Founder of dOM interactive theatre shares his thoughts on theatre development in country [EXCLUSIVE]
Throughout its history, Azerbaijani theatre has greatly impacted the cultural progress of society.
A group of young Azerbaijani intellectuals, led by the playwright Mirza Fatali Akhundov were behind the foundation of the first professional theatre company in 1873.
Over the past years, the national theatre has moved to a new stage of development.
A growing number of theatres, which experimenting with new approaches to storytelling, have given impetus to the development of the theatre art in the country.
In his interview with AZERNEWS, the founder of the dOM independent theatre company (Azerbaijan) Tarlan Rasulov shared his thoughts about the development prospects of Azerbaijani theatre, Budapest Theatre Olympics and the history behind interactive dOM theatre.
Q: Could you please share your impressions of Budapest Theatre Olympics?
A: The motto of this year's Theatre Olympics is "O Man, strive on, strive on, have faith; and trust!" This is a stanza by famous Hungarian author Imre Madách from his dramatic poem "The Tragedy of Man". "The Tragedy of Theatre" could be called a poem about today's theatre undergoing rehabilitation after a pandemic. It is also important for it not to lose faith and trust. The current 10th Theatre Olympics had a huge mission - to prove by all means the vitality and "indestructibility" of theatre, to return the audience, which has become bored with performances, to theatre seats. Maybe that’s why it gained such a huge scope, becoming the biggest theatre festival with 750 productions from 58 countries. The Theatre Olympics covered the entire country, all theatres from the capital to the provinces and this is truly impressive and inspiring. It inspires to think that time has come for Azerbaijan too to compete for the right to host such a prestigious world theatre event. We are, as never before, ready for this. We have something to show, we have resources and conditions for hosting foreign guests, and most importantly, we have experienced professionals who could undertake this project. It is important not only for the image of the country, not only for integrating Azerbaijani theatre into a world theatre context but also for transforming cultural life within the country. The Theatre Olympics is something that forces the theatre community to "move up", to carry out an internal revision, to assess adequately the level of theatre art in the country and compare itself with other countries. It is both a review and an exam. Psychologists teach that you have to get out of your comfort zone, and sometimes you have to do this not only for people, but for entire institutions, theatres for example. It is important to understand that the Theatre Olympics is not a "get-together" for theatre people but an event embracing all spheres of art from painting to cinema. Because theatre itself encompasses the achievements of many art forms. Having studied the Hungarian experience this year, having talked to professionals from various countries, having seen how our theatre system functions from inside and as a director and producer, I know that I understand how to make the Theatre Olympics vivid, special, memorable and extended, i.e. having a long-term positive impact on our cultural reality. I know and I am prepared to get involved in this major project with a great responsibility. I hope the new team of the Ministry for Culture will be interested in this opportunity and we, the creative professionals and managers, together will be able to present our country, our people and the guests of Azerbaijan with this theatre celebration of the victory of art over all world problems and cataclysms. Theatre is a powerful and effective tool for demonstrating the creative potential of a state and the creative power of a nation, as the national leader of the Azerbaijani people Heydar Aliyev has repeatedly pointed out.
Q: What can you say about your work on the play "A Place of Comfort in the Square", dedicated to Magsud Ibrahimbeyov?
