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Contemporary Lithuanian Theatre: A Child and a Hostage of the Tradition of Director's Theatre

by Kristina Steiblytė

The Beginning of Beginnings

Theatre has been known in Lithuania since the 16th century, when plays started to be staged in manor houses and at Vilnius University. However, Lithuanian drama appeared only at the end of the 19th century. At a time when the Imperial Russian authorities ruling Lithuania forbade the use of the Lithuanian language and the Latin alphabet, gatherings called Lithuanian evenings began to be held. At these gatherings, folk songs were sung, poetry was recited, and plays were performed. Out of this tradition, and due to the activities of various national societies, as well as the efforts by theatre directors who had trained in Russia, the first examples of professional Lithuanian drama were born. Two distinct influences were noticeable, and remained particularly important for a long time, from the very beginning of professional drama in Lithuania, which determined the development, content and form of theatre: one was the influence of folk art and ethnic culture in the search for a national identity; the other was the first-hand experience of foreign theatre (mainly Russian) acquired through studies and getting to know it from the inside.    

This was the context in which Kaunas State Drama Theatre and other national theatres were established in Lithuanian towns in the interwar period. Their repertoires were expected to express national content, reflecting and forming the national spirit, alongside realistic acting and scenography, which was sometimes adopted directly from Russian theatre personalities, such as Anton Chekhov, who visited Kaunas. However, theatre life in Lithuania at that time was much more varied than in state theatres, and other theatrical initiatives existed parallel to them. Arguably the most interesting theatrical experiment was Vilkolakis, the theatre of political satire, which sometimes openly laughed at politicians and other prominent figures.

Because professional Lithuanian theatre began taking shape only at the very end of the 19th century, it appeared together with the already-established institution of the theatre director. Therefore, this particular type of drama became entrenched in Lithuanian culture. The drama that was performed in the interwar period and the Soviet era, and which continues to be created in independent Lithuania, is director-led. Having started as humble attempts to arrange plays as mise-en-scènes, the director's role developed into one person's interpretation of a selected text, which in Soviet times often helped to circumvent censorship, and which now brings audiences unique theatrical experiences.

The Elephants Supporting Lithuanian Theatre

Bearing in mind the history of theatre in Lithuania, it should not be surprising that the core element is the director. Its history is told, and changes in institutional practice and aesthetics are observed, through the directors' work. The consequences to theatre of every political shift are also contemplated first and foremost through changes in the creative output of famous directors. Therefore, theatre directors can be called the elephants that support Lithuanian theatre on their backs.

Although there were prominent directors working in distinct creative styles ‎in the interwar period, it was during Soviet times that director’s theatre blossomed. Juozas Militinis, who had studied in France, returned to Lithuania ‎between the two wars, but only began to consistently put his ideas into practice at the end of the 1950s in Panevėžys. Jonas Jurašas, Jonas Vaitkus, ‎Eimuntas Nekrošius and Rimas Tuminas, who all studied in Russia, established their unique directing styles on the theatre stage in the 1970s and 1980s. Later, when Lithuania regained its independence, the most important and outstanding theatre directors were joined by Vaitkus' students Gintaras Varnas, Oskaras Koršunovas and Agnius Jankevičius.‎ 

Many of these directors continue to be outstanding and active in the theatre. Vaitkus, who created his most interesting and most important works in the 1980s in Kaunas, has worked mainly in Vilnius since the restoration of independence, and since 2008 he has run the Russian Drama Theatre. In his productions, theatrical form serves to express the complex inner lives of characters, and to analyse the fatal clash with society that is experienced by any individual who sets his heart on breaking away from the conventional order of things. Vaitkus also often expresses his stand on social issues in his productions. Lately, in his stagings of writings by Nizami Gandjavi, Alexandr Andreev, Paul Claudel and Thomas ‎Mann, he has chosen to speak about spirituality and belief in God. 

