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Puppet Theatre in Lithuania

Puppet and mask theatre elements were present in seasonal festivals and customs, hunting and agricultural rites, wedding and funeral ceremonies in Lithuania. The earliest information about puppeteers in Lithuania dates back to the 15th century. From the 2nd half of the 17th century until 30-ies of the 20th century mystery plays about the physical suffering of Jesus Christ were staged on the Easter night at Nemakščiai Church. Using wires, 6 or 8 people would manipulate approximately 1-meter tall wooden puppets that were moving on small wheels. For some characters, several puppets were created to play in different episodes; e.g., 12 puppets were created to represent Jesus Christ. Elements of this tradition have survived in some Samogitian churches until the early 21st century. In the 18th century, aristocratic families of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, such as the Radziwill and Oginski families, set up puppet theatres in their residences. Michal Kazimierz Radziwill used to stage puppet theatre performances in his Nesvizh palace. From 1753 to 1758, a puppet theatre company operated in Hieronim Radziwill palace in Biala (now Biala Podlask). It is also known, that the Oginski puppet theatre performed not only in Lithuania, but also for audiences across the Western Europe.

The establishment and spreading of puppet theatres was put on hold by the ban of Lithuanian language on stage imposed by Russia in the 19th century. During second half of the 19th century, travelling puppeteers from Poland, Czech Republic, Germany, France and other countries would come to perform in Lithuania. In the 19th century, mechanical (or automated) puppet and shadow theatre performances would take place in Vilnius. Puppets manipulated by 1-3 puppeteers would appear in fairs and festivals. In some locations puppet theatre performances were staged by local population. At the end of the 19th century, puppet theatre performances took place on Lukiškės market square, churchyards, during religious processions in Vilnius, also during indulgence in Šiluva, in other locations during religious and folk festivals. Folk carnivals would feature animal props, effigies of winter – usually named Morė or Kotrė, – or Raseinių Magdė (Magdalena of Rasieniai, a substitute for Morė or Kotrė), other stuffed characters or objects, e.g. the traditional towing of a log.

After World War I, amateur puppet theatre performances were staged in villages. Small puppet theatres consisting of one actor and a musician operated in Šatraminiai (Skuodas region) in the 1910s and 1920s, and later in Šeštokai. P. Kalendra, a wood carver from Salantai, together with S. Giedrimas, a village musician, used to travel in Salantai and other locations in Samogitia with their satirical play called Velnias piršlys ir pirmasis degtindaris (Devil the Matchmaker and the First Vodka Maker). In 1926 G. Bagdonavičius, an artist, founded an amateur glove-puppet theatre in Šiauliai Teachers’ Seminary.

Szopka Akademicka, which operated in Vilnius from 1921 to 1933, was an attempt to revive a popular 19th century tradition of the Polish folk theatre szopka. It is presumed that szopka performances were staged in Lithuanian language, too. Szopka Academicka used to perform plays on religious and political topics reflecting the relevant issues of the time. Performances were shown once or twice a week from Christmas until summer vacation, and most of the actors were students of Vilnius University Human Sciences and Art Departments, including V. Drėma, Polish writers J. Putrament, J. Zagorski, Cz. Milosz, as well as I. Pikiel and J. Piekarska, actors of the Polish professional puppet theatre.

While studying in Paris from 1929 to 1931 (painting under professor F. Leger and scenography under A. Exter), the artist Stasys Ušinskas got interested in puppetry, history of the puppet theatre and puppet making technology. Upon return to Lithuania in 1934, he started making marionettes together with Petras Svidras, a puppet master who learned his trade in Czechoslovakia. Later, he commissioned a play involving the marionettes they created, and rehearsed the play with the actors of the would-be-show. On May 6, 1936 in Kaunas Metropoliten Cinema the Marionette Theatre (founded by S. Ušinskas) premiered with A. Gustaitis’ play Silvestras Dūdelė, which is considered to be the first professional show of a puppet theatre in Lithuania (directed by H. Kačinskas and V. Sipaitis, puppets and scenography by S. Ušinskas, composer V. Kuprevičius). Expressive, technically sophisticated yet flexible half meter or meter tall marionettes were manipulated by drama actors J. Kalvaitis, O. Mažeikytė, M. Mironaitė, N. Nakas, and P. Zulonas. In the summer of 1936, over 50 more shows were performed in Kaunas, Šiauliai, Klaipėda and elsewhere in Lithuania. The theatre was closed the same year, but the puppets created by S. Ušinskas featured in the first Lithuanian marionette film The Dream of the Fat Man (Lith. Storulio sapnas, 1938, director H. Kačinskas, creative director S. Ušinskas, director of photography A. Žibas; in 1939 the film was screened in the New York World’s Fair). Around the years 1936 – 1941, S. Ušinskas wrote Lėlių kaukių teatras (The Puppet and Mask Theatre, published in 2005), the first book dedicated to puppet theatre, which was also a handbook on making masks and marionettes, and a short overview of the puppet theatre history.

