Documentary Dramaturgy and the Energy of Theatre
Tatyana Frolova is the founder and director of the KnAM Theatre, which carries out projects worldwide. The main peculiarity of her work is that all her performances combine a documentary basis and artistic approaches. Each idea of Ms. Frolova and her team is an impressive and creative approach to the discussion of serious topics. Those topics are important for both each individual and humanity as a whole. In an interview with the Global Women Media news agency, the theatre director talked about why documentary dramaturgy is fascinating and why she believes that theatre has a special energy and potential in today’s world.
founder and director of the KnAM Theatre
Together with her like-minders, Tatyana Frolova founded a theatre in Komsomolsk-on-Amur 35 years ago. At that time, it was the first officially registered private theatre in the USSR after 1927. Such independence made it possible to not just open the stage for performances but also form a space for free creativity and experimentation. The troupe was actively looking for alternatives to traditional theatrical forms and styles. Starting with performing masterpieces of Western drama, the theatre has come to original plays based on documentary material.
– What is KnAM today?
– Today, KnAM is a theatre with no dominance of a playwright, director, choreographer, artist, actor, or audience. We are interested in the creative mixture of all means of contemporary art: video, photo, document, action, energy, colour, noise, ideas, objects, and words. For us, performances are an opportunity to send a message to a person about a person.
Our theatre is very small. Our art group consists of 6 people, three of whom were the originators of the project. There are only 26 seats in the hall. However, all that is the source of the special atmosphere that our spectators love so much. Moreover, the small format does not limit development in any way. Our performances have been staged with great success in France, Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Singapore, and South Korea.
The KnAM Theatre represents Russia at international festivals in Europe and Asia and fulfils international cultural projects. It has received the Prize of the Council for Culture and Art under the President of the Russian Federation and other awards.
We consider ourselves a youth-focused theatre although we have already grown out of this age. However, the majority of our audience are progressive young people interested in history and art and focused on self-development. We are very happy that we have become interesting for the new generation. As a director of the theatre, I have always explored acting and the potential impact on the audience through the word and energy of the actor. It’s great that today we can influence that part of society, which is our future.
Today, we deliver documentary performances. However, we don’t lose all the artistic nature of a theatre. We manage to transmit something contemporary and unconventional in every subject. This is probably what attracts young people.
In some way, one can call our theatre a social project. We do not profit from the performances that take place in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. Our salaries are generated only from tours to European and Asian countries. For that, we spend almost half the year travelling and half the year in our home town.
– What is the peculiarity of documentary performances?
– Many years ago, when we switched to the format of documentary performances, we had to explain what makes it especially interesting to the viewer. In general, such performances can be compared to documentary films based on real-life stories. The difference is that in theatre everything is not in a recording but in real time. Not only the visual performance but also the atmosphere, the light, the emotions of the actors, and their energy fascinate the viewers.
It took some time for us to come to such a genre. At first, KnAM staged performances based on works of fiction but the format changed gradually and switched to documentary performances in 2005. That was the time when my mother died and I was totally lost. It was difficult for me to fulfil any theatrical projects. I was immersed in the thought that I had lived my mother’s whole life in front of me, which I hadn’t noticed properly because I was living in work: in the fictional worlds of the stage. Then I decided to put on a documentary play titled ‘My Mother’. It was based on my reflections on what that person meant to me.
I managed to not only convey my thoughts on the value of a mother in everyone’s destiny through that play but also show an entire era of life in Russia through the story of a specific person.
The performance was very successful and really impressed the viewers. I understood that when we showed it in Khabarovsk. After the show, I got a phone call from a woman who was crying on the phone. She said she hadn’t spoken to her daughter for 7 years but she contacted her and apologized after the show. She realized the importance of communication between daughter and mother. At that moment, I clearly understood that one can really influence people through creativity and art and change the space around oneself for the better.
Interpretation plays an important role in understanding classical works. In the documentary format, thoughts are expressed directly and openly. That’s how I realized that I wanted to influence people through real life and real stories.
