A look from the outside and within on the Latvian theatre scene by Evgeniya Shermeneva*

Theatres, festivals and education

Latvia has a system of state theatres working according to the principles of repertory theatre – with a permanent company of actors. In parallel, there are private theatre initiatives, independent theatre groups, free venues, and experimental projects. In addition to the capital Riga, where there are 5 state theatres and Opera and Ballet National Theatre and two independent theatres with more than 10 years of history and their own repertoire, there are also repertoire theatres in Liepāja, Valmiera, Daugavpils, Rēzekne.

Twenty years of the new century have formed a new, independently thinking generation of young people, whose path in life began already during the period of Latvia's independence after the collapse of the USSR, and the combination in theatres of several generations with different life experience and education gives a very interesting fusion of tradition and experiment. The main language of Latvian theatre is Latvian. Nevertheless, the Riga Russian Theatre operates in Riga, theatres in Rēzekne and Daugavpils perform plays in Russian and Latgalian.

The Latvian Academy of Culture annually recruits students for acting, directing, dance and production courses. Latvia has a Union of Theatre Workers, which unites employees of creative areas of theatre business of both state and independent theatres. It is under the aegis of this union that Latvia annually organizes a national theatre award called "Spēlmaņu Nakts" (or "Performer's Night") and now holds the SKATE festival – Latvian theatre showcase.

For more than twenty years the international festival "Homo Novus", curated by the New Theatre Institute of Latvia, has been held in Riga, and for the last five years the city of Valmiera has been hosting a summer theatre festival of new forms, taking place mostly in the city's open-air venues, Valmiera Summer Theatre Festival.

Start of the season 2019/2020

The season 2019/2020 started with the changes at “Dailes” Theatre, where artistic collective applied for changes at head management. After the open competitions, the tandem of Juris Zhagars (actor and businessman) and Viestur Kairissh (theatre, cinema and opera director) started work. Alvis Hermanis, who first recruited his acting class a year earlier, announced the 2019/2020 season as the season for students (then sophomores) to start working in productions at the New Riga Theatre, which he has headed since the 90s.

The same season was a full and promising one for the non-state company Kvadrifrons, which shortly afterwards created plays based on verbatim, documentary materials and its own dramaturgical experiments. The non-state Dirty Deal Teatro also began its third season at a new venue, the Theatre Museum. Gertrudes ielas teatris, the second notable non-state theatre, announced its tenth anniversary season with a large programme of premieres and tours. The season started with anticipation of openings but was cut short in mid-March by the first Covid lockdown.

Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath

Spring 2020 was a challenge for theatres all over the world, and in Latvia each organization tried to find its own way to maintain its activities and connection with the audience. Thus, already at the end of March, Ģertrūdes Ielas Teātris organized the first interactive performances in the format of a Zoom conference, it was "Tanya's Birthday", a performance based on stories and memories of real people about the period of the 90s, the disconnection of society in Latvia into Russian-speaking and Latvian communities. In the first days of May 2020, the production company KATLZ organised a reading of the play "Sleepers" by Lithuanian playwright Marius Ivasekevičius in the format of a Zoom conference with performers from all over the world and then the play based on a novel by Svetlana Aleksievich. In May, the Riga Russian Theatre in cooperation with the St. Petersburg festival "Access Point" organised and performed a Zoom performance in the same format, directed by Vladislav Nastavshevs. But the best product of that period, according to both audiences and professionals, was the video version of Vyrypayev's play "Iranian Conference" directed by Elmārs Seņkovs – also in Zoom format (which partly corresponded to the title of the play), the director invited actors from different theatres and cities of Latvia, bringing together those who had never worked together. In the same summer, the New Riga Theatre launched the project of filming the multi-part film "The Agency" by Alvis Hermanis, which involved actors from the company and new students. The story about  a fictional advertising agency was filmed for six months in the premises of the theatre and became a kind of solution for the continuation of the company's activities.

The next season following the first pandemic summer was almost empty – Latvia closed public places to the public again for more than half a year starting from autumn. This interruption set back the development of new theatre companies, slowed down the appearance of new plays, and practically froze all theatre activity in the country. During this period, three theatre buildings were also under renovation: the New Riga Theatre – a historic building to be rebuilt as a multi-purpose venue, the Valmiera Theatre and the Puppet Theatre in Riga. The premiere worth pointing out in that period is the play "Smiļģis" directed by Viesturs Kairišs at Dailes, which could be seen as his artistic credo, based on a commissioned play about the life and creative path of Eduards Smiļģis, an actor and director who reinvented Latvian theatre in the twentieth century.

Theatres in the regions

Latvia has theatres in four cities besides the capital – Valmiera, Daugavpils, Liepāja and Rēzekne. All the theatres are very different, with historical traditions and peculiarities of the audience.

The Liepāja Theatre operates in a historical building, part of the company studied in Lithuania, which makes the theatre very special. Even now Liepāja Theatre is not afraid to take risks; there have been experimental productions, musicals and a trilogy directed by Elmārs Seņkovs, which started with “Shakespeare” (Original name Šekspīrs) in 2019 and continued with two productions in 2022 and 2023.

