Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 9. Nr. Mai 2001 Editorial

Lithuanian Theatre in the Last Ten Years
Directing, acting, and new forms of expression

Ruta Skendeliene (Kaunas/Lithuania)

When speaking about the processes that are now happening in Lithuania we have to look back at its history, since Lithuanian theatre is very much connected with the mythology of the nation, its outlook on the world, its material and spiritual culture. Mythology is the source of its ritualistic quality and playfulness. The originality of the contemporary Lithuanian theatre and the factors that define it can only be understood in the context of its history.

The most important period in the development of Lithuanian Theatre is the end of the nineteenth century, when the Lithuanian language, writing and other forms of cultural activities were forbidden. At this time theatre went underground and existed in the form of secret performances that usually took place in the countryside. This is the reason why signs of rural culture have been strongly noticeable in Lithuanian theatre right up to the present. They have been transformed and infused with contemporary concerns, yet they have preserved their archaic origins. At the end of the nineteenth century Lithuanian theatre was not hedonistic; its principle function was to preserve national identity. At that time theatre in Lithuania was the most distinct form of national culture. Because of its significance, audiences understood performances as they would sacred acts. At that time performances were organized not by professionals, but by simple village people who did not know much about the delicate details of theatrical art. The plays produced were usually simple comedies or scenes of everyday life, but because of the political and cultural situation these performances became something sacred in the minds of the spectators. The modest artistic standards did not prevent the audience from opening their minds to the magic of the spectacle. The factor of secrecy was also important. On being admitted to the venue for a secret performance (most often it was a threshing-barn, a hayloft or a peasant house), spectators had to swear by all the saints, that they would never tell anyone where they had been and what they had seen. This was not an element of tradition, but a necessity, since the organizers of such performances were persecuted and punished, many of them being deported to Siberia.

All these factors contributed to a peculiar understanding of theatre. For spectators it was not entertainment so much as a secretive act civil of disobedience, a form of resistance. This is the reason why performances were characterised by tranquillity and concentration. This kind of theatre functioned as a social force. The social factor of theatre remained essential throughout Soviet times, and it has faded only during the last decade (after the second restoration of independence in 1990). Towards the end of the nineteenth century Lithuanian theatre established itself as a very important element of the nation's cultural, spiritual and intellectual life.

Later, the development of Lithuanian theatre was greatly influenced by Russian theatre. The Russian tradition in Lithuanian theatre was consolidated over a lengthy period, and it is only during the last decade that a reduction of the influence has been observed.

When the Lithuanian State was created in 1918, a professional theatre was established as well. The founders of the Lithuanian theatre all had some kind of connection with the Russian theatre. Some of them had studied in the schools of Moscow or Saint Petersburg. Others had acted in Russian theatre troupes. The link with Russian theatre became even stronger during the Soviet occupation (1940-1980). During this period the foundations of Stanislavski's theatre system were introduced. Stanislavskian aesthetics became dominant in all Lithuanian theatres, which adopted social realism as their method of creative artistic work. The school for actor training was also subordinated to this method. All the actors of that period acted in the style of psychological realism. (The Juozas Miltinis Theatre School in Panevezys was an exception. The methods used here, based on improvisation, were those of the French avant-garde director Charles Dullin.) Other Lithuanian directors brought Russian traditions, including Stanislavskian theatre aesthetics, to the Lithuanian theatre. A very distinctive form of theatre expression developed alongside the official ideological style. The spirit of the secret performances of the late nineteenth century returned to the theatre. And once again, it became a vital factor to the existence of the nation. In a time of universal restrictions, when it was forbidden to talk about many subjects, it was in the theatre that they were taken up and where people g1033 dared to speak about them. This did not happen directly, but with the help of the ESOP(1) language, which used complex metaphors both to conceal and to reveal essential matters. In this way a paradoxical construction principle of sight-action-text connections developed in Lithuanian theatre. In the theatre of metaphors, performances spoke about certain things on the superficial level, but conveyed utterly different meanings on the deeper level - meanings that were felt and understood by the sagacious spectator. Theatre spoke by allusions, signs and metaphors. The purpose of the directors was to create a performance structure consisting of many layers, so that on the surface it would be understood in one way and the deeper layers would have an absolutely different meaning. In socialist Lithuania, theatre became a powerful social force. The theatres were overcrowded with people; they would queue up over night in order to buy a ticket for a performance. While accepting the constraints of psychological realism, theatre in Lithuania perfected the technique of metaphorical expression. This kind of metaphorical thinking, meanwhile transformed by a new situation, is still evident in the Lithuanian theatre of the last decade.