Since then, we have been exploring this format deeper. We experimented with characters and ways of artistic expression in the context of reality. It is important to say that documentary productions require a lot of serious work. To attract the viewer’s attention, it is not enough to read or show archival materials. You have to create a story and fill it with emotions, details, and images.
We haven’t moved away from the art theatre but have combined it with the documentary format. In my opinion, that’s why our productions have become so popular and are of genuine interest to viewers worldwide. In 2020, we were even invited to represent Russia together with the director Kirill Serebrennikov at one of the leading cultural festivals in Berlin: the FIND festival in Schaubünden. This is a great honour for me. Most importantly, this is a sign that we create really unique and interesting things for the world.
– How do you choose topics and plots for your performances?
– We are not limited in time or in the ways of expressing our creative ideas. Perhaps, that is the main value of our theatre. We can think through the topic and prepare a performance for an entire year without creating seemingly necessary projects with no special meaning.
Each time, finding a topic is a complicated process. It is based not so much on existing information precedents but rather on an internal sense of the relevance of the topic. I try to understand what is necessary and important for the world today.
One of the key topics of our theatre is dedicated to memory. I first turned to it in 2011. At that time, there were a lot of rallies in the country. That was the first time when I personally joined such an action. I was struck by the number of people in the streets of our small town. Our grandparents and older generations grew up in a different time. They were afraid to speak up, to assert their rights. They taught us to be silent as well. However, people suddenly started coming out to rallies. I perceived that in a way that we finally realized our existence and the necessity to be proactive in our lives and in the life of the country.
This is how my research on the topic of memory started. That included the memory of an individual, a nation, a people, and all humanity. Our theatre staged a play titled ‘I Am’. We managed to connect the topic of memory with the story of a woman experiencing Alzheimer’s disease. The main idea of the play was that a society that has forgotten its roots is like a child. It is incapable of independent action and waits for its elders to tell what to do and in what direction to go.
Just as flowers wither in a vase over time, people who have no roots are incapable of growing.
Nikolay Epplee’s book ‘An Inconvenient Past’ influenced greatly my understanding of the subject of memory. The author described the experience of some countries and peoples who were able to come to terms with the conflicts and contradictions existing in their history and to forgive their enemies in order to move on.
Our play ‘My Little Antarctica’ was partially connected to this understanding of the topic of remembrance. Although the performance was documentary, I filled it with episodes from The Snow Queen. I used the image of the boy Kai whose frozen heart thawed only thanks to love. Our nation is very much like this character. Today, we need to learn to forgive those people who have brought us pain or resentment in the past.
A cold heart does no good. One must melt it with love.
This year, I decided to move away from the topic of memory. It has always been reflected in our performances in a certain way. This time, I really wanted to talk about happiness. I felt that this was exactly the topic that our world needed.
When talking about happiness, I often recall the story of Viktor Frankl. He was a man who didn’t lose his heart and best qualities even as a concentration camp prisoner. He later said that, when they were driven barefoot in the snow to work, that was extremely painful but he escaped from those feelings thanks to his own imagination. Viktor Frankl imagined delivering reports at the world’s leading universities and telling students about fascism’s atrocities so that he would never let such horrors happen again. He saw the meaning in transmitting that important message to people and that gave him the strength and will to live. Why do I often think of that particular example? Being happy is an enormous work of a person on him- or herself, on his or her inner state.
Much depends not on external situations but on our perception of the world, on the values and meanings within ourselves.
We live in the Far East where cold weather lasts 8 months a year. When listening to the complaints of some people, I ask myself certain questions increasingly often. What are we doing to be happy? Is it possible to live in a world without love? That’s why I want so much to talk about happiness today. I like the fact that I can do that through creativity and theatre.
– You are a very interesting interlocutor. Can you tell us about your education?
– I graduated from the Khabarovsk State Institute of Arts and Culture, Department of Directing. We had many very good teachers. But I had a lot of knowledge even before I entered the Institute. After I finished the 10th school grade, I went to Moscow. I wanted to enter the Shchukin School but fate followed a different course.
