The World according to Keistuoliai
No irony please, is one of the tenets of a dynamic young theatre company
Their shows attract full houses. Their audiocassettes and CDs do not stay in the shops for long. And each show that they put on is guaranteed success.
They perform for children as if they were adults, and for adults as if they were children. They make the audience surprised at everything, and smile and love. They simply stop you growing old.
The Keistuoliai (“oddballs”) Theatre is a different, and so far the only private, theatre in Lithuania. It is not only that its members are all directors, actors, composers, poets, artists and artistic directors at the same time.
This is not somewhere people come to see overblown passions. It is a living theatre, where the spectator is always kept on the edge.
During its 15 years of existence, the company has put on over 30 new productions, television performances, and shows, made video films for children and grown-ups, and a multitude of audiocassettes and compact discs. In one year, it puts on about 200 performances for children and adults, visits about 30 cities in Lithuania and abroad (including Austria, Denmark, Germany and the USA) and participates in joint projects with foreign theatres.
One of its credos, which took shape at the very beginning, is to be extremely honest with children, and to talk to them in a very simple language that they will understand.
“Then there is sincerity, and children accept you,” says Aidas Giniotis, one of the founders and artistic director.
“I think that was the main reason why our theatre was born and has survived. Sincerity with children cannot be achieved through reasoning or by the idea alone. To achieve it, we ourselves must be open hearted.”
The idea of a different kind of theatre was born in 1982, when first-year drama students at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre were declared a miniature theatre class.
“While students, we had the idea of one troupe, one theatre,” says Giniotis.
“We wanted to be original and strong. The various actors were linked by a feeling of affinity, and came back to Vilnius, like the children of the same mother.”
The company was founded in 1989 as a cooperative. At the time, still Soviet times, there was no other way of establishing an independent troupe.
“Initially, even a suggestion like this looked ridiculous: a cooperative, like a bakery? But then, that was how our oddness showed. And we said, why not?!” Giniotis recalls.
The status of the company has been changing constantly since the beginning: from a cooperative to a closed joint-stock company, then to a non-profit organisation and finally to a public enterprise. Today it has 15 actors, a director, a set designer, a composer, a permanent rehearsal hall, and a smallish round hall suitable for close communication with the audience.
The first years of the theatre’s existence were not easy. To many, the first private theatre in Lithuania, trying hard to survive and without any financial assistance from the state, looked implausible and not very serious.
Rehearsals took place in clubs or in a former cinema, the sets were kept in a garage and carried around in a Lada car. All that, as well as the tours around country towns, selling tickets, putting up posters, observing rules and regulations, a quite “uncreative” accounting style, sleepless nights and other hardships did not put off the young company.
“We started from scratch, and nobody helped us,” Giniotis recalls. “Everything we received from ticket sales, we put back into the next production.”
Children were the company’s first audience. This happened because the theatre started with a repertoire for children.
Unlike other children’s theatres, they usually choose absurd (Bisset, Rodari) or nonsensical literature (Haks, Hopp, Maceurek) and, by adapting it to their style of acting and to the lyrics of their songs, they find a new way of talking to children.
“It is not easy to act for children. Managing them is an issue in itself,” says Giniotis. “If while acting for children you allow yourself to flag, they will sweep you off the stage literally in ten minutes and won’t want you anymore.
“As an audience, children are exhausting. When their eyes are staring at you, they neither listen, nor keep silent nor are tolerant. They just rob you of your energy.”
In developing the principles of their acting, the actors first of all rejected the infantile and simple characters that appear so frequently in theatre productions. They tried to avoid theatrical clichés and stereotypes. They gave up academic stage sets that both take up the space of the action and block children’s fantasy.
Children cannot stand dishonesty, especially on the stage. Therefore, the company decided to treat them like adult spectators.
In shaping their style of acting, and the genres and structures of their productions, they turned to the theatrical nature of man. The desire to imitate the surroundings, to evaluate them as a game full of music and permanent motion, makes it possible to be both an observer and a performer at the same time.
“Children don’t understand irony,” Giniotis points out. “They also don’t understand mockery and insincerity. However, they do enjoy puns, surprises and dynamism.
“They don’t appreciate the notion ‘unreal’, and that is why theatre as a game is part of their life, a natural condition. Children don’t imagine that they are being drawn into a game. They either get involved or they don’t join in. This makes the actors act with commitment.”
It is one thing to play a children’s character at the age of 20 or 30, and quite another to do it when you are 40.
“The longer you act, the more courage you need, and the more open you have to be, because the difference in age between you and the audience is getting bigger.”
The knight of the sad countenance
From the very beginning, the company has wanted to act for adults, too. Circumstances, however, made them put on 20 performances a month. Add to this the recording sessions, festivals and filming, and they started feeling that the workload was too heavy for a small company.
Then a plan was born to inject some fresh blood, that is, to establish a theatre studio. A group of actors was formed at Vilnius University especially for working at the Keistuolių Teatras. In addition to the humanities, they were taught all aspects of acting, and much attention was paid to music education and children’s literature.
One production, Liūdnojo vaizdo riteris (The Knight of the Sad Countenance), which is still in the repertoire, defined perfectly the direction of the company, their vision, and simply what they are to themselves and to others.
To have an impractical dream, to see what others cannot see, to defeat your sworn enemy, to dare to do what no one else would dare: these are themes that run through the production. As they are leaving, some members of the audience hum the songs.
“Sincere communication is, in my view, the theatre’s basic principle; and we always return to it, no matter how far we have strayed,” Giniotis says.
Along with drama for adults, children and the whole family, there is one more aspect, which started after its cooperation with the Grips theatre in Germany. This is educational productions oriented towards the social and psychological problems of a child and a teenager.
“I think it’s very important to help children solve problems which they are unwilling or too timid to talk about in public,” Giniotis says.
“The theatre is both public and private. The spectator gets involved in the play being performed. And by seeing himself in the characters, although not necessarily identifying them with himself, he no longer feels alone.
“We are glad that the response to our efforts is reflected in the faces of spectators who have been with us since the beginning, and in the simple fact that they keep coming to our theatre. We call them a generation of grown-up children.
“They are probably our most active audience. They encourage dialogue, and look forward to it. How can we not respond to such an invitation?”
Address: Laisvės pr. 60, LT-05120 Vilnius