Based in St Petersburg but aiming to work across Russia and the rest of Europe, Theatre Project Vmeste (Russian for “together”) was begun by Ada Mukhina in 2012 and is now co-run with Masha Kolosova and Natasha Borenko. Working often with teenagers, they create documentary theatre and other socially engaged theatre practices involving critical discussion of social and political topics in Russia. All its work is funded on a project basis.
Mission: theatre as a tool of change
Ada Mukhina has a multifarious background: on leaving school she applied to a theatre academy but was told “you cannot be a director without any life experience”, so she studied law and civic education, worked with NGOs, activists and teenagers, and developed the idea for Theatre Project Vmeste as a nexus of these interests. Its first project in 2012 was called Teenage Theatre Against Xenophobia, and involved teenagers living in St Petersburg, all of different nationalities. Responding to the rise of nationalism in advance of Putin’s second term, the group worked together for a year, “combining civic education with research in different communities: interviews on the streets, and the school, with each other, about living together in one city and having different identities”. As well as performance work, the young people also created a film documentary of their experiences, shooting video diaries and rehearsals from their own perspectives.
As this kind of theatre was not practised in St Petersburg, and she didn’t know of others working in this way, Mukhina named the work “social theatre: theatre that is not only for aesthetical but ethical goals, always thinking what theatre can be as a tool of change”. Since that first project, Vmeste has gone on to work with women’s groups and homeless people, and expanded beyond St Petersburg to Moscow, Chechnya and Ukraine, but its focus is always on the young, mostly teenagers but also students up to the age of 25. When invited to work in a specific community, says Mukhina, “my choice would be teens, because at least I see some hope in this. You can’t help adults in Russia, but with young people, if you work with critical thinking and the theatre, you can create this separate space of freedom of expression. And usually in Russia, nobody actually gives a voice to teenagers. They tell them what to do, what to think, what you should not do. Nobody wants to hear their stories.”
“You can’t help adults in Russia, but with young people, if you work with critical thinking and the theatre, you can create this separate space of freedom of expression. And usually in Russia, nobody actually gives a voice to teenagers. They tell them what to do, what to think, what you should not do. Nobody wants to hear their stories.”
Experiments in form
With each new project, “we try to find a different forum: I’m interested in thinking about how we can create art with non-actors, and what an ethical theme could bring to art. So it’s not the community over the art and not art over the community, but how it can climax together in something else that didn’t exist before.” The form will emerge in response to the specific material collected with participants, and “usually we give the performance a ridiculous name, which we take from the documentary material that we collected for the piece. For instance, a work on xenophobia responding to the slogan ‘Russia for Russians’ was called ‘Fridge – for Vanilla Ice Cream Only!’ to highlight the absurdity of such a position.”
For instance, a work on xenophobia responding to the slogan ‘Russia for Russians’ was called ‘Fridge – for Vanilla Ice Cream Only!’ to highlight the absurdity of such a position.”
Mukhina describes four forms the company have employed in particular:
1: Performance-dialogue: Fridge – for Vanilla Ice Cream Only!
Mukhina saw from Teenage Theatre Against Xenophobia how much the young people benefitted from “having different perspectives, discussing and performing them, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”. The next step was “actually to have dialogue with our audience”. Not yet knowing about the forum theatre techniques developed by Augusto Boal in Brazil and adopted worldwide, Vmeste invented its own version for this 2012 work on immigration, whose title plays up the absurdity of the phrase “Russia for Russians only”. “We organised the performance as a space to exchange opinions: our participants were sitting in the audience and there was nobody on the stage.” Participants delivered monologues that not only expressed “positions that we felt to be right”, but objections to immigration, and “our idea was that the audience will also want to tell us stories”. In the first performance it took an hour for the audience to do so; in later performances, “that happened after three or four monologues”.
2: Performance-game: Ludeyskaya Story
Made in collaboration with the Jewish community centre in St Petersburg in 2014, Ludeskaya Story looked at historical and current anti-Semitism in Russia, and took the form of “a strategic game”, inspired by computer games in which participants build an empire by amassing “community, money and spirit”. “We organised the audience around tables as communities, and gave each community the history of Jewish people through the decisions they had to make. For instance, they had to decide if it was the right time to build a synagogue; or, at a time of anti-Semitism, when most people left the country or were imprisoned for their religious beliefs, they had to think: do they want to fight or to hide?” Woven into the game were stories of real experiences of Jewish people in Russia, from the 18th century to the present.
