Q&A: The creators of ‘Putin On Ice’ discuss Russian history, theater as protest and the ‘Putin in us’

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Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker.

Playwright Lola B. Pierson and director Yury Urnov are adamant that their new show has nothing to do with news items about Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump, is not a part of the #resistance, is not even about Putin, really.

“It’s about the Putin in us,” says Urnov, who has lived and worked in Baltimore and D.C. directing theater for the past decade. He was a teenager when Mikhail Gorbachev dissolved the Soviet Union, and returned to Russia last year to direct shows in Moscow (where his colleague, director Kirill Serebrennikov, is currently under house arrest) and two Siberian cities. Russian theater is still strong, he maintains, but the authoritarian shift under Putin feels like going back to “the same kind of shit closet [as the Soviet era].”

With “Putin On Ice (that isn’t the real title of the show),” an absurdist portrait of authoritarianism, they hope to go beyond satire–which feels particularly stifled as a means of protest right now– to create a hyper-real impression of the way Putin as an idea manifests in our chaotic political culture.

“We are using this play to discuss manipulation, and on some level that’s what theater is too,” says Pierson, whose shows, including this past summer’s “Follow No Strangers to the Fun Places,” often mirror the fractured experience of living online, speaking directly to the audience and using multimedia to subvert linear story structures.

Both agree that absurdity offers a new option for how to engage with powerful figures who seem impervious to critique. Urnov compares Putin to a balloon that absorbs all attention, negative or positive.

“The problem is now whatever we say about [Putin] is pro, is good for him,” he says. “And our small effort is to just add as much air as we can to this balloon and hope it will pop at some point.”

I recently sat down with Pierson and Urnov at Single Carrot Theatre to talk about Russia, collage and theater as protest ahead of the play’s opening at Single Carrot Theatre on Sept. 12, a co-production with the ACME Corporation.

Baltimore Fishbowl: Is the show meant to be funny?

Yury Urnov: For me, the impulse going into that was the experience of growing up in the late ’80s/early ’90s when it was still the Soviet Union, and everything was very serious–the attitude towards life was serious, the television was very serious. And then one day, these guys from St. Petersburg, this group of alternative artists, they made a three-hour documentary, and they were proving for three hours that Vladimir Lenin was a mushroom.

BFB: Yes! Sergey Kuryokhin on the TV show “The Fifth Wheel.”

YU: This was a great kind of moment of liberation I think for everybody. First it was like, Wow, you can’t do that, you’ll go to the gulag. And the moment they didn’t go to the gulag and they actually showed this on TV, there was a feeling of, Oh, something is changing. And also it was just the change of perception. [Lenin] was on the monuments, he is on the paintings, he is on the flags, in the mausoleum, and suddenly you actually can laugh at him, and I think that was the approach here too.

Because, you know, my psychiatrist usually told me, if you’re afraid of something, start hating it and then start laughing at it. I think that’s in general advice that we’re trying to follow. It felt a bit silly to do the critique of Putin because now everybody can do a critique of Putin, we all do a critique of Putin on a daily basis, right? So we thought, let’s stop practicing that and start practicing other ways of dealing with this psychological problem.

BFB: Is there anything you were trying to avoid in terms of obvious political commentary?

YU: I was mostly talking not about the art but about myself, because I keep being mad at the guy for 20 years, I mean it’s kind of enough. I’m already enough mad at him. I’m trying to find ways just for myself to release this out.

Lola B. Pierson: For me, it was super important that it didn’t devolve into some sort of intellectual discussion about Putin’s influence on Trump and Putin’s influence on America. I actually am so tired of hearing about those things, and I’m so tired of hearing people’s takes about that. I sort of loved this idea of Yury’s that we are doing this completely other thing that actually doesn’t operate as part of that conversation.

BFB: I think we’re all pretty tired of hearing about that.

YU: I think also theater is not mass media, it’s not journalism, so I think there are other more powerful tools theater has and can use than just delivering information and giving you facts or discussing the discourse.

BFB: Based on the title, it seems like the two of you are trying to lean into the image of Putin as a larger-than-life figure?

YU: The idea is pretty basic, that Putin is not a human being, but an entity that always existed, always is there, it changes–how do you say it, the chemical–

LP: The chemical composition changes.

YU: Right. It’s kind of this thing that is there, so Lola pretty much wrote a developed theatrical conspiracy theory about his presence in history and theater, all over.

LP: These different historical events that he has impacted, the way he impacts human beings’ bodies on a daily basis, stuff like that.

YU: I think you guys already made him pretty big here, and that’s kind of all he wanted. For 15 years he was like, I’m a big boy, everybody needs to consider me, everybody needs to think I’m important. And everyone was kind of like, Yeah sure, right. And he kind kept making those steps: into Syria, into Ukraine, into Georgia, into dictatorship in his own land, into bigger geopolitical games in the world, and now he finally got what he wanted.

