Lauma Mellēna-Bartkeviča* and Ieva Rodiņa**
Abstract: The article gives an insight into the current situation of Latvian theatre, its administrative and artistic perspectives. It provides an overview of its financing models, emphasizing the increasing competitiveness of the independent theatres, as well as its most distinctive newcomers. Despite financial inequality between state funded and independent theatres, Latvian theatre today with its diversity of genres, directing styles and personalities has become one of the favourite cultural activities of the society.
Keywords: Latvian theatre, diversity, mainstream, independent theatres, actors-managers
Theatre has always played an important part in Latvian culture and society. Theatre thrives in Latvia today, despite the large variety of alternatives offered by the entertainment industry. New productions in the nine professional theatres across the country are usually sold out, while the repertoire shows an average of 70 per cent of seats filled by passionate theatregoers of all generations. It is hard to get tickets for new productions, unless you are lucky enough to sneak in before the first reviews come out. According to research published by theatre critic and business journalist Vēsma Lēvalde, in 2017 the number of theatregoers reached one million (in a population of 1.95 million); which means that more than 400 inhabitants out of every 1,000 Latvians is a theatregoer (which exceeds the E.U. average).
Grounded in the traditions of classical psychological theatre of the nineteenth and twentieth century, contemporary Latvian theatre boasts a diversity of genres, directing styles and personalities. There are notable differences in style between stage directors of different generations. There are also changes in approaches to artistic administration and a rise in the number of promising, motivated and independent newcomers on the stage; the latter of which proves the strength of collective production, as opposed to the notion of the actor as a tiny screw in a big machine.
Despite such positive developments, Latvian theatre, like theatre in many countries around the world, faces difficult times financially. According to Ojārs Rubenis, the former managing director and current executive director of the National Theatre of Latvia, the average monthly gross salary of professional actors employed by state funded theatre reach EUR 880 in 2017 (a year in which the increase in government funding for the arts was very small). The art and culture industries are permanently struggling to make ends meet, especially where backstage staff are concerned; backstage salaries barely exceeds the minimum gross salary of EUR 430 (2018).
At the same time, there is a strong division between actors who are employed in state repertory theatres and freelancers. Most of the young actors have to start their theatre careers by seeking work in various theatre projects, and only after proving their talent, they are offered a stable position in repertory theatres. In a recent interview for the Latvian theatre web journal kroders.lv, prominent young actress Marija Linarte, explains the pros and cons of this model:
As a freelancer, you control your own time, which is a big bonus. You decide for yourself what you will do. . . . There are changes all the time, you’re not settled in one place but move about and learn to work with different people instead of one stable “family”. . . Of course, it’s jungle. Before I got in the [New Riga Theatre] troupe, I was . . . wild. . . . The one who would go and do first, would get [the job]. . . . Nobody has a duty to offer you a job. You’re forced to do more. I think, because of this situation, such a miracle as KVADRIFRONS (an independent project theatre company founded by four young actors in 2017; see further in the article) has happened.
The Ministry of Culture of Latvia provides partial subsidies to seven repertory dramatic theatres (the National Theatre of Latvia, Daile Theatre, Mikhail Chekhov Riga Russian Theatre, New Riga Theatre, Latvian Puppet Theatre, Valmiera Drama Theatre and Daugavpils Theatre), as well as one opera and ballet theatre (Latvian National Opera and Ballet). Liepāja Theatre and Liepāja Puppet Theatre are subsidized by the local municipality, therefore being excluded from the state subsidies for theatres (See figure below).
State subsidies provide approximately 40 per cent of the annual budget of the theatres (50-70 per cent in the regions of Valmiera and Daugavpils). The rest lies on the shoulders of the institution. For example, the total annual revenue of the National Theatre of Latvia in 2017 was EUR 4.3 million, including EUR 1.86 million of state subsidy and EUR 1.9 million revenue from tickets sold, generating an annual loss of around EUR 168,000. As for the audience attendance, the number of spectators in 2017 reached 165,000, the repertoire consisted of 46 productions, including 19 new productions performed on three stages.
Expanding the Borders of Mainstream Theatre
In Latvian theatre, most of theatre events can be categorized as mainstream; this is due mainly to the models of financing as well as the general tendency to produce more or less “traditional” theatre forms. Although working under the title “independent theatres,” the most visible and longstanding small theatres in Riga—Dirty Deal Teatro and Ģertrūdes Street Theatre (Ģertrūdes ielas teātris)—are functioning similarly to repertory theatres in terms of programming, while keeping the financing model of project theatres. That is to say that their budget depends on results in the trimestral funding competitions of the State Culture Capital Foundation (VKKF); in these, theatre companies which are funded on a purely project by project basis submit applications, in competition with project proposals submitted by large, state-funded theatres.
