2020 October-November Analysis Featured

Dreams of Batumi as a European theatre capital, reflections on the stage in the times of COVID

The harbor city of Batumi has been transformed during the pandemic. After a short influx of local tourists, its bustling summertime atmosphere has disappeared, even on its famous seaside boulevard.

But this is exactly how Andro Enukidze, artistic director of the Ilia Chavchavadze Drama Theater of Batumi, likes the city: peaceful, intimate, and quiet. Enukidze, who is also a Professor at the Shota Rustaveli Movie and Theater University, says he sees Batumi as a place of opportunity in the art world.

“When I came to work in Batumi, I had an excellent chance to use my previous experiences received from many international stages and to establish my own creative world here,” says the artist, his eyes sparkling.

Since 2014, when he was appointed main artistic director of the Batumi Drama Theater, Enukidze has cherished the dream of Batumi becoming a new theater capital of Europe. Little by little, he says his dream is coming true, and the city is gradually witnessing the birth of a vibrant theatre life.

Last December, he organized an international theater festival, in which some of the world’s most renowned theater groups took part, including the Berliner Ensemble.

However, due to the pandemic, the theater’s international activities had to be cancelled. “What could we do about it? The whole world is experiencing shutdowns, so we have to share in this destiny, too”, he says.

Shortly before the curfew was put in place in March, Enukidze was in Poland rehearsing, as the invited director to stage Berthold Brecht’s Caucasian Сircle at the Heleny Modrzejewskiej Drama Theater in Legnicy. Suddenly, however, after only two weeks of rehearsals, he had to abandon the project and return home to Georgia.

Enukidze has gained a reputation as director, having worked with different theaters abroad. “Traditionally, Georgia has a well-developed theater culture,” he says. “Georgians love theater, and our audiences are highly demanding. So if you manage to capture the attention of a Georgian viewer, your success on the international stage is almost guaranteed.”

Now, Andro Enukidze is by no means giving up his international engagements: “In December, our Polish colleagues will be waiting to continue our rehearsals, as they plan to have a premier before New Year’s Eve.”

Despite the lockdown, Enukidze’s artistic life is full. He recalled these last months with enthusiasm, saying “We couldn’t have live rehearsals, but had a lot of online activities.”

He’s been teaching two groups of students, in Batumi and Tbilisi, and says he can’t recall having had such a busy life as now, during the pandemic. “It’s very time-consuming to reach a person’s mind via the Internet. We used to start our online sessions at 3 p.m. working until 1 or 2 a.m. With my Batumi students I was rehearsing Romeo and Juliet, while I was spending the rest of the time with my Tbilisi group of eight young theater directors, each of whom is a distinctive ‘planet’, needing special attention. I think the curfew barely touched me negatively. When I finished online lectures, I wrote or read, then at 6 in the morning I went out for a walk, then went to bed and woke up at 10 a.m. to continue my routine.”

Because many performances were cancelled, the Batumi Drama Theater experienced financial shortages. “This year, we had planned to stage nine new plays, for which we got funding from the Adjara government. However, as the pandemic got in the way, we had to reimburse the money back into the pandemic fund,” he said with a tone of regret.

Enukidze shows off a newly obtained luxury – a live rehearsal onstage – with pride. The theater building, freshly renovated last year, is a special source of pride for its director, and no wonder – the lighting, sound and other technical installations are in line with the highest international standards. Enukidze recalls that during their last festival in December, members of the production group of the Berliner Ensemble were so pleased with the organization of the festival, that they said it was “their best tour in the last 30 years.”

With actors rehearsing live onstage again, the drama of the pandemic seems to have been as surreal as a performance.

“After lockdown, we staged an open-air play on the staircase in front of our theater. It was a beautiful play entitled Electra’s War by Nino Kharatishvili, directed by Guram Matskhonashvili. The decorations matched the scenery of our beautiful city, and the Bordeaux tones of our theater armchairs were striking, placed in the open square in front of our building; due to the new regulations we could only place 200 chairs, even in an open space. Fortunately, however, people came from far away to watch our performance.”

On July 26, the Batumi Drama Theater held a live streaming event on Adjara TV. It was a new performance of Last Stop, a play revived after ten years and based on the famous American movie Incident, which had formerly been a great success with Batumi theater-goers.

This September, the troupe will perform another open-air interactive play, in which professional actors and Batumi children perform together in a drama based on Hellados, a story by the famous Georgian writer Nodar Dumbadze. The young actors for this piece were chosen by casting previously organized in several Batumi schools.

Over the last six months, Andro Enukidze has seriously reflected on the creative process in theater.

“Especially after the experience of the pandemic, you start to understand clearly that theater is not just a creative infrastructure, but also a place where miracles happen. If there is no miracle on the stage, your theater is dead. That’s why we must invent new technologies to open the full potential of an actor on stage, so that for the audience the result is a shock.

During my career, I have experienced examples of such phenomena in other theaters, but often no one shares this know-how, so as director of the theater I must invent this magic myself. A theater performance is a public matter, as well as a difficult task. Naturally, during a pandemic it becomes even more difficult, since people don’t want to go to the theater to be disappointed, so we must astound them – or else all your work has been in vain.”

Enukidze is not only a dreamer, he’s a perfectionist. “Theater is a highly important part of my life. Of course, there are people who love khinkali more than theater, and though I have nothing against khinkali, it’s theater and not khinkali that I do best. However, there’s no guarantee that I can do it forever,” he mused. “Theater is like a horizon slowly moving away from you as soon as you approach it. Or let’s say, theater to me is like the carrot in front of a donkey – as soon as I try to create something important, something sacred slips on, ahead of me, moving faster.”

In October, Andro Enukidze plans his fourth performance this year, a play based on short stories by Leonid Andreyev. “Without a real stage, however, this particular play is unthinkable,” he said. He hopes that regulations will allow it to be performed live on stage in the Batumi Drama Theater.

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