From 1933 to 1941, a Jewish marionette theatre Maidim operated in Vilnius. Other puppet theatres that existed in Vilnius in 1937 – 1941 included Bajka (founded and run by Jadwiga and Jan Wladyslaw Badowski), and Vilnius marionette theatre (Wilenski Teatr Lątek; founded in 1937 and run by O. Dobuzinska-Totwenowa with her daughters Ewa and Irena Totwen; from 1945 the theatre continued its activity in Białystok, Łódź, Gdańsk).

Professional puppet theatre in Lithuania was further developed by Mykolė Krinickaitė, who headed the puppet theatre troupe at the Vaidila theatre in Vilnius from 1941 to 1944. In 1944 – 1949 the troupe continued as the Vilnius State Puppet Theatre managed by M. Krinickaitė. Performances directed by M. Krinickaitė had features of a domestic psychological theatre. In 1949, the theatre was merged with Kaunas Theatre of a Young Spectator (Lith. Kauno jaunojo žiūrovo teatras), which operated until 1952.

On the initiative of Stasys Ratkevičius (1958-1986 chief director and 1987-1997 artistic director of the theatre) and his wife Valerija Gruodytė, a puppet theatre in Kapsukas (now Marijampolė) was established in 1958. In 1960, the theatre was moved to Kaunas and its name was changed into Kaunas Puppet Theatre. In the sixties of the 20th century, the theatre was developing in the direction of a realistic imitative theatre, i.e. emphasis was put on conveyance of the text as accurately as possible, on precise and realistic manipulation of puppets, and on distinctiveness of characters. Attempts were made to find new ways of expression for the puppet theatre; e.g. in V. Majakovskij’s Mystery-Buffe (1967, director S. Ratkevičius, set designer M. Percov) actors were not hiding behind the screen and acted alongside puppets on the stage. From the sixties of the 20th century, stage director S. Ratkevičius and set designer Vitalijus Mazūras started elaborating on the specific poetics of the puppet theatre, and introduced expressive plastic movement, changing rhythmicity, generalized conditional shapes into their performances; e.g. P. Mančev’s Zuikių mokykla (The Bunny School), Eglė žalčių karalienė (Eglė the Queen of Snakes, based on S. Nėris poem, both produced in 1968); A. Popescu’s Spindulėlis (The Litlle Sunbeam, 1971). Laima Lankauskaitė, one of the stage directors of the theatre in 1975 – 1982, put emphasis on the uniqueness of the puppets, focused on the meaning of the text and the thorough elaboration of actors’ roles; e.g. Juodoji višta arba Požemio gyventojai (The Black Hen or People of the Underworld, based on works of A. Pogorelskij; 1980). From 1975, A. Stankevičius started staging performances in this theatre; in 1977 he became the artistic director of the theatre. Later, stage directors R. Driežis, J. Januškevičiūtė, O. Žiugžda, set designers D. Baranauskas, J. Račinskaitė and J. Stauskaitė joined the company of the theatre.

On the initiative of Balys Lukošius, Vilnius Puppet Theatre was established in 1958 (from 1971 known as the Vilnius Puppet Theatre LĖLĖ); B. Lukošius was the chief stage director of the theatre until 1969. He mostly based his performances on the works of Lithuanian writers, including K. Kubilinskas, B. Sruoga, V. Krėvė; his shows had features of the realistic imitative puppet theatre (the 1958 production of S. Nėris Eglė žalčių karalienė (Eglė the Queen of Snakes), the 1961 production B. Lukošius’ Lakštingala (Nightingale), based on P. Cvirka, and the 1965 production of Raganius (He-Witch), based on V. Krėvė).