However, since the beginning of this decade, some changes have occurred. Both Dirty Deal Teatro and Ģertrūdes Street Theatre have gradually transformed their status from alternative “take-off platforms” for young actors, directors and choreographers to self-sufficient and artistically competitive players on the map of Latvian theatre. This tendency is reflected not only in the growing popularity of the independent and project theatre movement (in the last few years several new players have appeared, which will be discussed below), but also in the observations of Latvian and foreign critics. In 2017, during the annual Baltic Drama Forum, which is hosted in turn by each of the three Baltic republics, the prize awarded by the foreign theatre experts went to Beasty Love, a production staged at Dirty Deal Teatro by Mārcis Lācis (2017).
In addition, in 2018, the Grand-Prix of the annual Latvian Theatre Award “Performer’s Night”(“Spēlmaņu nakts”) was awarded for the first time to a production by an independent theatre; namely, The Flea Market of the Souls, a witty, young “war drama in the kitchen” (Dirty Deal Teatro, 2018) which was created in close collaboration between the young playwright Justīne Kļava and stage director Inga Tropa. The story of six young people of different nationalities living in a shared flat grows into a micro-model of today’s Latvian society facing a wide range of past prejudices, stereotypes, dealing with “other” in today’s social reality.
Nevertheless, lately, both Dirty Deal Teatro and Ģertrūdes Street Theatre have narrowed their artistic perspectives. Dirty Deal Teatro is now focused on productions of Latvian original drama; the most successful examples of which, in recent years, have been the aforementioned stage production of The Flea Market of the Souls, as well as productions by the political theatre director Valters Sīlis is well-known, if not internationally, then certainly in the Baltic republics. Sīlis collaborates with several young playwrights (such as Jānis Balodis, Matīss Gricmanis, Kārlis Krūmiņš), in productions dedicated to such locally or globally significant themes as the National Development Plan of Latvia (National Development Plan, 2012), the complicated political processes of Latvia gaining national independence in 1918 (Andrievs Niedra, 2015), and ecology (Mārupīte, 2012, and The Lost Antarctic, 2015).
Ģertrūdes Street Theatre, in its turn, covers a more specific artistic field, shifting towards aesthetic experimentation, merging various art forms, including contemporary dance and performance art. Ironically, though, their most successful productions of recent years can be categorized more as mainstream theatre productions, rather than alternative theatre experiments.
All of the previously mentioned examples allow us to conclude that, in spite of the reduced funding and the organizational challenges (that is, underdeveloped technical support, shortage of the technical staff and so on) the overall process of the independent theatres in Latvia shows great artistic potential, equal to the offer of large repertory theatres.
The Actors’ Educational System in Latvia
Since the 1990s, the professional academic degree of dramatic actor and stage director in Latvia has mainly been awarded by the Latvian Academy of Culture. Since 2017, a new course, with a cohort of 15 actors, is trained in the University of Liepāja. Initially, each group engaged in the four-year study programme of the Latvian Academy of Culture was “adopted” by one of the state funded repertory theatres. However, over the years, fewer than a half of the students got positions in the repertory theatres after graduation. Consequently, Latvia had a notable overproduction of actors. Many of the graduates work as freelancers. Nevertheless, the study programme is still the most popular in the academy, attracting several hundreds of potential actors to the admission exams every year.
In 2018/2019, a new cohort by Alvis Hermanis (who is probably the most renowned Latvian theatre director in Europe) started their studies, with graduation set for 2021, in time for the planned completion of reconstruction work on historical building of New Riga Theatre. The students of Hermanis, currently finishing their first year in the Academy, have already been “showcased” on the stage of New Riga Theatre interim stage in the production The Summer of the Servant Boy. Beginning (2008), where the trainees performed a work which discussed the possible future course of Hermanis’ theatrical art.
Hermanis has enjoyed success in Europe’s theatres (including Frankfurt, Zurich, Berlin and Vienna) since 2005, and opera houses (Salzburg, Vienna, Brussels, Paris and Milan) since 2012. He has also staged some notable productions at the New Riga Theatre, such as Sound of Silence (Berliner Festspiele in cooperation with NRT, 2007), Ziedonis and the Universe (NRT, 2010) and, finally, Brodsky/Baryshnikov (NRT, 2015). Despite the latter, his commitment to lead the course at the Latvian Academy of Culture is interpreted as a returning home; Hermanis was perceived by many in Latvia to have “abandoned” the troupe founded in the late 1990s, which consisted of the most talented Latvian actors, such as Guna Zariņa, Baiba Broka, Vilis Daudziņš, Kaspars Znotiņš and Andris Keišs. The particularity of these actors is their dedicated contribution in devising productions, which was an initial requirement of Hermanis.
