Theatre at the Crossroads: Trends and Challenges of Georgian Theatre Today

Natalia Tvaltchrelidze*

The paper overviews recent tendencies in the theatre life in Georgia. In particular, it presents the latest statistical data and audience research on theatre; it discusses theatre festival life in Georgia and the latest trends in the productions of young directors in the country.
Keywords: Georgia, theatre, festivals, research, statistics, young directors

Georgia is a small country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia; indeed, the country sat, famously, at an important juncture on the great Silk Roads. It boasts of 8,000 vintages of wine, 3,000 years of statehood, saturated with a great number of wars and struggles for survival; a 1,500-year-old capital and a literature of the same age, written in the same language, using three different scripts; and a very distinctive culture that reflects the combination of winemaking, wars, language, literature and crossroads.

Being at the crossroads, Georgia adopted the experience from the East and the West alike. Georgian poetry, for instance, borrows distinctly eastern forms of versification to convey strikingly western ideals and philosophy.

Being at the crossroads turned Georgia into a land of controversies, paradoxes even.

Georgian writer Aka Morchiladze. (Georgian: აკა მორჩილაძე) is the pen name of Giorgi Akhvlediani (გიორგი ახვლედიანი) (born November 10, 1966). Photo: Wikipedia

At the opening of the Frankfurt Book Fair 2018, where Georgia was the Guest of Honour, the well-known Georgian writer Aka Morchiladze said that Georgia was probably the only nation in the world having kings whose main accomplishments were their poems and not their victories on the battlefields or in state business. Likewise, the first Georgian actor we know by name came down to us not because of his perfect acting skills but because of his song that resonated on the battlefield of Krtsanisi,[1] in 1795, encouraging the Georgian Army to fight against the Persians. Machabela, the aforementioned actor, together with his entire troupe perished in this war and the prospects for the development of a royal professional theatre died along with them.

Do not be misled by the date of the battle. Theatre in Georgia existed centuries before this. It dates back to time immemorial, when different tribes living in this part of the Caucasus engaged into a theatrical masquerade called Berikaoba, a Georgian version of Dionysian festivities, dedicated to fertility and rebirth. The Berikaoba typically involved men disguised as animals in costumes and masks made of animal skin with horns, skulls and bells to add colour. The procession of Berikas was typically accompanied by the sound of traditional Georgian instruments known as stviri[2] and “used, like Commedia dell’Arte, short storyscenes transmitted from generation to generation” (Gogoberidze 2015).

Another similarly theatrical festivity, Qeenoba, developed a little later and lasted all the way to the preset day in certain Georgian provinces. Qeenoba, taking its name from the word Khan,[3] was and is staged with the main aim of mocking foreign invaders, which have been numerous throughout Georgian history. Qeenoba was extremely popular in the capital Tbilisi in the nineteenth century as a form of protest against the Russian Empire, which, at that time, incorporated Georgia within its borders (Gogoberidze 2015).

The professional Georgian theatre, stemming from the folk traditions, was already in place in the fifth century B.C. Although written evidence of the theatrical tradition is quite scarce, the excavations in the ancient city of Uplistsikhe reveal a fully-fledged stage; theatre masks from Uplistsikhe can be seen in the History Museum of Georgia (Gogoberidze 2015).

The Georgian theatre, as we know it today, was brought to life at the beginning of the nineteenth century by several Georgian public figures and writers who, in conjunction with the efforts to revive the Georgian language (both written and spoken)—which was suppressed and forbidden by the Russian empire—founded an artistic society, which later turned into Rustaveli National Theatre.

Rustaveli National Theatre. Photo: Web

All Western theatre traditions follow the development of drama―the Greeks had their ancient playwrights, England had Shakespeare, France had Moliere and so on. Georgian Theatre did not. It was born of political protest, out of a strong desire to preserve a language facing extinction and, I would like to believe, of the very theatrical and emotional nature of Georgians.[4]

Today, 46 professional theatre companies perform regularly in Georgia—a country with a population that slightly exceeds 3.7 million. Twenty of them are in the capital, Tbilisi, and the rest in the regions. All of the major cities have their own theatres. The vast majority of the theatres are state owned and funded. Only eight are private. Three state theatres do not perform in the Georgian language―namely, the Azerbaijani, Armenian and Griboedov Russian theatres. They have performances in their respective languages and serve ethnic minorities in the country.

