Abstract: This paper presents an overview of Lithuanian theatre processes during the last four years before Eimuntas Nekrošius’ death. It uses descriptive statistical analysis to look at current trends from various perspectives. It looks at the number of performances produced and introduces the most productive artists and groups. The paper presents the organisational and financial system of Lithuanian theatres and looks in more detail at the activities of national, state, municipal and independent theatres that hold professional status. The paper proposes general guidelines for understanding the main operating principles within the Lithuanian theatre system.
Keywords: Nekrošius, Graužinis, Koršunovas, Tuminas, Tertelis, Juozas Miltinis Drama Theatre, Kamilė Gudmonaitė
Laima Žemulienė: Could you briefly describe your theatre?
Eimuntas Nekrošius: I never analyse theatre. Theatre is theatre. It could be squeezed into a frame of some kind, but then it would become theory, and I am against theories. Theatre is spontaneous—one moment it is born, another it is already dying; it must have sounds and smells. It shouldn’t be discussed in big words. There are many beautiful books written about theatre. (From an interview, 1992)
In recent years, an increasing number of Lithuanian theatre artists have come to be regarded highly on the international scene. Meanwhile, within Lithuania, there has been an inspirational change of personnel within the management of the leading, state-funded theatres; a change which, in turn, is creating opportunities for other changes. However, it has also been a very sad time, due to the untimely passing of some important theatre figures.
In 2018, in particular, we bade farewell to Eimuntas Nekrošius, whose work mesmerised theatregoers for more than four decades, and who was one of the most acclaimed Lithuanian theatre directors. In addition, Viktorija Ivanova, a young theatre scholar and theatre project manager, left us before she even reached the age of thirty; her notable career cut short before it had a chance to fully blossom.
In the European context, over the last few decades, Nekrošius, Cezaris Graužinis, Oskaras Koršunovas and Rimas Tuminas have been the best known and most influential Lithuanian theatre directors. Still, important though they are, they account for only a small part of the nation’s theatrical output. In a country of fewer than three million people, there have been, in the last four years, more than 500 new plays, of which Graužinis directed only one work, whilst Nekrošius directed four and Koršunovas thirteen. We have never had as many theatre creators (directors, dramatists, actors and others) initiating new performing arts projects. It is, therefore, high time to take a panoramic view of contemporary Lithuanian theatre—and to do so without big words, and from (to us Lithuanians) the somewhat unusual perspective of numbers.
Since 2015, the number of stage productions in Lithuania has increased constantly. In 2018, there were 20 per cent more productions than in 2015. As with much of the country’s cultural life, the performing arts are concentrated primarily in the capital city, Vilnius; around 40 per cent of new theatre productions are created in the city, which is home to 25 (that is, more than half) of the institutions working in the professional performing arts.
If we add the second and third cities of Kaunas and Klaipėda, we can see that 70 to 80 per cent of new plays are being presented in the major Lithuanian cities. Partly, this is due to a certain dynamism within the state-funded institutions. However, it is also because of the greater concentration of independent theatres in those cities. The remaining productions are made in state and city theatres in Šiauliai, Panevėžys, Alytus, Šilutė and Kelmė. In other locations, there are no professional theatre organisations and no professional theatrical productions are being created. However, the stages of cultural centres in the smaller towns do show touring productions from the larger cities.
Speaking of theatre audiences, the majority (approximately 70 per cent) of productions staged annually are made for adults. Around 25 per cent (no small proportion) are created with children of various ages in mind. Lately, the youngest audience members (babies and children under the age of three) have also attracted the attention of performance artists. Nonetheless, it should be noted that only four to six per cent of new plays are created for adolescents and youth, and half of them are made in Vilnius. So, it can be said that, in the regions further from the centre of the country, theatre has forgotten perhaps the most sensitive age group, which is living through unique periods of change.