A: First of all, it is a wrong to think that our play is strictly tied to a specific date - the 88th anniversary of Magsud Ibrahimbeyov. Just as his stories accurately describing the past century are relevant and enjoyable to read today, our performance, inspired by his work, his personality, and the literary world he created, exists organically without reference to dates, events or geography. It is about people, their passions, adversities and joys, heartaches and sparks of joy, about the simplest things that are so difficult to comprehend, such as love... You remember Jorge Luis Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths, while our performance has created an atmosphere and aura of a Garden of Memories, which gives the audience a secluded, comfortable place to be alone, where one can relax for a while from vanity, slow down and remember something important, dear to heart, close and distant at the same time. It is a blooming garden of revived memories that sometimes fall asleep in us. It is important to awaken them, to refer to them as a moral tuning fork. This play that was rehearsed in Magsud Ibrahimbeyov’s Creative Center under the keen eye of its owner and curator Anna Ibrahimbeyova as if looking for a place and finding the right soil for “replanting”. The performance is laconic and can be successfully transformed into any, even non-theatrical, space, but it was very important to find the right place where it will be performed for the first time. And such a place has been found - the premiere will be played at the Heydar Aliyev Centre. The large-scale space of the building, which we filled with the music of texts by Magsud Ibrahimbeyov and music by Shahin Novrasli (this is his acting debut), has suddenly turned into a cosy and breathing space filled with memories, feelings, emotions and thoughts, which we hope everyone will feel at home. Three talented actors (Melek Abbaszade, Elsan Rüstamov and Shahin Novrasli). A bench. A grand piano. Notes and words. And their harmony, which hopefully we have managed to achieve, or come close to achieving. And there is no need for special effects, divertissements and encryptions of emptiness. What is needed is a sensitive spectator who can hear how the notes become the text and the text becomes the music. Our performance obeys not the stage adaptation by Ismail Iman, which underwent changes in the process of ‘nurturing’ the performance, and not even the director’s will, but the breath. Actors exist here as they breathe, and we have been long coming to this, to finding this free breath, not to appropriate someone else’s text, but to find ourselves, our individuality in it. Our performance is about love for Baku, homeland, childhood, parents, and people we meet on the way of life. This is what distinguishes Magsud Ibrahimbeyov’s prose - love for the human being, with all his weaknesses and imperfections. At the same time, we don’t flirt with retro style, and we don’t use cheesy and vulgar nostalgic techniques, although, as they say, vintage is in fashion today. And we want humanity, sincerity, honesty and authenticity to be in fashion. All those things that today are labeled “naivety” and are embarrassed to say them out loud.
Q: Interactive dOM theatre has been successfully operating since 2016. Could you please, share with readers more details about the theatre's main activities?
A: It was 2016, when theatres were arguing about what they are still arguing about today - how to preserve the "theatre-house" I was listening to these conversations, watching performances, talking to colleagues from different generations and re-reading Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Dead House. I could catch myself in my thoughts and feelings that I felt the deadness of theatre, which had acquired a kind of frozen form and became little different from cinema. Theatre has become a "living dead", lost its life-giving power. But only a living theatre can transform and transfigure a person. And I wanted to create such a theatre. Its name dOM came from the inversion of the first letters in our cornerstone formula – "with/out play". If you play a performance "without playing", without hypocrisy and without grimacing, then the audience will believe you. Only then. This is the first interactive theatre that does not require a fixed venue, which is possible in non-theatre spaces and which does not require actors to have a diploma. In our theatre, anyone can become an actor, and this principle is embodied in some of our productions. For example, in the play Şağ, three mini-plays were performed simultaneously in different parts of the auditorium. The actors in these productions switched between themselves, i.e. one actor moved to another production, another to a third, and each of these mini-performances was looped in on itself. The aim was to play the play until all the audience were involved in the theatrical process. And after 45 minutes, all the actors who were in the play were standing on the sidelines and the audience was already playing these mini-performances in their place. We ourselves were amazed at how successful this idea was. dOM is a fully independent project theatre that has taken on a distinct social context. We have made quite a few plays about the painful problems of contemporary society. We have worked with prisoners and people with disabilities, we have experimented and actively applied the actor’s method of spontaneous acting, which I have been able to formulate and “polish” so much that it has become systematic and today I try to pass it on to my students in my Laboratory for Experimental Theatre within the Azerbaijan Theatre Union. Our productions have been supported by organizations such as UNICEF, UNHCR, the British Council, the Goethe Institute and others. The productions have also found a touring life and have won audience acclaim and awards at theatre festivals. Today is not the easiest time to do theatre, but we have no shortage of ideas.
