Valters Sīlis on how to be special

Valters Sīlis is one of the most active directors of the younger generation and has been the director of the National Theatre since 2012. Discovering socially controversial topics now and in the past is not only Valters passion, but also the creative niche where he feels best. The director does not give answers, his performances provoke thinking and serve as signs on the road leading the public towards looking at the world not only through one’s own ego. For more than ten years, Valters has been participating in international cooperation projects, and his performances have often been performed in the countries of the Baltic and Nordic regions, and have travelled to festivals throughout Europe. In January 2022, he staged a unique project called the Frankenstein Complex, based on playwright’s Kārlis Krūmiņš dialog with actual Artificial Intelligence and scenes that the AI has written itself. The dramatic co-production with Lithuanian actors suggests how far one can go in striving for seeming perfection, while calling into question the playwright’s challenge in the creative “duel” with Artificial Intelligence, which probably carries the quintessence of dramaturgy around the world.

What was the beginning of your international experience as a theatre director?
I was still doing my master’s degree at the Latvian Academy of Culture, when the Theatre Academy of Helsinki was looking for a director from Latvia for one project. That’s how I got the opportunity to work with the students of the master’s course of their Actors’ Program. These were Swedish speaking actors from Finland, Norway and Sweden. The project was about modern classics, we staged plays from the end of the 20th century, and I chose Scottish author Gregory Burke’s play Gagrin Way (2009). The work was properly done, and I met the actors there, and with one of them, Carl Alm, we became good friends. I had this idea in my mind that had tormented me for some time already [about the dilemma between individual and public freedom; the performance builds like a discussion between a Swede and a Latvian, arguing the positions of each country making claims for mistakes made by the other party and unsuccessfully looking for solutions]. Theatre GIT had called for applications, and they had already had international experience. So, I applied. We had one Latvian actor and one Swedish speaking Finn actor, and so the Legionnaires (2011) were born. Thus, from an international project in which I myself was involved; I became the initiator of another project. And then, there has been a lot of everything.

Why would they need a Latvian director?
It was a Nordic countries’ project, and it was necessary to involve not only the representatives of the Scandinavian countries, which were the majority, but from Baltic countries as well… I am not sure what was written in their invitation, but our Academy teachers proposed it to me. And this was a wonderful learning project, an opportunity for me to have the means for a full-scale show, to work in a complicated way, to work in another place, to make a lot of mistakes. (Smiles.) It was an opportunity to expand the circle in which I wanted to work, because in Latvia the theatre field is quite small. I had previously participated in some international projects, and master classes in Riga. It was a very special feeling to meet people who are coming here. And I kind of wanted to use this profession as a possibility to meet people somewhere else. And with the Legionnaires, it seemed like this idea might work elsewhere.

You thought that this piece could be understood in other countries?
During the process itself, we even forgot about it. We thought it would not be understood elsewhere. That Carl’s mother will not understand it. But, it turned out that it was quite strong and understandable, not too mainstream, though. Sometimes the biggest mistake is trying to please another culture or place, trying to do what is right there. But, there is no such right thing. It is important to be conscious of the character of your work, and you will meet those who would need it.

When we talk broadly about some issue, about Latvia in Europe or the collapse of the USSR, it is so non-specific and wide that we can easily get lost. But with the Legionnaires or the Latvian National Development Plan (2012), I could sense what might work. We have travelled to several countries even with Lost Antarctica (2015). This show could only attract a limited number of people in Latvia. But it turned out that it can attract the same limited number of people in other countries as well, and people noticed it. The Success Story (2016), an ironic take on contemporary Latvian history, went too much into local personalities – it worked well locally, but was too specific for the international audience. While with To Be Nationalist (2017), anyone could identify with it more easily, because there are such right wing politicians in every European country.

Have Theatre Showcases been useful for you?
Definitely. The works that have been shown in the Latvian Showcase have also been shown abroad. Even The River Mārupīte (2012), a musical excursion along a polluted local river, provoked interest to be invited, only it was too site specific. I also like to attend theatre showcases myself as a visitor to understand why something is seen as valuable. I think seeing the show is necessary. You don’t always expect an active result, but it is a process. When Latvian Showcases stopped for some time, the Latvian National Development Plan was shown in Estonia, and it got an invitation to Helsinki. The Lost Antarctica was shown in Slovakia, and we got invited to Brussels. But, there is no better way than sharing the work in such a form.