Dramatic theatre, which is much loved in Lithuania, accounts for at least 70 per cent of productions created in the country each year. Having inherited the oral theatre tradition and been trained by the older generation of theatre creators, Lithuanian theatre artists are not eager to choose less traditional theatre forms; performance art/live art and new circus productions make up less than two per cent of new works. The remaining 28 per cent of live stage shows are split, more or less equally, between musical theatre (operas, operettas, musicals and musical dramas) and dance theatre (ballet and contemporary dance). The most common price for a show in Lithuania is between 10 and 15 euros (although there are some performances that cost between 7 and 10 euros; only shows for children may be cheaper than this).
The majority of musical productions are created at the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre, and at the Kaunas, Klaipėda and Panevėžys musical theatres. Most often, these are quite traditional productions, with one particular production company, Operomanija (which does not hold professional theatre creator status), presenting itself as an independent creator of unusual contemporary opera performances. Operomanija produced the opera performance work Saulė ir jūra (Sun and Sea), which will be staged at the 2019 Venice Biennale.
The situation in the dance sector is somewhat different. Traditional ballet shows make up barely 10per cent of dance productions. The absolute leader in the field is the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre. The largest sub-section of contemporary dance artists work in their own independent theatres. The most productive at the moment is the Aura dance-theatre company, which is funded by Kaunas City Municipality and run by choreographer Birutė Letukaitė.
Eimuntas Nekrošius: We have an apartment and an old car. Our salaries are enough for us to eat, and to pay for the fuel, Prima cigarettes, coffee and newspapers. We don’t need that much. By the way, I keep intending to stop buying and reading newspapers. After all, it costs three to four litas, and it’s like a drug. I promise to stop reading them, like I promise to quit smoking, and I can’t quit either. (From an interview, 1994)
Since 1990, when the country became independent from the Soviet Union, Lithuanian theatrehas, inevitably, been through a period of change. However, it should be recognised that Lithuanians are quite a conservative people. Consequently, the changes to the theatre system over the last 30 years have not been as numerous, or as radical, as one might have assumed.
Almost half the organisations holding “professional performing arts institution” status continue to be state-funded: these include three theatres holding the status of a national theatre, 10 state theatres and 9 city theatres. These theatres produce about 60 per cent of the new plays, and the percentage of the work they present continues to grow. It should be noted that all these theatres have their own performance spaces and employment budgets, most of which are allocated to the salaries of administrators, performers and technicians. According to the data of the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, the number of spectators attending state-funded theatres between 2015 and 2017 increased slightly, reaching 767,000 in 2017.
Although the remaining part (about 40 per cent) of new Lithuanian stage work is created in the independent sector, most often these productions are partly funded by the state. The most popular (and often the only) funding source in the country is the fund administered by the Lithuanian Council for Culture, which funds up to 80 per cent of new projects. Although this organisation allocates funds based on certain criteria and, of course, not to everyone who applies, Lithuanian performing artists and their managers tend to rely on it too heavily.
In 2015, according to the data of the Lithuanian Department of Statistics, the number of independent theatre spectators was higher than state-funded theatres and reached 735,000. However, in 2016, the independent scene lost more than 200,000 spectators. In 2017, the audiences of independent theatres increased again and reached 628,000. However, this growth may be related, not to any real change in the situation but to the increased number of professional theatres covered by the statistical research.
The performance This Order Goes Wrong created by Dominykas Digimas, Kristijonas Dirsė, Rimantas Ribačiauskas, the Open Space programme by Arts Printing House, 2018
Only some independent theatres have their own stages; such as Menų spaustuvė (Arts Printing House), which is one of the main spaces for independent theatre in Vilnius. In addition, Vilniaus Keistuolių teatras (Vilnius Keistuolių Theatre), Meno fortas (Fortress of Art; established by Nekrošius) and the Oskaras Koršunovas Theatre have their own performance spaces. However, many of these institutions are merely administrative-level organisations tied to specific artists, and they neither have their own spaces (offices or rehearsal space, let alone stages) nor are able to continually maintain their own staff. State-funded theatres tend to run their productions constantly; new work gets included in the theatre repertoire and can be run for a number of seasons, from a few times per year to a few times per month. Meanwhile, independent organisations work on a project-by-project basis and are more focused on creating new productions than playing existing work. It sometimes happens that their newly created work gets shown just two or three times.