When preparing for admission to the educational institution in Russia’s capital, I carried out a lot of research work. Some professional books and textbooks could be read only at the Theatre Library on Bolshaya Dmitrovka. I came there early in the morning and literally studied the works of great theatre practitioners and theorists. I was also very much influenced by Yury Lyubimov, the director and founder of the Taganka Theatre. I attended a lot of performances and even actors’ rehearsals there.
Theatre is a field where you need in-depth knowledge from all kinds of different fields. It is important to not only understand dramaturgy but also read a lot and study culture and different kinds of art.
I consider Mark Zakharov to be my great teacher. I used to go to him to undergo internships every year. I was honoured and proud when he told me in one of his interviews that his student from Komsomolsk-on-Amur was staging successful productions all over the world.
– What is the language of your performances?
– All plays are necessarily staged in Russian. That’s what allows us to convey the specific features of our culture. I believe that language is music and every country and every nation has its own musical uniqueness. In some plays, we have simultaneous subtitles on the screen and, in others, we use simultaneous interpretation. Anyway, the actors themselves always speak Russian.
The voice is very important because it is our continuation in space. It reflects us and helps us share our energy with people around us. Of course, the voice is what makes us people.
I love literature very much but I’m happy that my kind of art is theatre. It involves many mechanisms and ways of interacting with the audience including the voice. In my opinion, the ability to speak is one of the key abilities of human beings. If we are silent, we degenerate. Yes, today we can easily communicate textually, thus quickly getting answers from interlocutors. However, this is no substitute for communication using voice with lively looks and presence.
The less a person speaks and hears live speech, the more he or she falls into a state of apathy. When we spend some time alone, we become lazy to go out and communicate with people. Because of the tremendous speed of the development of digital technology, I see one of the main problems of today’s youth in that. We have a very talented and ambitious rising generation. We can’t let it isolate itself.
– Theatre is probably one of the best ways to prevent that self-isolation. How, in your opinion, can today’s young people be attracted to dialogue and art?
– I believe that the inability and unwillingness to speak depend largely on the fact that people don’t read enough. They are incapable of working with words and formulating their thoughts at once. That’s why it is more comfortable for them to be alone with themselves. At the same time, talking is important and necessary. It is the only way of letting out our thoughts and emotions.
Through our theatrical performances, we seek to not only transmit important thoughts to the audience but also interest them in art.
When we staged Sonyechka’s Dream, we based the performance on the real story of a girl who tried to commit suicide and episodes of The Dream of a Ridiculous Man by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. However, we didn’t reveal the last chapter of the story in our play. We gave the audience specially prepared brochures where they could read it. That was incredible: the entire audience consisting mostly of young people stayed after the performance to learn the conclusion of the story. Many people later confessed that, after our performances, they began to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s books and became sincerely interested in his work.
It’s important for us, the adults, to understand that children always follow our examples. They will be fascinated by literature, theatre, and any other art if we are passionate about it.
I also believe that it is important to transform many of the arts to meet the needs of the rising generation and to find a new approach to young people. To do that, we need to look for unusual forms and cooperate with creative young professionals who can generate interesting ideas. Nowadays people are bored by reading archival documents. They need emotions and feelings. In this case, theatre is one of the best platforms for the transmission of cultural values.
– What does culture mean to you?
– On the one hand, I think of culture as violence no matter how provocative it may sound. Culture is the adherence to rules that people once agreed upon among themselves. It presupposes that people are social beings. That’s why they owe something to someone: they must behave in a certain way, not letting their animal instincts get the better of them.
On the other hand, the modern world is very chaotic and quite aggressive, which is even more dangerous. Those ‘islands of culture’ that we have managed to preserve keep humanity afloat and help us maintain important values and life guidelines.
The publication uses photos by Aleksey Blazhin, Andrey Igretsov, Valery Spidlin, Kirill Khanenkov, Manon Valentin
Pervostroiteley Avenue 15, Komsomolsk-on-Amur, 681003, Russia
Marina Volynkina, Viktoria Yezhova, Global Women Media news agency
Translated by Nikolay Gavrilov