A new phase of artistic maturity at the Vilnius Puppet Theatre LĖLĖ started with Vitalijus Mazūras, the set designer and stage director who produced here his best performances and became a living legend of the theatre. The performances that he staged as the chief director and the set designer of the theatre during 1971 – 1979 and 1988 – 1993 (M. Martinaitis’ Pelenų antelė (The Duck of Ash 1971), staged together with L. Lankauskaitė; Avinėlio teismas (The Trial of A Lamb, 1976) and Žemės dukra (The Daughter of the Earth, 1981); A. Gudelis’ Gavrošas (Gavroshe; 1973, based on V. Hugo); S. Geda’s Pasaka apie stebuklingą berniuką (The Tale About A Miraculous Boy 1974); Ak vija, pinavija (based on J. Biliūnas; 1979), Dainuojantis ir šokantis mergaitės vieversėlis (The Singing and Dancing Lark Little Girl’s Lark, 1979); A. A. Jonynas and V. Mazūras’ Cirkas yra cirkas (The Circus is a Circus, 1982); J. Knauth’s Lakštingala (Nightingale, 1983; based on H.Ch. Andersen) are characterized by the unity of the scenic view and text, plasticity of puppets and music. V. Mazūras created a universal theatre for all, suitable for adults as well as children; his theatre was a conditional theatre that required associative thinking of spectators. In his works, he emphasized the visual side of the show, impersonated by the puppets, scenography, compositions of moving pictures, and the stage atmosphere. Throughout the period from 1963 to 1993, he directed about 30 shows, and designed sets of about 20 plays. In G. Landau’s Pagarba už nuopelnus (Respect for Merits, director P. Dimša, set designer G. Žalalis; 1968) the actor appears from behind the screen next to the puppets. In shows directed by A. Ragauskaitė (J. Čepoveckij’s Kicius, tetulė ir aš (The Kitty, Auntie and Me; 1970); V. Palčinskaitė’s Pieno pūko miestas (The City of Milky Fluff, 1971), V. Mazūras, as the set designer, employed a conditional presence of the actor on stage.

L. Lankauskaitė worked as the stage director in the Vilnius Puppet Theatre LĖLĖ in the eighties of the 20th century and created a few musical performances using unconventional forms of expression, including the first puppet opera in Lithuania (G. Mareckaitė’s Mes – žvirbliukai (We the Little Sparrows), 1983; playwright Y. Radichkov, set designer V. Mazūras, composer O. Balakauskas); and the first puppet ballet in Lithuania Žvėrių karnavalas (Carnival of the Animals, 1984; libretto by G. Mareckaitė, set designer A. Bagočiūnaitė, composer M. Urbaitis (based on C. Saint-Saens); ballet master J. Smoriginas). R. Driežis is yet another director and puppeteer, who produced a number of prominent performances and puppets in the eighties and onwards, including R. Tagore’s Paštas (Post, 1987); Sigutė 1994, based on the poem by S. Nėris; A. Gustaitis’ Silvestras Dūdelė (1996 and 2005); Našlaitė Elenytė ir Joniukas aviniukas (Orphan Elenytė and Jonukas the Lamb, 1997; based on a Lithuanian folk tale); Trys brangenybės (Three Treasures, 2003; based on R. Akutagawa). The nineties were marked by performances with puppets and set designs created by A. Bagočiūnaitė, and performances directed by Algirdas Mikutis, who was also the artistic director of the theatre during 2009 – 2012. His works include J. Kunčinas’ Lukošiukas (1992); J. Marcinkevičius’ Voro vestuvės (Spider’s Wedding, 1994); Pasaka apie vėžliuką (The Tale about A Little Turtle, 1995; based on G. Grivas; Mikutis was also the set designer of all these shows).

