Author: Sabira MUSTAFAYEVA Baku
Puppeteers have always loved travelling. They wandered to different villages, cities and countries with their performances. Their shows were often of an edifying nature, ridiculing not only human vices, but also their virtues, encouraging the positive features of human nature and criticizing its shortcomings. For an adult, a puppet has an element of nostalgia which allows him to indulge in the world of living toys. Who among us did not have a special attachment to their favourite puppet in childhood? Which of us did not want it to live and start talking? Man breathes life into a puppet, and it lives as long as it is played, whether by child or adult. This is a fact. There are adults in the world who play with puppets in earnest and forever. There are people for whom the puppet is part of their life and profession, and maybe even a competition for space, the right to life and originality. These are the people thanks to whom the Marionette Theatre still exists in Azerbaijan despite all its problems. It was established and led by Tarlan Qorcu in the 1980s. It was not by chance that we spoke about originality. There are few marionette theatres in the world. In the post-Soviet area, there is only one in Georgia, run by the legendary film director and playwright Rezo Gabriadze, and the other is here in Azerbaijan. In Europe, they can be counted on the fingers - theatres, that is, not individual marionette shows.
Based on Uzeyir Hacibayov's works
Yes, puppeteers have always loved travelling - such is their "roving nature". Azerbaijani puppeteers have had to do just this for the past 20 years. The reason is banal and simple. The theatre building located in Icari Sahar has been continuously under repair. Indeed it still lacks the facilities required by the Marionette Theatre. The building needs overhauling and serious reconstruction, i.e. adaptation to theatre. Puppet performances cannot be staged in just any hall - the auditorium and the stage should meet certain conditions. For example, the rake in the hall should be steeper than in an ordinary hall and at a certain angle.
The Azerbaijani audience has in fact been deprived of even occasional attendance at performances at this theatre. The puppets appear on stage only as a warm-up, prior to foreign tours. Then the puppets are laid to rest until the theatre is invited to do another tour. "A glimmer of hope appeared when a proposal was made to transfer the theatre from the culture department of Baku city council to the state department for the Icari Sahar historical-architectural reserve under the Cabinet of Ministers. Actually, this is quite a logical step. Both the building which was allocated to the theatre 20 years ago and all the buildings within Icari Sahar are controlled by this department. This means that money to be spent on the refurbishment and reconstruction of the theatre should be allocated from the budget of the Icari Sahar department. This is done with regard to all buildings in the historical-architectural reserve," Tarlan Qorcu, stage director and manager of the theatre, told R+ in an interview. Today the theatre actors receive a nominal salary but, unfortunately, the theatre itself is not financed and there is still no possibility of staging a new performance; nor is there any theatre equipment.
The very notion of a marionette theatre is quite interesting. Puppet performances are one of the world's most popular forms of theatre art. Why? "It is difficult to say, probably because people love to manage and to be managed. In childhood all of us, or about 90 per cent of us, encountered puppets in one way or another. We played with puppets and were friends. Nostalgia is probably significant here. We have seen this for ourselves - puppet performances are one of the few forms of theatre art that can equally successfully engage a child and an adult, and sometimes even the elderly. This is an amazing effect. For example, children do not like opera performances in their pure form, no matter how sad that is. At certain ages you like ballet, and at other ages you don't. Almost all types of theatre art have an audience within a certain age range. The Marionette Theatre is loved by children and adults alike. Even glove and stick puppet theatres move small children. Adults are indifferent to them," our interviewee said.
The concept of the Baku Marionette Theatre was based on the popularization of the works of the great Azerbaijani composer and founder of Azerbaijani classical music, Uzeyir Hacibayov. "The idea of setting up a theatre to propagate the works of Uzeyir Hacibayov was inspired by the work of such theatres as the Italian Puppet Theatre, Carlo Colla & Sons, which stages famous classical music puppet performances and the Mozart Salzburg Puppet Theatre, which focuses on the five operas by this great composer: The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Il Seraglio and Cosi Fan Tutte. I though, why shouldn't we set up a theatre based on Uzeyir Hacibayov's works? Firstly, we chose the operetta Arsin Mal Alan," Qorcu said.
Work on the performance - puppets, set and the training of actors - lasted for five years, and this took place during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those years were hard times for theatre and for the arts as a whole. The early 1990s were a period when theatres lost state support - the staging of a puppet performance of Leyli and Majnun, on which the theatre started working immediately after Arsin Mal Alan, had to be halted: there was no money and no building. Today Tarlan Qorcu pins his hope of creating a new performance on the planned reconstruction of the theatre building. After that, the theatre may renew its activity.
Theatre for all
Pirouz Khanlou, the well-known architect of Azerbaijani origin, who lives in the USA and who is editor of the Azerbaijan International magazine, has already agreed to manage the reconstruction of the theatre building. "He graduated from the faculty of architecture in London, studied together with the greatest architects of the world and sat at the same desk as the well-known British architect of Arab origin, Zaha Hadid. Pirouz Khanlou is a specialist in his business and we have enlisted his support. He is currently working on initial sketches for the project. I think he will come from the USA in the first 10 days of next month with sketches and drawings ready. This means that we will already have a presentation version of the reconstruction of the Marionette Theatre building in our hands," Qorcu said. The Baku Marionette Theatre would become the first serious cultural theatre centre inside Icari Sahar, and would be popular not only with the local audience, but also with visitors to our city - tourists, businessmen and others. "I would like to stress that, unfortunately, there are few theatre performances in Baku to which we could take tourists and foreign officials. Yes, we can introduce them to our Opera and Ballet Theatre but, as a rule, guests and officials do not have the time to watch a three-hour performance, whereas a performance at the Marionette Theatre, which has all the attributes of a classical performance, lasts only 80 minutes, including a 15-minute break. In this short time, we can demonstrate the whole spectrum of Azerbaijan's national culture. The theatre will be quite small, like all theatres of this kind. The auditorium will seat from 40 to 70 people. This makes expression clearer and creates the impression that the performance is being staged especially for you, as with all chamber forms of art. This increases the effect of presence, nostalgia and so on," the stage director said. The building has three floors. It is planned to place the so-called classical Italian hall for performances on the top floor, while the second floor will house a transformation hall, adapted for modern performances, where open forms of puppet movement can be used.