In 1990 a sudden change occurred in Lithuanian theatre. After regaining independence it lost its old aims. There were no more forbidden subjects and society lost interest in it. Theatre auditoria were left empty and a theatre crisis began which lasted for five years. Some directors tried to create more entertaining performances in order to win back their audiences; others turned to aesthetic exploration. This was how the ethical ESOP language, which flourished in Soviet times, became transformed to an aesthetic.

The contemporary panorama of Lithuanian theatre is rather diverse. In many Lithuanian theatres today it is easy to find performances in the style of psychological realism, just as one could have seen them ten, twenty, thirty years ago. But alongside this kind of theatre there are distinct personalities who represent and reflect the processes that have taken part in Lithuanian theatre in the last decade.
The latter are looking for new forms of expression, and conceive the purpose of theatre in a new way. These directors include Eimuntas Nekroshius (VILNIUS YOUTH THEATRE, MENO FORTAS), Jonas Vaitkus (NATIONAL DRAMA THEATRE, VILNIUS YOUTH THEATRE), Rimas Tuminas (NATIONAL DRAMA THEATRE, VILNIUS SMALL THEATRE), Oskaras Korshunovas (NATIONAL DRAMA THEATRE, O. KORSHUNOVAS' THEATRE) and Gintaras Varnas (KAUNAS' STATE DRAMA THEATRE). In addition to these, there are experimental theatres that have travelled still further from psychological realism and are experimenting on their own. Among them we can mention the theatre of Vega Vaiciunaite 'Miracle' (Vilnius), the troupe of Edmundas Leonavicius 'Edmundo Studija' (Siauliai), Benas Sharka 'Gliuku theatre' (Klaipeda), and some other artists, who are looking for new forms of theatrical expression. These directors are extending and developing the traditions of Lithuanian theatre while at the same time attacking and confronting them. They keep their distance from literary theatre and psychological realism while at the same time maintaining a strong connection with an archaic Lithuanian world-outlook, its signs and symbols.

When speaking of the Lithuanian school of artistic directing we must remember that there never used to be a school for artistic directing in Lithuania. The older generation of directors is the alumni of the Russian Theatre schools (except J. Miltinis, who studied in Paris in 1932-1936). It wasn't until 1990 that the first artistic directing school was established in the Music Academy, Vilnius. The teacher of this course was J. Vaitkus, which explains why we can call him the initiator of the Lithuanian school of artistic directing. This title is appropriate since his students have developed new ideas and created a new concept of the theatre. The contribution of J. Vaitkus to the training of actors is significant too. The actors trained by him have cultivated a new understanding of the creative work the actor, the actor who is in full control of his body and who creates his role in a constructive way. J. Vaitkus was one of the most outstanding directors in Lithuania in the 1970s and 1980s. Even in Soviet times his productions were breaking the link with psychological realism and were inclined towards Brechtian concepts of theatre. In the last decade his interest in constructivism has become even more evident. His theatre is not literary, there is no illusion on the stage. Idea and construction dominate in his performances. J. Vaitkus' performances are often shocking; they prompt reflection, analysis, criticism and the reassessment of stereotypical thinking. J. Vaitkus has distanced his work from the tradition of sentimentalism which came from Russian theatre and which became established in the socialist Lithuanian theatre.

For J. Vaitkus an actor is a flexible and mobile marionette, which is obedient to the director. He creates a model of conceptual theatre, where structure and sight dominate, where the role is minimized, cleansed of psychological features and expressed by an exact outer form. In his performances an actor is not reduced to a mere cipher, although neither is his acting psychological. J. Vaitkus' methods of actor training are oriented towards comprehensive development: the actor's capacity to grasp the essence of the character and create its expressive outer form. The actors trained by J. Vaitkus provided an opportunity for other Lithuanian directors to be more experimental in their search for a new concept of theatre. A significant contribution of J. Vaitkus is the transformation of the performing space. In his productions he creates a generalized constructive space which is devoid of everyday associations and realism.

J. Vaitkus was one of the most significant promoters of theatre reform in Lithuania. He tried to reorganize the system of government sponsored theatres and to modify the system of contracts. But so far this reform has not been carried out. Lithuanian theatres are run on the principle of government institutions, where everyone is guaranteed a salary independent of the actor's contribution to the theatre's creative work.