In the early 21st century, Nijolė Indriūnaitė wrote and produced several plays based on CH. Perraut and H. CH. Andersen stories; Julija Skuratova created aesthetically distinctive scenography and puppets for A. Pogorelskij’s Juodoji višta (The Black Hen, 2001); Y. Michima’s Panelė Chan (Miss Chan, 2003); N. Indriūnaitė’s Muzikinė dėžutė (The Music Box, 2005); G. Apollinaireo’s Teiresijo krūtys (The Breasts of Tiresias, 2012). Famous Lithuanian composers, including F. Bajoras, B. Kutavičius, F. Latėnas, T. Makačinas, A. Martinaitis, Š. Nakas, O. Narbutaitė M. Urbaitis and other created music for the theatre productions.

In the fifties and sixties of the 20the century, B. Lukošius was urging actors to run amateur puppet theatres. Amateur theatres were founded in Panevėžys (run by Ona and Donatas Banioniai), Klaipėda (run by S. Ratkevičius), Vilnius (run by B. Lukošius). In 1965, the Children’s Book department of the National Martynas Mažvydas Library (the former Republican Library as it was called in 1963 – 1964) started a puppet theatre Pea Boy (Lith. Berniukas Žirniukas). A folk puppet theatre set up in Panevėžys Culture Centre and run by Julija and Albertas Stepankai became famous both in Lithuania and abroad. Amateur puppet theatres were also opened in Utena (Zuikis Puikis, est. 1973, run by J. Baldauskienė from 1985), Gargždai (Arlekinas, est. 1976, with J. Januškevičiūtė as one of the managers), Kaunas (Nykštukas, 1975 – 1988 managed by O. Stankevičienė; from 1988 the theatre was run by Jūratė and Darius Armanavičiai), and again in Panevėžys (Panevėžio lėlių vežimo teatras or Panevėžys Puppet Wagon Theatre, est. by A. Markuckis in 1986; the theatre is touring the country in summers on horse-pulled carts). A significant impetus to the development of amateur puppet theatres was given by the auditions of puppet theatres, which started in 1967 and later turned into competition and festival under the name of Clay Man’s Theatre (Lith. Molinuko teatras). Starting with 1974, participants were divided into children’s and adult theatre categories, and in 1986 a separate category of folk puppet theatres was introduced (from 1959 until 1990 the title of the folk theatre was conferred upon the most outstanding amateur theatre companies).

In the eighties of the 20th century, the establishment of new non-state puppet theatres has started and some of the amateur theatres have been privatized. Director Gintaras Varnas revived the tradition of Szopka Akademicka by staging performances on the particularly relevant topic of the time at the Šėpa theatre which operated from 1988 to 1991 in Vilnius; the Šėpa shows include L. Jakimavičius’ Revoliucijos lopšinės (Lullabies of the Revolution, 1989; set designer V. Vaičiūnaitė); Komunistinės nostalgijos (Comunist Nostalgia, 1990, set designer Š. Leonavičius). In the Vilnius theatre of stained glass puppets (operated from 1982, formally established in 1992), Petras Mandeika has been exploring the art of shadow puppet theatre. Performances at the Klaipėda Puppet Theatre (former Klaipėda University puppet theatre Kū kū, established on the initiative of J. Januškevičiūtė and D. Vaigauskaitė, 1992 – 2000) were directed by J. Januškevičiūtė, Gintarė Radvilavičiūtė, who became the artistic director of the theatre in 2000, and other stage directors. The environment theatre Miraklis (1995 – 2001) mostly performed in the public spaces of Vilnius; the theatre, run by V. Vaičiūnaitė, staged shows Pro Memoria Šv. Stepono 7 and Saulės kelionė (The Sun Trip, both produced in 1995), Vėlinės (All Saints’ Day, 1998). V. Vaičiūnaitė, both the director and set designer of the shows, used, among other forms of expression, approximately 4-meter tall puppets in her shows. In 1997, Nijolė and Vitalijus Mazūrai founded a theatre Paršiukas Ikaras (Icarus the Piglet), and two years later, in 1999, Aurelia Čeredaitė set up a theatre called Žalia Varna (Green Crow). The year 2001 saw the establishment of Arūnas Pakulevičius’ theatre in Panevėžys; under the name of Avilys (Beehive), the theatre operated in Šiauliai from 2005, and in 2010 it was moved to Vilnius. In 2004, a group of independent creators established Stalo teatras (The Table Theatre, run by Saulė Degutytė) in Vilnius, while in 2009 the Psilikon theatre, run by Auksė Petrulienė, started in Kaunas with its audio-visual performances featuring puppets.