The problem is now whatever we say about him is good for him. So if we say good things, we say bad things, it just keeps making this balloon bigger. And our small effort is to just add as much air as we can to this balloon and hope it will pop at some point, at least in our minds.

BFB: Sort of like the idea that any war movie is a pro war movie?

LP: Right, exactly.

YU: Because the tanks are cool.

LP: Right, right, and violence looks beautiful in a beautiful medium. And similarly, my personal opinion with Trump is that Trump got elected at least in part because every news outlet was showing him constantly. They still are, it still works.

BFB: Lola, your work often uses the layering of narratives and metafictional experiences. Was there something about the experience of politics and the mass news cycle that also feels disjointed and metafictional?

LP: For me it’s not just the news cycle, it’s the way we receive information now. My experience of the world has always been fragmented, and that is only augmented by the amount of time we all spend on the internet and social media, which is how most of us receive our news, right? End even when I’m reading a New York Times article or a [Washington] Post article, I am usually coming across it because of social media.

At any moment 20 tabs are open on your browser, and I do think that that is just the way we receive information, and I don’t actually think that’s innately problematic, which is why my work sort of mirrors that. But I am interested in mirroring that experience in the theater and not pretending like that’s not my experience of the world and instead my experience is this linear, very sequential thing.

BFB: I wanted to talk a bit about Russia and your experience living there. I’ve been reading Masha Gessen’s book “The Future Is History,” and she has this idea about the circularity of Russian history, where there’s a thaw and then there’s a tightening up again, and one of the ways you could interpret Putin’s rise to power is to see the ’90s as a thaw and now it’s tightening back up, as it did so many times before in the Soviet Union.

YU: I think it’s a very popular theory there. There’s an even more popular theory there about the bald and haired leaders: Lenin was bald, Stalin had hair, Khrushchev was bald, Brezhnev had hair. And it actually works, there are a couple things there. I do think that’s kind of true.

My metaphorical images were more sort of brutal, about someone is holding you by your neck and then puts you down into the bucket with shit, and that’s like 20 years, and then there’s this four-year like (breathes in) moment, and you’re like, Ah, the world is beautiful. Sorry, but that’s kind of more like it feels. I was growing up in the ’90s, and totally with the expectation that the world would be free and united and global and we don’t need borders and America is friends. And then it’s all back again to the same loop, and so to answer your question finally, there is a feeling of repetitiveness and of going back not even the next level of a spiral, just to the same kind of shit closet again.

BFB: What was it like working in Russia recently?

YU: I spent the full season there. I was in Moscow, then I was in a big Siberian city, and then I was in a very small Siberian city. It’s like three different counties. Moscow was shiny and hypocritical and crazy–it was also, I was there during the World Cup, so it looked glamorous, like seven times cleaner than Baltimore and New York. And then I went to the small Siberian place where the central historic street is in ruins. The snow is black–

LP: The snow is black from pollution?

YU: I don’t want to name the place because I liked it there, but the place is horrifying. You wake up in the middle of the night and your eyes hurt because of the pollution.

BFB: Did you have any experience with censorship?

YU: I had to cut a couple of lines from the play. One of the plays we did actually had a line like, “f—ing Putin.” And it was clear that it wouldn’t be there from the first moment we started. The play was actually not about Putin. But I mean, my colleague is under [house] arrest right now. I’ve been reporting from the courts for a year. He’s probably one of the best Russian directors and he’s under [house] arrest.

BFB: Serebrennikov?

YU: Yes, it’s Kirill. It’s still happening there, they just finished reading the case on one of them. I went to the courts seven, 10 times. It’s totally absurd, it’s crazy. It’s actually kind of beyond Kafka.

Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker.

BFB: So when you say the play is not political, I think I know what you mean, but I’m also not entirely sure I know what you mean? I hear a desire to keep it away from topical content, but there has to be some deeper desire to express something about capital-P politics, about the way we live, etc.–it’s not purely a formal exercise?

YU: I think it’s about Putin in us.

LP: Yeah, for me, I think it’s more of a formal exercise.

YU: For me, it’s very emotionally motivated, so I can’t really call it a formal exercise.

LP: I am like, yes, we are all being very deeply impacted by these powerful people and powerful systems at all times and I think we experience that daily. But I think, for me, it’s more about the game than the player, which might not be true of Yury.

YU: For me it’s a bit more straightforward actually. It’s kind of an absurdist play, right? So the absurd is our way to fight the things that are bigger than us that we can’t do anything about, that we can’t otherwise fight on the territory of realism, let’s say. This is why I think it’s an absurdist production, because we totally lose this battle in the land of realism.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

“Putin On Ice (that isn’t the real title of the show)” opens at Single Carrot Theatre on Sept. 14 and runs through Oct. 7. There are two preview dates on Sept. 12 and 13.

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