- School for Democracy: Interactive Theater in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia
The notion of “interactive theater” was introduced by Augusto Boal in the 1960s. As Bruce Weber notes, Boal “was especially intrigued by the relationship between the spectator and the actor, and his career was a steady march toward a greater partnership between the two. In his philosophy, life and theater are related enterprises; ordinary citizens are actors who are simply unaware of the play, and everyone can make theater, even the untrained. In his work the audience often became an active participant in the performance itself.” Boal called this sort of theater “the Theatre of the Oppressed,” whereas today such theater is usually referred to as “interactive.”1 In Russia this term was first used at the beginning of the 2000s with the development of the so-called new drama and theater of verbatim, as well as the spread of talk shows, and teaching, therapeutic, and entertaining programs, especially for children. However, this phenomenon has not yet been fully analyzed in Russian theater or social studies. Here we trace the main stages of its development beginning in the 1910s.
Since Boal defined interactive theater as “the Theatre of the Oppressed,” it is only natural that in Russia we find the sources of such theater in the first years following the 1917 October Revolution. Interactive dialogue involves breaking the “fourth wall” separating the audience and the stage. This is exactly what happened in Russia during the first post-revolutionary years. Theater spectacles came out into streets and squares. Many shows were staged on haphazardly built platforms or trucks. “The whole of Russia is acting!” reported Anatoly Lunacharsky, Commissar of Enlightenment in the first Soviet government in autumn, 1920.2 Recalling this time at the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, playwright Vsevolod Vishnevsky [End Page 59] said, “In 1919 our ragged country, deprived of bread and light, in one Yaroslavl province had more theaters than the whole of France.”3 Amateur theaters were the most numerous. Alexander Boguslavsky and Vladimir Diyev suppose that this was due to the fact that in the Russia of those days only two people out of ten could read, and so the stage took over the role of newspapers.4
During the years of the Civil War (1917–1922) theater existed in three major forms, which were prompted by the revolutionary experience of those times. Spectacles could be mass marches, parades, or meetings dedicated to the memorial days of the revolutionary calendar and celebrating the victory of the people over its oppressors.
Thus, in November 1918, on the first anniversary of the October Revolution, there were performances of Mystery-Bouffe by Vladimir Mayakovski, directed by Vsevolod Meyerhold; a pantomime, Great Revolution; and, in Voronezh, The Glorification of Revolution. While Mystery-Bouffe had a text and fixed mise-en-scènes, the latter two were based on improvisations. The shows pictured revolutionary actions of the masses, featuring symbolic images of Labor, Capital, and Revolution, designed to bring home to the public the meaning of the revolutionary process. Thousands of spectator-actors took part in these performances, their focus being on people reforming the world.
The author of and participant in one these mass actions, playwright Dmitry Sheglov, left a detailed account of a play staged in honor of the Congress of Comintern (the Third International), acted by the Red Army soldiers:
The huge natural amphitheater of Krasnoye Selo made it possible for the audience of a thousand soldiers to see everything comfortably sitting on the grass. Below, in a wide clearing, was a vast space for the actions of the infantry and the cavalry. A wooden platform was built for the featured scenes and the pantomime. After the fanfares the “workers” headed towards the “palace”-platform. They were attacked by the Tsar’s cavalry. Then, there was a scene of the Red Army forming and assaulting the White Army.… From two sides at full gallop the Reds and the Whites attacked each other. The Whites retreat. Victory! The shouts “Hurray!”5
With its merging of spectators and performers, the theatrical act ended with a march-parade uniting both...