Theatre may possibly be the most popular form of stage arts in Latvia. With at least one theatre in all of the main cities, it is an art form available and consumed by all, either young or old, rural or urban.
Latvians love going to the theatre. Attending theatre is a ritual, people dress up for performances, they stop for a treat before the play, bring flowers for their favorite directors and actors. They even organize themselves in groups and come by busses for the plays in the capital. Some people might scowl at you if you arrive in jeans and tell you off if you make noise during the performance.
An exciting time for theatre in Latvia
Today the artists, directors, choreographers and actors all challenge and question the frames theatre was traditionally confined in. They are creating unique and experimental forms of theatre, communicating with the audience in entirely new ways, and showing that theatre can be enjoyed and interpreted in wholly unconventional ways. Yet traditional theatre is by no means stagnant, experimenting with set design, introducing more controversial plays to the stage, opening new theatre spaces, collaborating with the new theatres and foreign directors, and “lending” their actors for independent productions.
The high regard that both directors and actors are held in Latvia is indicative of the popularity of this form of the arts. Directors enjoy a high profile and status in Latvian society and are often treated as opinion-makers, whose views on various social and political issues are often solicited. Actors are just as popular as pop musicians, are common household names and are treated by locals as though they are Hollywood stars.
The biggest names in contemporary theatre are the following young directors Valters Sīlis, Kārlis Krūmiņš, Viesturs Meikšāns, Elmārs Seņkovs, Vladislavs Nastavševs. Together with the previous generation well known directors – Alvis Hermanis, Dž. Dž Džilindžers, Edmunds Freibergs, Viesturs Kairišs, Gaļina Poļiščuka and many others who have explored stylistic boundaries, and introduced the post-modern thought and expression to the Latvian stage.
History of Latvian theatre
The origins of professional Latvian theatre can be traced back to the so-called First Awakening, when the first generation of highly educated Latvians asserted their national and intellectual identity. The first professional Latvian playwright was Adolfs Alunāns, in 1869 his first play marked the foundation of the Riga Latvian Society House, which became a prominent national cultural center.
Initially, Latvian theatre followed the influence of the German school with its exaggerated gestures, facial expressions and emotions. Over time, this style was superseded by new European trends of naturalism and symbolism, and Russian principles of stage production, drama and acting.
The best known playwrights of late 19th, early 20th century were Rūdolfs Blaumanis, Rainis and Aspazija. In their plays they embody the historical turning points the nation was undergoing in symbolical and mythological characters and conflicts. Like the plays by Aspazija were some of the first manifestos of women's rights and free will. The success of her plays is a significant fact in and of itself, as women's plays typically weren't successful in Europe at that time.
After World War II, Latvian theatre came under scrutiny and ideological pressure from Soviet authorities. At that time theatre was one of the few public places where Latvian was still spoken and personal freedom still lingered in the air. It was most markedly manifested in the expressive trend of the so-called poetic theatre created by Pēteris Pētersons in the 1960’s and 70’s. A fundamental figure of Latvian theatre is also Eduards Smiļģis, the founder of Dailes Theatre – one of the most popular traditional theatres.
In the 1960s, Latvian theatre became more diversified, and a list of talented directors entered the stage, among them Alfrēds Jaunusans in Rīga and Olģerts Kroders in Valmiera. In the 1980’s, new trends were introduced by Māra Ķimele, Ādolfs Šapiro, Kārlis Auškāps.
Latvian theatre festivals
A number of festivals enrich the Latvian theatre scene. The biennial International Festival of Contemporary Theatre Homo Novus functions as a platform for development of new artistic initiatives and partnerships. Homo Alibi, also international, centers around experimental theatre, each time focusing on a new medium, such as solo performance or use of new media. The Latvian Theatre Showcase on the other hand, while intended for an international audience, celebrates the most exciting developments and shows of the season in Latvian theatre.
There is also the Rūdolfs Blaumanis Theatre Festival, Baltic Contemporary Drama Festival “Skats”, “Dirty Drama” festival, as well as a festival for young audiences “No-Mad-I” and amateur theatre festival. As you can tell there is plenty to choose from in the Latvian theatre world.
© Latvian Institute 2015; Photos © Latvian Tourism Development Agency - G.Janaitis; Valmiera Drama Theatre - Matīss Markovskis.