Nekrošius based his theatre of visual metaphors in the Lithuanian theatre scene while working at the Youth Theatre during the Soviet era, and it continues to be popular. As one of the first to start working independently in newly independent Lithuania, he soon encountered the difficult reality of an artist not attached to any state institution. Unable to find the space to stage his work in Lithuania, ‎he toured a great deal, and staged his productions abroad instead. Even today, his works are put on quite seldom in Lithuania, and are only produced here every couple of years. 

Tuminas is currently an even less frequent visitor to Lithuania. The former head of the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre, and the founder of the State Small Theatre of Vilnius, he has recently been living and working in Russia. While he remains the artistic director of the theatre he founded, Gabrielė Tuminaitė, who graduated from his directing course in 2008, works there and supervises it. She puts her organisational skills into organising the ‎Tylos! festival for emerging theatre creators, while in her directing work she remains close to Tuminas, although choosing very different plays to stage, from short prose pieces by contemporary Lithuanian writers to work by ‎Alfred de Musset that has never been staged in Lithuania before.‎ 

Although it is not uncommon for the younger generation nurtured by strong theatre directors to adopt their teachers' style, there are also different examples. Koršunovas, ‎Varnas and Jankevičius, probably the most productive students of Vaitkus, have demonstrated this most clearly. The unique style of Koršunovas' directing was noticed in his very first works, while he was still studying. Working with the writings of OBERIU (The Union of Real Art), this young director, together with teams of young actors and set designers, created a distinct world of the absurd, and formed his own directing style. He fused his interest in social issues with the individual's position in society, something he adopted from his teacher, with an aesthetic and a world-view influenced by postmodern philosophy. ‎This director continues to stage dramas based on his own world-view, although nowadays they are often performed in chamber spaces.

Varnas began his work at the end of the 1980s, when he established the Shepa theatre. Having borrowed the form from the prewar Polish puppet theatre tradition in Vilnius, he set up a unique phenomenon, a puppet theatre of political satire. Although it was small and only ran for a short time, its influence continued to be felt long afterwards, when similar satirical work moved into television. However, Varnas is currently not known as a creator of satire or comedy, but as an aesthete of Lithuanian theatre, who works predominantly with 20th-century plays, who loves Baroque, and who directs opera. 

Both Koršunovas and Varnas have followed in the footsteps of Vaitkus, their teacher, not only in their realisations of their directorial vision on stage, but also in developing actors, and, in Varnas' case, directors. Knowing that the key person in Lithuanian drama is the director, it is not surprising that future actors and directors are usually trained by directors. Therefore, directing is at the core of current theatre productions, but also forms the basis for the future of theatre. 

A Hamlet for every Generation 

Nekrošius directed Shakespeare's Hamlet in 1997. He cast the popular rock star Andrius Mamontovas in the leading role, and preserved the dramatic structure, remaining faithful to his theatre of visual metaphors. That same year, ‎Koršunovas, who had been working with Sigitas Parulskis, presented P.S. Byla O.K., a play about his relationship with authority in personal life, the theatre and the country, and just over a decade later he himself directed Hamlet. He edited the play a little, and turned it into a production concerned not only with the doubting and vengeful prince, but also with existential doubt. He gave the role of Hamlet to a slightly older actor, who embodied the director's alter ego.

‎ Today’s 30-year-old theatregoers now have their own Hamlet. Vidas Bareikis, who attended Varnas' acting classes and completed his directing studies in Moscow, directed Hamlet on the stage of the Kaunas State Drama Theatre. He claims that the pivotal question in Hamlet is ‘How to be?’, and in the play, which is full of references to both Koršunovas and ‎Nekrošius' interpretations of the piece, as well as to other plays, he answers that to be is now only possible by giving up the pretence of originality, and by accepting, rethinking, but in no way denying eternity and the omnipresent past. 