Valmiera is proud of its theatre with great traditions. Asja Lācis worked here after her return form Siberian exile, director Oļģerts Kroders, a legend of Latvian theatre, worked here for many years, and director Māra Ķimele made her first works here. Directors and teachers Indra Roga and Mihails Gruzdovs have shaped the acting part of the theatre and its creative programme over the years. Constant work with serious world-class dramaturgical material creates the special charm of this theatre, where traditions are remembered and honoured, and new things are tried.

Daugavpils Theatre is run by actor and director Oleg Shaposhnikov, who is considered to be a disciple and follower of Roman Viktyuk. The theatre performs plays in three languages – Latvian, Latgalian and Russian, as the city is located in the zone of intersection of several linguistic cultures. The theatre works in the premises of the City Palace of Culture, a large building in the style of the 50s, where there is room for big forms and experiments on the small stage.

The theatre in the town of Rēzekne has acquired the status of a professional theatre in the last few years. For a long time it was one of the strongest amateur groups in Latvia (it is important that amateur theatre in Latvia has serious support from the state, it is spread not only in schools, but also among the older generation of theatre lovers, and not only in Latvia, but also in different countries with  a Latvian diaspora). Created by director Igor Mikhalovs in the 90s, it has been consistently developing and gradually became a place of work for professional directors and guest actors turning into an integral part of the professional community of Latvian theatre.

The show must go on

The season of 2021/2022 was still off to a bumpy start, but that's when several important events affecting the future of Latvian theatre happened at once.

In March, the Dailes Theatre already premiered the play ROTKHO staged by Polish director Lukasz Twarkowski. The quality of visual solutions, the original text in which countries, cultures, ideas, people, plots intersect, scenography technologies that combine space, visual and video content, music, and the unfamiliar style of acting – all this together made the play a favourite of the season and brought Dailes to a new European level, which continues in cooperation with directors from different countries – from Hungary to Georgia.

The National Theatre has invited Elmārs Seņkovs to return in a permanent capacity as Artistic Director of the theatre. Seņkovs developed a program for the next few years, bringing with him scenographer Reinis Suhanovs, choreographer Elīna Gediņa and composer Edgars Mākens as co-authors of the theatre's creative programme. The period ended in the summer of 2023 with the change of the head of the theatre through an open competition – Māris Vītols is now in charge of the National Theatre and plans for the future will change, while retaining most of the current repertoire.

The Puppet Theatre in Riga got a new director through a competition, and now director Mārtiņš Eihe is working here. The new programme started with several new works, changing the attitude towards puppet theatre. In addition, with the start of work, Eihe announced that he was uniting the theatre's two troupes (Latvian and Russian) and would stop producing plays in Russian, encouraging the children to learn Latvian as the main language of communication from a very young age.

The New Riga Theatre has suspended the production of new plays pending its return to its historic building. The performances are staged by the theatre's artists, and Hermanis gives young people the opportunity to fulfill their potential. Chulpan Khamatova, an actress who left Russia, has been working in the theatre company since spring 2022; she received a national theatre award for her role in “Post Scriptum”.

The war in Ukraine has certainly changed the picture of theatre in Latvia. Firstly, new employees appeared in Latvian theatres, both those who fled the war in Ukraine and those who came from Russia disagreeing with the policy of the Russian authorities. Actors and directors volunteered, helping to cope with the flow of refugees from Ukraine, many of whom came to Latvia. Several performances appeared, created together with Ukrainian theatre actors who came to Latvia, mostly personal stories about their experiences.

The Baltic States, being in close proximity to aggressive neighbours, Russia and Belarus, react most acutely to the current events, compared to other European countries. Their own traumatic historical experience as part of the Soviet Union, when thousands of people were exiled to Siberia and the state language was Russian, memories of the imposition of communist ideology, Soviet culture, and education system, actualised questions about the need to complete integration processes and the transition to the use of Latvian language.

Society, especially theatre society, where all reactions are emotionally coloured, sometimes exaggerated, found in the tragedy of Russia's war against Ukraine an occasion to deal with its historical problems. The new generation of artists, which has become influential thanks to social networks, was mostly formed during the years of social activism, criticism of traditionalism, the development of the MeToo movement, the struggle in Latvia for equal rights for sexual minorities, vivid environmental manifestos, and all of this was reflected not only in creative activity, but also in public support for the course of Latvian society towards a new identity that would not be influenced by Russia.

*Evgeniya Shermeneva is a theatre producer who has been living in Latvia since 2016. She started her career in theatre with Oleg Efremov’s Moscow Art Theatre. Later, she moved to Tabakov, and was the former producer of the International Theatre Festival NET (New European Theatre) in Russia. Currently, she runs an independent production company KatlZ, which focuses on stagings of new drama of Belarus, Ukraine and exiled Russian authors. Since 2023 she is a co-organiser of Latvian theatre showcase SKATE and responsible for developing international relations of Latvian theatre on behalf of the Union of Latvian Theatre Workers.