3: Performance-party: 18th Diary in the Blue Cover with the Tea Pot
A set of research with teenagers about identity posed a problem for the company because of the “quite tense monologues of two participants about their coming out. It was a year after a new law against LGBT propaganda: the participants joked about it because, as they’re under 18, they cannot tell their stories among other under-18s, which makes no sense.” A staging solution presented itself in the form of “a home party, organised by the teenagers themselves: they invite the audience to come into a nice home atmosphere for tea and biscuits, with everybody sitting and telling stories”.
4: Performance-workshop: Double Eagle
Created in 2017, this was the first work by Vmeste created and performed by Mukhina and her two collaborators, using autobiographical material alongside interviews with Russian emigrants in Western Europe. Looking at the “new wave of Russian emigration – around one million people – since the re-election of Putin in 2012”, it was presented as “a workshop: participants come as people who think about emigration, and we give them information and papers and tell them how to fill in forms. This then turns into a performance, and tells the story about real emigrants. In the end, participants need to make their own choice: either to stay in Russia, or to leave for the West (as Double Eagle – the Russian coat of arms – looks in both directions).”
Different kinds of pedagogy
Although Mukhina emphasises that “we come not from an educational background but from an artistic background”, Vmeste’s work has various pedagogical functions. Following on from its first project, Mukhina has developed a programme called The School of Documentary Theatre for Teenagers, where documentary theatre is used as a research method for any school subject or topic as well as educational tool that develops critical thinking and communication skills. She also now travels internationally delivering workshops on Vmeste’s approach to theatre – and that has generated for her a new interest, in revealing Russia to the outside world: “Nobody knows about Russia, what’s going on, no one. I see myself like a bridge between the rest of the world and Russia – because it’s a really important message to show that Russia is not only Putin.”
Mukhina is in no doubt as to the benefits to young people of participating in documentary and forum theatre: “It develops their critical thinking, research skills and communication skills.” Similarly, she believes in the importance of them sharing their stories, because otherwise “we as adults will never have access” to them. But she also recognises that this work carries an abundance of risks, from “laws restricting human rights and freedom of expression, to new criminal cases against theatre-makers in Russia”. As a result, Vmeste is careful about how it publicises its activities, resulting in the feeling that: “You’re always looking for the right words and not really expressing yourself.” This restricts the work – it becomes more difficult to reach people, whether as audience or participants – and inclines Mukhina to say that: “it’s hard for me to work in Russia right now, because you always limit yourself”.
But she admits there is a plus side to all this: “Every day Russia gives us a lot of topics to work on. I still communicate with human rights defenders from my past work and they say: every day there’s human rights violations, so we can always fight. And because this community of artists who are focused on social engaged art is really small, there are many opportunities to explore things.”
Currently Mukhina is based in London, researching other forms of socially engaged theatre and doing a second MA in advanced theatre practice, and for the future sees herself “working in Russia and outside – I don’t see myself being based anywhere, I see myself travelling, and bringing this experience of Russia to different countries, as well as bringing something back; working collaboratively as well as doing solo-artistic projects as an independent director”. Vmeste is still learning how this will work in practice, but it has continued making work in St Petersburg and has begun creating international projects, including a German-Russian-Polish project with the Deutsches Theater Berlin, creating a piece with 18 young people about “following the voice of conscience and standing against the crowd”. This is despite ongoing funding projects related to receiving money on a project basis, which makes it “really hard to do sustainable work”.
Among the group’s future plans are a “healing” art project, “going through the old republics of the Soviet Union, because what’s happening in Russia now is still connected to that whole trauma that happened for a lot of people”. A rising interest in how the group might present its own stories is also encouraging them to form “the first feminist theatre collective in Russia. Discussion about traditional families and about domestic violence is really, really complicated in Russia, so I think actually we need it.”
Photo: Maria Kolosova