Do you have an audience in your mind when you are working on something?
I make it for myself, and then everything is okay. But when I start thinking about the viewer, that’s where the problems start. This applies both to working in Latvia and abroad. If you are the only point of reference to yourself, then you will make a show that at least you will like. You attach yourself to a narrow part of your being, and maybe that will not interest a large part of society, but, as we are from one big collective, there is a possibility to hit the feelings of someone else. If it is important to me, it might be important to someone else too.

Tell about Frankenstein Complex (2022). Why did you decide to make it as a co-production?
The process started from the idea of ​​Kārlis Krūmiņs. He applied for the Beta version of the GPT-3 language model, an AI application that uses deep learning to produce human-like text. It was a much slower application process then, now anyone can use it. He showed us the first version of the generated text, and we understood that the language of the performance should be English. Because the application makes certain specific mistakes, a word sometimes sounds like another word, some incomprehensible meaning is formed. So, we decided we should stick with the original text – that the actors will say what is generated by the computer.

I was invited to work on Miškinis in Kaunas in 2015, and I had established a good relationship with several Lithuanian actors, and there was a desire to continue this relationship. And then this idea came, where it was possible. In the Baltic context, we mainly see theatre directors from each other’s countries, but we don’t see the actors. So, it seemed like a good idea to introduce Kaunas with two good Latvian actors, and to introduce Riga with two good Lithuanian actors. I gathered the group that I had worked with, except for Deividas Breivė – he is a new actor with whom I was working with for the first time, but I am very happy. Vaidas Maršalka, for example, is someone who cannot hide his thoughts from his face. Each actor has his own quality, something more than just technique. In the text of the play, one of my favourite lines is: “you don’t need thoughts to carry on a dialogue”. Many things in our speech are automatic, but this was an opportunity to fill that automatic text with emotions, to connect emotionally with the text that is algorithmically generated, and to enrich the text with human features. It was our base. We didn’t want to parody it; our goal was to be as sensitive and honest as possible to the text.

How does it feel to work in English or in another foreign language?
In the Frankenstein Complex, there was a good reason to use English. But there have been times when we use English and it is not the best choice. At least, during the process of making it. It is good to test the text in your own language. You can check it using rude words – say the same word in English and in Latvian, and you will immediately feel the cruelty in that word. Working in another language is definitely a thing where time teaches you to trust.

During the monologues, the actor must be in good contact with the audience. If not, it doesn’t work. We’ve had a good experience both in Legionaries and in The Nationalist when we made some parts in the local language. I think, if it is possible, it should be done. I have also observed in other people’s work when they are working in a foreign language, sometimes when you close your ears, everything becomes more understandable. But sometimes extra actions break down or over-explain what the text is already doing. You must have reliable assistants who understand the language and who can point out the problems.

In Legionnaires, we both were speaking English, but we tried to play in Latvian as well as much we could. In Finland, we spoke Finnish. In Italy, we realized that English is not so good for the audience there, and Kārlis Krūmiņš learned the role in Italian. He spent a month learning it and people remember it as a very special thing. If people are ready to invest – not only the actors, but everyone else – these moments are rewarding.

Is it important to you that the international audience hear the voices of our region?
For many years there has been this central idea – to be heard in the West. But even my neighbours don’t hear me. At the same time, you might have some close person there. Like I went to the Estonian Theatre Festival Draama, and there were at least three shows I would like to be shown in Latvia, but I‘m not sure if they are needed in the West. It is important to hear each other, to be interested and to look at the neighbours. To decentralize this thinking. Interest in the other is a two-way street. It is a willingness to give and to receive. If I want to show you something, but you are not interested, it’s ok.

In Europe, many different cultures live in quite a small area, but it is very interesting how everyone copes with their history and their present. For me, it is important to do my job, to tell an interesting story, to find a unique story in people. In the difficult situation we are in today, there is still a small part we can do. And, from time to time, we also get some interest from outside. But interest is a mutual relationship that needs to be maintained. It depends on regularity and communication. Having regular showcases reminds you about the international viewer and how to communicate with them. On the one hand, yes, I only think about myself, but on the other hand, the communication with the audience is somewhere in the back of my head. The more people get involved in that context, the more advice, objections or misunderstandings you get, the more you start thinking why this story worked for me and not elsewhere. It is something processual. And every now and then these meetings and connections happen. They are most often unexpected, they cannot be planned in advance, but you can provide them with an occasion for it to happen.

Photo: Siim Vahur