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Modern theatre

Although theatre in Lithuania cannot match the popularity of basketball, often called the country’s ‘second religion’, it still occupies a very prominent place in the cultural life of its people. It could even be said that, with a population of only about three million, Lithuania has more internationally acclaimed actors and directors per head than any other country in the world.

The history of theatre in Lithuania is closely linked to its famous directors. It is a story of interaction and change in individual theatrical models that represent the aesthetic approach of each director.
In this website, we feature Lithuania’s most exciting directors, spanning three generations, and covering the productions of Eimuntas Nekrošius, Jonas Vaitkus, Rimas Tuminas, Oskaras Koršunovas, Gintaras Varnas, Cezaris Graužinis, and many others. Some of these directors spearheaded the renaissance in drama in the final decades of the 20th century and are still active today. Together with the new generation, they are shaping the future of theatre in Lithuania.  
By contrast, the contemporary dance scene is still very young, but it is developing quickly and undergoing constant change. Barely two decades old, it has been able to nurture a devoted and demanding audience, thanks to international festivals, dance studios and the hard work of dance companies, and despite competition from theatre, which has a long and deep tradition. This publication will introduce you to choreographers of various generations, with a broad range of experience, including Aira Naginevičiūtė, Birutė Letukaitė, Vytis Jankauskas, Loreta Juodkaitė and Agnija Šeiko. Their work reveals the broad, ever-developing spectrum of contemporary dance in Lithuania today.

Theatre in Lithuania

Theatre in Lithuania has been greatly influenced by two main factors: the need to preserve the nation’s identity, language and cultural traditions, and the aim to absorb the innovations of 20th-century European theatre. Modern Lithuanian theatre, like culture in general, was formed at a crossroads of various cultural influences, from both the East and the West, and strove to find its own identity. Most postwar Lithuanian directors learned their profession at major Russian drama schools. At the same time, however, they were influenced by new ideas in European theatre, and by European culture in general.

During the Soviet period, these ideas usually reached Lithuanian directors through dramaturgy. But what was more important was the indirect influence, which expressed itself through the goal of finding a different kind of theatrical language to what dominated in the Soviet Union at the time, and in posing the topical questions of freedom and morality in a society that was not free. These pursuits during the Soviet era provided theatre with a strong creative drive, and inspired what has been recognised as a renaissance in it.

The rebirth of Lithuanian theatre at the end of the 20th century was closely linked to the traditions of the avant-garde. However, avant-garde traditions had become mainstream, and were inspired by the need to find an artistic language to resist totalitarian dogmas, and to make the audience think about and understand the universal moral collisions and the historic drama of the nation. Theatre, which had traditionally shaped the country’s national and social identity, had its finger on the pulse of life, and acted as a teacher and a social leader.

It should be emphasised that the traditions of Lithuanian theatre lie in the Romantic outlook, which influenced deeply the way we perceive the world in our culture in general. Romantic ideals of freedom have been a permanent feature of our cultural rebellion against the occupations we experienced, and have protected our identity. Therefore, Lithuanian theatre, which has traditionally avoided simple aesthetic experimentation (even now we take quite a traditional approach to theatre, and do not like to blur the boundaries between different forms of the performing arts), is more used to resisting, to raising moral questions, and to searching for spiritual ideals.

All these were primary features of the renaissance that started in the theatre in the 1980s. Eimuntas Nekrošius and Jonas Vaitkus were key players in the development of the most noticeable trend at the time, which was based on the director’s input. A distinctive trait of this trend was the directors’ ‘scenic writing’, which was taken in its own right as authentic theatrical imagery. It was so vivid and breathtaking in dealing with topical social and cultural issues that it pushed theatre into the front line of the resistance to the Soviet occupation.

Of course, there were limits set by censorship, but directors were able to overcome these restrictions by creating an unusual visual language, called ‘Aesopian’ language, whereby people could read between the lines, and which resulted originally from the limitations brought about by censorship. However, the artistic flirtation between theatre and censorship sometimes evolved into an open struggle, with the resistor having to pay dearly, and even being forced to leave his homeland (as happened with the distinguished director Jonas Jurašas, who left Lithuania at the peak of his career).
Eimuntas Nekrošius is Lithuania’s most internationally acclaimed director, and also its main ‘visionary poet’. His productions have had a huge influence on the development of contemporary Lithuanian theatre. On seeing some of them in Vilnius in 1986, the American playwright Arthur Miller said: ‘This Nekrošius must be a genius.’ It was Miller’s discovery, followed by the first international recognition of Nekrošius’ artistic genius in the USA and Europe, that brought recognition for Lithuanian theatre on the international stage.

