2021/22 Latvian Theatre Season Overview

Recent years in Latvian theatre have been turbulent in several senses. After adapting to different restrictions for public events during the Covid-19 pandemic, theatres were allowed to return to the usual situation, but the audience had become cautious and unpredictable.

The expansion of the accumulated repertoire of theatres did not meet the expected enthusiasm of the audience and that raised questions about the changed audience’s habits, the future of live events and the financial survival of theatre institutions substantially dependent on their own income. On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine and the war became our reality. Among many other manifestations, in March also Latvian theatre people organized a meeting in front of the Russian Embassy in Riga protesting against the war. There were theatre workers in Latvia that did not support this meeting. Immediately it became a question of real deeds – not only how much we personally invest as volunteers and donate for Ukraine, but also if there is a place for Ukrainian refugee artists and Ukrainian culture in the Latvian context. Why do we know so little about Ukrainian theatre? Is there a place for art and theatre at all during wartime, and what would be its mission? I guess that many theatre makers were confronted with these questions, even if not always explicitly. Nevertheless, life goes on in the shadow of the war, which has revealed the splits in our society. Next, I will try to introduce some of the latest processes and phenomena in Latvian theatre, which might be of interest for foreign audiences.

The last year is remarkable with a strong presence of international collaborations in Latvian theatre. The Dailes Theatre (DT), our largest repertoire theatre, in collaboration with the Polish JK Opole Theatre and the artistic team led by director Lukasz Twarkowski has produced a multimedia spectacle Rotkho on the big stage. Critics praise it as “a new type of experience” and “a total audiovisual explosion” with excellent acting. The next surprise at the DT was the presence of the world famous actor John Malkovich together with Ingeborga Dapkūnaitė in Bernard-Marie Koltès’s play In The Solitude of Cotton Fields staged by internationally well-known Russian director Timofey Kulyabin. Both productions have been nominated as the best large-scale performances for the National Theatre Award. The internationalization is the strategic choice of the DT under the artistic leadership of director Viesturs Kairišs regularly inviting foreign directors and organizing the Dailes Theatre Festival in spring, which offers the best performances of the season with English subtitles.

One of the leading small-scale public theatres Dirty Deal Teatro (DDT), in collaboration with Kaunas National Drama Theatre, has produced “a drama lesson for Artificial Intelligence” Frankenstein Complex, in English with the cast of Latvian and Lithuanian actors directed by Valters Sīlis. The dramaturgy of the performance consists of the playwright’s Kārlis Krūmiņš dialog with the AI text generating programme and scenes that the AI has written itself questioning the future of human creativity. In spring, the DDT also organized a mini-festival Estonian and Latvian Drama, presenting two productions made by mixed teams in the Tallinn theatre centre Vaba LavaTwo Garages directed by Elmārs Seņkovs and I Had a Cousin written by Rasa Bugavičūte-Pēce and directed by Valters Sīlis – and readings of new Estonian plays.

Another leading small-scale public theatre, Ģertrūdes ielas teātris (GIT), is part of an ongoing project Baltic Current: a think tank for sustainable performing arts in the Baltics together with the Kaunas City Chamber Theatre, the performing arts platform Sõltumatu Tantsu Lava in Tallinn and the Goethe Institute. It is a series of workshops for young artists to nurture their artistic practice and understanding of the current performing arts environment in the Baltics. The GIT is also hosting the residencies for Baltic and Nordic artists. It is not possible to mention all relevant activities in this short article, however, it seems obvious that the cooperation of the Baltic artists and performing art organisations is gaining momentum and is necessary and productive for all three performing art scenes.

The New Theatre Institute of Latvia is leading the cooperation project Baltic Take Over with the Lithuanian Dance Information Centre in Vilnius and the Kanuti Gildi Saal in Tallinn that will result in a festival featuring Baltic performing artists in Helsinki in June 2023 in collaboration with four Finnish performing arts organisations. Finally, yet importantly, the Baltic Drama Forum sequentially organized in each of the Baltic countries next year during the first week of November will move to Riga and will feature the Latvian showcase. Save the dates!

