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Tajikistan pulls strings to rally interest in flagging puppet theatre
Without government support, saving the art won't be easy
By Maks Maksudov
CHKALOVSK - The puppets are coming. The Tajik Ministry of Culture has announced that, from April 15-22, Dushanbe will host the Second International Festival of Puppet Theatre. Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Azerbaijan and Iran will send retinues to compare style, share techniques, and perform for each other.
“The forum will enable theatre [personnel] ... to discuss trends. … Presently, one thing is clear: it won't be easy for puppet theatres in Central Asia without government support”, a ministry source said.
In the 20th century, Central Asian theatres received government support, including salaries and buildings. Private theatres eventually appeared. Kazakhstan has nine large puppet theatres, some of which are private; one is Christian. Uzbekistan has ten, all state-owned. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan both have two state-run theatres, with Tajikistan's in Dushanbe and Chkalovsk. According to the Ministry of Culture in Dushanbe, the country has no private theatres.
Most theatres suffer from a lack of actors, directors and doll makers, arts observers say.
“The performances need to be better; the puppets and finishing materials must be modern and special-effects decorations need to be used in making them”, said Sukhbor Mirzoyev, a theatre critic for Russian World magazine. “Big spending doesn't guarantee success if the performance is talentless”.
The director of the State Puppet Theatre in Chkalovsk, Abduvali Maksudov, said five years ago his company created an in-house studio to attract talented youngsters.
“We took in 6th to 11th grade students from the local school. While they were in school, they came here to practise; after they graduated, they stopped, even though we paid a small stipend. Being a puppeteer won't put food on anyone's table. Moreover, it doesn't make you popular. After all, the audience sees not a person, but a doll on stage”, Mirzoyev said.
Actors get 220-310 TJS (US$51-72) a month, the director said. In Dushanbe, the capital, the salaries are about 30% higher. According to official figures, the average monthly pay in northern Tajikistan is 167.1 somoni (US$38.80).
Nodira Akhmedova, who has acted at the puppet theatre in Chkalovsk for 15 years said, “Artists (with families) have to combine their work at the theatre and another job in order to earn more”.
She can support herself, albeit meagrely, on her theatre income.
“The special nature of our work is such that we have no time to look for work elsewhere. Five months out of the year, we are touring and the rest of the time we are rehearsing and staging new performances”, said Anvar Mansurkhojayev, an actor at the Chkalovsk theatre.
According to information from the theatre’s finance department, in 2010 the theatre will receive 242,000 TJS (US$58,068) from the government. Most of that will pay workers’ salaries and taxes. The income from ticket sales is small; in 2009, the theatre took in 7,700 TJS (US$1,790).
Kenja Ibragimov, director of the National Puppet Theatre in Dushanbe, said, “The theatres will not be able to survive without government support. In 2009, we sold 32,000 tickets for 1.5 TJS (US$0.34). If we separate the part for the taxes, there is very little left – just for master classes and administrative expenses”.
Ibragimov said his theatre advertises on TV, where great shows are promised to lure spectators. But actors said spectators don't come upon their own. Grandfathers and grandmothers bring in their grandchildren, and while the theatre seats 200, only 10 to 20 viewers come to each performance.
“Of course I would take my children to the puppet theatre in Chkalovsk, but I simply don’t know what and when they are playing there. There is nowhere to go with children, except parks with rides”, said Khursheda Samadova, a Khujand resident.
Doll maker Zhuzhanna Kravchenko, an interior designer by profession, spent two years working in the puppet theatre to master her new profession. She began making masks, then started making puppets. “It's not that easy, since we have no teachers and nowhere to study. There are nearly 30 puppets at the theatre. Most of them are old dolls that have been restored and dressed in modern clothes", she said.
“Presently, we have only two young actors, and they do not have professional training, but they are talented and speak Russian and Tajik", said Abduvali Maksudov, Chkalovsk Puppet theatre Director. "It would be nice to have an annual quota for students to go study for free ... where they train theatre enthusiasts.”
Maksudov said that because Chkalovsk is small, practically the entire child population of the city watches the theatre’s performances. Therefore, the company often tours the country’s kindergartens and schools.
At least one of the Khujand children loves the puppet theatre. Umeda, 6, remembered almost all the fairy tale heroes, rattling off their names effortlessly and smiling.
At one kindergarten in Khujand, the senior teacher, who asked not to be named, said puppet theatre can be an effective teaching tool. “The actors come themselves, so it's easy. Otherwise, the children would have to be brought to the theatre, which is problematic and requires additional expenses”, the teacher said. “Children are very smart these days. After the performance, we discuss with them what they saw. They distinguish good from evil without fault, which means the purpose ... has been achieved”.