The Lithuanian Performing Arts in Lockdown: Unique Solutions and a Good Occasion for Reflection
By Aušra Kaminskaitė, Rima Jūraitė, Ingrida Ragelskienė
The 2020-2021 theatre season was special for the performing arts in Lithuania and worldwide. On 7 November 2020, the country entered its second lockdown, which, while not preventing theatres and companies from carrying out administrative and creative activities, prohibited the organisation of public events. This period lasted until 15 April 2021, when it was announced that all cultural sector companies and organisations would be allowed to resume their activities from 19 April.
Naturally, the events did not start during the first days of ‘freedom’. Unaware of when they would be allowed to reopen, theatres were unable to plan their repertoire and sell tickets in advance. I went to a performance as soon as possible, and that was on 29 April. The Russian Drama Theatre of Lithuania was one of the first (or even the very first) to present a première after the lockdown. It was a well-constructed and solidly performed production (in an old style not seen in Lithuania for a long time) entitled The Will. Based on works by Vasily Shukshin, the production was directed by the theatre’s artistic director Vladimir Gurfinkel (the only director to put on productions in his own theatre throughout the season).
Early in May, companies of young and independent artists were busy with premières. The state theatres only started returning to their former pace at the end of the month. Lithuanian theatres usually show few performances at the end of the spring: people tend to shun entertainment in closed venues during the warm season, so audience numbers gradually decrease. However, due to the lockdown, the season in state theatres extended until July, and in the independent sector until the very end of August. This extension was crucially important, since this year the season for the performing arts had lasted for only two months in the autumn and one month in the spring, a third of the usual theatre season.
A review of theatre repertoires revealed that, in terms of numbers of productions, the independent sector was the worst affected. This is related to the constant lack of funding, as well as the policy of the Lithuanian Council for Culture (the institution most concerned with financing the non-governmental sector) to prioritise projects that might continue in the event of an extended or a new lockdown (which translates into less funding for new productions and promotion). Meanwhile, the numbers of premières at state theatres remained impressive, even in the context of the situation: these organisations received regular funding, and after being granted additional funds to cover the losses associated with Covid-19, they managed to maintain pre-pandemic levels of creative activity.
Oddly enough, at a time when people were advised to limit international travel due to the pandemic, most of the main staged works in Lithuania were produced by foreign directors. An important event of the season was The Republic at the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre, directed by Lukasz Twarkowski, a seven-hour performance, which invited viewers to create their own spectacle while wandering around the rooms, bars, the sauna and the rest areas at Film Cluster, all ending with a rave party. Through the production, people who had spent quite a long time in lockdown faced a serious challenge: after a long break, viewers were invited to be close to each other, to interact, socialise, and enjoy themselves in a crowd.
Krystian Lupa, one of the most prominent directors in Poland, and even Europe, came to work in Lithuania for the second time. He directed Austerlitz at the State Youth Theatre, based on the novel by Winfried Georg Sebald. The piece investigates a theme that has gained relevance in Lithuania in recent decades, namely the trauma of the Holocaust, stories, lost roots, and its impact on later generations.
Polish directors were responsible for a significant part of the 2020-2021 season’s repertoire at Klaipėda Drama Theatre. Curiously, all three premières of the season were produced by artists who are active in neighbouring countries: Laura Groza-Ķibere from Latvia directed Children of the Sun by Maxim Gorky; the Polish director Agata Duda-Gracz created a play and a performance about the life and work of the Italian artist Caravaggio; and Jan Klata, another artist from Poland, directed a production based on Boris Godunov by Alexander Pushkin. In the autumn of 2021, the Polish theatre researcher Łukasz Drewniak wrote an article expressing his concern that Polish directors were taking over Lithuanian theatre, and local artists can do nothing to prevent it, since there are no promising young artists to match the great but gradually disappearing Lithuanian directors of European fame (Oskaras Koršunovas, Gintaras Varnas, the late Eimuntas Nekrošius, etc). This idea briefly prompted the local theatre community to think how much money was being invested in foreign artists compared to the meagre amounts granted to young local artists. However, these discussions petered out after a few weeks, without resulting in any positive initiatives.
