The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, Anastasiia Vorozhtsova speaks with Elina Kulikova, a Russian theater director and artist based in Moscow.

headshot of Elina Kulikova

1. As a young performance artist and theater director in contemporary Russia, what do you explore in your work?
I am navigating the boundaries of contemporary performative practices. I turn to participatory art and work within a sensitive aesthetic. I like to play with the audience’s olfactory and tactile perception. I create multidisciplinary projects—performances for one viewer, week and month-long performances, site-specific and digital performances. I believe theater should establish a special relationship between the spectator and the artist’s idea. That relationship starts a unique dialogue, which unfolds in its own way. It directs the work more than I ever could.

I resort to texts and narratives that are not traditional for the drama theater, supporting Russian female writers. I am continuously exploring feminist and queer writing and its representation on the Russian theater stage. Memory in its various shapes and forms is another major theme in my practice. Auto-fiction, diaries, and documentary novels interest me greatly: In my work, they spill into personal and collective female memory aspects, their physiological and corporeal features.

2. How did you come to love theater?
Now, at the age of 24, I can say I had a challenging and depressive childhood. As a kid, I felt lonely. I would hide in the bathroom or under the blanket and play with my older sister’s magazines, perusing photos of people who seemed beautiful to me. I could spend hours looking at these pictures and imagining them alive. I would think of their feelings, relationships, and myself, hence in a weird way becoming a participant in the story I was creating in my head. My first visit to the theater came later. It was when I suddenly realized I had been creating performances in my head all the time. I fell in love with theater. To me, it is a way to overcome the loneliness of our existence.

“One of the main principles in my artistic practice is to always attempt to create an open space where spectators can be themselves, think, and feel whatever they wish to think and feel.

3. What challenges does a young Russian artist/playwright/theater director face today?
Censorship. I have a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, but I never went to an art school. Somehow, traditional Russian art schools always scared me. I see their approaches to education as too patriarchal and still stuck in Soviet times. I studied theater directing by myself. That is why my projects have nothing in common with traditional forms of Russian psychological theater. I never learned the rules and never followed them. My non-traditional education allows me to easily experiment with new art forms. Yet, with that, I may also put myself in a dangerous and unpredictable situation if I choose to speak about something inflammable in the country’s political landscape. The most triggering topics for the government today, as I see them, are the war with Ukraine, epidemics (HIV and COVID 19), and LGBTQIA+ issues. These are under unspoken censorship for artists and activists in Russia.

4. You are interested in representing feminist and queer writing on the theater stage. How do you do that in the country’s current political climate?
That is a challenging but quite interesting journey! I’m hopeful that we will see the change one day. Those narratives require representation in my country. They are the reason why I am creating art in Russia. I can do that only independently, of course. There is no government support, which complicates things considerably as doing theater is expensive. Those topics are banned at state cultural institutions. We do have some alternatives, however, such as the Meyerhold Theater Center and the Voznesensky Center in Moscow. I was lucky to have collaborated with them.

I do not bring up feminist and queer narratives in an offensive manner in my theater shows. I usually say my method is tenderness. I am choosing poetic texts by authors who write not only about the trauma and pain we experience but also about the beauty and vulnerability of it. Oksana Vasyakina, a Russian poet and queer writer, Derek Jarman, an English film director who died from HIV, and American writer Maggie Nelson are my heroes and role models.

5. Your project IS MY RAVE is based on the text by Belarusian playwright Anastasia Vasilevich. It speaks about the Belarusian protests. What is the message you are delivering with the performance?
Last spring, I spent two weeks in Minsk. It was life-changing and painful. I met a lot of talented artists there who went through the horror of the Belarus political regime. One of them is Anastasia Vasilevich. She created a text which leads the audience into their private spaces. IS MY RAVE turns to that text to show a true gonzo chronicle of the events that took place in 2020 during the Belarusian protests, with videos from the author’s photo gallery, shot on the iPhone 6s and other phones. The performance was shown at the Lyubimovka Contemporary Drama Festival at the Sovremennik Theater in Moscow in September 2021.

6. You are already working on your second project on Belarus, an interactive performance based on the texts of three young female writers from Belarus. What do you aim to achieve with it?
After IS MY RAVE with Anastasia, I realized I wanted more people to see the project—an audience beyond the routine theatergoers. The idea of a one-day short festival materialized: We decided to add two more performances, written by Belarusian female playwrights, as well as public talks on historical memory and feminist writing with well-known Russian artists, journalists, directors, and historians. We dedicated our work to the Memorial Historical Organization, which a Russian court ruled to liquidate. We are organizing this event with no financial support and face many additional challenges. The project is probably the most difficult one in my career so far. I hope the festival will take place in Moscow later this spring.

7. In your work, you play with senses: smell, taste. How do such experiments land in contemporary Russian theater?
I am a sensitive person. I believe words are not always enough to express a vortex of feelings we may have inside, and here the physical aspect of our sensuality plays a leading role. Some years ago, I created a performance out of smells only— their mixtures and variations. Having completely abandoned light, sounds, and human speech, this piece brought the viewer closer to the purely aesthetic experience of smell. I have traveled with this work to different cities around the country, and people were always curious about and inspired by this new form of theater. There is dramaturgy and certain logic in such an unusual way of presenting a narrative. It is, however, not the most important aspect of the show. Using smells, tactility, and taste in my theater work, I aim to activate the audience’s memories, associations, and fantasies.

8. You talk about the importance of creating a special relationship between the audience and the artist’s idea of a performance. How does one achieve this?
One of the main principles in my artistic practice is to always attempt to create an open space where spectators can be themselves, think, and feel whatever they wish to think and feel. Theater and cinema usually decide that for us—that is why I am more interested in building a dialogue with the audience. These dialogues are more interesting than just me or what is happening on the stage. We do not have many moments in life to experience things mutually. That frustrates me but, at the same time, gives me the energy to never stop creating.

“I believe the community I am a part of needs the world’s attention and support now more than ever.”

9. What inspires you to experiment in theater?
Russian theater artists, who I have had the chance to meet, love to say that theater is a rehearsal of freedom. I can only add this: I believe you should do things as if you are already free. In daily life, that might be impossible. Theater achieves it perfectly.

10. How would you describe the creative terrain of contemporary Russian theater?
There are many passionate and talented artists in Russia and other countries with Soviet pasts. They are the people who are not afraid to move with the desire for change. At the same time, the political landscape is depressing. With each day, we feel more unfree as both creators and human beings.

Despite the unsafe atmosphere and this endlessly cold winter of censorship and cultural isolation, we are trying to create bravely and gracefully. Russian art has always been like that—it is its historical and aesthetic justification. I believe the community I am a part of needs the world’s attention and support now more than ever. Contemporary Russian artists really deserve it.

Elina Kulikova is a Russian theater director and artist based in Moscow. A graduate of Smolny College in St. Petersburg and Bard College in New York, she creates experimental theater shows and performances in multidisciplinary genres. Elina is among the 2022-nominees for the Golden Mask, a prestigious national theater award in Russia. Interview conducted by Anastasiia Vorozhtsova.