Нонна Мартынич
National Palace of Arts «Ukraine»
InterviewLiberal Arts
7 minutes for reading

Zoom theater, or a detective story…

Zoom theater, or a detective story...
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Let me introduce – Konstantin Kamensky – British director of Russian origin, graduate of GITIS (master – Roman Grigorievich Viktyuk), the youngest winner of the “Debut” award, graduated from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (UK), holder of MA Advanced Theatre Practice.

His plays have been presented at theater festivals in New York, Edinburgh, Moscow, Berlin and the Baltic States. He is a lecturer in the history of Russian theater at Goldsmiths University in London. Video designer and TV producer, worked for Sony Pictures, Discovery, Disney. Just a wonderful person and a Friend.

Theater, as an art form, is not dying and will not die! It changes, it is modern, there are new, unaccustomed faces and forms… Like a living organism, it reacts instantly to all the changes in the world and its events and changes. This is not the first time that events of this kind have not “rolled over” the theater, but have made a new splash.

This is what happened in Shakespeare’s time, during the plague… The theater was closed for two years! Shakespeare moved on to more mature plays, it was a surge and a new theatrical “restart”. As history has shown, such things work well, or rather, they “refresh” it and “throw up” new forms and genres.

Today, in conditions of severe restrictions, when the doors of theaters are periodically tightly closed, new opportunities arise: for the actor to demonstrate his skills, his manner of reincarnation, getting into the image; for the director to realize modern ideas, new approaches; for the playwright to work together with actors and director on a new form of modern improvisational theater online.

I don’t know who came up with the name: zoom – theater? It reflects the technical side of the process, but in essence it’s just modern improvisational theater with its own dramaturgy, direction, acting, scenery and so on, which uses Zoom software (developed by Zoom Video Communications).

During the pandemic, many directors tried to work with this or similar technical means – for example, organizing online readings of plays – it didn’t work, it is not interesting for the viewer. We uploaded multicamera footage of plays to the Internet on Youtube – doesn’t “catch on”…

Konstantin Kamensky came up with an original form of online theater, where he used his knowledge of directing and video design. He suggested the actors to look at the role from a different angle, to become co-authors of the performance and to improvise. I involved the playwrights not only in writing the plot, but also in developing the characters and polishing the plot together with the actors during online rehearsals.

The main thing about this idea and action is the participation of the audience in the play, the possibility of very close communication with the actors. The play is the same but the performance is completely new, unique and inimitable every time.

At the beginning of March this year, not only British audiences, but audiences from all over the world, had the opportunity to see Theatre Company 274’s first online production “Death in the Wake”, a new contemporary form of improvisational theater on the Zoom platform. The plot of the play was written specifically for this production. The experiment was a big hit and was a great success with the audience.


Nonna Martynich: How was your online theater born? Why Zoom?

Konstantin Kamensky: In March 2020, when the first severe restrictions began, when the whole world was paralyzed, there was time to stop, think, look back, analyze… So many world theaters opened free online access to their landmark productions, we all enjoyed this opportunity.

While watching, you get to know the director’s vision, some of the findings, but it doesn’t evoke emotion. Theater is not about analyzing the director’s findings, the viewer doesn’t analyze them, he “absorbs” them. The viewer must experience emotion, catharsis, the production or the video version must “pass the screen.

I thought for a long time, how do we achieve this? How to unite and connect the screen, the actors and the audience? My friends told me how to do it technically  – Zoom!

The difficult task was to make the performance interesting for the actors, and so that the viewer does not want to leave… Combination of the technique of improvisational theater and detective storyline works perfectly here. The actor is constantly in tension because the audience has to interview him and he can ask absolutely any question about his character and the events of the play.


N.M.: You began to look for a theatrical form as a director and to try…

K.K.: Of course. I found a form of detective, or rather, as we called it, “a preliminary hearing of a case,” uniting actors and spectators: we investigate a crime together, through the interrogation of a character (actor) by a jury (the audience).

The plot is based on an event, most often a murder or other crime, and we investigate it. As the action unfolds, new circumstances emerge all the time, because our task is to keep the intrigue going, drawing the audience into the action and the investigation, so that they are always in a state of flux.

Our task is not to give a single chance to relax. It’s like a roller coaster: up and down, crying and laughing. It is they who create this kind of spectrum of emotions, then you get a performance created online of actors who are in different neighborhoods, cities and countries, and it passes the screen.


N.M.: You act as a video designer in the performance, making video captions, shaping video facts, taking part in writing the script, as a director “pulling” the playwrights and actors into the live action… and together you create an absolutely new and interesting product – a zoom performance, a zoom-detective. An original, exciting and very lively, unique format, a “product.

K.K.: Well, not quite original: there was such “density” of work on the creation of a play in the history of theater, for example, at the early Moscow Art Theatre, when Stanislavsky was rehearsing Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” The author was sometimes present, watching the rehearsal to make immediate corrections in dialogues, scenes, and character characteristics.

For the author of the play it’s important to see who and how will embody his work on stage, it’s a very exciting moment when the text comes to life in the actors. And to work with a living author who can come to the rehearsal, participate in the work, change something along the way – it means to make the actors themselves co-authors of the performance and give a possibility to the playwright to come down from his ivory tower to the earth.


