Moscow Theater Rebels, Husband and Wife, Are Dead
By Sophia Kishkovsky
MOSCOW — In the early 2000s, Mikhail Ugarov and Elena Gremina, playwrights who were husband and wife, were lamenting that Russian theater had grown ossified and distant from society’s problems a decade after the fall of the Soviet empire.
Then, sparked by an encounter with the Royal Court Theater of London, they set about trying to change that.
As part of a cultural exchange with the Londoners, they learned about documentary theater — the use of interviews, oral history and journalistic sources to create works for the stage. Ms. Gremina and Mr. Ugarov embraced the technique, brought it to Moscow and in 2002 established Teatr.doc, a theater company that presented shockingly raw accounts of life in post-Soviet Russia.
“If you go to a regular theater, you won’t even guess that there are rich and poor in the country, that people are in some kind of crisis, that the birthrate is falling, that we are at war,” Ms. Gremina told Radio Liberty in 2005.
The theater became an outsize force on the Russian dramatic scene, and Mr. Ugarov and Ms. Gremina, who were known for their warmth, became the center of a new wave of playwrights and actors committed to protest theater.
The works they wrote, nurtured, directed and presented increasingly became powerful critiques of Vladimir V. Putin’s government, attracting official harassment, suppression and repeated closings.
“Gremina and Ugarov were the brains, the brawn and the twin hot hearts of Teatr.doc,” John Freedman, a former theater critic for The Moscow Times, wrote. “Doc, as everyone calls the playhouse, was a thorn in the side of tradition right from the beginning.”
Young playwrights cultivated by the couple created “tales of homeless people, criminals, unwed mothers in prison, factory workers and the like,” he wrote, conveyed in authentic, often verbatim language that jarred conservative theatergoers.
Mr. Ugarov and Ms. Gremina, who had lived and worked together since the tail end of the Soviet era, died within weeks of each other in Moscow this spring.
Mr. Ugarov died of heart disease on April 1 at 62, and Ms. Gremina died of kidney failure on May 16 at 61. Mr. Ugarov’s son Ivan confirmed the deaths.
Mr. Ugarov served as the artistic director of Teatr.doc and Ms. Gremina as managing director. The theater, which had no more than 100 seats, was housed in a basement on a lane in central Moscow, where audiences crammed in to experience raw performances and often engaged in discussion sessions afterward.
Some of the plays traveled abroad, building an international audience. Productions were mounted at festivals in Poland, France and Germany.
But the authorities increasingly took note of the works’ critical content. They imposed contradictory regulations, such as demanding installation of a new fire door, which then led to charges of zoning violations. In December 2014, when the couple tried to screen a documentary about the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, which had toppled the pro-Kremlin leader Viktor Yanukovych early that year, the police raided and searched the theater, claiming there was a bomb threat.
The city evicted the theater shortly after, despite a campaign supported by international figures, including the playwright Tom Stoppard. Ms. Gremina and Mr. Ugarov soldiered on; they reopened in a small run-down wing of an old mansion in another neighborhood several months later, only to be evicted again in 2015.
As part of the harassment campaign, prosecutors called Ms. Gremina in for questioning, and undercover investigators from the F.S.B., the successor agency to the K.G.B., were audience regulars.
“Our authorities are creating a situation in which we are compelled to engage in protest art, thereby giving new life to the theater, endowing it with new meaning,” Mr. Ugarov told Business Online, a news site in Kazan, in southwest Russia.
Ms. Gremina scoffed at the harassment. “I really don’t give a damn,” she said in a Facebook post in 2015.
Mr. Ugarov and Ms. Gremina died as Teatr.doc was about to be evicted once again.
Teatr.doc made speaking out its mission. It “started filling in the information gaps in society, talking about those things that no one else was talking about,” said Mikhail Durnenkov, a playwright who is closely associated with the theater.
The issues tackled by Teatr.doc’s productions included the 2004 hostage crisis at a school in Beslan, the trial of people arrested during the 2012 anti-Putin protests at Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, and the investigation and prosecution of a film director critical of the government.
Ms. Gremina wrote, and Mr. Ugarov directed, “One Hour Eighteen Minutes,” a 2010 play about the Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow pretrial detention center in 2009. Mr. Magnitsky represented Bill Browder, a London-based American investor who had clashed with the Kremlin.
Mr. Browder, who was once the largest foreign investor in the Russian stock market, ran afoul of Mr. Putin in 2005 and was kicked out of Russia. He was convicted of tax fraud by a Russian court in absentia and sentenced to nine years in prison.
Teatr.doc has continually lacked for adequate funding.
“Gremina said poverty is also censorship,” Zarema Zaudinova, a former student of Mr. Ugarov’s who is now running the theater, said. “We want to have workshops, to bring authors from the regions, to send ours out on residencies in order to develop. But this is impossible because all of us have to have other jobs in order to earn money to live on.”
Ms. Gremina’s sideline was writing scripts for mass-market television series, including “Adjutants of Love,” a historical drama about czarist Russia. Her income helped finance the theater.
The City of Moscow did offer financial help, but the theater refused to accept state money.
Mikhail Yurievich Ugarov was born on Jan. 23, 1956, in Arkhangelsk, in northern Russia, where his father, Yuri, was a well-known teacher of theater studies. In the 1970s, Mr. Ugarov worked as an actor and playwright in the western city of Kirov. He moved to Moscow after meeting Ms. Gremina.
Elena Anatolievna Mindadze was born in Moscow on Nov. 20, 1956. Her father, Anatoly Grebnev, was a screenwriter who wrote Marlen Khutsiev’s “July Rain” (1967), one of the signature films capturing the atmosphere among the intelligentsia during the thaw after Stalin’s death.
She asserted her independence and created her own last name, Gremina, by combining her father’s last name with that of her mother, Galina Mindadze, a literary translator. Ms. Gremina’s brother, Alexander Mindadze, became a successful screenwriter and survives her.
Besides Ivan, Mr. Ugarov’s son from a previous marriage, the couple are also survived by a son, Alexander Rodionov, from a previous marriage of Ms. Gremina’s, and three grandchildren. Mr. Ugarov is also survived by a brother, Aleksei.
Mr. Gremina and Ms. Ugarov met around 1989 at a seminar held at Schelykovo, the estate of the 19th-century playwright Alexander Ostrovsky, in the Kostroma region northeast of Moscow.
As a couple, they became the driving force behind the Lubimovka Young Russian Playwrights Festival, conducted in the form of workshop-style readings and passionate debates held at Konstantin Stanislavsky’s estate outside Moscow. They also began to work closely with the British Council office in Russia. (It was recently shut down by the Russian government.) The council helped establish their connection to the Royal Court Theater in London.
In the preface to “Performing Violence,” a book about Russian theater, Sasha Dugdale, a British poet, playwright and translator who helped bring about the contacts at the Royal Court, wrote that Ms. Gremina and Mr. Ugarov “had succeeded in arming a whole generation of writers with a zeal for the real.”
As time went on, the couple despaired of events in Russia. In a Facebook post in September 2017, Mr. Ugarov expressed frustration at the production of “nice and pretty plays” despite the grim reality that theater directors “are in prison for nothing, that the country is at war, that torture has become the norm, and Orthodox extremism is at hand.”
With the couple’s death, Teatr.doc’s supporters are grappling with the future, said Mr. Durnenkov, the playwright. The theater, he said, “is a space of freedom that we can’t lose.”
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page B6 of the New York edition with the headline: Mikhail Ugarov, 62, and Elena Gremina, 61, Theater Rebels.