The capital also shelters internally displaced theatres from the Russian-occupied territories of Georgia―Tskhinvali State Drama Theatre and Tskhinvali State Youth Theatre from the Tskhinvali Region and Sokhumi State Drama Theatre from Abkhazia. They are funded by the state budget and perform on different stages of Tbilisi. Sokhumi State Drama Theatre was granted a permanent building in 2018 (Chkhartishvili 2018).

In 2018, these 46 theatres played 5,764 performances—a substantial number for a small country—and hosted over 580,000 spectators.

Nearly all of the Georgian theatres are repertory companies and employ actors on permanent bases, meaning that they are in majority bound to the same stage and styles, and receive salaries regardless of whether they perform or not. The long overdue theatre reform is nowhere close to completion, although there are permanent talks about it and the development of performing arts is one of the main priorities of the government’s Cultural Strategy 2025.[5]

Nonetheless, theatre life in Georgia is quite diverse. The State funds a variety of festivals, both international and local, to make sure that the performing arts remain on the agenda. There are two major events in the autumn; namely, the Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre (which includes a Georgian Showcase in which the best Georgian productions of the season are presented to invited critics and theatre professionals from all over the word); and The Mikheil Tumanishvili International Arts Festival “GIFT.” These festivals were joined by the Batumi International Festival of Theatre, which was inaugurated in December 2019.

The logo of Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre. Photo: Wikipedia

The City of Batumi, on the Black Sea, is the host of yet another theatre forum―the Mono Performance Festival. Every summer this programme gathers young directors and playwrights who create monodramatic texts especially for the event; this is an important endeavour for the development of the modern Georgian drama.

The New Drama Festival, which opened its doors to young playwrights and directors in 2018, pursues a similar aim to the Mono Performance Festival. Through discussions and performances staged specifically for this platform, the New Drama Festival seeks to find out where Georgian new drama stands today, as well as to support the development of experimental, free and alternative processes in the performing arts.

The Gori Comedy Festival, local at first but acquiring international significance, sprang after the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, during which the city of Gori was the most devastated. “Return the smile to the war-affected city” was the motto of the Festival founder Soso Nemsadze (Chkhartishvili 2018). The Poti Regional Festival encompasses performances from the Georgian regions and presents them to critics and festival directors from the capital and abroad. It is an important event in an otherwise culturally neglected city, which is home to the largest Black Sea port of Georgia.

There are also festivals that are limited to specific Georgian regions, such as the “Theatrical Imereti” programme, which presents both amateur and professional performances staged in the region of Imereti. In addition, there are theatre forums, which are limited in time, like the 24-Hour Theatre Festival where participating groups only have one day to work on the text (Chkhartishvili 2018).

In short, in Georgia theatregoers of diverse tastes can find productions that are to their liking; there is no shortage of choice.

There is limited research seeking to determine where the preferences of the audience stand and whether they coincide with the main tendencies of the modern Georgian theatre. Such research was undertaken recently in the theatre I work for, Ilia State University Theatre, one of the few private venues within the industry. The primary statistics emanating from this research indicate something that is obvious as soon as one enters any theatre auditorium in Georgia; namely, the core group of theatregoers in the country consists of the younger generation. The mean age of the audience of our theatre is 34, with the largest group (36%) between 21 and 30 years old. This figure is quite promising, indicating that live theatre is popular with youth and has a potential of development in future.

Video 1
Dead Cities, directed by Mikheil Charkviani, Poti State Theatre. Photo: Poti State Theatre

However, Georgia, as mentioned earlier, is a country of paradoxes. One might have thought that such a young audience would have a preference for experimental theatre and new realities, forms and modes of expression within theatrical performance. However, this is not the case. The research indicates clearly that the favourite performances among the respondents are either old plays that are already established in theatre history, or productions that are traditional in form. The favourite directors and actors, according to the research, are those of the older generation. Another tendency noticeable in the audience research is a clear preference for classical over modern drama. In addition to this, there is a demand for more comedies; which is possibly a reaction to the constant political tensions and instability, not to mention the social problems that are aplenty in post-war Georgia. The audience, it seems, seeks a theatre of entertainment.

The playbills of the last couple of seasons show clearly that the majority of theatres are seeking to meet these audience demands. New drama is presented very rarely, except during festivals. As Lasha Chkhartishvili, a commentator on the Georgian theatre scene, explains: “In general, the Georgian theatre is quite slow in adopting new tendencies and realities. . . . With rare exceptions, the Georgian theatre is scared of sincerity; it looks for easier, less radical ways of talking about problems” (Chkhartishvili 2018).

