Cognition Theatre: Interview with Valters Sīlis

By Lauma Mellēna-Bartekviča*

During the past decade, Latvian theatre has been energized by several new theatre professionals of considerable merit.  Due to numerous disruptions brought about by the global pandemic, current information on new developments and leading artists has not always been available to the local community. In order to update the community at large on contemporary theatrical projects, the Latvian Theatre Labour Union published a book entitled Contemporary Latvian Theatre. A Decade Bookazine 2010–2020, also available online.

Stage director Valters Sīlis, currently one of the most active theatre professionals in Latvia, works in a wide variety of theatre genres and venues. His interests include the socio-historical underpinnings of recent historical events in Latvia, political theatre that focuses on current issues, eco-politics, and documentary. His preferred formats include theatrical audio-walks to conventional big stage productions, as well as open air-community theatre to devised intimate co-creations. Sīlis investigates, combines and addresses current challenges to bring a range of stories to the stage, stories set in the forest, a stadium or a KGB agent’s phone line in the spectators’ headphones.  Human interest stories are showcased to represent an era; key themes developed explore political life, cultural projects, environmental issues, social justice, and artificial intelligence, to name a few. Valters Sīlis is also a regular guest director in Lithuanian and Estonian theatres and has been distinguished as one of the best-known Baltic mid-generation stage directors.

Valters Sīlis. Photo: Dmitrijs Suļžics

Valters, do you actually remember how you were initially drawn to the theatre?

As a child, I was fascinated by plays; I would read drama frequently, and I always believed that I’d become a scriptwriter and playwright as an adult. Perhaps that explains why I still keep writing and participating in the creation of a new play for many of my productions. Also, in Latvia at that time, the theatre was more easily accessible to newcomers than the film industry.

I used to go to the theatre frequently and definitely saw inspiring examples of theatre among Latvian directors of the past few decades; for example, Dark Deer by Viesturs Kairišs, numerous productions in a short time by Dž. Dž. Džilindžers, who is bright, daring and uninhibited by public opinion. Finally, the appearance of independent theatre companies also inspired me to work creatively in drama.

You currently work primarily in the Latvian National theatre, but you started out in independent theatre companies, when these were a platform for non-mainstream performing arts. Do you think there is a difference between state versus independent theatre now?

Well, the Dirty Deal Teatro that was founded as independent contemporary theatre platform is already 15 years old. But I have actually never felt the gap between independent and state theatres. My signature play Some Explicit Polaroids was performed in the new hall of Latvian National Theatre. In 2008, we worked well with Dirty Deal Teatro with very limited technical equipment, say, four spotlights and a few podiums, but I really wanted to work with that company.

My interests in theatre normally follow two directions. The first is writing, whether you call it drama or something else. Interpreting classical texts is like a competition among directors to show how clever or artistic they can be. I was never successful at that. On the contrary, I always loved to write a new text or script, or to find new plays that were never staged before. I feel that I somehow procrastinate to deal with “everybody knows” titles, and I find it hard to justify for myself the practice of telling an audience a story they already know. The best possible scenario is one where I can work cooperatively with playwrights or actors in order to find a new way of telling a new story.

For you personally, what is most difficult in this kind of devised theatre?

Devised theatre is great, but it is a complicated means of delivery. It is very important to be aware of what can be created by a single person, and which aspects work only as a co-creation. Sometimes during rehearsals, it becomes difficult to work without a text prepared in advance; sometimes, it is important to determine whether or not the material requires a strict plot. In such a case, devised theatre doesn’t work very well; we have to work with episodes and put them together. Among my current plays that I like most, Victory is but a Moment, created for Valmiera Theatre Summer Festival, had a very precise plot as it was based on a specific football match minute-by minute, and yet the etudes helped each actor find the perfect conditions to embody the right moment.

In another performance, Based on the Book, we practiced the textual readings created on site. I wrote the text, the actors read it aloud, and we corrected it to shape the particular episode as we were practicing it. This simultaneous work inspires me very much. Sometimes, I offer only a situation, and maybe the scenes and characters, but the entire spoken text is created by the actors themselves before being noted down in writing. I would say that the most difficult part is to choose the right method of combination for a specific production, as there is no universal formula. Sometimes, the co-writing with a dramaturge takes months; sometimes, the episode is ready after the first rehearsal. But you can never know how it will actually progress until you get started.

You have tried a great variety of formats and styles, and you have proven that the language of the theatre can be far more diverse than that of the long-practiced Stanislavsky system. What drives you to search constantly for new methods?