Some critics called this interpretation the Hamlet of the contemporary, younger generation of the theatre, and this is not absolutely wrong. Doubting their very existence and their place in the theatrical community, and being haunted by the ghost of the directorial tradition, is part of the everyday life of the younger generation of actors and directors. The first collective works by the No Theatre movement started by Bareikis and his contemporaries attempted to oppose this present reality in theatre. After gaining their degrees, they not only strove to understand their position in theatre, but also to suggest ways in which young artists could get involved in professional drama. However, this period of searching did not last long, and after the troupe disbanded, Bareikis began to stage productions in various Lithuanian theatres, trying to adapt to the existing theatrical tradition rather than change it. 

Theatre directors who are somewhat older than Bareikis, but still seen as belonging to the younger generation, are moving in the opposite direction. Artūras Areima, who has worked freelance and as a director at the Kaunas State Drama Theatre, made the decision to establish his own theatre, and not to belong to any institution. Starting with formalistic searches and trying his hand at reinterpreting the classics, he and a troupe of actors have recently created productions that deal with important social, political and personal questions. 

Jankevičius is moving in a similar creative direction. Having worked in many national theatres in Lithuania, he has established himself as a director of socially engaged theatre. While he continues to stage plays in various theatres with provocative themes, and together with these themes, unexpected forms, his most radical and most interesting experiments come from his work with Bad Rabbits, a troupe comprised of his former students. Works by the troupe are based on collaboration and collective participation, they often invite audiences to get involved, and rarely take place on traditional stages. Moreover, the works express a radical critique of current politics, the social order, and the social environment, which rarely otherwise reaches national theatre stages.  

Not all directors of the younger generation seek opportunities to express themselves creatively in their own independent theatres. Paulius Ignatavičius has not established his own theatre or troupe, and works with existing national and independent theatres. Not having permanent employment, and putting on productions with different creative teams, he has formed quite an uneven repertoire. Having said this, attention to the individual in a critical situation has lately united his work, playing with different acting techniques and placing his characters in expressive sets. 

Probably the best-known young Lithuanian theatre director is Kamilė Gudomonaitė. Works by this student of Varnas can be seen at the Lithuanian National Drama Theatreand at the Oskaras Koršunovas Theatre. Having staged plays by Strindberg, Shakespeare and Richter, she is testing a collective creative process not based on any specific text. Having won over many theatregoers with her interpretation of A Dream Play, she is moving away from Varnas’ characteristic aestheticised and visual theatre, while searching for ways to speak about social problems as authentically as possible. 

Directorial Input from Abroad

Young directors not always can nor wish to climb to the top in Lithuanian theatre. For this reason, and seeking to enforce the position of director‘s theatre and expand the possibilities for and the experience of actors in theatre troupes, collaboration with directors from outside the country is becoming increasingly common. Productions by the Polish directors Krystian Lupa and Łukasz Twarkowski, the Latvian director Valtris Sīlis, and Arpad Schilling from Hungary, have been successfully put on in Lithuanian theatres.

Creators from abroad bring to Lithuania not only their aesthetics and methods of working, but also often tackle subjects that have been neglected by Lithuanian directors: first and foremost, Lithuanian and European history, and especially the history of modern times. Probably one of the first to depict the January 1991 events on the Lithuanian stage was the Latvian director Sīlis, while the consequences to the present of the Second World War and the Holocaust were tackled in the most memorable way recently by Lupa in Heroes' Square (Didvyrių aikštėje) and by Yana Ross in Our Class (Mūsų klasėje)

Ross is one of the most successful examples of directorial input in Lithuania. She grew up in Latvia, Russia and the USA, graduated from Yale Drama School in 2006, and the following year staged Elfriede Jelinek's Bambiland in Lithuania. Unlike most foreign directors, who usually work here once or twice, she returns regularly to Lithuania, and has staged over ten productions, working mainly at the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre. Her work fits the Lithuanian tradition of director's theatre, complementing it with an outsider's perspective and a woman's point of view. In her latest productions, she combines sensitive, subtle acting with theatricality, expressive set design, and visual projections, something that makes her work stand out. In staging both classic works and contemporary writing, Ross tackles the challenges of painful but rarely touched on subjects of the country where she works.