Actors in the Managing Directors’ Chairs
There have been interesting developments in theatre administration in Latvia in the last few years. Three out of nine state or municipality funded theatres now have managing directors who come from a professional acting background. In 2016, Ģirts Šolis, a trained puppet theatre actor and a co-founder of the first independent object theatre company umka.lv, became managing director of the Latvian Puppet Theatre, a company that had been considered to be suffering from long-term stagnation. Šolis’ leadership has been notable for the success of its shows for adolescents and adults. There has been particular acclaim for such productions as: The Golden Horse by the revered Latvian national dramatist and poet Rainis, directed by Duda Paiva (Brasil/the Netherlands), 2017; Romeo and Juliet, based on Shakespeare, directed by Davide Giovanzana, 2018; and Casanova, directed by Šolis himself, 2019.
In 2018, two more actors took up positions as managing directors. Actress and producer Dana Bjorka was appointed the managing director of Mikhail Chekhov Riga Russian Theatre after the retirement of the previous director Eduard Tsekhoval. In addition, actor and stage director Jānis Vimba (who has an educational background in economics) replaced Ojārs Rubenis at the helm of the Latvian National Theatre. Rubenis had held the position since 2006, and, under his guidance, the National Theatre rose from the ashes, transforming from a stagnating and conservative theatre to a contemporary artistic institution with a strong national identity and a captivating, modern sensibility. Consequently, the theatre’s staff and the Ministry of Culture asked him to remain in the post of executive director until the end of the theatre season 2018/19, which is also the centenary of the theatre.
In a joint interview published in the Latvian professional theatre magazine Teātra Vēstnesis, Ms. Bjorka and Mr. Vimba share their experience of the first year in the leading position in their respective theatres. The conclusion that emerges from the conversation reflects the current situation in Latvian theatre; that is, the current model of co-financing from the state budget (subsidies) leads to burn-out among actors and stage directors in the long-term. Sometimes, artistic development and experimentation lose out to large scale, popular musicals and comedies. Such a prioritization of box office sales is particularly true of Daile Theatre. The current director of the National Theatre admits that his former education in economics keeps him grounded when it comes to practical dimension of the stage arts. However, he asks his colleague whether the spiritual dimension is still possible in today’s theatre. Ms. Bjorka replies:
What we can do is to be active, to give opinion, offer solutions and keep developing ourselves. . . . We need sharp changes. I think of Elon Musk, who inspires me a lot. When asked what he would do if he had an ambitious and unrealistic goal, and he could not find the necessary people to achieve it, he thought for a while and answered: “I would learn and do it myself.
All three of the new managing directors mentioned above have proved the efficiency of this strategy so far.
Artistic Independence of the Actor
A similar story emerges in the case of the aforementioned theatre troupe KVADRIFONS, founded in 2017 by a group of talented young actors (Ance Strazda, Klāvs Mellis, Reinis Boters and Āris Matesovičs). The company made its home a former Riga Circus building which was under reconstruction. The main source of finance for this newcomer is the aforementioned competitive project of the State Culture Capital Foundation. The actors themselves take care of production and management.
In her article about KVADRIFONS, Latvian theatre critic Līga Ulberte has pointed out that the case of this company highlights the widely-held prejudice that work in state-funded theatre (which brings with it a regular, monthly salary) is more of an expectation among actors than other theatre professions: “. . . in the last year of their studies, they were often discussed [sarcastically] as ‘poor little things’ who were not preliminarily engaged to any of the [state] theatres.” KVADRIFRONS emerged from previous artistic collaborations (the four actors constituted the majority of the ensemble of The Flea Market of the Souls), and has manifested itself as a platform for contemporary and interdisciplinary theatre.
So far, the company’s work has offered a broad range of genres and aesthetics, from an audio-visual excursion in the building of the Riga Circus (Touched by the Miracle, 2018), to theatre for young people (Spring Awakening, 2018) and children’s drama (The Perturbon, 2019). All of these were, more or less, based on the principles of interaction with the audience (if not physically, then, at least, by tackling themes relevant to today’s Latvian society), as well as merging the borders between theatre and other arts.
Moreover, the case of KVADRIFRONS marks a significant artistic strategy within Latvian theatre that has developed in recent years. In short, it can be defined as the growth of artistic independence of the actor. This independence manifests itself not only in actors becoming authors, working in close collaboration with playwrights and stage directors, in the creation of devised theatre productions, but also in the merging of the professional functions of acting and stage directing. In order to explore their artistic aims and interests, as well as to use their previous professional experience in working with other colleagues, many actors turn to stage directing.
