Fotografas R. Ščerbauskas
© R. Ščerbauskas

Stage and screen actor Dainius Gavenonis, who has recently presented his latest film Senekos diena (Seneca’s Day) in film theatre Romuva, thinks that for Kaunas to become the Capital of Culture we need to focus on the city’s internal culture, first of all, and only later on its appearance. A conversation with Kaunas born actor about his childhood, theatre issues of today, and search for the future theatre.

You were born and grew up in Kaunas. You have started your artistic career here. What is the Kaunas you remember from your childhood and teenage years, and how do you feel about the city now?
In my childhood and teenage years, Kaunas was easy. However, most probably this feeling comes from my memories of those days: such as about students from vocational schools who would block our way and other “chucker-outs.” They wouldn’t beat us if we said that we were from the Kryžkelė or Kalniečiai and knew this guy Žvairys (Squint.) Because we attended an art school, we didn’t look like our attackers, and they also didn’t look like everybody else. Most of them had shaved heads, wore uniform jackets provided by the government. All of them were from the vocational schools. Meanwhile, we looked completely different. However, we did not look much better: we had long hair and wore some indescribable garb. For us, the most important things were the art and inner world. Our parents used to fight us so we would cut our hair and dressed decently. However, it was a beautiful and interesting time.
Nowadays, Kaunas differs and still keeps changing. I left Kaunas some time ago. Earlier, every time I returned and walked down from Soboras (St. Michael the Archangel Church – Ed.) to Rotušė Square, I knew I would meet somebody. Kaunas is a city that seems to have everything in one street. However, meetings with the acquaintances whom I’d like to see are growing rare. More often, I see the buildings that I wouldn’t like to see there – from time to time a glass block rises in the city. I think that keeping the current architectural style of Kaunas is very important. The filmmakers from Vilnius still come here – this city has kept its old yards, big houses with high ceilings and windows, and capacious staircases. Today, it is not so simple to preserve Kaunas the way it was and keep in mind what it can become. But I think, this is possible.
Did Kaunas cultural life change significantly over the last two decades?
It’s difficult to tell because I work in Vilnius theatre. People who work there live a confined life, if they work a lot. I come to Kaunas on tour or to visit my father and friends, who still live here, and are important to me.
To my knowledge, over the last two decades, not a single theatre opened in Kaunas. It’s not theatre stages I am talking about – today, a theatre can exist without them. I am talking about the theatre as a cultural unit. For example, in Vilnius, “Meno fortas“ was established at the initiative of Eimuntas Nekrošius. Oskaras Koršunovas opened his own theatre. Kaunas has Kaunas State Drama, City Chamber, and Small Theatres, AURA – the ones that exist for a long time. True, there is a VMU Theatre. But anyway, it happens to many known artists: they come to Kaunas, try building their life there but for some reasons they do not fit in and return to Vilnius.
However, it is difficult to tell, why there aren’t any new theatres in Kaunas. Maybe there is some sort of monopoly. Maybe young people lack the right conditions, or maybe they are provided only as a formality. I think if a young person has ideas and wants to do something differently it is very important to help him. Everybody now is eager for something different, new. A new kind of theatre can only emerge when there is a person with a novel approach. In this case, it is a director, art director, or producer who understands art and sees that it’s not just a business.
Simply having a stage is not enough for a theatre, although it is also important. Not only Kaunas but Vilnius as well faces this problem. As several new theatres were founded in the capital, the city is short of stages. I live on Sporto street in Vilnius. There was a theatre arena next to my house earlier. It was a complex, intricate building, unsuited for plays but it served as a cultural centre with some activity at least. However, the arena was demolished, and now, residential houses replaced it.
Near my home in Vilnius, there was Šarūnas Marčiulionis’ hotel and basketball school. My son attended this school because it was close to us. However, the plan is to demolish it too and build residential buildings there. I consider it a huge issue. In Vilnius, the old Žalgiris Stadium was also demolished. They will build a hotel in its place. During the two decades of independence, nor Vilnius, neither Kaunas have constructed a building that could stage the plays of our best directors. Our country is small, but we have so many talented directors whose plays tour throughout the whole world. And we don’t have a stage to show them.
What kind of theatre does a modern person need?
A modern person needs a diverse theatre. In the beginning, young people are somebody’s students. However, sooner or later, they want to become better than their teacher or to leave him behind and say, “I am who I am.“ I think we need to give young people a chance to challenge those who have proved their greatness and learned what the real theatre is. Times are changing, and we can’t deny the fact that young people think differently – as contemporary people. Universal truths do not exist. And theatre has to be as diverse as possible. It can be political, symbolic, classical, avant-garde, or underground.
What is your vision of the future theatre?
