Saturday, February 05, 2011

Georgia: Azeri Theatre Struggles to Survive in Georgia

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

Tbilisi’s Azerbaijani-language theatre, re-opened just eight years ago after being shut down by Stalin, is close to shutting its doors again because it has no money to carry out restorations.

The theatre building urgently needs refurbishment, and performances currently have to take place elsewhere.

“Things aren’t too comfortable, so we’re being forced to rent space in other theatres. That’s unfortunate both for the troupe and for members of the audience, who are obliged to find out… which stage the Azeri National Theatre will be appearing on,” theatre director Gocha Kapanadze said.

Kapanadze said the cost of complete repairs to the main stage were estimated at 500,000 laris, around 280,000 US dollars, three years ago, and its condition had deteriorated since then. Repairing the rest of the building would be even more expensive. Georgian government funding of 130,000 laris a year was insufficient to cover these costs, he said.

The theatre has also asked the government of neighbouring Azerbaijan for help, which came in the form of a computer and some musical instruments. It has also approached private companies, but has not secured enough funding to continue.

During the many years the theatre was closed, much of the building was taken over and used as housing. Although President Mikhail Saakashvili has decreed that the building belongs to the theatre company, it will still have to compensate the families living there if it wants them to move out.

The theatre is also short of Azeri-speaking actors, especially for female roles.

“It’s only help from our colleagues and a little assistance from the state that keep us on our feet and allow us to keep on staging performances,” Kapanadze said. “But it isn’t enough. We never know in advance where we will be performing a play, or whether we’ll even have anywhere to do it.”

The theatre was founded in 1909 with a first performance in a caravanserai owned by an ethnic Azeri businessman called Haji-Hashim Mardanov. Under Soviet rule, it won the status of “state theatre” in 1922, only to be closed down by the Stalinist authorities in 1937. It only re-opened after President Saakashvili came to power in 2003.

Namig Hajiev, an actor and director who has staged two performances at the theatre, is all too aware of the challenges facing it.

“The situation is catastrophic – our actors have to come from Gardabani,” he said, referring to a town in the Kvemo Kartli region, where most of Georgia’s Azerbaijanis minority. “It costs four lari to travel here and back every day, and their wages are often not enough to pay for even that.”

The handful of professional actors earn 320 laris a month, the equivalent of 180 dollars. Hajiev has to do a second job as a magazine designer to earn enough to get by. Plays are only staged two or three times every couple of months, so he has plenty of spare time.

“Sometimes we get help from the [Georgian] culture ministry, and sometimes from the Azerbaijan Embassy, but it’s infrequent,” Hajiev said. “We have to cover all the costs ourselves. Renting space in another theatre costs between 500 and 10,000 laris a time.

“We tell ourselves we must work to save the theatre and its traditions. We want to restore the spirit of Azeri theatre, but it’s very hard doing it on such low salaries and without no working conditions, no theatre space of our own and rehearsals in unheated premises.”

When IWPR approached the Azerbaijani embassy in Tbilisi, representatives said all questions about the theatre should be referred to the Georgian authorities.

The Georgian culture ministry did not indicate that further assistance was likely, and Kapanadze said the situation was now desperate.

“You can compare our theatre with a child who’s just learning to walk,” he said. “If you don’t help him, he’ll stay where he is. Above all, we need a well-built auditorium.”

Vafa Zeynalova is a freelance journalist.