Well, for me the theatre is always equated with adventure. So, the question is, what kind of adventure do I want to create for the audience? One scenario is that the curtain opens, and we offer a regular fourth-wall type representation, or even a presentation; another is that we make even a boring subject become exciting. My challenge is always to find the most exciting form for the subject. For instance, for a walk-performance Mārupīte (a little river in Riga), the initial idea was not a walk alongside the river after the ecological catastrophe. Instead, I started out with an idea of this story as told from a conventional stage, based on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, an apocalyptic story, and I related it to the Mārupīte river case. But then, I realized that such a generalization is not strong enough, as there is a true natural drama here in Riga which we can show and reflect upon without literature.

I am not aiming to overcome Stanislavsky, since as a theatre maker I still believe in and use the same system through primarily realistic theatre language, though I have never understood the “I don’t believe you” phrase. Normally, I think, the audience always believes what is performed, so the focus should be on what the audience perceives, understands and takes away when the performance is over. Does the character make himself clear with what he is doing? For me, this is far more important than whether or not he is believed. And probably this is why I feel very comfortable in documentary theatre. When we deal with something that really happened, I can be absolutely free in terms of form. I am allowed to exaggerate or make things performative, since it does not change the authenticity of the facts. I don’t feel necessarily required to use a verbatim method in documentary theatre.

Victory Is But a Moment (Uzvara ir mirklis). Photo: Lita Millere

You have experimented with several kinds of performers in your productions, including dramaturgs who share their own stories as they are supported by professional actors. How important is it for you to find something new in each new production you make?

For me, each new production entails a never-ending search for something I don’t even know how to define. There are some aspects of production that I always find exciting, but I still keep searching and researching. For instance, I have tried object theatre, and I have created a mini performance based on newspaper texts of 2007, the pre-crisis period, ten years afterwards. It seems that I thrive on the challenge to discover something I haven’t done before or to finally undertake a project I had previously been afraid to try. Not everything I try remains in my arsenal. However, personal stories are still among my favourites. Sometimes, they can be embodied in traditional drama, such as I Had a Cousin by Rasa Bugavičiute-Pēce, a Latvian playwright.

I Had a Cousin, produced in Estonia by VABA LAVA theatre. Publicity photo: VABA LAVA

The central narrative is based on Rasa’s personal story about herself and her Lithuanian cousin, the latter of whom, as part of Kaunas mafia, was killed in 2015. The play is written partly as lecture-performance and partly as a traditional drama in which the various scenes foreground the relationship between the two cousins. We produced this play in Estonia and found a deeply inspired Estonian actress who played the part of Rasa. The performance was still an instance of documentary theatre, as the author was featured as an important character, even though she didn’t actually perform on stage.

Your work often explores the controversies and prejudices of the mainstream community within the context of contemporary historical events.  Why is history so important to you as a subject for the performing arts?

I think it is useful to begin with our current knowledge and prejudices regarding historical events, situations and choices, and to explore the perspective of the single individual as opposed to the collective community. At any one point in history, real people grapple with their choices and their mistakes. We often create legends that are never questioned, yet we often find interesting details when we dig deeper and question the legends and uncover both the noble and the contemptible side of any story and view it multidimensionally. Humans are very complicated creatures; the same person can perform magnanimous deeds yet also commit unimaginable cruelties.

Mainstream stories of heroes and enemies are too simplistic. For instance, the story Forest Brother is about an individual who finds his way to live outside the Soviet system, which he finds unacceptable, but the experience does not necessarily make him a hero in this pathetic sense. Actually, the particular person did not live in the woods most of his time but, rather, in a small room in his sister’s house, totally cut off from reality until 1994.

In case of the Estonian novel The Death of the Perfect Sentence by Rein Raud, I was deeply impressed by the honest portrayal of the era of the national Revival in the late 1980s. There is hope and insecurity, doubt and betrayal, but nothing is depicted as a clear distinction between black and white. The only crystal-clear element portrayed is the strong effort of the KGB to maintain their repressive influence on people’s life as long as possible, perhaps even up to the present.

Valters Sīlis. Photo: Kristaps Kalns

This heritage is still very much alive in all Baltic countries and Finland, and it is reflected continuously in the performing arts, including your productions such as Finlandization by Juka Jokkela. You have said, I believe, that this production was a kind of auto-therapy for you, after having refused a job offer in Russia; is this correct?

Yes, indeed. I assume that Juka Jokkela wrote Finlandization in order to deal with his personal experiences related to Russia. In my case, I found that it resonated very much with my own feelings; let’s say that, for me, it represented my soulmate in Finnish drama. I felt compelled to stage it in order to deal with my experience in 2014. I am of the opinion that art and artists cannot be separated from social and political processes and that their personal position really matters.  This is true especially today, in 2022, but it was also the case before as well.

