By Rebekah Kirkman
Putin poses with new Kalashnikov super rifle. U.S. sanctions are driving Russian billionaires into Putin’s arms. Putin is actually a small, beautiful kitten. Putin is Kevin from “Home Alone”; he is also Dobby and Nosferatu and the nurse from “Romeo and Juliet.” Putin is the Mona Lisa. Even Putin understands that with Trump, flattery will get you anywhere.
Some of these are lies, some of these are headlines, and some are culled from the barrage of ideas put forth in the play “Putin On Ice (That Isn’t the Real Title of This Show),” a co-production of The Acme Corporation and Single Carrot Theatre, written by Lola B. Pierson and directed by Yury Urnov.
Though there’s no actual ice in the production, each of the nine Putin characters — including Baby Putin (Molly Cohen), Drag Putin (Kaya Vision), Religious Putin (Mohammad R. Suaidi), and several talented others — dances, marches, and catwalks around the sparse and totalitarian-vibey set with cool grace and culty energy. The Putins interact with the audience and take turns spewing facts (via dynamic slideshows and reenactments) about Vladimir Putin, who, they’d like us to know, has been directly responsible for various important historic, social, and cultural events and movements since the dawn of time. The only character that is not any kind of Putin, Tania Karpekina, playing herself, flits in and out of the action and facilitates some of the audience interaction (the game show portion, the meditation-reading portions) and mutters things in her native Russian. The only thing I think I understand, sometimes, from Tania here is her tone, which goes from urgent to hushed to contemplative and morose.
I sat down with playwright and Acme’s co-founding Artistic Director Lola B. Pierson, director and Acme company member Yury Urnov, and Single Carrot’s Artistic Director Genevieve de Mahy to discuss capital-T Truth, laughing at tyrants, political art and its uses, and more.
The show runs until October 7.
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This conversation has been condensed.
Rebekah Kirkman: How did this collaboration between Single Carrot and Acme come to be?
Genevieve de Mahy: Single Carrot's side of the story is that one of our company members had joked — he said, “Oh, when we do ‘Putin On Ice…’” And I was like “What's that?” He's like, “It's an icecapade about Vladimir Putin” and I was like, haha. And then a few weeks later I was like, “I've been really thinking about that idea and I think we should do it.” And then we reached out to Yury [Urnov], him being Russian and an awesome director, and asked if he was interested in doing a piece about Putin and he said “Yes, absolutely.” And then we were talking about who should write it. Lola came up and then through that it became really a co-production between Acme and Single Carrot since Lola and Yury are both Acme company members. And obviously, it's veered very far from its initial idea of it being an icecapade. [laughs]
Lola B. Pierson: Has it though? Yeah, there's no ice but there's a lot of capade... [laughs]
RK: And so how did you write it from that?
LBP: Yury and I have worked together before on a “Three Sisters” adaptation and we work really well together. This time the way it worked is that we met a bunch of times and sort of just shot the shit about Putin and what Yury thinks, and then I generated like 35 pages of just text with no stage direction and no characters. And then Yury walked in with that on the first day of rehearsal, and then he and the designers, and the Single Carrot people, and the Acme people, and the actors collectively all brought ideas to the table. Yury would be like, “I want every actor to come up with a kind of Putin that they are.” Then that would become part of the show, and then I would restructure or come up with new text everyday, or Yury would be like, “We need a thing that does this. Can you write this up?” So the text is evolving a lot, which is definitely how I believe text should operate in theater. I think theater is a visual art form and text is one element of it, and Yury also believes that, which I think is one of the reasons we work very well together.
RK: Something that happens a lot in this play, and I think in some of Acme’s other plays that I’ve seen, is the actors are breaking the wall between audience and stage, or they tell you, the audience, how you’re supposed to feel, and I was wondering if you could respond to that —
LBP: Trademark? I see a lot of plays — I think I've seen more than the average number of plays, and it always starts to feel sort of disingenuous to me that people are acting like the audience isn't there. And that hurts me because there's this fixation on truth in theater, where everyone is obsessed with truth and they're always talking about truth. But also we're constantly — and this is sort of what the play is about in a way, right — we're constantly lying to you. The show looks so different before we light it and after we light it, and that's a total lie. All of these, the composition and the sound and the set, all combine to trick the audience. And when it works it's sort of the most magnificent thing in the world. But for me, and I think especially because I've seen so many plays, it often doesn't work. And then I find myself so frustrated that I can't even enjoy the effort. So in a way, maybe that's me undermining, it's an expression of my lack of confidence or something, is needing to check in with the audience and be like, “Hey, we're all here right? We're together, look at this, are we all having this experience?”