A notable event of the season showing the social climate in Lithuania was related to the decision of the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre (LNDT) to invite the Belgian artist Jan Fabre to direct a new production: a sketch from his Night Writer was promoted widely enough to regard the event as a première. The phenomenon prompted critics and journalists to ask a question of ethics: why is a national European theatre inviting and promoting a person with a long history of accusations of sexual assault? When these questions were asked at the presentation of the sketch, the theatre claimed it did not want to judge the person before a court passed its verdict. When the date of the artist’s court hearing was publicly announced, the LNDT declared that the première would be cancelled.
The popularity of foreign artists on the Lithuanian stage might be determined by purely pragmatic tendencies. First of all, there are few theatre directors in Lithuania, so theatres presenting up to six premières per year would simply be dependent on all the same people. Secondly, guest directors put on productions at state or local government-funded theatres (for example, foreigners produced three out of the seven premières at the regional Alytus City Theatre, with the manager of the theatre claiming that it was easier to attract foreign directors than young Lithuanian artists), whose regulations require them to present works by foreigners.
The same rules require these theatres to show productions by prominent Lithuanian artists, including works by young directors. The productions by leading Lithuanian directors presented during the 2020-2021 season did not offer any new aesthetic angles or approaches that could not have been anticipated from them (or the country’s theatre). Meanwhile, young artists seem to be increasing their share of the repertoire. During the last season at the LNDT, works by Motiejus Ivanauskas and Antanas Obcarskas (neither of whom graduated in directing) stood out and attracted critical acclaim. The productions by the former are distinguished by their minimalism, irony and ingenuity, while the works by the latter feature political and philosophical contemplation, concealed dramatism, and vivid visual treatments.
In most of Lithuania’s state theatres, more than half of all the premières of the 2020-2021 season were presented by young directors. Interestingly, the productions by the younger generation at the National Kaunas Drama Theatre were shown exclusively during lockdown, and remotely. This is probably how the theatre (mostly supporting safe and more conservative performances) discovered a space to present theatrical experiments painlessly. These experiments included a live broadcast of the première of The Shoemakers, based on the play by Stanisław Witkacy, and directed by Obcarskas. Another notable example was the piece Spaced Away, specifically created for the video platform by Agnija Leonova, a theatre director who is interested in theatre and technology, and especially in artificial intelligence. A unique solution was proposed by Augustas Gornatkevičius, who invited viewers to a Facebook group spreading conspiracy theories, where the viewers’ reactions, comments and speculation became an unpredictable part of the events and predefined content. It is a true interactive performance, nevertheless protecting the actors and viewers from intimidating direct contact.
For understandable reasons, the independent Lithuanian theatre sector was far less productive. After the death of Eimuntas Nekrošius in 2018, the Meno Fortas theatre he established focused on productions by his pupils, and did not present a single première during the last season. Keistuolių Teatras, the first independent theatre in Lithuania, also did not produce any premières, while waiting for the renovation of its theatre space to be completed. Meanwhile, Gildas Aleksa, the leader of the Teatronas company, and Artūras Areima, the director of the Areima Theatre, were some of the few who still tried to reach audiences remotely. Aleksa presented a recorded performance The Final Final Final, made entirely from the endings of literary, cinema and theatre works. Areima took an interdisciplinary approach, and presented versions of performances specially adapted for the screen, calling them films. The Oskaras Koršunovas Theatre was noteworthy in this context, running a play-reading series on Zoom. However, it was a one-off phenomenon, which did not open up any new avenues for Lithuanian theatre (it is amazing, though, that one of the readings received over 100,000 views).
Another interdisciplinary work was presented remotely by Greta Grinevičiūtė, an artist with a contemporary dance background. She is a universal artist, appearing as a dancer, choreographer, actor, and performer of diverse actions akin to performances. With her longstanding interest in the dance film genre, she presented a live broadcast of Dance for Washing Machine and Mom, the second part of a performance series for objects and close people. This adaptation of the piece for remote viewing was perhaps the most successful production of the season. However, its autobiographical aspect seems more important. The production deals with the artist’s personal experience: her relationship with her mother, who committed suicide when her daughter was just a few years old. The work revealed a tragic and clearly still painful experience, attracting attention to the increasing tendency towards self-therapy on the Lithuanian theatre stage; at least three solo performances presented during the season featured actors telling painful personal stories that have left deep scars and serious consequences.
The Shoemakers by Antanas Obcarskas