Eimuntas Nekrošius: One must work, otherwise one loses the form. Continuity is important. One shouldn’t think about money, but only about ideas, and that’s how the money will come. But we are still lacking ideas, they are in deficit. (From an interview, 1998)
If we examine theatres separately, we notice that the most productive theatre in the country of late has been the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre. This theatre hosted premieres of amazing work by Árpád Schilling, Krystian Lupa, Lukasz Twarkowski, Oskaras Koršunovas and Eimuntas Nekrošius. It has also made space for young creators. Over the past two years, the theatre has taken on unique documentary projects alongside more traditional dramatic productions. For example, in 2017, the young director Jonas Tertelis created a production entitled Žalia pievelė (A Green Meadow) in which inhabitants of Visaginas, a town populated by Russian-speaking nuclear specialists in the Soviet era, tell their life stories. One year later, the director presented the new work Nežinoma žemė. Šalčia (Šalčia. Unknown land) dedicated to the town of Šalčininkai, which is populated by Polish people. These projects expanded the thematic scope of Lithuanian theatre by adding to the “national” question the issue of national minorities and moving professional theatre into territories that had been abandoned by the Lithuanian performing arts.
The most productive state theatre is Juozas Miltinis Drama Theatre, located in Panevėžys. One of the reasons for this might be the rotation of its management personnel. Its former head, Linas Zaikauskas, who joined the theatre in 2015, had great ambitions to promote the theatre’s name and (like many new theatre managers) began updating its repertoire. However, in November 2017, at the very beginning of the #metoo movement, an actress working on one of his productions accused Zaikauskas of sexual harassment, later proving it in court. As a result, by the end of that year, the theatre had new management, which, again, started updating its repertoire. The theatre’s new, young theatre managers have collaborated intensively with other creators of their generation (young theatre directors have staged eight out of the nine new productions there since the change of management). The Russian Drama Theatre of Lithuania located in Vilnius is a little bit behind Juozas Miltinis Drama Theatre in terms of the newest productions. However, it produced one of the most important theatre hits of the last season; Oskaras Koršunovas’s staging of the Marius Ivaškevičius play Rusiškas romanas (Russian Romance).
It is difficult to describe the activity of the theatres outside of Vilnius, partly because they are not based in the capital and their work is less noticed by critics. Many of those theatres have been established as the personal initiatives of local theatre artists, and often become spaces for the blooming of ideas exclusive to those artists. For example, the founders and long-term heads of the Aitvaras puppet theatre in Alytus and the Šilutė Chamber Drama Theatre have been the only professionals directing there in the last four years.
There are cases in which theatre managers not only do not put any effort into attracting other theatre creators, but actively avoid doing so. That happened in the case of Kaunas Chamber Theatre, which has almost been run exclusively by one family for many years. Still, after its head was changed in autumn 2015, various theatre artists began working there, from the new generation of theatre practitioners to acclaimed masters of stage such as Gintaras Varnas.
Kaunas Chamber Theatre stands out from the rest of the state-funded performing arts organisations because currently it only maintains the positions of managers and technical staff, while its actors do not hold contracts. Therefore, every theatre director can bring their own team to work there. Following the withdrawal of the previous head, who also acted in many of the theatre’s productions, the theatre was forced to renew its repertoire, and lately has been one of the most productive city theatres.
The most active independent theatre is Oskaras Koršunovas Theatre. This organisation, which has a studio space located in the Old Town of Vilnius, has lately been seen as particularly attractive by young theatre creators. Younger actors (students of Koršunovas) have acted in all the productions the director created for this stage between 2015 and 2018. Encouraged warmly by the theatre management, young theatre directors have also created some of their first pieces at Koršunovas’s theatre.
The performance My Peter Pan by Agnija Šeiko, Šeiko Dance Theatre, 2018, is created for a teenage audience
Although it is often said that cultural life in Klaipėda city is barely alive, numbers show that, over the past few years, three independent groups of performing artists have been particularly active there. In 2018, Klaipėda Youth Theatre, established not that long ago by the actor Valentinas Masalskis and his former students, produced no fewer than seven new productions, a record number for an independent theatre. Matching the productivity of this theatre is the continuously operating Šeiko Dance Company (previously known as Padi Dapi Fish), which creates high quality dance performances and original artistic solutions. Works of distinct character are being created in Apeironas theatre, where the position of the dramatist and theatre director is shared by a duo of two young women, Greta Kazlauskaitė and Eglė Kazickaitė.