GDM: Speaking from outside, seeing your work, though, I think it also creates an intimacy with the audience where, by acknowledging that we exist, it's like oh yeah, you know it's almost time for you to go back to your seat. Acknowledging what the audience experience is like in a play and bringing attention towards it I think creates an intimacy that the audience member all of a sudden is more a part of the piece than they would be otherwise.
RK: Yeah, as an audience member last week I was like, oh cool, I'm walking into this lobby, there are people with executioners' hoods —
[Enter Yury Urnov, director.]
RK: So, in this play, let’s talk about the whole thing of lies and lying to the audience, I mean, the name of the play sets us up for that experience…
LBP: Yeah, I'm actually very proud of how we came to find that title —
GDM: It was very collaborative.
LBP: It was! And for me it was exciting because it's what I think collaboration should be, where it ended up not being a compromise. They [Single Carrot] wanted to call the show one thing and we [Acme] wanted to call the show a different thing, and then the compromise was we'll call it this thing but then we'll tell everyone it's a lie. And that ended up being this beautiful tie-in to a little bit of what I was trying to do with the script, which is basically talk about being disingenuous by performing for you on some level, but also confessing what we're grasping at is truth and that we're grasping at that so intensely. I'm hoping by telling you that we're lying to you, you'll understand that we are telling you the truth. And then also, from a political perspective — and I think Yury can speak to this probably more eloquently than I can — we're being lied to constantly. I think that happens with Putin and I think it happens with Trump and I think this rhetoric around truth is constantly being employed in this really political way that's very upsetting.
Yury Urnov: The idea of the post-truth society I am totally kind of on board with because I was pretty much growing in the moment [in the Soviet Union] when the truth kept changing very quickly, the truths kept replacing each other. So one day they tell you “this is the truth” and the next day they tell you “that's the truth,” even as a kid, and then they also tell you “this is the truth for this place and this is the truth for that place.” And “this is the truth you can't say out loud” and “this is the truth that you can say out loud.” So the idea of truth generally gets completely deteriorated. And I don't know if it's right or wrong but that's just the fact I've been living with. I almost can't say “This is truth” about almost anything in this life anymore.
GDM: And I think as Americans we still want to believe that there is a truth, that there is an absolute truth, that if we just follow the right news source, or something, that the truth is possible and exists and is an actual, factual thing.
YU: I mean I think that's the right impulse but it seems like we will have to start... I'm just forced to start rethinking that.
GDM: Yeah, only recently we were forced to question as a culture what truth is and whether or not it's manufactured.
YU: But it seems part of that is probably just natural with many civilizations coming together, and information being suddenly available from so many sources. But maybe part of that is actually the part of the act of politics because it seems like people like Putin, people like Trump, they so much work out of this paradigm.
LBP: I also think the question of truth is innately tied to language and is innately tied to discursive thinking. And for me theater, as I said, is a visual art form and it's a way to step outside of those questions and to look at things more holistically. And I think Yury does that especially well. What's true and what's false, that's one very specific way of thinking. And then there's this other way of thinking that I think seeing a play or hopefully making a play allows you to employ, where you're looking at things not as true as good and false as bad but that you're looking at things more holistically.
YU: You could bring in different systems, you know: Is it humane, or is it cruel, or is it kind? That's easier to judge, it seems to me, in most cases, in a lot of cases. Is it beautiful? Is it ugly? It's not a hundred percent scale but it's something; there are other systems of belief.
RK: Yeah, that's so interesting. I think this play itself, all the statements that the characters present about Putin — I can't keep track of all that’s said let alone what's true or what's a lie. There’s so much information flowing fast, you can't track all of the things. Is it freeing in any way that you can say whatever you want on stage?
LBP: Yeah, making a play is the most awesome thing in the world. I think actually it is really interesting that Yury [says] there are different paradigms, where I'm like, oh yeah, it is actually so much more important to me [to ask,] is it beautiful or not. That's actually the question that I'm asking when I'm making something. It's not “Does it make sense?” Is it beautiful? And then it's sort of his job to make sense.
RK: In some of what I’ve seen and read about “Putin On Ice,” you’re asserting that it’s not a play about our current political situation. I thought it would be harder to divorce reality from whatever I’m experiencing in the theater, but you actually just step into this world and it’s funny and made-up and you stop trying to make it make sense in terms of everything outside. Maybe we can talk about “political art” or how you feel about making work that is political or that uses politics?