The main feature of Nekrošius’ work is metaphorical imagery, which expresses universal feelings and thoughts about human existence, in the personal, and hence archetypical, language of the theatre. It is ‘auteur’ theatre in its most genuine sense, acting as a kind of powerful centrifuge that transforms literary material into a unique stage experience. Nekrošius’ work is based on a deep local cultural background, which crosses national boundaries and fuses modern developments in international theatre, namely the Theatre of Images and Postdramatishes Theater.  

His most important productions are based on the plays of Chekhov and Shakespeare. He is an outstanding interpreter of both classics, translating the language of literature into the language of theatre. The furious energy and the poetic freedom with which he digs into their poetics allow new spaces to appear between the words. His Shakespearean trilogy based on Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello (produced between 1997 and 2000) has brought him international recognition, making him one of the most original theatre directors among the new European theatre realities (or, according to the international press, ‘not among the new reality, but a big reality, an absolute reality of the contemporary scene’).

Nekrošius was the first Lithuanian director to break away from the repertory system and to start working independently. Since 1993, he has been the resident director of LIFE, Lithuania’s first international theatre festival. In 1998, he established his own production company, called Meno fortas. Paradoxical though it may seem, his productions are on the verge of disappearing from the map of Lithuanian theatre. Meno fortas’ premises are small, and it only has a tiny hall for rehearsals, so it tours abroad more often than it plays at home. Even though Nekrošius’ work is the most reliable indicator of the standard of Lithuanian theatre, his artistic language is also very versatile, as it is influenced by changing generations of actors, and by his own development as a director.

After his monumental trilogy based on Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello, he began directing operas and working abroad more often. His first operas were produced in Italy and Russia, which are the countries that appreciate his creative genius the most. With his recent productions based on Goethe’s Faust, Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and Dante’s Divine Comedy, created under the banner of Meno fortas, he has returned again to the classics, which he shakes up as usual, by offering an original interpretation of each well-known literary opus.

Jonas Vaitkus, who reached the peak of his career in the late 1990s, and has almost 70 productions under his belt, has educated generations of actors and directors. He is perhaps the director who is the most curious and the most open to issues that are relevant to the times he is living in. His approach of ‘moral concern’, which germinated during the Soviet period, today rejects social controversy, and focuses on the inner contradictions of modern man. This is why he is interested in dramaturgy that specifically raises issues of the relationship between the person and society. His artistic interests are broad, covering probably the widest range of literature among Lithuanian directors. He has put on works by Ibsen, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Flaubert, Schiller, Chekhov, Strindberg, Jarry and Bulgakov, as well as many contemporary authors.

Vaitkus’ productions are distinguished by their remarkably controversial concept. In order to convey this, he uses masks, elements of ritual theatre and performance art, in combination with deep psychological insight. He experiments daringly by connecting the genres of theatre and music. In the 1980s, he was one of the first directors to expand the understanding of theatre, with his unusual synthesis of text, music and dance. Later, he directed operas by Verdi and Strauss, using elements of theatre, and injected a new artistic quality into opera in Lithuania. The films he has directed are based on local subjects: he focuses on the country’s history, and the cultural mythology which has helped to preserve the national identity during periods of occupation and oppression.

Vaitkus is one of the country’s most famous teachers of theatre: he has taught generations of well-known actors and directors, including the internationally recognised actress Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė, and the directors Oskaras Koršunovas and Gintaras Varnas. His teaching activities are not limited to Lithuania: he has directed productions and worked as a visiting lecturer in the USA, Norway, Denmark, Japan and Russia.

The developments in theatre that occurred during the decade after independence were influenced by the social and cultural changes, and by the new generation of professionals that was emerging, along with the transformations that the theatre system was going through. Two aesthetically different and independent styles appeared at around the same time, one led by Rimas Tuminas and the other by Oskaras Koršunovas, and developed into distinct new forms of contemporary repertory theatre, which brought about innovations in a rapidly changing cultural market. The artistic and commercial changes that appeared were influenced by the directors’ personalities, which have always determined dramatic forms in Lithuania. This was followed by the appearance of the first non-governmental performing arts organisations, which initiated and carried out artistic and infrastructure changes in contemporary theatre and dance.