Many actors combine their main duties in large repertoire theatres with staging performances in different theatres (notable examples include: Ināra Slucka, Inga Tropa, Daiga Kažociņa, Kristīne Krūze, Kārlis Krūmiņš and Intars Rešetins). Meanwhile, Artūrs Dīcis, an actor at the Daile (Art) Theatre, has proved his talents in playwriting; his play Even Whales are Afraid (staged at the Latvian National Theatre in 2018 by Elmārs Seņkovs), which explores the personal crisis of a well-situated plastic surgeon in his thirties, triumphed at the “Performer’s Night 2018” awards, winning the prize for Best Original Play.
“Team building” and trying a hand at stage directing occur in other theatre professions as well. In 2017, during the International Festival of Contemporary Theatre Homo Novus, organized by the New Theatre Institute of Latvia, the talented young husband and wife team of Reinis Dzudzilo (stage designer) and Krista Dzudzilo (costume designer), who previously worked in the teams of such stage directors as Viesturs Kairišs and Elmārs Seņkovs, created their first independent production titled Pathetique. On Visible Language. Unsurprisingly, set and costume design were very prominent in the production, which also used the music of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. The piece explored the possibilities of “see” theatre in its visual dimensions by drawing parallels between visual art and sign language used by deaf people. In spring 2019, another new artistic formation appeared on the map of Latvian theatre in the shape of the theatre union PERFOrācija, created by two young stage designers, Pamela Butāne and Beatrise Zaķe. Curiously, in current Latvian theatre, the tendency to participate in various theatre projects is common, not only among freelance actors, but also among artists who are employed by large repertory theatres, suggesting the constant need among these practitioners to broaden their artistic horizons.
Even Whales are Afraid, Latvian National Theatre, 2018
The “New Wave” and Newcomers in Stage Directing
Since 2010, the development of Latvian theatre has been dominated by the so-called “new wave” stage directors, most of whom were born just after Latvia regained its independence in 1991. Each of the “new wave” directors has chosen a specific artistic direction: Valters Sīlis is the leading figure in political theatre; Elmārs Seņkovs is the “modern” interpreter of Latvian national literature (staging adaptations of classics by, to take two examples, Rūdolfs Blaumanis and Rainis); Vladislavs Nastavševs explores the possibilities and techniques of physical theatre; Laura Groza-Ķibere tackles the themes of beauty and ugliness, sexuality and moral choices from a feminist perspective. Overall, the emergence of the “new wave” stage directors has changed the general aesthetics and politics of Latvian theatre by merging the methods of psychological and postdramatic theatres.
In recent years, other new names have appeared on the horizon. Toms Treinis (born in 1994) achieved a remarkable debut in 2017 with his staging, at the Latvian National Theatre, of The Blue, by the Latvian, Soviet era playwright Gunārs Priede. For the first time in recent Latvian theatre history, a production created as a diploma project was nominated in the category of Best Studio Production in the Latvian Theatre Awards. The jury stated that the interpretation of the play showed not only great attention to the psychological relationship between the characters, but also a contemporary approach to Latvian Soviet drama. However, Treinis’ works after The Blue (such as, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 2017, at the Daile Theatre, and The Dove, by Estonian author Andri Luup, 2018, at the Latvian National Theatre) have received less adulation from the Latvian theatre critics, due to their unconvincing experiments in the techniques of theatricalization and the grotesque.
Meanwhile, Paula Pļavniece (who, for a long period staged mostly children’s performances at Dirty Deal Teatro) made her breakthrough when she staged the performance Jubilee’98 at Daugavpils theatre (a regional theatre located 200 kilometres outside of Riga). Using the screenplay of the Danish movie Festen by Thomas Vinterberg, playwright Justīne Kļava created a precise and tragicomic localization of the life on the border of Latvia and Russia in the 1990s, exploring how the instability of the political and economic system during the period in which Latvia regained its independence influenced the inner life of a Latvian-Russian family.
Viesturs Roziņš, another young generation director, has continued experimenting with the techniques of the theatre of senses. His recent stage productions have been critically acclaimed. Recently (that is, in 2019), in collaboration with the composer Jēkabs Nīmanis, he created a production based on the classic Latvian novel The Screamers by Jānis Klīdzējs. Staged at the Daugavpils Theatre, it tells the story of a deaf girl through a world of sounds and music created live on the stage by the actors themselves.