YU: For me it's certainly political ... I'm just sitting here hating the guy [Putin] and then I get to do something about that. I do think that instruments should be used adequately. You know, journalism is journalism, art is art, and they can do different things. I think one of the beauties of the art is that, at least in journalism you're not supposed to lie really openly, at least, unless you say you're lying. In art you actually can, for example, or you can go beyond facts. In the hyperbolic world, in the metaphorical world, you can say things that you feel and can't prove, or can't prove at least in the discourse of facts.
A big piece of political reality that can be described by journalism and can be described by a law — one of the pictures we're showing in the end [of the play]: Boris Nemstov, the former presidential candidate in Russia, he was killed at the bridge in front of Kremlin by the group of Chechen killers. It probably will never be possible to prove that Vladimir Putin was the reason for this murder. But it's very obvious at the same time. Or that [Anna] Politkovskya, another Russian journalist, in 2006 I believe was killed on Putin's birthday as a birthday present. He probably didn't even know about that, right, he got it as a present, he probably got mad, we don't know, or happy, we don't know. And in the land of judicial facts, we can't prove this connection but it is absolutely obvious that it's right there. Where do we do that?
LBP: One thing that we talked about a lot is how much attention is paid to Putin and how much attention, for me, is paid to Trump and so talking about them in the same way, like talking about Putin, good or bad, it just adds to it. It just makes him bigger and that's what he wants. And so how can we talk about this thing that is actually very upsetting? This person who is one of the worst people alive, how can we discuss it without adding to that? Which, we're not sure if we failed…
YU: We probably have failed. But I do think that there is... I'm consciously talking about emotions, which I usually don't, but there is this thing that is hanging there, there is the anger, the fear, the distrust. And I do think that art can fight that with its own means. I keep telling this story... when in ’91, I saw the TV show [“The Fifth Wheel”] where they said that Vladimir Lenin, our former idol, was a mushroom, and they were proving in this mockumentary this idea... It actually changed the world probably more than a lot of criticism, you know, a lot of actually factual criticism of how many people were eliminated by this person. But this change of attitude actually probably made the revolution or the fall of the Soviet Union much closer than all the critical articles. There is our [individual] mode, but there is also the social mode, the social attitude to things, how do we perceive things as a nation? Are we afraid of this person, are we mad at this person, are we ignoring this person, are we laughing at this person?
RK: Some of this is like when you're a kid and you're told not to laugh at the obnoxious kid that's acting out in class because it encourages their behavior — yeah, so how we respond to these tyrants and terrible people —
YU: I mean the West was trying to ignore Putin for a long time. That just made him so mad that I'm sure that's how it's just like psychologically worked...
LBP: Yeah, the show became oddly topical in a way that I don't think we intended where all of a sudden like Putin's in the news and oh no, now we're making a topical show.
GDM: We were talking about it long before there was any Russian meddling in elections. And right when they were talking about it I was like, I bet it was Putin, and then all of a sudden it was like Putin! And I was like, I knew it. [laughs]
LBP: But I do think there is personal liberation in laughter or something. I subscribe to that, that laughter is a form of nourishment and that we need nourishment now.
YU: Also I'm just capitalizing on the Soviet culture which was which was so, you know, everything was sealed. No mass media, no Saturday Night, so everybody was telling these political jokes all the time. It’s the first thing you do when you meet a person: “Did you hear this one?” It was also the code. It was like we're on the same page.
RK: I saw the play the first night and thought it was funny and everyone else sitting around me did too, it seemed. I guess it's like, back to the attitude idea, you are using this absurd form to laugh at this person or this idea of this person.
YU: I think we're laughing at us [continuing] to exaggerate his size, volume, intelligence, smartness, you know, I mean he doesn't care, right? It's about us and us. It's about what we think about that, and where we position him in our mind.
RK: Why is everyone in the play a form of Putin except for Tania Karpekina?
LBP: Well, Tania operates as a framing device so she is exempted from it, in that Tania is the person who is speaking the truth to us the whole time. The only problem is no one can understand her. So Tania is telling us the truth and everyone else is a cult member. Part of their initiation is they pick which Putin they are, there are so many sides to Putin, there are so many Putins, so they pick which Putin they are and that’s a step of the cult initiation. And then Tania is not initiated to the cult so she isn't a Putin, she's just herself, who is being on a level with us about what we think is capital-T True, except that we don't really believe in capital-T Truth. And the rest of them are part of this performance to prove this thing about Putin.
YU: But I like the idea with Tania that the truth exists, we just can't understand it.
Single Carrot Theatre is a member of The Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance
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