The Beginning of the End


After nine years of construction, the new building of the Valeri Gunia Professional State Theatre in the city of Poti will be officially inaugurated within several days. The opening of the 600-seat, 5,700 square meters space, which cost about 11 million GEL to construct, is a special event for the local population and the creative, administrative and technical staff of the theatre who have worked in poor conditions for years. It is also very important for Georgian theatre in general.

The Poti theatre during its reconstruction. Photo: Tamar Okhikiani
The building, which was designed by architect Lado Khmaladze, ensures that the theatre can be multi-functional. However, for the full potential of this large-scale building to be utilized, what is most important is the mission the leadership of the theatre has set and the initiatives they will implement. With these and other questions we approached Tengiz Khukhia, the director and former manager of the theatre, and Davit Mgebrishvili, the theatre's art director.

The building in which the theatre previously operated in was transferred to the church in 2005. Who assisted the theatre to ensure that it could continue its creative activity and enabled a new building to be built?

Tengiz Khukhia: In November 2005, when the building was officially transferred to the church, the clergy was on the ground floor, whilst representatives of the theatre worked on the first floor. This further exacerbated the conflict. Once I got involved in the situation, I was appointed director of the theatre and we managed to establish a dialogue with the clergy as well as with both the local and central government. The construction of a new building started with the support of the former President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili.

In order to spare the theatre from suspending its activity, we found shelter in an old house of culture which housed a folklore studio, a puppet studio, and song and dance ensembles. Back then, a group of people expressed their desire to just hand over that building to the theatre, but I went against that initiative because I did not want the theatre to survive at the expense of other creative groups.

What was your main objective?

My main objective was to prove that we exist and can stage plays, to attract audiences and develop in them an interest towards the theatre. The number one objective was to unite the theatre crew. For a variety of objective and subjective reasons there was a rift between them. For me personally it proved difficult to work without an art director and a stage director. No one was interested in undertaking these jobs because of the poor working conditions in the theatre – the low level of financing at that time, as well as poor technical, material or human resources. Therefore, we opted to adopt a principle of inviting theatre directors to work with us. Several performances were staged and Poti audiences started attending them. Thereafter we went outside Poti, performing in other cities of Georgia. In parallel with our tours, we took part in various festivals, and invited Georgian and foreign stage directors. Within several years the Poti theatre had made advances.

Alongside all of this, the construction of a new building was underway, which faced some impediments because of problems with funding. We struggled much and worked hard to get a real result. I want to extend special thanks to every person who contributed to the construction of such a big building.

- To what extent did you succeed in retaining the crew?

The Poti theatre during its reconstruction. Photo: Tamar Okhikiani
My first promise was that I would retain the theatre crew – it is the core of the theatre, every employee is needed – and that we would all enter the new building together. I have delivered on my promise. We even employed new actors without dismissing old ones.

We established friendly contract with neighboring theatres. For example, during our tour to the Batumi theatre we found out that it was the first time that the Poti theatre had ever performed in Batumi since the inception of these two theatres. That nudged us towards establishing the Network of Regional Theatres of Georgia in 2008, and I was elected its chairman. The Poti theatre was among the first to join the European network of theatres. We host our European colleagues and their performances in Poti as well as in other regions of Georgia. For example, there were tours held by Lithuanians, Norwegians, Poles, and Iranians in Tbilisi, Batumi, Poti, Senaki, Chiatura, Zugdidi, et cetera.

 What impeded the construction of the new theatre building?

There was a problem with accumulating the necessary funds. The war in [August] 2008 [between Russia and Georgia] was also a serious impediment. There was a period when the construction stopped altogether and we had to start thinking about how to attract attention. We decided to stage events in an unfinished building and thus remind people from both local and central government that the construction needed to be completed. One of the first of such performances was by the famous Georgian ballet dancer Nino Ananinashvili, a brilliant person and my beloved friend, who performed with other ballet dancers in Poti. Then, a folk dance ensemble Erisioni also showed its support. I want to thank these two creative groups as well as every other person who supported us. The new building will first and foremost play host to them. We intend to establish a festival of Georgian theatres. This project is currently being elaborated and we hope it will obtain financing.

 With the enactment of the Law on Professional Theatres the institution of theatre managers has been abolished and the function of art directors has been enhanced. What falls under your responsibility as the director?