Dead Cities, directed by Mikheil Charkviani, Poti State Theatre. Photo: Poti State Theatre

However, the last couple of seasons also show that some of the young directors stand resolutely against this tendency. They chose the path of experimentation, new forms, non-traditional settings and shows on slightly more provocative themes. They have also found a way of using classical plays and themes to their advantage and often turn to problems that are not only political, but also social; problems that are of everyday concern and discussion.

A good example of this is Dead Cities, staged by the Poti State Drama Theatre, and written and staged by Mikheil Charviani and David Khorbaladze. I saw the show during the Regional Festival of 2018. It was performed outdoors, in front of a once beautiful but now completely ruined building in the city of Poti, giving this powerful text an extra bitter feeling of exasperation. The show is a mixture of documentary theatre and social activism, where, drained of all pathos, the actors speak of local problems that slowly acquire a quite global perspective through the telling stories of demolished cities―Poti, Chernobyl, Pompeii.

Prometheus / 25 Years of Independence, directed by Data Tavadze, Royal District Theatre, Tbilisi. Photo: Bobo Mkhitar

Euripides’s Hecuba, which is now shortlisted for the National Theatre Prize Duruji, staged at the Kutaisi State Theatre, is yet another production by the same director, Mikheil Charkviani. This time, he uses a classical text, in which justice is sought but not found, to speak about problems that surround us. The set of the show is a public toilet, yet again underlining the director’s disgust towards aspects of the social and political status quo of the country.

Video 2
Prometheus / 25 Years of Independence, directed by Data Tavadze

The Royal District Theatre of Tbilisi’s director, Data Tavadze, has clearly chosen modern playwriting, both Georgian and foreign. One of his most recent performances, Prometheus / 25 Years of Independence, is based upon a text by David Gabunia. It invites the audience to think over what statehood means to the young people of Georgia, who were born independent. Tavadze is constantly seeking new forms and experiments, in both text and performance techniques. As in the director’s earlier production of The Women of Troy, Tavadze and Gabunia use the myth, combined with documentary material, as the basis for contribution to modern discourse.

The Condemned of Altona, directed by Vano Khutsishvili, Liberty Theatre, Tbilisi. Photo: Natato Asanidze

The director Vano Khutsishvili chose Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Condemned of Altona (staged at the Liberty Theatre, Tbilisi) to speak about a post-war country and the problems of the people who find it hard to adjust to the new reality. The enclosed world of the production is black with draped walls, which the actors walk through, lighting up in the finale with the portraits of all the dictators the world has ever known. The director does not seek visual effects though; at first glance, the performance is carefully paced, calm and based only on the brilliant skills of the actors.

Marat / Sade by Peter Weiss, the debut production of Saba Aslamazishvili at Ilia State University Theatre, is yet another attempt to address questions that Georgia meditates on, such as: What can revolution[6] generate for the country? Can governmental change bring about freedom and equality? Or will a change of government return the country, once again, into ever decreasing circles of injustice? The production takes place practically everywhere (at the entrance, in the foyer) except the stage itself, and uses very little technical means (no theatre lightning and practically no sound), besides the live music. It takes us back to the origins of theatre, clearly hinting at the rebirth that is needed not only in the country, but also in its theatre.

Marat / Sade, directed by Saba Aslamazishvili, Ilia State University Theatre, Tbilisi. Photo: Giviko Baratashvili

The same is true for another debut, Gega Gagnidze’s version of Pillowman by Martin McDonagh. Staged as a third-year study project at the Shota Rustaveli University of Theatre and Film, it quickly gained the attention of the public at large and (together with Marat / Sade) was shortlisted for the National Theatre Prize Duruji in the Debut Section. Like the other young directors mentioned above, Gagnidze disregards the stage as well as traditional theatre technology. His show has no conventional theatre lighting, but, rather, domestic light bulbs and car headlights. It has no music. He locks his audience in the cold and damp basement of the University, where, through a tragic story of a writer’s trial, he creates a scene that evokes the despair, injustice and cruelty of the system that surrounds us.

Pillowman, directed by Gega Gagnidze, Tbilisi University of Theatre and Film. Photo: Khatia Khalvashi

Meanwhile, the Rustaveli National Theatre has produced nothing of significant value during the last season, except for The Fate of Georgia, staged by the famous Georgian director Robert Sturua for the 100th anniversary of the Georgian Parliament. In a show full of colour and music, with his characteristic irony and practically with no text at all, Sturua tells the centuries old history struggle of Georgia, from the loss of the Golden Fleece through to the Russian invasion.