Q: A theatre forum was held at the Heydar Aliyev Center on the theme of Azerbaijani Theatre-150: Prospects for Development. What can you say about the development of theatrical art in our country?
A: The Azerbaijani national theatre tries to preserve its identity and loyalty to tradition, at the same time aspiring for the future. The communication between past and future is thus disrupted, as the missing link is the present. "The day of today" is a mediator and a connecting thread, whose potential we constantly underestimate. The present is not a space of words, but of action, because the future starts today. Speaking at the forum as part of a panel discussion on theatre strategy, I said among other things that theatre is, first and foremost, about people. It is an art oriented at human kinds and created by human beings. That is why questions of ethics, the attitude of the state towards theatre people and good communication within the theatre community are the ground on which the theatre of the future will sprout. If "the man is forgotten" (as Anton Chekhov says in The Cherry Orchard), nothing lasting and long-lasting can be created on this soil. Today we see a fragmentation and estrangement within the theatre community in terms of its interaction with official structures. Asymmetry of information, indifferent attitude to initiatives from below, lack of an established channel of communication between the professional community and the authorities - these and many other things lead to the fact that the theatre waits for changes, talks about them, but does not bring them closer to implementation. Creative problems and production and economic issues are considered separately, outside the whole theatrical process, which leads to a “truncated” theatre thinking. Theatre is not only an art of action and a kind of leisure, but above all a system of professional knowledge oriented towards people, which is why it is an effective social tool and has the potential to influence the formation of the necessary collective unconscious in one way or another. Without an awareness of this mission and super-task of theatre art, it is impossible to adequately and effectively generate new initiatives and undertakings and put them into practice. It is the realization of the maxim about the human being as the basis of theatre that enables us to discover new effective ways of solving problems in the performing arts and find the best forms of cooperation between theatre institutes and cultural authorities. The human resource is as scarce as the financial resource; it is dangerous and shortsighted to underestimate it. There are ideas, there are concrete projects, there are experienced practitioners capable of effectively and successfully implementing these projects and not just wasting money from the state budget, but sometimes there is an acute sense of irrelevance and lack of interest in all this from cultural curators. I hope that the thoughts expressed at the forum have been heard and that soon we will not only be witnesses but also participants in new, vibrant theatre projects and initiatives.
Q: What are your projects to look forward to in the future?
A: Theatre people are superstitious, and it is rash to share plans so as not to make God laugh or tease fate. Right now, the most important thing for me is the upcoming premiere of A Place of Comfort in the Square. We have been invited to play this play in several other spaces. That means that each time the production will change slightly, adapting to new spaces and revealing new sides. There are proposals to create a Russian version of the performance and present it to the Moscow audience and a big Azerbaijani diaspora. There is also an idea of an immersive performance in the space of Magsud Ibrahimbeyov’s Creative Center, in which I hope Anna Ibrahimbeyova herself will play an important role... My recent visit to Moscow gave me a lot of ideas. I was invited to work in the Peredelkino House of Creativity. It turned out that I was the first director from our country to be invited there, which of course was nice. I managed to meet representatives of our country’s embassy, talk to my Russian theatre colleagues and visit the Azerbaijani pavilion at VDNKh (Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy). By the way, there I got an offer to develop a theatre project especially for this very interesting space. I came back from Budapest and Moscow with a lot of files in my laptop, in which I formulated several, I am sure, important theatre projects, which can make a significant contribution to the development of theatre in our country and bring it to a new quality level. There is no shortage of ideas, but opportunities for implementation are very limited. But I’ve never been a "theatre dreamer" and I’ve always been involved in promoting only those ideas in which I saw the very life-giving energy of theatre. Not to dream, but to do - that is the key to success. I've made an appointment with the Ministry of Culture, but I'm sure and hopefully that will be the subject of our next interview. In the meantime, see you at the theatre!
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