Gregory Mosher: Are there any good contemporary dramatists in Lithuania?
Eimuntas Nekrošius: We have many wonderful writers, but not dramatists. (From an interview, 1992)
Although the past few years have seen various efforts to break with tradition, verbal theatre remains the most prominent theatre form in Lithuania. The largest proportion of theatre productions are made by theatre artists choosing a dramatic play or literary piece, which is then adapted for the stage by the theatre director or a dramatist of their choice.
In the interwar period and during the Soviet era, there was no school for playwrights in Lithuania (texts for theatre were written independently, either by self-taught theatre writers or by theatre artists themselves), and it was also common to choose plays by non-Lithuanian writers. There have been attempts to gradually change this state of affairs. It looks like this work has begun bearing fruit. Whilst the largest proportion of productions is still based on work by foreign authors, last year saw a 15 per cent increase in the number of new Lithuanian plays, as compared with 2015.
One of the most popular shows in Panevėžys: the Lithuanian comedy about kinsfolk parties, Dovilė Statkevičienė’s Kinsfolk, directed by Alius Veverskis, Juozas Miltinis Drama Theatre, 2017
Our theatre creators are particularly dependent on literature, and often a limited range of themes and subjects are chosen by authors, which, in turn, limits the issues explored on stage. In recent years, theatre directors seem to have started to be attentive to this. They are choosing fewer plays by non-Lithuanian authors (both in terms of contemporary works and classics). Rather, they look for themes that are closer to them and their audiences.
The environment has become more favourable for Lithuanian dramaturgy. In 2015, there was only one staging of a Lithuanian play. However, in 2018, there were 14. Apart from Marius Ivaškevičius, playwrights like Gabrielė Labanauskaitė, Dovilė Statkevičienė and Birutė Kapustinskaitė write new plays almost every year. There has also been a noted tendency for theatre directors to take a concrete problem as a starting point and, through collaboration with dramatists (or by themselves), to create original theatre texts or scripts.
Eimuntas Nekrošius: The director’s profession is much easier than the myths created about it. It’s quite primitive, quite straightforward. An organisation of some activity. After all, a literary source is primary. You are turning someone’s ideas into action. Converting them.
Andrius Rožickas: A converter? The director is a converter?
Eimuntas Nekrošius: Yes! (From an interview, 2017)
Despite Lithuania being in the European Union for 15 years now, the country’s theatre is still a quite closed sphere, and one dominated by local theatre artists. Over the past four years, only 10 per cent of productions were created by foreign artists (most often Russian, Latvian and Polish directors). However, foreigners are increasingly being invited to work on Lithuanian stages, especially in state theatres. Lithuanian theatre directors of the older generations are producing fewer works, while, in 2018, young theatre artists created as much as 40 per cent of all productions. Having previously worked in private organisations, they are increasingly being welcomed into city, state and national theatres.
Four, directed by Kamilė Gudmonaitė, is an interpretation of Chapayev and Void by Victor Pelevin, National Kaunas Drama Theatre & Utopia Theatre, 2018
Theatre directing in Lithuania has remained male-dominated profession. However, this seems to be changing. More than 85 per cent of productions created by directors over the age of 40 were directed by men. However, among emerging directors (aged up to 34), more than 60 per cent of works were created by women. Having opened their doors to younger artists, city, state and national theatres are welcoming women artists.
It is interesting to note that men and women are creating their work for different target audiences. Previously, the largest part of male directors’ creative output was made up of plays for adults, while the majority of productions created by women were for children and young people. Recently, however, the situation has changed somewhat; over half of the work created by women is directed at adult audiences. One of the most prominent young generation theatre artists is Kamilė Gudmonaitė, whose work has been marked, from the very start, by distinct composition, precise stage settings, attention to the actor’s voice and physical expression and an ability to create an immersive atmosphere.
