A ‘Mobile Art Theater’ appears in Moscow Russian developers have made a theater app that uses augmented reality to put new plays in your pocket
On July 6, the Mobile Art Theater released its third premiere: an adaptation of Ivan Pyryev’s comedy musical film They Met in Moscow. The play features a contemporary version of Pyryev’s 1941 plot conveyed in the form of an audio guide around Moscow’s VDNKh exhibition park. The Mobile Art Theater, or MAT, is the very first app to apply such a format to contemporary theater. The project, led by journalist and media innovator Mikhail Zygar, opened in June and currently carries a repertoire of three different pieces. We asked theater critic Anton Khitrov to describe how these mobile shows work and why they really do count as contemporary theater.
Is this project in any way related to the Moscow Art Theater?
No — its name simply references that of Moscow’s best-known theatrical institution. The Russian capital now boasts three art theaters: the Chekhov Moscow Art Theater, which is led by director Sergey Zhenovach; the Gorky Moscow Art Theater, led by producer Edward Boyakov; and Mikhail Zygar’s Mobile Art Theater. The project’s leadership has also set its sights well beyond Moscow: if all goes as planned, the app will feature plays for other Russian cities as soon as this year, and over time, it will spread to cities outside Russia.
Hang on, isn’t Mikhail Zygar a journalist? How did he get into theater all of a sudden?
Mikhail Zygar was already active in a number of professions when he founded the Mobile Art Theater. He worked as a war correspondent in the aughts before leading the independent television channel Dozhd from 2010 to 2015. He has written a number of nonfiction books, including the bestseller All the Kremlin’s Men, a political history of Russia in the past two decades. His first English-language book, a documentary history of the Russian Revolution, was released this year.
Since leaving Dozhd, Zygar has spent his time creating multimedia projects about a range of historical periods, from the revolutions of 1917 to perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union. These projects were all developed by Istoriya Budushchevo (Future History), a creative studio Zygar founded alongside his editor and fellow journalist, Karen Shainyan. Zygar and Shainyan created the Mobile Art Theater together as well, and the app has much more in common with their studio’s other projects than it does with typical repertory theaters. Only one member of the project’s leadership team was previously a theater professional: the Mobile Art Theater’s CEO, Alexey Kiselyov, is a theater critic and curator in his own right.
What does “mobile” mean?
MAT produces plays for mobile phones. The project does not require a stage, an active troupe, or set and costume workshops. Its shows are created only once; they are not performed multiple times as they would be in a traditional theater. They are also available to viewers at any time and not, say, at 7:00 PM on a given date. Among more established art forms, this theater is closest to the radio play, but there is one important difference: all its tracks are recorded for listeners to hear while walking along a predetermined route, much like an audio guide is created for a specific museum exhibition.
I’ve heard they worked with Kirill Serebrennikov!
That’s right. Serebrennikov, the highly decorated director targeted in the infamous Seventh Studio case, has collaborated with MAT, but not in his usual capacity: rather than directing one of its plays, he took a turn as an actor playing himself. While Serebrennikov was still under house arrest, Zygar developed the concept for the play 1,000 Steps with Kirill Serebrennikov. At the time, the celebrated director had been granted the right to a single daily walk outside along a preset route. It is that route from the Kropotkinskaya metro station to Park Kultury that the play’s audience members take as they listen. Serebrennikov’s audio guide for the piece tells the stories of his illustrious neighbors — the architects, artists, scholars, and writers who also once lived in Moscow’s historic Prechistenka neighborhood. Almost all of those biographies resonate with the life of the speaker himself: Serebrennikov the protagonist seems to move along according to historical laws that constrain him much like the rules that set the path he can walk while under house arrest.
Didn’t they stage The Master and Margarita? How is that even possible?
The Master and Margarita is the first title that comes to mind for a play that intends to use Moscow itself is a set. The MAT’s performance begins exactly where Bulgakov’s canonical novel does: at Patriarch Ponds. Nonetheless, the play does not repeat each character’s trajectory step by step. Instead, it moves along its own original path. The show also has nothing in common with a literary tour of Moscow: for MAT, the city is just a set on which your imagination can bring scenes from Bulgakov’s novel to life. In this version of The Master and Margarita, director Mikhail Zygar and dramaturg Alexey Kiselyov transported Bulgakov’s plot from the 1930s to the present.