The Poti theatre during its reconstruction. Photo: Tamar Okhikiani
If there was anyone in the world who wanted an art director, it was I. For a long time no one expressed any such desire because we worked in a small building and in such poor conditions. Many abstained from taking up this job. According to the law, today it is the art director who is responsible for the creative process, repertoire, et cetera. Davit Mgebrishvili cooperated with the Poti theatre for many years; consequently he knows the theatre well and it is easy to work with him. I want to thank each and every employee for those nine years we spent together. The new building requires new effort and huge enthusiasm. We are facing new challenges and I do hope that the Poti theatre will prove to be one of the most distinguished theatres in Georgia.

 What can you say about theimportance of the theatre in the region?

Davit Mgebrishvili: Of late, one often hears questions as to whether there is a need for so many theatres. I think that the existence of a theatre in the region is of utmost importance. Theatre helps people grow, develop analytical thinking, good taste, so on and so forth. Therefore, I cannot agree with the opinion that budget money should not be spent on theatres.

I am lucky that I have been appointed the art director of a theatre that will continue its activity in a new building. This is a huge step forward, especially in Georgia, which, I think, is not a country of theatre goers. You may be surprised, but it is a fact that in a country where so many famous theatre directors worked and work, the culture of visiting theatres is poor. Audiences are often unprepared and even lack education.

Do you blame television for that?

A scene from A Japanese Fairytale, staged by Davit Mgebrishvili. Photo: Tamar Okhikiani
There are people who have everything: a TV, computer, iPad, et cetera, but who still read books. In Georgia, education is no longer consistent, academic... New universities are being opened, but superficiality and dilettantism prevail. The same holds true for theatre! The theatre experiences a shortage of qualified cadres. If one thinks that being artist or director is not a profession, then they are very much mistaken. It is a profession. An actor must be an actor, a stage director – a stage director, painter - a painter and so on. We have this problem in the Poti theatre and are trying to combat it. We conduct daily exercises for actors. When an actor steps onto stage and clashes against a decoration this is a result of that actor not working on his/her development.

If this is the situation, how are you going to tackle Hamlet, which you plan to perform on the day of opening the building?

Staging Hamlet might be premature, but this is the choice of dramaturgy, the path which we want to walk along. We already staged The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov, which we performed in the Mikheil Tumanishvili Film Actors' Studio Theatre in Tbilisi. Let me say that that performance itself showed many actors – who might have been aware of it theoretically, but had never experienced it for themselves – what working on a good piece of dramaturgy means. After that, we worked on A Japanese Fairytale, the script of which I wrote together with the actors. By doing so, I wanted the participants in that play to go through the process of constructing a scene, to experience the structure of dramaturgy. I am trying to speak to the actors by applying that same language and method that my teacher [famous Georgian theatre director] Mikheil Tumanishvili applied. I was also lucky to work on two plays with [famous Georgian theatre director] Robert Sturua and got familiar with his methodology. Both of these stage directors significantly influenced me. Actors must be proficient in their profession. If they are not, they must learn it.

There are currently 21 actors in the crew. Upon being appointed the art director, I staged two plays and intentionally engaged all capable actors in them. Now I know who is worth what and how proficient each of them is in the profession. We admitted several student actors from the Batumi crew too. Once they graduate from university, they will become full time members of the crew. It is important that the Poti Mayor's Office finances a group in the Batumi university, where 10 students are being taught the art of an artist over four years. Graduates of this course will continue to work in the Poti theatre.

The new building is much larger than the space in which the Poti theatre had to work in for many years. Will it be easy to adapt to it?

Adaptation will happen naturally. The space will prompt everyone how to act. Once we enter it, it will be clear who suits the new space and new requirements. The completion of the construction of a new building is an unbelievable gift, not only for me or Tengiz Khukhia, but for all employees of the theatre. We are looking forward to its opening. We know that we will have problems, but I know in advance that the main problem will still be associated with the shortage of qualified cadres. We must tackle that and create a production that will be oriented on quality.

Despite the above said, I must say that the Poti theatre, owing to the efforts of its former manager, went through a process which other theatres of the region have yet to go through. There was no suspension of the creative process in the Poti theatre, whereas, for example, the Telavi theatre was closed for years. It is often very difficult to rectify what has been done incorrectly before you arrived, but I have not come to face any such problems in the Poti theatre. The theatre has always been in good shape and there is a creative momentum which will help us achieve our difficult objectives.

In one of his interviews, the German theatre director Thomas Ostermeier gave a brilliant response to a journalist's question inquiring about his functions as an art director: "my main function is to be the worst theatre director." I absolutely agree with him and will try to invite such theatre directors to Poti, their cooperation will be important for the theatre.


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