Russian playwright Mikhail Durnenkov, who visited Vilnius to teach in play reading festival’s Dramokratija workshop on propaganda, has an exceptionally wide smile. Always in a good mood, the writer inspired upcoming playwrights and shared his experiences. M. Durnenkov has quite a lot things to tell – in early days he used to work as an engineer and a plumber, he was part of Arctic expedition during which he wrote a play („On the edge of the earth“ is the first BBC World play, written in Arctic circle), during a protest against annexation of Crimea he was arrested by police. These and other experiences often turn into plays. And this, theatre and future are what we sat down to talk about.
You came to Lithuania from Russia to have a workshop for the participants of Dramokratija. This year's subject for Dramokratija is propaganda. How often do you have to face propaganda in your daily and creative lives?
Everyday, actually. Because every time I start to write I have to understand how the audience will understand and perceive it. How they will interpret it. I am talking with audience through my writing and I am also talking to the people who think differently than I do. I don’t think about state when I’m writing. I’m thinking about the viewer. And I always keep in mind that people (in Russia) who will see the play, most of their minds are brainwashed with propaganda. And often it changes what I write. That’s why I am writing about things that touch me, social issues in our society. A play can’t live without society. Sometimes with friends we are laughing that it would be nice not to write about homophobia but at the moment that is impossible.
What did you expect before you come here?
Actually I had no expectations because when you have expectations you can be disappointed. So I’m open for everything. On the first day I had lecture and like a test with people on what we are going to be talking about on other days and I could change my policy. It depends on people. I thought it would be interesting for people to understand more about structure and hear more about, you know, theory. So I did it. Now I’m telling about documentary theatre because I heard it is not so popular in Lithuania. Maybe that’s because it’s not yours. Documentary theatre is very very difficult. Much easier to sit and write what you wish. You dig something, a mountain, and you don’t know will you find something or not. Documentary theatre is a risk. Quite a big risk. And many projects weren’t finished.
Before you started writing you have worked as a plumber, engineer, journalist. And your brother is a playwright as well. What brought you to theatre?
I was always writing. I started writing for theatre quite accidentally. It was kind of an escape from life I didn’t choose. I didn’t want to become an engineer. But in 90s it was scary not to have some practical profession because you didn’t know what was coming. When I was sixteen all I wanted to do was to read books and write. I didn’t know what I want to be. So I became an engineer. But then I got depressed and I came to theatre. I wanted to do anything there. I told them if you need and actor, I can be an actor. If you need someone to build a stage, I will build the stage. But I got lucky and in theatre I met a playwright who told me “If you write, write a play”. I was astonished “Can I?”. For me it seemed that you had to have a validation to write. When my first play was produced, I was sitting in theatre hall and I was thinking “I deceived everyone. I have no right to be a playwright. How can they believe those words I’ve written? It’s just balderdash.” But the audience reacted differently than I was expecting, they laughed and they cried. I was surprised that it’s not only me who feels that way. At first, I was ashamed to say that I am a writer. Anton Chekhov has said “To say that I’m a writer is the same as to say I’m a beauty.” So on my first years I was saying I’m an upcoming playwright. But then all these fears dissolved.
One of your first plays which you have written with your brother, "Cultural layer", showed that there are playwrights and cultural life not only in Moscow but in other places, Tolyatti in particular. How has the cultural life in Russia changed since that play was written?
Since then situation has changed a few times. When I started writing it was like reports from life events. Theatre was like a closed society which produced classic plays about eternal values. So it seemed strange when some people came to the stage and destroyed everything like some barbarians. And in a way it was like that. For us it was strange that these people were grimacing on stage, people don’t act like that in real life. So we wrote plays, we acted them to show what people do in real life. After some time there came directors who also wanted to produce plays like that. Reality wasn’t as shocking as it used to be. And then there was a new stage in Russia state. TV and other medias again started to glamorize reality and once again it looked different than real life. And at the moment reality is toxic, dangerous to theatre. Not because of censure, but because it doesn’t coincide with what is pictured on TV.
A few years ago you have been arrested during the protest against Crimea anexation. After that you shared a video with arrested people singing in a police car. What this episode means to you as an artist? Are you afraid it is going to happen again?