The international activities, mainly concerned with Russian speaking countries, are the focus of the organization KatlZ run by Russian theatre producer Evgeniya Shermeneva, the former producer of the International Theatre Festival NET (New European Theatre) in Russia, who moved from Moscow to Riga several years ago. Mikhail Durnenkov’s play TWHYS (The War Has not Yet Started) was one of the first productions in 2018 directed by Lera Surkova with a multinational cast – Latvian actress Guna Zariņa, Lithuanian actor Gytis Ivanauskas and Russian actor Alexander Malikov. The performance is still in the repertoire. Shermeneva regularly produces the live and online readings of Belorussian, Russian and Ukrainian contemporary plays involving actors from different theatres.

The artistic leader of the New Riga Theatre (NRT), Alvis Hermanis, found a place in the NRT ensemble for the famous Russian actress Chulpan Khamatova who earlier played in Hermanis’ productions Shukshin’s Stories and Gorbachev, produced by the Theatre of Nations in Moscow. Khamatova is notorious for her explicit support of Putin during the presidential elections in Russia in 2012. However, already after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, she started publicly criticizing Putin’s regime and gradually became a persona non grata in Russia. The ambiguity of Hermanis’ decision was briefly reflected in social media (why the NRT equally did not provide a place for any Ukrainian artist is still an open question). However, generally it was part of an obvious manifestation of a long-term Russian soft power strategy in Latvia. In the Latvian public sphere and media, a lot of Russian intellectuals fleeing from Russia got a voice and sympathy instead of the much less represented Ukrainian voices. Hermanis created a solo-performance for Khamatova Post Scriptum on texts by Dostoyevsky and Politkovskaya reflecting on Russian identity and its eternal suffering, which attracted international interest and was nominated as the best large-scale performance for the National Theatre Award. In spring, the NRT also included in the repertoire the Ukrainian playwright Natalka Vorozhbyt’s play Bad Roads – scenes from the war in 2014 – directed by Kristīne Krūze-Hermane. This important gesture has compromised itself as the fast and not thoroughly thought through staging process entrusted to a little experienced theatre director has led to simplifying artistic decisions, and the text itself is the strongest part of performance.

This year the landscape of theatre festivals in Latvia marked a few noticeable turns. Three theatres – DDT, GIT and the Rēzekne Theatre Yorick – in collaboration with the Ventspils Theatre House Jūras vārti, established the new Theatre Festival No. 1 in Ventspils. Its aim was not only to introduce contemporary theatre in the regional city known for a conventional taste in its population but also to create a space and time for a professional discussion among theatre makers about the future of performing arts. A few foreign guests including some Ukrainian artists were inspired to envision the future of this festival as an international platform. The 7th Valmiera Summer Theatre Festival as always was focused on new productions of site-specific performances. Two of the premieres might have an international potential. One of them is the music theatre performance Chill after the short stories of the Danish writer Jorn Riel composed by one of the most promising young generation composers Anna Fišere (Ķirse), visually interpreted by well-known Latvian artist Katrīna Neiburga, and directed by Klāvs Mellis from the theatre company KVADRIFRONS. Another performance, Near and Far, features the youngest generation of theatre makers and poets who freely structure the performance about their feelings of being home and homeless. The International Contemporary Theatre Festival Homo Novus this year continued its path undertaken by its new curator Bek Berger away from theatre circles and towards the inclusion of still marginalized communities – such as deaf people, the queer community, disabled people and alike. New audiences have responded and filled up the performances and club events praising the openness and inclusiveness of the festival. The Student Festival of Performing and Audiovisual Arts Patriarch’s Autumn organized by the Latvian Academy of Culture besides presenting student performances and films announced the ceremony of Latvian Theatre Anti-Awards The Golden Fly. It was a kindly ironic look of the youngest generation of theatre makers at the processes in Latvian theatre awarding artists who have lost or changed their identity, performances that are difficult to understand and similar phenomena. Let’s hope that the ability to laugh at oneself will save the world!