Latvia celebrated its centenary in 2018, alongside the other two Baltic republics. The anniversary had various effects in theatre, such as a new emphasis on national dramaturgy, which led stage directors to re-examine Latvian classics, as well as encouraging the contributions of contemporary Latvian playwrights (such as the aforementioned works by Justīne Kļava and others). The focus of the centenary was on investigating the history of Latvia (mainly the complicated themes of the Soviet repressions and the historical traumas in the post-Soviet society, as well as the “post-memory” generations of Latvians). However, it seems that the commemorations made a predominantly positive impact on Latvian theatre. The events created an opportunity to explore previously unknown aspects of Latvian history; including, not only the relatively recent events of the 1990s, but also the period in which Latvia first gained its independence (in 1918).
In the 2018/19 season, Valters Sīlis staged two performances dedicated to the freedom wars and the proclamation of the Latvian state. In addition, during the 150th jubilee year of Rainis, the national cultural canon was intentionally subjected to the view from outside when the Latvian National Theatre entrusted the original production Dreams of Rainis (2015) to the Russian stage director Kirill Serebrennikov, who “dared” to portray the famous playwright and poet as an ordinary, sometimes eccentric man.
Dreams of Rainis, Latvian National Theatre, 2015
The artistic language of Latvian theatre is changing gradually. Although it is still predominantly actor-centred and based on the principles of psychological theatre, the overall aesthetics is becoming more interdisciplinary, merging the borders between theatre, the visual arts, sound installations and new media, thus combining strong traditions and innovations. Consequently, Latvian theatre today is characterised by its diversity and dynamism.
 Lēvalde V. Teātris—kultūras patēriņa zīmola prece. Dienas Bizness, 27/11/2017, pp.12-13.
 Linarte is one of the most visible young actors in Latvia. She has been nominated for the Latvian Theatre Award several times. After three years working as a freelancer, at the beginning of the 2018/19 theatre season, she became the youngest actor of the ensemble of the famous New Riga Theatre lead by Alvis Hermanis.
 Linka A. AKTIERIS RUNĀ: Marija Linarte. Interview in the young actors interview cicle “Actor Speaks,” 04/04/2019.
 Annual Report of Latvian National Theatre, 2017.
 The Black Sperm (2015), a production based on the short stories of Sergey Uhanov and directed by the provocative Latvian theatre director and composer Vladislavs Nastavševs, and Rondo (2015), a piece based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler and staged by Andrejs Jarovojs.
 In a recent interview for the Latvian Theatre webjournal kroders.lv, actress Ance Strazda reveals the organizational principles of KVADRIFRONS: Šuksta K. AKTIERIS RUNĀ: Ance Strazda, part of the young actor’s interview cycle “Actor Speaks,” 05/02/2019.
 Ulberte L. Veiksmīgo lūzeru četras sejas (Four faces of lucky losers). Teātra Vēstnesis, IV, 2018.
 Among others, the most significant members of the “new wave” of Latvian stage directors are Valters Sīlis, Elmārs Seņkovs, Vladislavs Nastavševs, Laura Groza-Ķibere. The term “new wave” was coined by the Latvian theatre scholar Silvija Radzobe and formalized in the publication of the collective research New Theatre Direction of Latvia (Latvijas Jaunā režija, LU Akadēmiskais apgāds, 2015).
 Hirsch M., The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, Columbia University Press, 2012, p.5.
 Liepāja: The Capital of Latvia (staged at Liepāja Theatre, 2018), and Meeting Place: Riga State 2nd Theatre (Latvian National Theatre, 2018).
 Rainis or Jānis Pliekšāns (1865-1929) is one of the most important Latvian playwrights and poets, a “canonized” national classical author, often regarded as an icon of Latvian literature and drama. Serebrennikov in his production “deheroizes” Rainis, uncovering his personality in a more human way. The production is based on the writer’s diaries, letters and other documents, arranged in an original composition by Ieva Struka, the dramaturge of Latvian National Theatre.
*Lauma Mellēna-Bartkeviča (PhD) is music and theatre critic, representative of AICT/IATC Latvian section. She works as a freelancer publishing articles, reviews and interviews on opera and theatre in daily press and electronic media as well as in professional magazines. She currently focuses on the development of the cooperation of theatre theory and practice in the Baltic States.
**Ieva Rodiņa (Mg. philol, PhD candidate in Arts) is theatre critic and researcher; editor-in-chief of the only Latvian theatre webpage Kroders.lv; she is also working as a research assistant at the Institute of Literature, Folklore and Art (University of Latvia), giving lectures at the University of Latvia on different theoretical and practical matters related to contemporary theatre in Latvia and Europe.
Copyright © 2019 Ieva Rodiņa
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411
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