Independent theaters struggle to survive in Azerbaijan

Author: Aygul Salehova

Edition: Art & Activism
Topic: Activism

In 2012, a friend and I discovered we both fantasized about putting on colorful plays and performances in different corners of the capital, Baku.

We also realized that if it were ever going to happen, we would have to start producing the performances ourselves. We braced ourselves to face all our worst fears: No one would support us, no one would want to volunteer to help us and, even if we manage to gather a group, police could stop us in the middle of a performance, or local residents would throw tomatoes at us or push for us to leave.

In reality, however, none of these things happened. Our opening season of Bakı Teatr Sexi (Baku Theater Factory) was a success. Theater directors, volunteer actors, excited spectators, donator friends, make-up artists—almost everyone we reached out to supported us from the very beginning. Very soon, we started working with the most suitable format for the street—the pantomime.

In the second season, our supporters doubled, if not tripled—but so did our problems. 

It became more difficult to find a place for rehearsals and more expensive because we had to rent a location. Some of our volunteers worked elsewhere so we had to adjust rehearsals around their schedules, which made it harder to meet regularly.

Even though many people wanted to watch our shows, the locations of the performances made it hard for them to attend. As we couldn’t get permission to perform in central streets or parks, we usually staged our performances in small, hidden places that were hard to find and were, at times, far from the city center. All the moving and out-of-the-way locations made it nearly impossible to get the technical support and equipment we needed.  While we started with enormous energy and enthusiasm, the growing obstacles started to demotivate us. We started thinking that perhaps Baku did not welcome independent performances.  

Our last performance was in 2013 and, over the course of seven years, we have witnessed a number of other innovative and independent theaters rise and whither.

Officially, there are ten state-run theaters in the capital. There are a lot fewer active, independent theaters, which is bad for theater in general, according to Jeyhun Dadashov, the founder of independent Rebus Theater.

“Iclas (Meeting),” an interactive play by dOM Theater that was inspired by the tragic death of an adolescent, Elina Hajiyeva, who had been bullied and did not received help despite a suicide attempt at school. The play revolved around a surprise parents meeting at school, and all the spectators became parents who had a chance to help the girl to survive, but at the end of the play “their Elina” still died.

One of the rare successes is the newly created dOM, the interactive theater founded by Tarlan Rasulov, the former director of YUĞ State Theatre.

The theater tackles the topics that nobody else will, putting on performances about delicate issues, and sometimes spectators can find themselves on the stage and they can change the fate of the play together with the actors.

dOM was the only art group to stage a performance about the suicide of a Baku teenager, Elina, a tragedy that rocked society in Azerbaijan. People who came with the intention to watch a play suddenly found themselves in the middle of a parents meeting. Each of them became a parent and had a chance to change Elina’s destiny.

While dOM has been a success, other theater companies have struggled to secure venues that are accessible to the public, directors who are willing to experiment, and funds to hold performances at all. 

The entrance to ADO Theater. (Photo by Aygul Salehova)
The entrance to ADO Theater. (Photo by Aygul Salehova)

ADO Theater, another independent theater company, has been fighting for a place to perform since it started: in the span of a single year, it was forced to move four times. 

Founder Elmin Badalov believes that is because the theater is seen as a threat to traditional values, family institutions and the country’s long-standing tradition of state-run theaters. 

Elmin Badalov, performing in “Wedding,” one of ADO Theater’s most popular plays. It uses comedy to ask questions about some of the long-held traditions of Azerbaijani weddings. (Ilkin Salifov, ADO Theater)
(Ilkin Salifov, ADO Theater)

ADO Theater believes its mission is to surprise spectators, not cater to their wishes. That means the theater performances include naked women on stage, sex scenes, and violence and its negative repercussions. Badalov has argued that spreading awareness about delicate, sensitive issues attracts a supportive audience together with those who disagree with the performance.

“Independence is the first rule for being creative in theater. State theaters’ dependence on the Ministry of Culture makes it impossible for them to improve,” Badalov said.

ADO Theater’s production of “Ring,” a play that is held on an untraditional stage. (ADO archive)
ADO Theater’s production of “Ring,” a play that is held on an untraditional stage. (ADO archive)

“As the state funds those theatres, sometimes the ministry demands to have an exclusive premiere for its staff. This way they can have a total control over the content of the plays and all the parts that they find inappropriate can be censored. That is true not just for state theaters; the Ministry of Culture also can do it to the independent theaters that they support.”

Theater companies need money to rent venues—or they can apply for free space from the Ministry of Culture. Both options present problems for independent theaters. 

For example, while many independent theaters offer workshops and acting classes to raise money, they do not earn enough to rent centrally located venues. Receiving help from the Ministry of Culture presents a different set of challenges.

“The Ministry of the Culture benefits from this support; sometimes it can solve a theater’s financial problems, sometimes it can provide a space to perform. In this way, the ministry can influence the content of the performances,” Badalov said. 