"All this will allow our theatre to create new types of show and to invite foreign colleagues to demonstrate many different forms and qualities of interesting performance. Theatre is a complex form which is almost impossible to convey through radio, television or the Internet. Theatre should have live contact with the audience. For this we need live performances, not only local, but also foreign. Only in this way can we teach our directors, actors and the audience. Only in this way will it advance. Very significant developments are taking place in the world. No matter how hard we try, we are still quite markedly behind current world events and transformations in modern art. We now have to make 10 times more effort to make up lost ground. Quite recently, I participated in the 53rd Venice biennale festival as a designer. It is one of the most famous forums of modern art in the world and qualifies as an international arts exhibition. It exhibits absolutely everything in supermodern manner - every form of art, with visual arts ranging from painting to graphics. It is a very serious and prestigious event, which brings together the major galleries of the world. We have participated in this exhibition twice. We participated first in 2007. Our participation in this event only goes to show that we not only have to keep abreast of the times, but even have to run after time, because we are seriously behind. We have talented artists. But we have to work much harder," said the theatre's artistic director.
Tarlan Qorcu hopes very much that a further attempt to revive the Azerbaijani Marionette Theatre will be crowned with success and, if all conditions are right, a project to stage a new performance of Leyli and Majnun will be launched with the financial assistance of the Icari Sahar department: "If the opening of the theatre and the handover of the building after reconstruction take place within 18 months, by that time I think we will have a chance of staging a new show. That would be wonderful." On this point, it is very important to overcome the shortage of information, because very few people know that such a theatre exists in Baku at all. The existence of not just one, but several performances in our repertoire, would turn the Marionette Theatre into a significant and integral centre of culture in Azerbaijan. "The most important thing is that we would be able to permanently attend to the classics and their popularization among children," thinks Qorcu. Today Hacibayov's operettas are performed in only two theatres: the Opera and Ballet Theatre and the Music Comedy Theatre, but, unfortunately, very rarely. "Theatre cannot be instilled in children only through literature, i.e. only by reading plays. I don't think that Shakespeare's plays would have been so successful yesterday and today if they had not had the support of theatre. Perhaps the example I cited is not that good because Shakespeare is quite an important figure. But it is true. It is a little boring to read plays all the time, because they were created for the stage. Uzeyir Hacibayov was also an outstanding playwright and composer. But his works should be popularized through the theatre and the stage. I am deeply convinced that this process should not begin when you are 20, when your personality is already formed. I am talking about the earliest ages. Please note that in the West, parents visit theatres and exhibitions with their children. The child understands everything very well, because this layer of knowledge is instilled into his head. If the forms of presentation are interesting and accessible to children, that is real success. For example, we have frequently seen children singing simple arias such as "pulun var" or the arias of Suleyman and Gulcohra after our performances of Arsin Mal Alan. This is one of the most significant factors and the most important role that marionette performances could play," the specialist said.
Manually: from A to Z
Apart from the fact that the Marionette Theatre is an extremely interesting and popular genre of art, it is also one of the most complex from a technological point of view. Apparently, this is why the Marionette Theatre is a rare phenomenon. "Unfortunately, it takes quite a long time to create each show, and the time spent is certainly a serious disadvantage of our work, since absolutely everything in this small theatre is made by hand. Not a single standard element of the large theatre is suitable for a marionette theatre - beginning with the spotlights to elements of the set, the stage, the technical part of the stage and other facilities. We have to do everything manually from A to Z. This is the reason for the time taken," Tarlan Qorcu said.
The only problem-free area at the moment is the group of actors, who are constantly renewed.
Despite all the difficulties and the presence of only one show in its repertoire, tours by the Azerbaijani Marionette Theatre have been quite successful in countries with serious theatre traditions: France, Germany, Poland, Russia and the USA. Last year, performances within the framework of the year of Azerbaijani culture in Germany were very successful. Following that tour, Switzerland proposed that the Baku Marionette Theatre stage 10 performances in November this year. "Two years ago we went to Poland, which is the forefather of many modern forms of art - the most advanced theatre movements of the 20th century were created there. For us it was a real test. It was scary to stage theatre performances in a country where people understand theatre in the way that everyone understands mugham in our country - that is to say, they do not have great knowledge, but feel it intuitively. Thank God, we passed that test. This shows that the Baku Marionette Theatre has every right to exist," the stage director concluded.
The result is also important in theatre. If you do a painting alone at home and it does not work out, you will not cause any special damage to society, because the result does not leave the studio. For this reason, with its new performance the Baku Marionette Theatre should aim only for success - work on puppets requires a lot of time and effort and, in such elaborate work, what counts is not just accuracy, but a direct hit.