Everybody wonders about the future theatre. The lovers of genuine cinema worry that, sooner or later, the cinema as an art form will disappear. It seems that fewer people go to the theatre. However, I think that this is not really true. Once the wheel turns full circle, people will need things that theatre offers. It is a very archaic form of art, but I think that, namely, because of this, it will survive. The most amazing thing about theatre art is that unlike other art forms it comes into being today. It is unique. The play is different every day – it doesn’t matter how many times we perform.
In many European theatres, involving the community in theatre activity has become a standard. The spectators often get engaged in the creative process – for example, when choosing a play. In your opinion, why are Lithuanian theatres still highly institutionalised? And why does a big divide between the creators and spectators still exist?
I think that what you say is not true. I don’t believe that our theatre is more provincial than European or one-dimensional – one where the spectator once sat in the auditorium, watched the play and was happy that the lights are turned off because all he wanted was to sit back, watch the performance, applaud, and leave.
Vilnius can offer a big choice of plays developed on a different basis. Even if during the performance the audience and actors do not communicate directly, afterwards they often have meetings and discussions. Before the performance, they read plays. There are a lot of performances “without the fourth wall“, and the performances like Didis blogis (Grand Evil, directed by Marius Ivaškevičius) that seek to reflect social theatre. Maybe it only happens in Vilnius. Maybe stage people in smaller towns avoid the audience, and the audience tries to escape the communication with the actors.
However, involving people in rehearsal process or inviting them to vote via social networks on themes for performances or how they could end – these things seem as a derogation of the theatre to me. If anyone, who might not even know what the cinema or theatre are, had the right to influence the path of a creator, the course of a play or film, it wouldn’t be right – first of all, you have to understand the subject.
I am cautious about this kind of pluralism because it often results in a product of low artistic value, and it stays just a product never becoming a work of art. A work of art requires personal concentration and self-awareness of the artists. It has to be meditated, developed, and protected from external influence. Social theatre – when there is an intention to invite all the residents to a square and let them decide which performance to stage – is for the ears and eyes but not for mind and soul.
You mentioned the cinema. Kaunas International Film Festival that took place in Kaunas several years ago had a slogan: “In Kaunas like in the movies.“ If you were to make a film about Kaunas, what would it be?
I wouldn’t be original in making my film. Most probably I would speak about Kaunas as the city of my childhood. I have spent my childhood in the prestigious Kaunas places that were filmed by many before. I was born near the 6th Fort – a tank once was there. Everybody would get inside to urinate when nobody looked. The crosses are there now in place of it. I am not even sure I would like to film this place.
I went to school in Žaliakalnis. It had a funicular, many unforgettable streets, and the school where Raudonmedžio Rojus (Mahogany Paradise, directed by Bronius Talačka – Ed.) was filmed. It was a really nice area, but many have filmed it already and Aleksotas Bridge as well, where I would part from my classmates after walking down the Laisvės Avenue on our way back from school.
However, some places are associated only with me. When I and my classmate Gražvydas still were in primary school, our parents didn’t allow us to go to the city by ourselves. So without our parents knowing, we would go to the 9th Fort. We would crawl around in the fields and on the fort. Few have filmed this place. I also have a lot of memories from the 81st weekly nursery school – kindergarten. I met my first love and friends there. Life in was exciting there, so I didn’t want my parents visiting me. This kindergarten on Milikoniai Hill has been filmed by few too. I would film places that are dear to my heart but have not been filmed by many others. I would show the different side of Kaunas.
You are an ambassador of “Kaunas: European Capital of Culture 2022.” What aspirations could the city have in this project?
I see that sooner or later Kaunas’ streets will be fixed, Laisvės Avenue will have a new paving, and maybe the buildings will be renovated. That would be great, but this is not enough. It reminds me of the Soviet times when before the arrival of the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet the streets were fixed and buildings were painted, usually the bottom part that was visible through the car window. Speaking about the culture and the fact that young people are abandoning the city, it seems that the repaired streets only offer an easier way out of here for those who want to leave. First of all, we need internal changes, not the external ones. It is relevant not only in the case of art but of science as well.
I have presented my film in Panevėžys recently. The city was almost deserted. Three of us came to Panevėžys: I, film director Ignas Miškinis, and playwright Saulius Drunga. We met only solitary seniors in the centre. Except them, there were only three of us. Panevėžys residents told us that people stay in the city until they graduate from the school and come back only if they don’t settle down in another city after 35. Really, there were no people between 20 and 35 in the film theatre. When the creative team of Seneca’s Day arrived in Kaunas film theatre Romuva, a lot of young people came. I was very happy about this. However, Kaunas residents say that they won’t stay because of the fixed streets. So I think when we talk about Kaunas as the European Capital of Culture we must understand that culture should be inside and not outside. Then people will want to stay, create, and study here. Maybe people from other cities will want to come and create namely here.

Video: Marius Paplauskas