Author: Rajab MAMMADOV, PhD in Art History
Corridors of the theatre are getting slowly crowded with children's polyphony. Braids, forelocks, bows, ribbons are flickering and rushing back and forth merging into one. On the way to the hall, children find themselves in an amazing atmosphere, examine the walls painted with episodes from fairy tales, and admire a group of huge dolls resembling the characters of their favourite fairy tales and cartoons. Curtains open and the dolls suddenly come to life making the children to worry, laugh, and rejoice together with them. This is the children’s first visit to the theatre ever and many of them, having trapped in this magical world, will definitely carry love of theatrical art throughout their lives...
This year, a great friend of the kids, the Azerbaijan State Puppet Theatre (ASPT) named after Abdullah Shaig turns 90 years old. Today ASPT is a theatre famous both in Azerbaijan and beyond thanks to its glorious history, well-established traditions, friendly team of actors, and interesting performances.
It all began back in 1931
Mastermind behind the creation of Azerbaijan’s own puppet theatre was Molla-Agha Babirli (1905-1970), who devoted his life entirely to this amazing profession. He was born on September 15, 1905 in Baku. He has dreamed of becoming an actor since childhood. His love for the theatre took him to the stage of the Azerbaijan Drama Theatre when he was 17 years old. In 1927-1928, Molla-Agha decided to go to Moscow to learn the art of make-up. He was hugely impressed by the theatrical atmosphere of Moscow. Especially when he saw how the puppet theatre works there thanks to its wide possibilities, and variety of means of expression. Therefore, in addition to his main vocation as a make-up artist, he graduated from the class of puppet acting. Upon returning to Azerbaijan, he continued to think about creating a professional puppet theatre in the country. He made dolls from wood, assembled mechanical devices, and sewed costumes. Friends volunteered to help him; with the actors of the drama theatre—Musa Hajizade, Fazil Dadashov, and Abbas Rzayev—he demonstrated his first puppet show during a tour in Aghdam in 1930.
The success of the production encouraged Babirli and improved his self-confidence. Great Azerbaijani playwright Jafar Jabbarli helped the young actor to make his dream come true. On Jabbarli’s recommendation, the People's Commissariat of Education issued an order to create a Turkic puppet theatre in Baku on May 16, 1931. The young team worked with great enthusiasm. Since they did not have own premises, Babirli continued making dolls, decorations, and sewing costumes at his home. Rehearsals were held there too. Finally, in April 1932, the team made a premiere of a comedy play Circus, which aroused keen interest among both children and adults. The birth of a professional puppet theatre in Azerbaijan has become a real event in the cultural life of that period and was widely covered in media of the time.
Behind the scene
Interest in the newly established theatre was not accidental. Traditions of theatrical scenes with the use of various puppets have existed in Azerbaijan since ancient times. Some of these traditions due to their rich poetic characteristics and colourful aesthetic principles could be an example even for modern puppet theatres. Ancient mass folk theatrical games Godu-godu, Kilimarasi, Maraloyunu, Shah Selim used various forms and techniques up to the play of shadows, which are an integral part of the national and spiritual culture of our people.
Development of the puppet theatre in Azerbaijan was going under the conditions of creative search and daring experiments. Lack of own premises did not stop the artists. They tirelessly performed before their grateful spectators travelling throughout the country. They installed stage-screen in city yards, rural centres, schools, plants, orchards, pastures, that is—wherever the audience could gather to watch their performances. Babirli's associates—actors Ali Askerov, Zinyat Abbasova, Munavvar Dadashova, Aghamehdi Aliyev, Suleyman Nazaroghlu, Hasan Mustafayev and others—made dolls, props, scenery and sewed costumes. The biggest problem was the lack of plays by Azerbaijani authors for the puppet theatre. Babirli staged performances based on the repertoire of other theatres, making translations from Russian. The main performances included The Cat and the Dog, Little Muck, and Aladdin’s Magic Lamp.
Young poet Mirmehdi Seyidzade wrote the first national play for the theatre. The play Nargiz has remained in the theatre’s repertoire for many years. The theatre also performed plays from classical literature, including Haji Gara by Mirza Fatali Akhundov, The Dead by Jalil Mammadguluzade, The Marriage by Nikolai Gogol adapted for the puppet theatre.
The theatre was very popular with the audience, but with the start of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) some members of the theatre, including Molla-Agha Babirli, went to the front. But even then, he did not forget about his theatre, having entertained fellow soldiers with small scenes. For his bravery and courage during the war, Babirli was repeatedly awarded orders and medals. After the war, Babirli was appointed artistic director of his theatre. A small team of artists, despite the hardships, resumed activities with great enthusiasm, touring the most remote corners of the country to give children joy, smiles, and warmth. The hard work and dedication of the team did not go unnoticed. On April 15, 1964, the theatre received a status of a state theatre. On February 3, 1965, it moved to its current residence at the Neftchilar Prospekti.
Special poetics, rich repertoire
Theatre opened the next season in the new building on September 25, 1965 with the performance of director Niyaz Sharifov, The Beautiful Fatma, based on the play by Mirvarid Dilbazi. All these significant events became the starting point in the search for a new theatrical language and means of artistic expression. By that time, the theatre had established its own aesthetic principles, special poetics, and rich repertoire covering all age categories.