The Fate of Georgia, directed by Roebrt Sturua, Rustaveli National Theatre, Photo: Tina Kazakhishvili

The Marjanishvili State Theatre in Tbilisi has allowed experimental theatre alongside with its traditional repertoire, which is loved by the audience. The theatre worked with artists of the younger generation to give them the space to master their profession. A good example of this is Land Demands Its Due, a mixture of Georgian fairy tale and documentary theatre, created by Avtandil Diasamidze and based upon a text by Alex Chigvinadze. Originally devised in the rehearsal room of the Marjanishvili State Theatre, it went on to become part of the official Georgian programme of the Frankfurt Book Fair 2018.

Land Demands its Due, directed by Avtandil Diasamidze, Marjansihvili State Theatre. Photo: Tako Robakidze

The same director, Diasamidze, recently staged another quite exciting performance, Odyssey, at the Youth Theatre. Apart from being one of the first attempts to use animation in performance, this is another example of a theatre artist using myth as a means of addressing Georgia’s social issues. The performance has two main lines: Odysseus in animation and a modern Georgian family represented on the stage. The show is a truly beautiful attempt to present myth to the younger audience, while underlining how it can echo our modernity. 

Odyssey, directed by Avtandil Diasamidze, Tbilisi State Youth Theatre. Photo: Irakli Gedenidze

Anti-Medea, staged by Guram Matskhonashvili, based on a text by Lasha Bugadze for the New Drama Festival, once again employs old myth to convey current problems in Georgia. The play was initially staged in an old pavilion of the Georgia Film Studio and was later performed on a Black Sea beach, during the Poti Regional Festival. The show is a good example of how one leitmotif of Medea’s divorce from Jason can be reflected in the problems of present day Georgia. When divorced, she will lose Greek citizenship and has to go back to her own country, which is under occupation.[7]

Antimedea, directed by Guram Matskhonashvili and performed on the Black Sea Beach during Poti Regional Theatre Festival. Photo: Jo Black

To conclude, Georgian theatre finds itself on the crossroads, in both geographical and cultural terms. While the traditional theatre is still in fashion, the younger generation has yet to find its style and forms of expression and make the audience follow its lead. They have to look around the world at the development of the theatre in the West (this is where the new Cultural Strategy and reforms might prove useful). However, they must also develop their own signature, particularly for the new Georgian theatre, which has always had its own distinctive character and charm.


Works Cited

Chkhartishvili, Lasha. “Georgian Theatre Today, Part II.” Art Science Studies, vol. 3–4, no. 76–77, 2018.

Gogoberidze, Irina. “Georgian Theatre in Search of Lost Europeanism.” Georgia’s European Ways: Political and Cultural Perspectives. Tbilisi, 2015.

Geostat.National Statistics Office of Georgia, www.geostat.ge.


[1]Battle on the field of Krtsanisi, near Tbilisi, on September 8–11, 1795, between the Persian Army, led by Agha Mohammed Khan, and the Kingdom of Kartli and Kakheti (Eastern Georgia), led by King Erekle II, who was supposed to be aided by the Russian Army. Help never came and the battle of Krtsanisi led to a complete devastation of the capital, Tbilisi.

[2]A kind of Georgian traditional pipe.

[3]Khan was a title for a ruler or a military leader in Seljuk and Mongol Empires, as well as Safavid Persia and other countries of the East.

[4]The first Georgian plays appeared only in the nineteenth century.

[5]This refers to the “Cultural Strategy 2025” (in Georgian), Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection of Georgia, 2016.

[6]Revolution is still a fresh motive for Georgia, since Rose Revolution happened in 2003.

[7]Ancient Colchis, homeland of Medea, encompassed the entire Georgian Black Sea coast, including Abkhazia, now under Russian occupation. 



 

*Natalia Tvaltchrelidze is Managing Director of Ilia State University Theatre. She has graduated from the American University of Paris with a degree in Comparative Literature, from Tbilisi State University with a master’s degree in English Literature and from London School of Economics and Political Science with a Master of Sciences in Media and Communication. She has worked in the field of Public Relations for various national and international organizations, and coordinated projects for Rustaveli National Theatre, as well as the National Theatre Prize Duruji. She was also a member of Jury for the best Georgian Play and Best Translated Play Competition on many occasions. She is currently teaching Shakespeare as well as Media Relations and Political Communication at Ilia State University in Tbilisi.

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