Latvia: New Theatre Institute of Latvia

Led by a small but dedicated team, the New Theatre Institute of Latvia produces the work of Latvian theatremakers and choreographers, co-produces and stages international work, and holds workshops and seminars to train the next generation of contemporary performers. Claire Ramtuhul speaks to the institute’s director, Gundega Laivina.            

What are the aims of the institute?

Our main responsibility lies in producing local work – we would  love to produce work by international artists, but the money we get  from local funds is not enough to do both. The theatre scene in Latvia is still very conventional; it’s a repertory system where theatres employ permanent casts, a bit like the German and Italian systems. If you are a young actor and are lucky enough to  become a member of one of the big repertory theatres, your development actually stops because you’re not given chances to grow as an individual, you must do as you are told.

So we try to give young people the chance to develop as individuals, to do what they really want to. There aren’t many opportunities to go outside the classical theatre space and devise new work with different media or materials. We invite young artists from theatre and dance and encourage them to experiment with riskier work. Although we’ve been operating for over 10 years, there is still a need for what we do. At our two festivals, Homo Novus and Homo Alibi, we present international artists alongside the Latvian work that we’ve helped produce.

How do you select the artists you work with?

The Latvian theatre scene is very small. There are only around two million people in the country, and less than one million in Riga. So it’s easy to follow young artists and students who are about to graduate. There are two ways we select artists: either we have a specific theme  or project relevant to Latvian artists, and we issue an open call for  proposals around the theme. The other way is to invite artists that  we find promising to do whatever they want. We are part of quite a few European networks, including kedja [the Nordic-Baltic dance platform],  and we always try to persuade these partners that there is a place for Latvian artists in their programmes.

From Vecmilgravis with Love 2 © Didzis Grodzs
From Vecmilgravis with Love © Didzis Grodzs

How exactly do you support artists?

We start from the idea. We often try to source coaching from foreign artists. The Latvian education system affects our choices, because there are certain fields that you can’t really learn in school here, like devised theatre, dramaturgy, and contemporary performance. These are exactly the fields in which we try to be active. We don’t have a venue, but we help by looking for a suitable space for the work to  take place. We also help with fundraising, so we aim to give support on both a technical and a financial level.

Where do you look for funding?

We have limited support from the Ministry of Culture to cover the structural costs of running the institute itself, which lasts for three years. The rest of the funding is sourced on a project-by-project  basis – once we have the idea and artistic collective in place, we apply for funding from the Culture Capital Foundation of Latvia. This is run by independent, non-governmental experts who specialise in each artistic field. They open funding applications four times a year, so for every single project there is competition.

‘Art should not just be a pleasing experience, it should challenge your thinking or world view’

It’s not good for long-term planning at all. It’s very difficult to find private sponsorship, especially for contemporary theatre. It’s still seen as quite new in Latvia and doesn’t attract a massive audience. That’s totally fine for us, but not so much for investors. But we have been more successful with raising private funds for the festivals – because they are week long events, we’ve found it’s more attractive for private funders.

Lost Gardens © Andres Strokins
Lost Gardens © Andres Strokins

Have the festivals made an impact on public perception of theatre  in Latvia?

We have definitely managed to develop critical thinking around  the arts, particularly amongst young people. This is thanks to a mixture of the work we produce, performances by international artists, and all the training programmes, lectures and meetings that we run. We’ve worked with artists such as Vladislavs Nastavševs and Valters Silis on various projects – and you can see that there is a footprint. Whilst they also work in the repertory theatres, the ideas keep travelling. They are helping to break the big theatre philosophy.

How popular are productions at the festival?

We don’t really have competitors here – we’re the only performing arts festival in the country. Our audience really trusts us to deliver good, urgent theatre, which is amazing. People come to watch performances without really knowing what to expect. We’re not afraid to offer difficult themes or artistic experiences. I think that art should not just be a pleasing experience, it should somehow challenge your thinking or world view. Because of this, audiences are growing and getting more diverse from one festival  to another.

Are there any recent productions that particularly stand out?

Last year we co-produced a collaborative piece with German and Latvian artists which involved Riga inhabitants called Lost Gardens. It explored how residents are being evicted from their allotment  gardens because of new business developments of Riga Freeport –  in a way their lifestyle is being killed.

Lost Gardens © Andres Strokins2
Lost Gardens © Andres Strokins

Recently we did a project with Flemish and Latvian choreographers, who worked in the suburbs of Riga and staged performances in the courtyards of Soviet block houses. Directed by performer and choreographer Koen Augustijnen, the performance was entitled From Vecmilgravis with Love.

Tell me about your partnership with the climate change initiative, Imagine 2020.

We started participating in the project in 2010, and we were quite hesitant at first because the topic of climate change seemed so politically correct, in the sense that you just have to mention that  your work deals with social responsibility and the environment and suddenly it’s worthwhile. But on the other hand, there is a total vacuum of information in this country when it comes to these issues. Whilst it might be on the daily agenda in somewhere like the UK, here  climate change was just not seen as an issue at all.

We also really liked the other partners in the network, such as Artsadmin from London and Kaaitheater from Brussels. We trusted them and realised that this was an important network to be a part of, and not just something set up to fulfil the EU agenda. As part of Imagine2020 we’ve produced work by Latvian artists, and co-produced with Estonian and Norwegian artists. Recently we staged a Hannah Hurtzig piece called Blackmarket, where audience members can book one-to-one meetings with all kinds of scientific experts. It’s a wonderful concept of knowledge exchange, and really involves the audience. I think being part of the initiative has effected some change –  it’s a very small drop in the ocean but I think every little action has meaning.