The theatre building constructed by architect I. K. Ploshko in 1910 is an example of the French Renaissance and is the pride of the Azerbaijan State Puppet Theatre. During the oil boom, the building housed the first cinema in Baku, Phenomenon. After the restoration works led by engineer Ziverbey Ahmedbeyov and completed in 1921, the building hosted in various years the working theatre Satiragit, the Baku Turkic Workers' Theatre, Theatre of Musical Comedy, Oborona Cinema and the Museum of Agriculture of Azerbaijan and the State Theatre of Song of the People's Artist of the USSR Rashid Behbudov after the war. With the birth of the puppet theatre, the ambience of the building changed, as the little spectators made it their home, bringing with them joy, delight, and laughter.
In 1974, the theatre was named after the prominent Azerbaijani poet and playwright Abdulla Shaig, the author of numerous works for children. Creative path of the theatre has always been full of quests, experiments, as the troupe has never searched for easy ways, while directors boldly experimented with both modern and classical works. Over the years, the theatre has enriched its repertoire with many performances, including epic poems (dastans) Dede Gorgud, Ashig Garib, Kalilah and Dimnah, drama Fairy-Witch by Abdulrahim-bey Hagverdiev, Almas by Jafar Jabbarly, Hirs the Menace of Robbers, Monsieur Jordan and Dervish Mastali Shah and Haji Gara by Mirza Fatali Akhundov, comedy Mashadi Ibad by Uzeyir Hajibeyov and other works. Famous writers and playwrights of Azerbaijan—Abdulla Shaig, Mir-Mehdi Seyidzadeh, Khaniman Alibeyli, Hikmet Ziya, Mirvarid Dilbazi, Anar, Tofig Mutallibov, and Ali Samedli wrote for the theatre.
School of doll mastery
There is no specialised vocational institution in Azerbaijan for training specialists for the puppet theatre. Since its first days, it has been the team of the theatre that has undertaken this mission. All specialists, including actors, directors, artists, as well as technical staff learn the secrets of the trade as soon as they step into the theatre. Colleagues from different countries highly appreciate the creative and technical potential of the Abdulla Shaig Puppet Theatre. It is very popular in Azerbaijan. It is no coincidence that there are currently five state puppet theatres in Azerbaijan, including the Baku Puppet Theatre. All of them are full members of the Azerbaijan National Centre UNIMA (International Union of Puppet Theatres), whose president is the director of ASPT, Honoured Culture Professional, Rashad Ahmedzade.
“Our theatre helps to assimilate the moral norms of society, develops communication skills and social intelligence in children, rules of behaviour in a given situation. Therefore, a puppeteer needs to know and to do a lot. To become a single organism with a doll, he must completely reincarnate, transform his diction, voice, intonation, be able to sing, cry, and laugh convincingly, demonstrate miracles of motor skills and good coordination. Also, each doll has its own soul, which makes it not only a working tool. It is their friend on the stage. I think that the biggest success of the puppeteer is when he becomes a single organism with his puppet, both in acting and thinking. This means that the actor can transfer all his energy and acting skills, emotions and feelings to the doll! Therefore, the puppeteer is not a profession but a state of mind. Moreover, these actors are doomed to obscurity, wearing black suits and hiding their faces from the audience." This is how Rashad Ahmedzade describes the peculiarities of the profession of a puppeteer.
Modern puppet theatre includes such types of art as making animated and non-animated cartoons, stage puppetry, and television programs. Puppets can also be different, including glove, rod, life-size, mechanical and the most complex puppets. In the increasing number of performances puppeteers are not hiding from the audience behind a screen. The puppet theatre is the only theatre in Azerbaijan where three studios operate at once: children's studio Oyuq, adult studio Oyun, inclusive studio Küllücə. The theatre also has festival performances, which they show at international events.
ASPT closely cooperates with foreign colleagues in other theatres, including the world famous collective of the S. V. Obraztsov Academic Puppet Theatre (Russia), which also celebrates its 90th anniversary this year. At the invitation of the theatre, famous directors Alexander Maximichev, Eduard Gaidai, Kamran Shahmardan, Elena Matskhonashvili staged performances in Baku, adding new colours to theatre’s repertoire and expanding the creative potential of the team.
The ASPT staff represented Azerbaijani national culture with great success at international festivals in Yemen, India, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, Georgia, Egypt, Romania, Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, Hungary and other countries. In 2010, theatre received the first prize at the 12th International Festival of Children's Theatres in Morocco thanks to the performance based on Nizami Ganjavi’s play Good and Evil (director: Rahman Alizade, art director: Ravana Abbasova). Thanks to its international authority and with the support of the Ministry of Culture and the International Union of Puppet Theatres, ASPT held an international festival in Baku in 2011 attended by 22 puppet theatres from 16 countries. As part of the festival, a symposium, including the representatives of the world's leading theatre organisations, was held. In 2013, the 2nd International Festival of Puppet Theatres was held in Baku too.
ASPT undertakes each performance with great responsibility, with hard work going on behind the scenes. After all, it is necessary to earn the trust of young spectators, who will contribute to the future of the national theatre. Without spectators, theatrical art has no meaning. Therefore, like 90 years ago, every time the curtain opens, puppets come to life on the stage of the Abdullah Shaig Puppet Theatre to tell their little friends a new interesting story.