When speaking of J. Vaitkus, we should mention the continuation of certain theatre traditions which have been conspicuously cultivated during the last decade by a generation of his newly trained directors and actors. The most significant of these are O. Korshunovas and Gintaras Varnas. These have created a new aesthetics of theatre, and their productions are characterised by theatre processes that are currently being explored in Western Europe. O. Korshunovas is the director who shows the greatest influence of the Western directors and who has come closest in his approach to postmodern theatre aesthetics. He maintains an easy hold on the performance space, creating his works as a coded system of signs which has moved away from the psychological, poetical model of Lithuanian theatre. On the one hand he develops the model of the constructive theatre of J. Vaitkus, but on the other, he is influenced by OBERIU. (OBERIU, a theatre group from Leningrad: ASSOCIATION FOR REAL ART, was formed in 1926. Its manifesto was written by Daniel Kharms (1905-1942 ) and exemplifies the idea of a PURE FORM theatre. The best known members of the group are the poet Nikolay Zabolotsky and Alexander Vvedensky.) O. Korshunovas is the first Lithuanian director to have transformed the dramatic text to an element equivalent with the stage design, the actors' movements, the music and other elements of the stage. The textual and visual aspects sometimes digress from one another at the highest possible level, sometimes even contradicting each other in his performances. Hyperbolized character is often converted to an abstraction in his performances. His works are characterised by an abstract form which ranges from the absolute abstraction of the pieces by D. Harms, 'Old Woman' 1992 and 'Old Woman 2' 1994, to some performances with a clearer plot, A. Vvedensky 'Hi Sonia New Year' 1994, and even to the naturalism of his production of Mark Ravennhill's 'Shopping and Fucking' 1999. He has also reduced the distance between the professional and unprofessional theatres, which has been an insuperable boundary in Soviet Lithuania. Unprofessional performers, people from the street, take part in his performances, where they usually serve to establish the social context. O. Korshunovas creates a new theatrical language and demands a closer contact between the theatre and the audience, especially the younger generation of spectators.

There are a number of reasons why Lithuanian theatre lost its audience after the country regained its independence: it lost its status as the purveyor of the truth, and although it still discusses the old problems it has become distant from the actual needs of contemporary society (this is especially evident in the productions of E. Nekroshius). O. Korshunovas has taken up the most pressing problems of contemporary society and reflected these problems in his performances. This has not only brought the audience back to the theatre, but also created a new generation of theatre goers. His performances discuss the situation of our generation in the modern world. This is most apparent in his productions of Sigitas Parulskis' 'P.S. Case. O.K.' and M. Ravennhill's 'Shopping and Fucking'. Even so, his productions are not merely social. They also raise existential questions. On the other hand, the director himself regards his work as being in opposition to the current aesthetics of Lithuanian theatre, which is now preoccupied with a purely aesthetic search (this is particularly evident in the productions of R. Tuminas and E. Nekroshius).

O. Korshunovas is one of the most popular directors in Lithuania, but outside the country he is not as acclaimed as, say, E. Nekroshius, and R. Tuminas. E. Nekroshius, whose works have aroused great interest not only in Europe but also in United States, has only a small following in Lithuania. Why are his productions so popular outside the country? Maybe because he has preserved the strongest link with the archaic Lithuanian world-outlook, its symbols and signs that derive from a deep and archetypical Lithuanian consciousness. He transforms this archaic layer into contemporary theatrical language. Very special metaphors dominate in his performances. His performances are highly visual and create a universal theatrical language. On the one hand this kind of expression is indebted to Lithuanian folk art and theatre, and on the other it is highly modern and universal. In his productions he achieves an intriguing blend of archaic and modern expression. His performances are more philosophical than social. Audiences who expect to find contemporary problems reflected in his theatre are thus left disappointed. His performances favour a different layer of reality, which consists of generalized archetypical ideas. E. Nekroshius has distanced himself from the literal theatre which dominated Lithuania for more than 70 years and drawn closer to visual forms. This is most apparent in his productions of 'Hamlet'1997 and 'Macbeth' 1999. In his productions, the dramatic text constitutes only the starting point for the vision. The director breaks the frame of the play and builds the production from separate episodes, which are connected in such a way as to create an extremely expressive visual effect. The text of the work is combined with metaphors, which he creates by using the bodies of actors, their movements, tableaus, voices, music, sound. In his performances he uses materials with the purity of 'materia prima', such as water, stone, wood, fire, ice. Although the actors are merely part of the tissue of the performance, E. Nekroshius nonetheless keeps a protagonist at the centre of his works. The other characters, arranged around him, are stripped of psychological features. The general structure of the piece is more important than the creative work of actors. Characters function more as ciphers than as living people in his productions. For E. Nekroshius it is more important to reveal the personality of an actor than the hero he might represent. In his 'Hamlet' it isn't Shakespeare's hero we see so much as the pop singer Andrius Mamontovas creating the picture of the protagonist. In 'Macbeth' it is not so much a conflicting and tragic picture of Macbeth as the personality of actor Kostas Smoriginas which is revealed.