From 1969, the TV puppet theatre established on the initiative of the puppet theatre director L. Lankauskaitė has been operating in Lithuania. Majority of performances of this theatre were directed by L. Lankauskaitė; other directors included M. Brėdikytė, A. Čeredaitė, P. Dimša, R. Driežis, N. Indriūnaitė, V. Mazūras, A. Mikutis, S. Ratkevičius and other. The TV also broadcasted repertoire puppet theatre performances. Puppets were employed in the performances of other genres, including drama (M. Šatrov’s Mėlynieji žirgai raudonoje pievoje (Blue Horses in the Red Field, 1982), Golgota (1987, based on the work of CH. Aitmatov), both directed by J. Vaitkus; Ilga kaip šimtmečiai diena (The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, 1983; based on the work of Ch. Aitmatov, directed by E. Nekrošius); K. Kubilinskas’ Molio Motiejukas (Clay Mathew, 1985; directed by S. Nosevičiūtė); S. Parulskis’ Iš gyvenimo vėlių (From the Life of Ghosts, 1995) and Daktaras ir Mangaryta (Doctor and Mangaryta, 2003; both directed by V. V. Landsbergis); and opera (P. Tchaikovsky’s Pikų dama (Dame de Pique, 2001), G. Puccini’s Madam Baterflai (Madam Butterfly, 2006; director A. Minghella); C. Monteverdi’s Tankredžio ir Klorindos dvikova (The Duel of Tancred and Clarinda) and Nedėkingųjų šokis (Dance of the Ungrateful, 2008, both directed by G. Varnas, stage designer M. Vosiliūtė).

Lithuanian puppet theatres participated in the puppet theatre festivals organized in the Baltics and Belarus from 1996 (since 1989 it has been known as the Baltic Sea Countries Puppet Theatre Festival; it took place in Tallinn, Riga, Kaunas, Minsk, Vilnius and St. Petersburg). From the nineties of the 20th century, Lithuania has been an active participant in festivals of other countries, many of which were organized by UNIMA. Lithuanian puppet theatres have toured many European countries; they have taken their plays to the audiences in Africa, Asia, South and North America, India. Puppet theatre directors and set designers are developing performances, puppets and scenography in the puppet theatres outside Lithuania; the closest partners are puppeteers from Poland, Russia, Hungary and Finland. Most of the Lithuanian puppet theatres are members of UNIMA and ASSITEJ, the International Organisation of Theatre fro Children and Young People.

Here are some major international puppetry festivals that are hosted by Lithuania: Šypsos lėlės ir vaikai (Smiling Puppets and Children), a festival initiated by the Kaunas Puppet Theatre which takes place in Kaunas annually since 1991 and bi-annually since 2009; Lagaminas (Suitcase), the bi-annual festival in Panevėžys since 1993; Aitvaras (Kite), an annual festival in Alytus since 1999; Karakumų asilėlis (The Kara-Kum Donkey) in Klaipėda, first organized in 1997, reborn in 2003; and other.

A puppet museum was opened by Valerija and Stasys Ratkevičiai at the Kaunas Puppet Theatre in 1994, and in 2006 another puppet museum was opened at Vilnius Puppet Theatre LĖLĖ. Puppet theatre collections are built up at the Lithuanian Theatre, Music and Cinema Museum. Several puppets created by Lithuanian puppeteers have been acquired by museums of other countries; e.g. S. Obrazcvov’s Puppet Theatre Museum in Moscow, Lübeck Puppet Theatre Museum, NUKU Puppet Theatre museum in Tallinn.

There are three state educational institutions that are involved in training of puppeteers. Puppet theatre actors have been trained by the Lithuanian Conservatory since 1975 (in 2004 the name was changed into the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre; class 1975 – 1979 supervisors D. Tamulevičiūtė, I. Bučienė and V. Mazūras; class 2006 – 2012 supervisors A. Latėnas, G. Storpirštis, A. Mikutis and A. Žiurauskas). In 2000, Klaipėda University started training puppet theatre directors (class 2000 – 2004 supervisor J. Januškevičiūtė; from 2004 L. Zubė became the supervisor of puppet theatre directors programme). Vilnius Academy of Art is training scenographers, who may specialize in puppet theatre scenography.