 The Oskaras Koršunovas Theatre (OKT) was founded in 1998, and its first productions significantly influenced changes in theatre. The issues addressed by these productions are expressions of the director’s social position, and reflect his efforts to discuss the values of our times. In his explorations of the surrounding reality, and the change from a post-communist system to capitalist consumerism, Koršunovas was the first to investigate the new attitudes and conflicts in society. A distinguishing feature of his repertoire is modernised classics and a new dramaturgy staged with a Classical approach, and with the focus on perceiving archetypal meanings in contemporary conflicts. His productions of Mark Ravenhill, Marius von Mayenburg, Jon Fosse and Sarah Kane have influenced his interpretations of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Bulgakov and Strindberg, and vice versa. After more than ten years of work, and touring both nationally and internationally, the OKT has become one of Lithuania’s leading theatre companies.

The high artistic quality and the innovative aesthetics of its productions have enabled the OKT to win international support and acclaim. In cooperation with Theorem, a programme created by a group of leading European festivals to promote new East European theatre, Koršunovas has created many memorable productions, such as The Master and Margarita, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oedipus Rex and The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. These productions have contributed to a new understanding of the classics. They embody the recent trend to give prominence to the classics and the theatrical revival that is happening in European theatre today. His topical approach to Classical literature and his original interpretations were honoured with the Europe Prize New Theatrical Realities in 2002.

A new generation of actors, set designers and composers has emerged with the independent OKT. In addition, a new generation of spectators has also grown up with it. During the last decade, the theatre has managed to take an active artistic position, and to relate the new understanding of the dramatic tradition to contemporary global culture. In 2004, the OKT was given the title of Vilnius City Theatre, and the same year it started organising the annual Sirenos international theatre festival. Koršunovas has recently been working extensively abroad, and directing productions in famous repertory theatres in France, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Poland and Italy.

Gintaras Varnas is another remarkable theatre director who emerged at the time of the restoration of independence. Although his artistic priorities differ from those of Koršunovas, their productions are linked by a general characteristic, which is that they interpret contemporary collisions by using Classical dramaturgical genres, and by looking for a starting point not so much in the play, but rather in their individual world-views.

Varnas started his career in 1988, by founding the unconventional Šėpos teatras (Wardrobe Theatre), which had no precedent in Lithuania. It was a modern puppet theatre that spoke a very politically provocative and grotesque language. Later, his directing style was influenced by his interpretations of authors such as Federico Garcia Lorca, Pedro Calderon de la Barca and Albert Camus. In a sense, he favours Baroque aesthetics, which connect refined visual expression and a metaphysical level of scenic reality. Contemporary dramaturgy has had a significant influence on his style, not in the form of the brutal, in-your-face variety, but rather in poetic collages conveying the profound and dark areas of the human condition (The Distant Land by Jean-Luc Lagarce, Portia Coughlan by Marina Carr and Innocent and Roosevelt Square by Dea Loher), or in multilayered intellectual mysteries (Merlin or the Wasted Land by Tankred Dorst). He put on all these productions at the Kaunas State Drama Theatre (he was its artistic director from 2004 to 2008).

Gintaras Varnas is perhaps the most consistent director in crossing the boundaries of conventional drama theatre by involving puppets or elements of musical theatre in his productions, as well as by using unconventional theatrical spaces. His production of The Wasted Land, based on Merlin or the Wasted Land by Tankred Dorst, was put on in the abandoned printing house of the former Tiesa (Truth) newspaper that used to be published during the Soviet period, and was later developed in various other spaces. One of his most recent artistic innovations was a musical based on Baroque madrigal operas (Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and The Dance of the Ingrate) by Claudio Monteverdi. By using a synthesis of music, puppet and drama theatre, Varnas created an amazing production that awakened not only nostalgia for a forgotten epoch, but also our emotional memory.  
Since 2006, he has been teaching acting at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, and in 2008 he established the independent Utopia theatre, together with some students, which set itself the goal of promoting new artistic initiatives and implementing innovative theatrical projects.

