Doubts raised about new law designed to help revive the country’s struggling theatres.
By Nigar Musayeva in Baku (CRS No. 342, 01-June-06)
The cold and gloomy hall of the Russian Drama Theatre in Baku was barely half full. Most of the audience were from the Baku intelligentsia, traditionally the city’s most loyal theatre-goers. The remainder were young people, sitting here as a change from strolling through the city streets.
Grazing on crisps, cola and sweets, they crunched their way through a performance of Chekhov’s “Seagull” which dated back to Soviet times.
Theatre in Azerbaijan, like the other arts, has fallen on hard times after the break-up of the Soviet Union. The cash crisis meant that actors have gone unpaid, sets and costumes have not been replaced or old buildings repaired.
Theatre-lover Nailia Askerova, 36, said, “In the last ten years, audiences have basically lost their respect for the theatre. A trip to the theatre used to be almost an act of pilgrimage, people came here to exchange ideas, they dressed up in their best clothes. Nowadays it is regarded as something much more ordinary. You can turn up in jeans and be rowdy.”
“Who will put on their best clothes if plaster is falling off the ceiling during the performance?” said Nushaba Feizullayeva, another veteran theatre-goer.
Despite its dowdy look, the Russian Drama Theatre is in fact probably the most successful venue in Baku and its children’s performances every Sunday are very popular with mothers and children. Other theatres have greater problems attracting audiences, with the State Academic Drama Theatre often giving out its tickets to university students or state employees.
Azerbaijan currently has around 30 theatres, most of them in the capital. They include “theatres in exile” from the towns of Aghdam, Shusha and Yerevan.
The first theatre was opened 133 years ago and the history of Azerbaijani drama dates back to 1908 when Uzeir Hajibekov’s Leila and Mejnun, called “the first opera of the Muslim East”, was staged in Baku.
All of the country’s theatres are now state-subsidised and all of them are badly in need of repairs. All are at least 20 years old, with peeling plaster, worn seats and dulling facades.
Actors are also in dire financial straits. Alexander Voinov, 25, works as a translator and appears in occasional plays. He dreams of being a full-time actor, but is deterred by a salary which is worth only 30 US dollars a month.
“You can’t live on that kind of money,” said Voinov. “I see how hard it is for actors in our theatres. Most of them, even the well-known actors, are forced to find ways of earning extra money.”
A new law is currently being debated in parliament which is supposed to help the theatres put their worst times behind them, but it is already proving controversial.
The idea for a new law arose in January when a new ministry of culture and tourism was created in Azerbaijan, headed by Abulfas Garayev. The new minister promised that the state would fund repairs for several Baku theatres.
Azerbaijan does not have a single private theatre. The theatrical studios which opened in the late Soviet period all became state theatres, when offered the promise of state subsidies.
This may change in the future, if the law is adopted. “We have too many state theatres in our country,” said Nizami Jafarov, head of parliament’s culture committee and one of the authors of the new law. “It’s possible that their number will go down in the future.”
The new law will set out what the staff structure of a theatre should be; it will allow theatres to do their own business and attract sponsorship.
Jafarov said that theatres should seek their own sources of funding and the state should only finance productions which have an ideological component.
“Performances should meet the interests of the state,” said Jafarov. “For example they should touch on issues linked to the policies of the state, its relations with other countries and people’s social and economic problems. Plays like this should be staged in our state theatres at least once or twice a year.”
Jafarov insisted that he was not talking about a return to censorship, but this proposal is already attracting criticism. Well-known actor Fuad Poladov said that the draft law had many positive aspects, “but what I absolutely cannot agree with is that the state and the legislature interferes in the creative process. No one has the right to show the theatre what plays it should stage. That is incorrect and it will have a negative impact on the work of the theatre”.
Marat Ibragimov, director of the Russian Drama Theatre, is worried about the economic implications of the new law, because he says there are few opportunities to win sponsorship for the theatre in Azerbaijan.
Arzu Abdullayeva, a well known human rights activist and theatre-lover, agrees.
“At the moment we don’t have a free economy and freedom of the individual in this country,” she said. “In a situation like this, it’s too early to let the theatre swim on its own. Performances are staged here ‘to order,’ just as articles in our newspapers are written ‘to order’. For the time being the state ought to continue to support the theatres and increase their subsidies.”
Hikmet Hajizade, a political analyst and supporter of the opposition Musavat party, shares the scepticism about the usefulness of a law.
“In principle, of course the state ought to have an arts policy,”said Hajizade. “But I don’t think there should be a law. Some kind of state programme would work much better. But any programme should undergo broad public consultation.”
Hajizade argued the main problem with Azerbaijan’s theatres was not its lack of finance but the poverty of its repertoire.
“There are too many classics on our stage,” he said. “You can’t endlessly put on just Shakespeare, Chekhov and Jalil Mamedkulizade. Sooner or later the audiences will get bored and will stop coming to the theatre. Which is basically what is happening. Performances ought to be relevant, to respond to the spirit of the times, they should reflect topical issues. That is the only way of interesting the public.”
Art historian Jahangir Selimkhanov has doubts of a different sort, fearing the law will simply be ignored. “An obvious example is the law on museums, which has existed for several years,” he said. “But no one pays any attention to it. I am afraid that the same thing will happen to the new law on theatres.”
Nigar Musayeva is a freelance journalist in Baku.
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