gremina’s endeavours. They emerged from Teatr.doc and the Lyubimovka network, a grassroots organisation named after the estate of the Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky, where every summer playwrights, actors and directors met to rehearse readings of new plays.

However, as the Putin regime began tightening the screws, the work at Teatr.doc became increasingly politically dissident, and Gremina became more outspoken in her resistance to power. She became a public voice to be reckoned with, a sane and measured advocate for freedom of speech and compassion for the oppressed.

A scene from 150 Reasons Not to Defend the Homeland
A scene from 150 Reasons Not to Defend the Homeland Photograph: Elena Gremina

A series of verbatim works on the persecution following the Bolotnaya Square protests of 2012, on the death in custody in 2009 of the whistleblowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, and the showing of a film about the Maidan square protests in Kiev, Ukraine, of 2013-14, clearly upset the regime. Teatr.doc’s basement lease was suspended and it was thrown out in 2014. The following year the theatre was forced to move again.

All this took its toll on Gremina and her husband, Ugarov: the visits from police, the confiscated equipment, being made to present papers at the prosecutor’s office – the official reaction was frightening, as well as tiring.

Born in Moscow, Elena was the daughter of the Soviet screenwriter Anatoly Grebnev and his wife, Galina Mindadze, a translator of Georgian literature into Russian. Wanting the freedom to write without being compared with her famous parents, Elena later invented the name Gremina, using both their surnames. She grew up in the world of the capital’s artistic elites: a flat in a block housing writers, crammed bookshelves, holidays at the film industry’s House of Creativity in Bolshevo, surrounded by Soviet cinema celebrities.

Even as a child, Elena was a revolutionary: her father’s diaries recount how once, in Bolshevo, the young Elena wrote a protest proclamation in verse on behalf of the children not allowed to see a film screening and it caused an unpleasant commotion. Grebnev noted that he had advised her, “How can I tell you: be like the rest.”

This Gremina found impossible. Deeply literary, immersed in culture, she studied to become a playwright at the Moscow Literary Institute. Her first work was produced in 1983, but it took till the early 90s for her to come to prominence as a playwright, with plays staged at the Moscow Pushkin theatre, and two drama awards from West German Radio. She loved to create roles for the strong, passionate and conflicted women of history: Catherine the Great; a female prisoner on Sakhalin island in the Pacific; Mata Hari; and the female narrators in her recent play about the fall of Constantinople, 150 Reasons Not to Defend the Homeland.

In the 90s, she was active in the Lyubimovka movement and got involved in writing for television. Together with her husband (whom she married in 1993) and her father, she produced one of the first Russian serials, Petersburg Secrets. This gave her financial security and allowed her to help other writers and Teatr.doc: she was a significant contributor to the theatre’s costs.

However, even when the reaction to her more radical work brought its trials Gremina remained resplendent in her intelligence, her steadfastness and irrepressible joy in theatre. As she wrote of 150 Reasons: “Theatre is a cure … and can relieve even unbearable pain for a time.”

She is survived by her son, Alexander, and stepson, Ivan.

• Elena Anatolievna Gremina, playwright and artistic director, born 20 November 1956; died 16 May 2018


Sasha Dugdale

The GuardianTramp

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