Oskaras Koršunovas and Gintaras Varnas, as well as Jonas Vaitkus, who taught them both, were instrumental in developing the traditions of Western avant-garde theatre in Lithuania. In contrast, Rimas Tuminas is more closely linked with the East, and in particular with the Russian schools of theatre and culture. As the founder and director of the State Small Theatre of Vilnius, Tuminas has developed a personal style and approach to theatre over the course of almost two decades, based on a special sense of the actors in his company, and on psychological realism imbued with a new quality, in which daily life is turned imperceptibly into poetry, and drama acquires a tinge of tender irony.
Most of Tuminas’ repertoire consists of Russian classics, such as Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and in particular Chekhov. But he also stages works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Goldoni and contemporary Lithuanian dramatists. The most notable production by his theatre is perhaps his interpretation of Lermontov’s Masquerade, because of its visually and emotionally powerful images, and aesthetic improvisation. Another of his successful productions is Madagascar, based on a play by the young Lithuanian playwright Marius Ivaškevičius, which is a tragi-comedy about a national utopia.  
Tuminas’ productions usually include all standard theatrical genres, and try to achieve a suggestive effect of blending theatre with life. This mixture is accompanied by an admirable emphasis on the visual, and offers spectators extreme emotional satisfaction. Sometimes his productions lack clearly formulated ideas, but they always demonstrate a rich theatrical imagination and delicate humour. His productions are dominated by the playful improvisations of the actors.
For Tuminas, the cultural, historical and theatrical memory has always been significant in his interpretations of various authors and epochs. He has developed this feature in recent years by working in Moscow as the artistic director of the famous Vakhtangov Theatre.

During the last decade, contemporary dramaturgy has brought about a change in theatre, and has encouraged a search for new means of expression. The emergence of the Cezario grupė, which was founded by the director Cezaris Graužinis, is one of the most interesting new developments of the last few years. This theatre troupe is a prime example of how new writing can stimulate the development of new theatrical aesthetics. For this, we should acknowledge the work of the playwrights Roland Schimmelpfennig and Martin Crimp, for influencing Graužinis and his Cezario grupė.

Graužinis identifies the artistic direction of his group as ‘theatre of the imagination’. In his productions based on plays by Schimmelpfennig and Crimp, as well as the recent productions Lithuania’s Day and All or Nothing, which were written collectively by Graužinis and his troupe, the use of innovative minimal theatrical language provokes the audience to wander in the labyrinth of the imagination of contemporary man and the surrounding world.  

During the last few years, more directors and actors, former students of Vaitkus, Tuminas and Varnas, have started to establish themselves. The oldest of these is 30-year-old Agnius Jankevičius. It is hard to describe his style. He shifts and changes like a chameleon. It is easier to pin down his specific interests. He is interested in the confrontation between young people today and the world around them, which arises from the lack of values and the need for them. He looks for his protagonists both in plays by classics such as Molière, Tennessee Williams and Ibsen, and in plays by contemporary authors such as Dorota Masłowska and Marius von Mayenburg. His protagonists feel separated from society and cannot adapt. He breaks established norms, while looking for his own values.  

Artūras Areima has taken a somewhat different path. Although he easily crosses the borders between the classics and contemporary authors, just like Jankevičius, and also feels comfortable working in various styles, the reality of life in his productions takes second place to theatrical fiction. Employing a Brecht-like principle of reconstructing reality, this young director creates a gap between the theatrical (or fictitious) reality and the everyday reality, constructing characters who are like phantoms of their thoughts and desires, in productions based on classic plays by Schiller, Strindberg, Ibsen and O’Neill.
Vilius Malinauskas, a contemporary of Areima, just like their teacher Rimas Tuminas, also searches for theatricality, but through comedy. The first of his productions, The Ugly One by Marius von Mayenburg, which is also his most brilliant, showed that he is more interested in playfulness in theatre than in complicated effects.

Vidas Bareikis, the youngest of this new generation, started out as an actor, and studied under Gintaras Varnas. Unhappy with what he saw in contemporary theatre, he established his own movement called No Theatre, and began organising theatrical actions on the streets and in other public spaces. With the experience of this movement, and together with a group of like-minded individuals, he began to direct. The plays The Telephone Book and Mr Fluxus, or Charlatans?, which were created one after the other, helped him to win a prize as the most interesting young theatre artist in 2010.

Meanwhile, theatre in Lithuania is facing serious challenges. Repertory theatres have not been reformed since the Soviet period. They are state enterprises, without the economic freedom necessary for creative work. State subsidies only partly cover their budgets, which force them to compete for box-office revenue. We should note that there is still no established system for fixed-term contracts, and repertory theatres work mainly on a permanent basis. Therefore, today’s theatre system in Lithuania is in the middle of transition. Steps should be taken to respond to the challenges of recent developments in the performing arts. What is needed is substantial development, support for the system’s diversity, and steady reforms. We need to involve in this process major actors and directors who were and still are the key players in theatre in Lithuania.  

Audronis Liuga