His productions are first and foremost metaphors with a complex structure. And here we face the problem of understanding them. For example, in his 'Hamlet' the actor delivers the monologue 'To be or not to be' while standing beneath a dripping chandelier of ice. Firstly, this image has a physical dimension - icy drops falling on the hot body of the actor. The aspect of physical sensation is very important in the work of this director: the audience sees the actor touching stone or wood, getting wet or cold (the actor is not acting these states, but literally experiencing them). These elements of sensation create a specific perception of the performance. The audience perceives a direct contact between man and matter. And this reveals a deeper metaphorical dimension of the work, where the falling drops of water and the actor standing beneath the chandelier of ice are seen as a symbol conveying something about living man and cold matter, about the opposition of man and the indifferent cosmos. Paradoxically, the physical dimension of the work reveals an esoteric layer.

The theatre of E. Nekroshius on the one hand tends to satisfy the aesthetic needs of the audience while on the other evoking the most complex and esoteric layers of human existence. This is what earns his performances the status of cultural fact, bringing them in line with the spiritual heritage of the nation, while at the same time making them so intriguing and interesting to foreign spectators.

The processes that have been taking place in Lithuanian theatre during the past decade can be summarised in this way:

  1. After the restoration of independence, Lithuania theatre lost its former aims; there were no more forbidden themes and society was no longer so interested in theatre, which spoke in metaphorical ESOP language. A theatre crisis began, and directors tried to find a new concept of theatre. Some of them created entertaining work in order to win back their audiences. Others resorted to aesthetic exploration. The youngest generation of directors turned to the social theatre and addressed contemporary social problems in their productions.
  2. In the past decade Lithuanian theatre has dissociated itself from the traditions of Russian theatre which were so evident for more than fifty years in Lithuania and created its own theatrical aesthetics. On the one hand this new aesthetic extends and develops certain traditions of Lithuanian theatre, while confronting and attacking them on the other.
  3. The School of Lithuanian stage directing was established during the past decade. Its founder was J. Vaitkus. He has also influenced a new concept of acting in Lithuania. The methodology of training actors is oriented towards comprehensive development: the actor's capacity to grasp the essence of the hero character and to create the expressive outer form of that figure. Actors trained by J. Vaitkus are in full control of their bodies and reject the psychological tradition of acting. They have provided other Lithuanian directors with an opportunity to experiment in their search for a new concept of theatre.
  4. Lithuanian theatre has become integrated with the broader context of Western European theatre of the past decade. In particular it is the younger generation of directors who have been most influenced by the processes taking place in Western European theatre (G. Varnas, O. Korshunovas).
  5. The younger generation of Lithuanian directors has created more socially oriented theatre, whereas the older generation has tended to focus on more aesthetic theatre and on the preservation of an archaic Lithuanian world outlook (E. Nekroshius, R. Tuminas).
  6. On the one hand, contemporary Lithuanian theatre continues to foster its national traditions, while confronting them on the other. The archaic and the modern are combined in contemporary Lithuanian theatre in a unique way. This is especially evident in the work of E. Nekroshius which exemplifies in particular the link with the archaic Lithuanian outlook. E. Nekroshius transforms this archaic layer into modern language and creates a universal theatrical language.

©Ruta Skendeliene (Kaunas/Lithuania)

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(1) ESOP (Aisopos) language is a disguised way of expressing ideas, a form of allegorical expression.

Select bibliography:

1. Teatras/ Theatre in Lithuania. No.1.Vilnius,1997

2. Teatras/ Theatre in Lithuania. No.2. Vilnius,1997

3. Teatras/ Theatre in Lithuania. No.3. Vilnius, 1997

4. Teatras/ Theatre in Lithuania. No.1. Vilnius,1998

5. Teatras/ Theatre in Lithuania. No. 2. Vilnius,1998

6. Teatras/ Theatre in Lithuania. No. 2. Vilnius, 1999

7. Teatras/ Theatre in Lithuania. No.1. Vilnius, 2000

8. Lietuvos teatras/ Lithuanian Theatre. No. 1. Vilnius, 1998

9. Lietuvos teatras/ Lithuanian Theatre. No. 2. Vilnius, 1999

10. Lietuvos teatras/ Lithuanian Theatre. No. 3. Vilnius, 2000

11. Theatre Forum: the shifting point. Vilnius, Open Society Fund, 1996

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