Moving away from Director‘s Theatre?

Audiences, writers and critics who were brought up in the strong tradition of director's theatre are often disappointed when they are faced with a different type of theatre. Due to the fact that after Koršunovas not a single director emerged with such a strong debut, and who remained as interesting with his powerful work, in the early 2000s numerous concerns were voiced about the future of Lithuanian theatre, given the lack of strong directors. Although these concerns are regrettably justified, it does not mean that the end of Lithuanian theatre is imminent. Alongside the largest national theatres, and sometimes in them, theatre is being created through collaboration in creative labs, rejecting the stage as a designated space for performance, the traditional theatre hierarchy, and even the play as it is conventionally imagined.

Klaipėda Youth Theatre has a troupe of actors nurtured by the actor, director and educator Valentinas Masalskis. These actors do almost all necessary tasks in the theatre, organise the Young Theatre Days festival, perform in productions by various directors, and sometimes direct productions themselves. Their activities are more similar to what a community setting out to enliven the cultural life of this coastal city should do, rather than to those of a regular acting troupe.

The Apeiron theatre is also based in Klaipėda. Its founders Greta Kazlauskaitė and Eglė Kazickaitė, together with a team of selected actors, put on darkly philosophical productions, the basis for which is always a dramatic text written by them. Teatronas, a troupe based in Kaunas, works in quite a similar way, one slight difference being that its director Gildas Aleksa usually chooses specific social themes, while the core of his productions is formed by actors who work together and who thrive in improvising.

The principles of the collective creative process have lately produced the most interesting results with Jonas Tertelis, a television director who increasingly works in theatre, and the director and creator of theatre for children Olga Lapina. Tertelis currently works in documentary and autobiography. In his productions, professional actors, or people who have never acted before, tell their stories on the stage, becoming real witnesses to various aspects of today's world. Lapina has created her newest work in collaboration with the set designer Renata Valčik. Their collaboration on Code: HAMLET and About Fears (Apie baimes) is much closer than what is usual in Lithuania: both works are journeys through the set designer's installations, in various theatre spaces, so that the action and visuals are particularly closely intertwined, and the directing sometimes even lets the set design take centre stage.  

Even closer collaboration is often at the heart of work by actors who are starting to direct. They also often stand out in their search for form. Paulius Markevičius, who currently directs more new productions than acts in them, received his acting training under Nekrošius. This emerging director has already staged traditional dramas, alongside which, either on his own or with an interdisciplinary team, he experiments by creating work that comes close to performance art. 'Two and a Half' combined music, theatre, the visual arts and audience participation, and dealt with the subject of anxiety. In his monodrama Alberai, WRU?, the actor and director performs in front of a single viewer. Markevičius gradually turns the theatrical act into a performance played by a member of the audience, and not by him.

The collective and the communal are at the heart of Karolina Žernytė's Theatre of Senses. This director has a degree in puppet theatre. She had the idea to create theatre for the blind while still preparing for her final exams. The productions by her theatre of senses are created through consultation with blind people, and by experimenting with a troupe of actors in order to find out how stories can be told through sounds, surfaces, objects, smells and tastes. Although she and her creative team try to make her productions attractive, so that they can also be watched by non-participating fully-sighted audiences, their main focus is to create a dramaturgy of senses. By engaging all the human senses except sight, and giving priority to audiences to whom traditional theatre is not accessible, the Theatre of Senses offers an in-depth exploration of folk traditions, archetypes and the subconscious.

In the world of Lithuanian drama, director's theatre seems to be unwavering. There is no need to change this, but the processes taking place alongside it, and which rely on less frequently used means, audiences and themes in the creation of theatre, provide the whole field with an opportunity for renewal. A community and collective spirit is also increasingly appreciated, and can sometimes even attract someone like Koršunovas, who belongs to the world of great individualist theatre directors.