Their Master is not a novelist but a screenwriter; he faces persecution not for his choice of suspiciously un-Soviet subject matter (the secular life of Christ) but for “offending the feelings of believers,” a contemporary Russian crime. The project features a star-studded cast: Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė plays Woland, the Master is played by Yuri Kolokolnikov, Alexandra Rebenok is Margarita, and Leonid Parfyonov plays Berlioz.
Of the three plays currently on offer at the Mobile Art Theater, this one is the least engaging: at the time the show premiered, there were eight actively performed productions of The Master and Margarita showing in Moscow alone, and it’s hard to say that the ninth managed to discover something new in Bulgakov’s classic novel.
And what’s their third show about?
MAT’s third show is, of course, They Met in Moscow. This production, which was written by journalist Valery Panyushkin, stands somewhere between 1,000 Steps with Kirill Serebrennikov and The Master and Margarita: listeners follow the play’s characters while learning about the history of the VDNKh exhibition park. As mentioned above, Ivan Pyryev’s film of the same title was released in 1941, and it earned its director the Stalin Prize the following year. What was then the story of Vologda swineherd Glasha and Dagestani stableman Musaiba at a nationwide Soviet agricultural exhibition is, in MAT’s rendition, a story of two Moscow expats, an American man and a Chinese woman. They are played by two actors from Serebrennikov’s Gogol Center, Odin Biron and Yan Ge. The celebrated actress Chulpan Khamatova plays their companion and de facto guide through VDNKh.
The contemporary melodrama that plays out among those three characters weaves in and out of the fascinating stories of various Stalinist-era artists, from architect Vyacheslav Oltarzhevsky to playwright and screenwriter Viktor Gusev to camera operator Valentin Pavlov. Those stories circulate in turn among the tasks that Stalin’s government placed before each artist. While 1,000 Steps suffers from a degree of monotony and The Master and Margarita boils down to “Woland returns to contemporary Moscow,” They Met in Moscow entices listeners with an ideal balance of learning and entertainment. It is precisely for plays like these that the Mobile Art Theater was worth creating.
Wait a minute — can this really be called theater?
The urban stroll, for example, has already become a firmly established theatrical genre. The German company Rimini Protokoll, for example, has been running the well-known Remote X franchise since 2013: in Remote X productions, 50 people explore a major city with help from a computerized voice that tells them what to do. The series has traveled to countries all over the world, including Russia: this summer is the last chance Muscovites will have to experience their city’s version of Remote. Meanwhile, Semyon Alexandrovsky’s Another City was created not for a group but for a single-member audience: the listener walks through St. Petersburg while their headphones play sounds from Paris, Amsterdam, or Venice.
All that said, Zygar and Shainyan did create another kind of first: creating a mobile theater app was their original idea. The Mobile Art Theater’s plays can be heard (and, mentally, seen) on your personal gadget, eliminating the need to check a set schedule for showtimes.
All right, fine. How can I “watch” these performances?
You’ll have to download the Mobile Art Theater app (here’s the iOS link, and here’s the link for Android), buy a ticket, download the audio attached, and go to the address listed. Tickets cost 379 rubles ($6.03), and the theater’s latest release, They Met in Moscow, is downloadable for free until July 21. You’ll need to bring headphones, comfortable shoes, and a full smartphone battery along with you. If you have an external charger, best bring it along as well. The application comes with maps that display each play’s route and its key stopping points, but there is no need to check them constantly: all directions are also included in the audio of the plays themselves. In theory, you can also simply stay home and download the track associated with a play, but in that case, your experience will be incomplete: it is fundamental to the vision of the project’s creators that what you see should coincide with what you hear.
What will MAT do next?
I don’t follow contemporary theater. Should I watch MAT plays, or will I get bored?
Go for it! In naming the MAT, Zygar could easily have borrowed not just from the Moscow Art Theater’s current name but also from the name Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko initially gave it: the Moscow Public Art Theater. The MAT’s shows are designed with more than the regular theater festivalgoer in mind: they are also made for those who haven’t seen the inside of a theater since they were schoolchildren. Even more generally, experimental theater isn’t always about fighting off the urge to sleep while straining to unravel a director’s cryptic messages to their audience: the most prominent theatrical trend of the 2010s is to reach a diverse audience, including audience members with little theatrical experience.
Translation by Hilah Kohen