“In some cases the ministry itself reaches out to new and unequipped theaters, which see this as a big opportunity but do not foresee the consequences. Slowly the theater companies become old-fashioned, they fall behind the latest trends like traditional theaters, and are forced to follow certain guidelines. This means a failure for them.”

Chai Khana tried to reach the Ministry of Culture multiple times while reporting on this story. The ministry responded once with a formal letter about its theater programs but never addressed the reporter’s questions about independent theater owners’ concerns.

Poster of “Arshin Mal Alan,” an operetta by Uzeyir Hajibeyov. It is the story of a man who disguised himself as a cloth peddler so he can choose the woman he wants to marry, as this was the only way to see unmarried women without a headscarf. (Poster circa 1924)
Poster of “Nargiz,” a children’s play by one of the pioneers of children’s theater in Azerbaijan, Mirmehdi Seyidzada. The play was performed at the Azerbaijani Puppet Theater. (Poster circa 1937-41)

Theater critic Aliya Dadashova thinks that financial-technical support is not enough for independent theaters; they need a stronger foundation in society and Azerbaijani culture, in general. That is why she believes the government should directly support the theater community by, for example,  investing in theater festivals, producing special publications and helping theater producers attend international trainings and festivals.

“Theater needs to form a troupe, constantly rehearse, create a product that expires fast, formulate and work with the audience. Theater requires a lot of resources and it takes a lot of time to get a return on those investments,” she said. “That is why we can not say the ‘government should stay away from theater, it can live by itself.’”

Dadashova believes a more complex approach is required.

“In the 2008-2018 State Program for Theater,  there were paragraphs about the independent theaters that never opened and were never able to be realized, in the past decade. Only last year, the Ministry of Culture launched another project to help independent theaters; they gave them one of the state theater stages just for once a month. But it was not enough viewers for them to fill the hall,” she said.

Dadashova noted that while the lack of government support in the past could explain the viewership problems, there are other issues independent theaters need to address. “Independent theaters can be more free art-wise, but it does not mean they are better. Most of the plays look amateur. The idea of a hero that makes a revolution in theater is a myth. The environment for art has not been created.”

Poster of “Asli and Kerem,” an opera by the first Azerbaijani opera composer, Uzeyir Hajibeyov. The opera is a tragic love story based on a popular legend and was performed at Nakhichevan State Theater. (Poster circa 1935-39)

Jeyhun Dadashov left the State Pantomime Theater in 2015 to open Rebus Theater, so he could freely explore and experiment with the art form, something he said is impossible to do when the theater is sponsored by the state. 

“State Theaters must report to the Ministry of Culture, as they are sponsored by them. They cannot risk spending that money on experiments,” Dadashov said. 

But without state sponsorship Rebus Theater has struggled to pay for a venue. The ministry’s 2019 program offered a way out. 

Rebus Theater has been approved for the free venue—likely because the performances do not address controversial topics, Dadashov said.

“We only need to send some basic information, like the name of the performance, genre, director, age limit, and etc., and they easily give us the stage without interfering. I don’t know the experience of other theaters, but perhaps this is because our position is always clear: I usually try to keep the theater away from religious and political topics.”

Even he was hesitant, however, to ask for permission to stage a street performance in Baku. 

Rebus Theater performed a street play called “Tesseract” three times in Tehran, with financial support from the Ministry of Culture. But that permission does not extend to Baku. “We actually never tried to perform it here. Anyway, street theater is always a sensitive topic in Baku, as if something dangerous will happen if there is a gathering,” Dadashov said.

ADO Theater founder Elmin Badalov decided street theater was the only way to bring the art form to the public: If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain. 

ADO Theater, performing a street play in Tbilisi, Georgia. When the theater company applied for permission to stage the play in Tbilisi, it took just a few hours to receive the license. In Baku, the theater has been fighting in court for over two years to ascertain the city’s guidelines for obtaining permission for street performances. (ADO archive)

That was also the philosophy of Bakı Teatr Sexi (Baku Theater Factory), the theater group I helped establish and the first street theater group of Baku. It managed to function for just two years, mainly performing for local residents in districts far from the city center.

“We went to different corners of Baku, sometimes our spectators were people who had not gone to the theater in the last 15 years, sometimes they were children, who watched their very first theater performance. We thought maybe we do not even need to perform in the city center, all the spectators we need are in these little neighborhoods,” Ellada Abbasova, co-founder of the group, said.

The largest performance staged by Bakı Teatr Sexi in Old Town, a central neighborhood in Baku.  (Pho ...
The largest performance staged by Bakı Teatr Sexi in Old Town, a central neighborhood in Baku. (Photo: Ahmed Mukhtar, BTS archive)
The largest performance staged by Bakı Teatr Sexi in Old Town, a central neighborhood in Baku.  (Pho ...
The largest performance staged by Bakı Teatr Sexi in Old Town, a central neighborhood in Baku. (Photo: Ahmed Mukhtar, BTS archive)

After a few months of small productions, foreign embassies helped the theater secure a prized venue in the center of the capital, in the Old Town district.  