I won’t say I’m not scared. I’m always scared. I don’t know what has changed. I remember that morning. I thought if I won’t go there, all my life I will be thinking I didn’t go. In our history there was one event when in 1968 tanks where sent to Prague. And then twelve people gathered in Red square. And everyone knew their names. Twelve people from all the Soviet Union. And that morning there were a lot of people. Something is changing and I think it is changing for the good.
How do you choose subjects for your plays? Or subjects choose you to write a play on it?
How does it happen?
I don’t know. (pause) I don’t know. I had a few theories. I tell my students that for a play it is enough to have some image or a character or some overheard story. On my flight to Vilnius I read a story about a deputy who was appointed by the president’s administration to become a mayor of one city. He had to be the inner guy, who votes right. Just one thing, he had to have some biographical relations to that district. So they hired an older woman to pretend to be his mother. And I thought “Well, that’s a story for a play!”
So this is your new project?
You travel a lot and participate in many workshops. Was it anything and if was, how, exceptional, non traditional about participants of Dramokratija?
I got an impression that theatre for Lithuanians is something very deep and sacred and we can’t say things about it . Every time we are discussing a play I notice that participants are talking about something philosophical, something deep, about God, eternity. Maybe it’s just a view on theatre and maybe it is just Lithuanian culture, this deep understanding of theatre.
What would a perfect society be to you? How do you imagine it?
Oh… I don’t know. For it is the most interesting to work with things which are wrong. I find what is wrong and I work with it. I don’t have an image of a perfect society. Every society has some flaws. Life isn’t a try to make society perfect but a search for flaws and fight these flaws. Maybe there can be no ideal society because everyone is different and need different things.
If you could go back in time and change your or world's history, what would you change?
Nothing. I realized that you have to accept yourself as you are, not to admit your mistakes. If you can accept yourself, you also can accept the society and its mistakes. These mistakes probably have made me the man I am today and if I removed those mistakes, I wouldn’t be the man I am now. We all are individual, we all have scars, tattoos, and if they wouldn’t be there, we wouldn’t be we. I write because I made mistakes in the past and if I would live in harmony, there wouldn’t be anything to write about. Overall, I think that talent shows up in outbreaks, it spills. Just imagine that everything is great. Why to do things? Why to scream about it for the world? There would be nothing to talk about.
What is the most scary thing in today's politics for you?
There are so many things. And I need to choose one. I think that the most scary thing is disability. That feeling that we cannot change anything. The confirmation of this disability. That is the most scary thing, the knowing that you can’t change, can’t influence anything. It is very convenient situation for every government.
How do you see the future of your country and its theatre?
I really despise the saying that theatre has to do something. Theatre doesn’t owe anything to anyone. In my opinion, the best theatre is the one which fuses all the possible methods and doesn’t divide things into good and bad ones. I think, theatre must be theatre which talks about social, relevant problems and theatre which talks about eternal things. In my country there is an image of what a perfect theatre must be like and that is why I am speaking, I can’t agree to that.
And the future of your country? What do you imagine is going to happen in Russia?
We are getting more civilized. I am an optimist for that. I don’t think it is possible to bring back times of Stalin. But sometimes I’m bereaved of this belief. When lawyers come to court of Serebnikov and say “This and this, everything is correct and logic. It should be this way.” And the judge says “Not. Because not.” In moments like these I lose hope because it is then when your helplessness strikes you with all its weight. In early 2000s it was different, it was better times, we believed it is going to be a better country. When you wake up and don’t lose that belief, things are not that bad. Maybe not in court but in my plays I can write about it and it can happen in theatre.
So, I imagine this situation is the biggest inspiration for you?
Yes. It’s very easy to be an artist during the war.
In your play “The war has not yet started“ you ask "Why are you afraid of a world war if you haven't fought your own one?". What is your war?
Maybe I’ll repeat myself but my war is with this sorrow. If I won’t be able to fight it, how will people who lack the means I have? In a way, I am responsible for them. I must tell them that there is something we can do. They at least can be thinking that there is something they can do.
Would you say your life is a happy one?
Yes. (And a wide sincere smile on his face only confirms it.)
Interview by Živilė Zablackaitė