The two most prolific theatre directors are Oskaras Koršunovas (who created eleven dramatic and two opera productions in just four years), and the young director Gildas Aleksa (a 28-year-old who has 13 dramatic stagings under his belt). Aleksa runs his own theatre, Teatronas, where he works together with actors on the principle of collective creativity. One of the most interesting works by this company is its interpretation of Shakespeare’s Othello, performed in high-rise apartments for a dozen audience members. Aleksa also works in state-funded theatres; at his initiative, an alternative performing arts space, called Šelteris, operated in Kaunas for some time. The young director also organises the festival of contemporary circus, Cirkuliacija.
Eimuntas Nekrošius: You may have seen my latest plays. The earlier ones were simpler, more sincere.… Perhaps the times have changed now.… Unavoidably, if a producer is funding a production, a certain commercial success is expected. Now theatre directors have learned the “Euro standard” abroad, to make a “good play.” But I believe it’s most important to have a distinct voice. (From Nekrošius’ studio notes, 2002)
In the Lithuanian theatre, we have become accustomed to seeing mesmerising work by actors, rather than impressive stage effects. Nonetheless, in order to create “good plays” today, directors also need good technical equipment on theatre stages. Having renovated their main stages a while ago, the National Kaunas Drama Theatre and the Klaipėda Drama Theatre operate today with great technical possibilities. However, in the capital, two important stages are presently closed for reconstruction: namely, the main stages of the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre and the Lithuania State Youth Theatre. The reconstruction of the Russian Drama Theatre of Lithuania is planned for the near future, and the main stage of the Juozas Miltinis Drama Theatre in Panevėžys is also undergoing reconstruction. Productions staged in the major theatres of the country are the most valued, and their creators are nominated for the most important performing arts awards each year.
Will the newest technical equipment alter the quality of theatre shows and modes of artistic expression? It is difficult to say, bearing in mind that it depends not only on the directors’ imagination but also on highly-skilled technical staff, of whom there is are too few in Lithuania. What is promising is that there are two colleges which train sound directors, and the number of such schools is growing. However, there still is no school for lighting artists, and professionals of this field are only able to develop professionally due to their own enthusiasm.
The transformation which began in Lituanian theatre thirty years ago has calmed down, and, gradually, a new theatre system has emerged. There are no signs of this change ending any time soon. Some theatre creators work in state-funded theatres, while others choose to create in independent ones. Some receive funding for their work and others do not. Some look for ways to create, while others only look for funds for creative work.
Despite a certain routine, creative theatre processes are gathering impetus everywhere Lithuania. In the past, we had a few prominent leaders in the performing arts field, while, today, we have a multitude of young directors who are developing every day. There is nothing more permanent than constant change. Theatre executives are increasingly looking for new artists, artists are looking for ways to realise their ideas, managers are continuously improving their understanding of how to create a better environment for creativity, and active theatre people from Vilnius, the most dynamic theatre zone, also venture into the regions.
New developments are inevitable; we just have to keep our eyes peeled.
Here, and throughout the text, we provide statistics based on the 2015-2018 research of theatre institutions which hold professional status. Professional theatres are recognised organisations under the Republic of Lithuanian Law on Professional Performing Arts. This status is held by 49 performing arts institutions. However, it is important to note that these are not the only companies creating theatre productions in Lithuania. For example, the popular commercial theatre Domino is not on the list of professional theatre institutions. Neither does the list include the organisation Meno ir mokslo laboratorija, which works in quite experimental theatre projects, or the producers’ company Operomanija, which works in the field of contemporary opera, as well as other independent organisations which collaborate with performing arts professionals.
In these calculations, puppet and object theatre was included in the “dramatic theatre” category.
Interestingly, 4 to 6 per cent of new plays in Lithuania are staged in high-rise apartments.
*Monika Jašinskaitė is a theatre
and dance critic. She has been writing for various cultural media since 2012
and is a member of the Lithuanian Performing Arts Critics Association. She has participated
in dance and theatre productions as a dramatist. She works as a project manager
in Juozas Miltinis Drama Theatre.