“Embassies used their networks to help us find a venue to perform in the Old Town. But we never received a response from Baku Boulevard to our  written requests for official permission,” she said.

“One day, before our performance started in Old Town, police approached to ask if we had permission to stage the play. Suddenly, we heard loud and uproarious applause from the audience. We, and the police, tried to understand what was happening: it was a magnificent, proud protest against the police who stopped us. The applause continued until the police left and after that, we started our show. And that day became one of the brightest memories of our theater.”

“Limbo,” a play by Bakı Teatr Sexi. It is the story of a girl who lives with an angel and a devil in ...
“Limbo,” a play by Bakı Teatr Sexi. It is the story of a girl who lives with an angel and a devil inside her and the conflict kills her.

Badalov has also struggled to secure permission to stage a street performance.

“When we appealed to the Ministry of Culture with this idea, they sent us to Baku City Executive Power. But when we sent letters to the Executive Power, they asked us to go to the Ministry of Culture. After we spread the word about our troubles and started protests, the ministry came to us with an offer. They were ready to give us an open-air space, but first they wanted to see our play, to decide if it is appropriate for the public,” he recalled.

After people from the ministry viewed the play, ADO Theater management says it was given an ultimatum: Remove one scene that included a woman with a wet shirt or cancel the performance.  “They said that it is inappropriate, because she gets wet and her clothes can become ‘transparent,’” Badalov said.

“We understood that we had to pay a price if we agreed to a deal with the ministry. But there was no way we would let them censor us. Now we had an additional goal: not only put on the play, but also fight against the regulations and methods, so everyone can have a chance to do street art.”

ADO Theatre’s adult play, “MimOda.” (ADO archive)
ADO Theatre’s adult play, “MimOda.” (ADO archive)

Badalov sued both the Ministry of Culture and the Executive Power, requesting an official guideline for an access to perform in the streets. 

The court hearings themselves became a type of theater: Badalov wore a cage on his head, or tied his arms to show how bound independent theaters feel.

On December 30, 2019, the court ruled in ADO Theater’s favor, and decided the Executive Power has to grant permission for street performances. Even as the theater and its fans were celebrating, however, the city appealed the verdict. The Baku Court of Appeal overturned the lower court ruling in September but its verdict did not clarify which government body has the responsibility to issue permits for street performances.  

After two years of futile attempts in court, ADO Theatre decided to start playing street performances without any permission. “If there is no penalty for doing this, it means we do not have to ask. Of course, we will bring it to European Court of Human Rights, but if they [officials] do not react now, it means we are free to perform”, says Elmin Badalov.

Aside from the issues of venues and funding, independent-minded actors struggle to find viable, paying positions. Without young talent to put new life in theater productions, theaters are losing their relevance and the country is losing a generation of actors, according to theater founders.

Poster of “Rain, rain, rain,” a one-man play by ADO Theater that tells the story of a homeless man. ...
Poster of “Rain, rain, rain,” a one-man play by ADO Theater that tells the story of a homeless man. The play is based on “Night Just Before the Forests” by Bernard-Marie Koltès.

“It is impossible to improve independence not only in theater, but also in other forms of art with the close-minded and intolerant people. The same people have run state theaters for many years, the same directors produce plays, the same actors play in them. Due to job security, they do not want to pass their places to young people,” Badalov said.  

Actress Jamila Eyvazova experienced that first hand after she graduated from Azerbaijan State University of Culture and Arts in 2015. 

“I always was passionate and motivated, wanted to bring changes to the theater, to play in experimental performances. But I felt discouraged in all the theaters where I worked,” she said.

Her worst experience was an audition for the State Theatre of Musical Comedy, Eyvazova recalled. Even before the audition started, she could hear the jurors making disparaging comments about her appearance and her age.

“In the first five minutes I understood that they are not going to consider me. It was my last attempt to work in theaters, after that day, I could never pluck up my courage to audition. They never care how well you can act, they only care who you are. Generally, it is like this in state theaters; it is very rare that they give a young person a chance. They are usually looking for popular, experienced people.”

To gain experience, young actors have to volunteer at theaters, usually balancing multiple jobs to earn a living at the same time. 

“In the independent theaters you are free as an artist, but financial difficulties continue here too,” Eyvazova said.  “There are no stable salaries; you have to work on television to earn a living, but it damages your spirit as an artist. After some time, you cannot find enough time for theater and you lose interest.”

Check out this 2017 video, made by Leyli Gafarova for Chai Khana, to experience ADO Theatre's backstage.


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