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N.M.: You chose the detective genre, started looking for a plot and who would write the play.

K.K.: I quickly found one: it was my old friends, Aleksey and Anastasia Uvarov, who have been writing detectives for TV series and movies for 20 years, and have won several major TV awards for their projects.

For as long as I can remember Lesha – and we’ve known each other for about a quarter of a century – he’s always been writing detectives, coming up with stories about murders and their investigation. Together we began to develop a dramaturgical form for these kinds of plays.

Even the methodology of the rehearsals was not clear: how to “feed” the actor with the maximum amount of information about his character when the rehearsal is online? By trial and error we arrived at some result. Various techniques came in very handy.


N.M.: How did you have rehearsals during the difficult period of lockdown, so tough in England?

K.K.: Zoom rehearsals were individual and strictly online: me, the author, and the actor playing the character we’re talking about today. Sometimes we would get together with 2-3 actors and discuss plot lines and rehearse cross-examinations, and in the process the roles, plot twists, and relationships between the characters would change quite significantly.


N.M.: You did your first play, “Death in the Wake”. It worked! It’s unusual, modern, the acting is so organic that you forget that they’re just playing their roles…

C.K.: We staged “Death in the Wake” and it lasted all March. In the plot of the play, the plot is as follows: there has been a murder in the house of an English businessman. The case is conducted by a London detective, who declares during the investigation 4 suspects connected with the murdered, and calls them for questioning, a preliminary hearing, with the so-called jurors – it is the audience.

The legal royalty have delegated to the jurors the opportunity during the pandemonium to conduct the interrogations exactly at zoom, it is safe for them to familiarize themselves with the case and make the accusations.

The action begins with the presentation of all the facts and evidence: video footage taken from surveillance cameras, amateur videos that have been collected, documents, all the information about the suspects is laid out.

After familiarizing themselves with all the facts, the jury (the audience) is given the right to interview, “interrogate”, each of the suspects. But, at any moment, a detective can appear and bring in new facts or clarify information, and this can turn the course of the case in a different direction, preserving the intrigue. All of this brings us to the finale of the play – the murderer is found!


N.M.: I wonder what was the reaction of the first spectators to the play?

K.K.: Part of the audience was immediately involved: they took notes, analyzed the behavior of the characters, compared facts. Others were wary-what kind of show is this, what’s going on? But in the process of interviewing and interrogating the suspects the interest in what was going on gradually flared up: they started with timid questions in the chat room, then they turned on the microphones and asked questions themselves, then the cameras were turned on…

And during the general discussion, a vivid, sometimes very emotional discussion broke out among the jurors and the audience. It was as if they were “catapulted” out of their comfortable seats. They became interested. I could see how this “game” was capturing everyone. For which I am very glad, I understand – I succeeded!


N.M.: And you’ve moved on…

C.K.: We are preparing new productions. Now we’re contacting theater companies that are moving in the same direction all over the world. There is a great opportunity to invite different actors from all over the world who have not always been available.

By creating new productions, we want to form an improvisational repertory online theater in the future. This is an opportunity to have an international audience without borders. All you have to do is log on to the Internet and Zoom. Different forms, genres, approaches, and experiments are possible here.


N.M.: Which playwright and which play are you working on right now? And when will the next play be premiered?

K.K.: The story we are working on is still written by the couple Aleksey and Anastasia Uvarov. They are already “experienced”. Right after the first performance, they proposed 12 detective plots with different storylines and character sets, in detective genres: ironic detective, surrealistic, black humor…

I really wanted to experiment and take actors from different countries, and that’s what I picked up the second story for. In order to expand our possibilities, we are doing this project in collaboration with the Little Theatre from Tel Aviv. We have long had excellent creative relationships with this team and their Artistic Director Mikhail Teplitsky: this includes participation in festivals, work in projects, and now an international joint project.


N.M.: When will be the next premiere?

K.K.: On May 29 we will start with a new play, “Triple Flip”. It features actors who live and work in Ukraine, Russia, Israel, Great Britain and Latvia. It will be an interactive zoom-detective.

N.M.: Who will work in the play from Ukraine?

K.K.: Ruslana Pisanka is a wonderful actress! She is a laureate of the A. Dovzhenko State Prize of Ukraine, director and broadcaster. She is a pleasure to work with and will appear in a completely new acting capacity as an improvisational theater in an international company that has no borders.

N.M.: Who else is involved in the play?

K.K.: Pavel Gryaznov is an actor at the Maly Drama Theatre under the direction of Lev Dodin (St. Petersburg, Russia), Evgenia Sharova is a wonderful Israeli actress from the Little Theatre (Tel Aviv), Oleg Sidorchik is a former actor of the Free Belarusian Theatre, a well-known Russian speaking actor in London (Great Britain), Vadim Bogdanov (Daugavpils Russian Theatre, Latvia).

Tickets are on sale now, we start May 29 and will have several performances each month. Audiences from different countries will have a chance to see the play and be a part of it.

NM: Thank you so much! We’re looking forward to the new zoom play – the detective and the premiere! I’m ready to meet you and talk to you about the British theater school and its peculiarities.

K.K.: Thank you! I’d be delighted!

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