Prior to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, for a theatre professional, including stage directors from the Baltic States, working in Russia provided the best paid opportunities. This is when the separation of arts and politics seemed right. However, in 2014 most theatre managers were forced to sign a letter of support for the occupation of Crimea in order to continue working and also to employ foreign stage directors. In 2014, on the day when Alvis Hermanis announced that New Riga Theatre would boycott theatre festivals in St. Petersburg and Omsk as well as cancel their guest performances in Moscow, my colleagues and I from “Dirty Deal Teatro” were literally sitting in the train on the way to Moscow, headed for the Golden Mask festival with the production of The National Development Plan.

This play criticizes governmental policies in Latvia; it is based on a 68-page document which elaborates the national development strategy aiming to double the economic markers of happiness and wealth within seven years. In the original version, in the last scene Jānis Balodis invited five members from the audience to join him in a dance in which they embraced each other throughout the song, indirectly but effectively protesting the course of our national economy. We also made a statement prior to this scene that the play was critical of the leading party of Latvia, even though several leading politicians attended both the main performance and also the discussion with the theatre company afterwards. The entire interaction was civilized and democratic. And after this key scene in the performance, we asked those people who opposed the war in Ukraine to come to the stage and participate in this scene. About a half of the audience joined, publicly proclaiming their position, while the other half chose not to reveal their positions. Some members of the audience were shouting that we supported the fascists as well. The same evening, I was asked if we could perform my production Legionnaries instead of New Riga Theatre’s production, which we refused to do in order to respect the position of our colleagues in Riga. Besides, I was in the middle of negotiations with a Russian theatre about a new production, but since the theatre administration had signed a letter of support for the occupation of Crimea, I could not accept their offer.

I imagine that most of your productions would be censured in Russia.

It is unthinkable that nowadays you can be censured, unless, of course, you live in a totalitarian regime. I staged a production Three Musketeers to the East from Vienna with Finnish actors in 2015. And when we were shooting in Odessa, a curious event took place: by chance, our team met, on the famous Odessa Steps, the montage director of the Soviet film Three Musketeers. The director had organized a small Maidan; that is to say, a stand with anti-corruption posters, flyers with anti-Putin messages and small pictures of Putin wearing a moustache which resembled that of Hitler, the latter of which appeared in one short second on the screen. Afterwards, a Russian festival wanted to include our production in their programme, but they asked us to cut out those two seconds, or else they would lose jobs. And again, this invitation came together with a job offer in a Russian theatre. On the one hand, these are just two seconds, right?  On the other hand, I live in country where I don’t have to lose my job because of particular scenes featured in my performance, and I couldn’t justify doing this, if I am truly a citizen of Latvia. Having had this experience, I managed to deal with it by staging Finlandization. And I can confess that in these situations, I saw myself as similar to Taisto, the character in a play who shatters the device which the Russians want to buy. I am aware that it was not a good choice, but there are no good options to choose from when you are dealing with Russia.

Your recent production Frankenstein’s Complex deals with one of the challenges of our time: the increasing presence of technology and artificial intelligence in human lives. How do you think this trend will affect the theatre?

This idea comes from dramaturg Kārlis Krūmiņš, who started to use a new text-generating programme and an interaction with AI to draw the conclusion that not only truck drivers should worry about the extinction of their profession in the future. Actually, we all have our doubts and fears of becoming redundant or replaced by AI. And for me, it was also the opportunity to stage a performance in English with Latvian and Lithuanian actors to enhance our Baltic theatre community in a small-scale co-production suitable for touring. On the one hand, it is a game, a brain puzzle for everyone; on the other, it makes the audience reflect on questions we all have regarding the intertwining of human and technological worlds. In the performance, actors on stage perform texts written by AI, and texts written by Kārlis are performed by an AI voice generator.

Frankenstein Complex (Frankensteina komplekss). Photo: Aivars Ivbulis

In this production I discovered that the theatre audience is seeking contact primarily with humanity. Theatre is an alternative to the very lonely consumption process all around us, and audiences are longing to meet and connect with other human beings during this interaction.

At the same time, after two years of social distancing, artists have to work really hard to create events which would justify the audience leaving their homes and changing their set behavioural patterns learned throughout the pandemic. It appears that audience numbers have decreased, but hopefully during the next few years we will be able to rebuild the tradition of attending live 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. She is the elected researcher at the Jazeps Vitols Latvian Academy of Music.

Copyright © 2022 Valters Sīlis
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