Fotografas R. Ščerbauskas
Photo: R. Ščerbauskas

Theatre director, actor and teacher Gytis Padegimas is convinced, that in Kaunas, tradition and innovation go hand in hand. That is why the city can be very interesting to a variety of people. A conversation about his childhood in Kaunas, city’s residents and flavours, artist’s routine today, and Kaunas’ signs of distinction.

You grew up in Kaunas, and you still spend a lot of time here. How do you see the city? What are the most beautiful memories hiding in various Kaunas places?

I was born in Alytus. When I was a little boy, Kaunas was a city of flavours to me. My family lived on the corner of E. Ožeškienės Street and Laisvės (Eng. Liberty) Avenue. Back then, there was a dairy shop where they made milk ‘champagne’ and a cotton candy place not far away, next to the City Garden. However, it is the people I remember best from my childhood: especially this doll doctor — a mysterious elderly man with a bag full of various dolls, doll bodies and heads. I remember a woman with a band around her head, too. People said she was a victim of Germans. I remember once, going to school, I saw her staring at the headline of ‘Žinija’ Society’s (it was recently founded) announcement: ‘What is happiness?’ The strange woman stood there and stared at that note. When I returned home after school, I found her at the same place. I also remember the time when cars used to ride down the Laisvės Avenue. There was a bus stop under our window. If my father wanted to punish me for something, I would get out of the window and shout, ‘Good people, help me!’ Then people from Laisvės Avenue would start knocking on our window, wondering whose child was calling for help. I clearly remember my Komjaunimo Secondary School (Kaunas ‘Aušros’ Gymnasium now) and my elementary school teacher, Jurgis Kalėda, who regularly took his pupils to the theatre. Perhaps, it was then I fell in love with the theatre. Once, I had a very strange experience about this theatre singer, who knitted behind the scenes. As a child, I thought of theatre as of especially sacred place, where you were allowed only to perform and nothing else. More places in Kaunas are dear to my heart. It’s a hillside of a Zoo where we would go to pick lilies of the valley every spring, Ąžuolynas (Eng. Oakwood) park, Nemunas Island, City Garden. The latter served as a meeting point for us, children. It has survived to this day. I was tall, so I played basketball. The training took place around the corner, at the top of Kaukas’ Stairs. If you live in the same city and place for many years, the city becomes your home. That’s what Kaunas is to me. As F. Dostoevsky said, ‘It’s the people who make a home, not the buildings.’ When I work on a play or give lectures in Klaipėda, Vilnius or any other city, I am never late. Meanwhile, in Kaunas, I am always late because to reach the theatre, I need to cross the entire Laisvės Avenue. Every time I leave my house, I have to reserve at least half an hour for conversations with my friends, acquaintances, and random people I meet on my way. We talk about my upcoming/last play, social issues, or simply about the weather. It is a pity that architects, who are now responsible for the reconstruction of Laisvės Avenue, haven’t seen the pictures of pre-war Kaunas. They don’t know that once, there were beautiful flowers where they now build the jungle of stone. Such flowers were preserved throughout the Europe. Meanwhile, here, during the Soviet era, they have drowned them in concrete. It is extremely pitying, that this faulty practice continues to this day. The greenery of Kaunas is what sets it apart and because of it, the city is especially charming. I have many Scandinavian students, who value Kaunas namely because of its green parks and forests. I think we need to preserve them.

You are often labelled as a ‘traveller’ because you work in several cities and often at the same time. In the context of other cities, what Kaunas’ distinctive signs would be worth mentioning?

Here, in Kaunas, I know every single brick and place. We are now in ‘Spurginė.’ Its employees have known me since the times I used to come here with my mother. I suppose, her braid was the longest in the entire city. It’s great such places are still here. They have their own history, unique interior, and unconventional atmosphere. The city is extraordinary mostly because of its people.

Here in Kaunas, we have Ąžuolynas (Eng. Oakwood) that none of the cities in Europe has. Even in Kaunas, you won’t find many avenues that smell of lime trees. We also have Kaunas Central Bookshop that resides in the same place for several decades and has gained a characteristic smell of books.
These are the signs that connect to my life and personal experiences. Wherever I go, Kaunas is my home. I have everything here: peace, close interaction with both people I know and people I meet for the first time, cultural diversity. Though I deeply respect Vilnius, Klaipėda, Šiauliai, and other Lithuanian towns, Kaunas is ‘for always and forever.’

Currently, the Kaunas City Chamber Theatre presents the performance ‘Stones in His Pockets’ based on a play by Irish playwright Marie Jones and directed by you. It tells about communality and basic values of a community. How do you understand a community in the current global and Lithuanian contexts? What are the challenges it faces? Is it easy to belong to a community in the rhythm of modern life?

In the house where I grew up, my parents got a flat with a long hallway. People who lived there were especially interesting and friendly. Everybody knew each other. People would invite each other for tea or coffee regularly, and of course, lend sugar or salt when you finished yours. People helped each other a lot. I remember when people, who were deported to Siberia during the Soviet era, started returning to Lithuania. My parents covered the floor of their tiny flat with various carpets because people who have lost their homes stayed for the night regularly.

Back then, living conditions were much worse than today, but people supported and helped each other more. Nowadays I experience something similar only when ‘Žalgiris’ plays in Kaunas: when player scores, a wave of cheers and support rolls through the court. The prevailing collectivism of the Soviet era forced us to be together. We sought individuality and privacy, to be on our own or with our relatives then. After the Restoration of Independence, we became allergic to everything that was collective. People turned into lonely wolves. However, as E. Hemingway said, one man alone has not any chance. We started to realise how important the communities are.

I am very happy about the communities in Žemieji Šančiai, Žaliakalnis, and ‘Kiemo galerija’ (Eng. Yard Gallery) on Ožeškienės Street. The places we live are the primary cells of the community. Every one of us can understand our own living environment and its significance, and knows what it was and is, what it needs. We feel the local pulse the best.

I leave my home on Trakų Street and feel very happy when I meet people who are dear to my heart. For example, a woman thanks to whom staircase is clean and smells of wild strawberries. I thank her, and she is happy. Though we speak only about the weather and don’t touch serious subjects, every time it feels good. If it were not for these small things, there would be a jungle out there.

Do you consider Kaunas a communal city?

Kaunas is a fairly communal city. I belong to the theatre world and can tell that Kaunas audience is receptive, demanding, warm, attentive and always responsive. Involvement with various communities is very important to me.

What is your opinion about Kaunas theatre infrastructure? What could we do to make theatre more interesting to the city residents?

The theatre is changing now: it produces interactive projects that engage the residents. I really like the environmental theatre. I am glad that every summer there are performances at the Kaunas Castle. However, they could be more diverse and run in many other various sites. It’s nice that Kaunas has young, independent creators who ignore the rules of theatres or other institutions. They create their own theatre in the most diverse spaces and dare to experiment. I am glad that there is a balance between traditional and non-traditional experimental theatres in Kaunas.

You are the ambassador of the project ‘Kaunas – European Capital of Culture 2022.’ In your eyes, why is the city worthy of becoming the capital of culture and what would you wish for the city in the pursuit of this title?

Soon we will celebrate the centenary of the Restoration of the State of Lithuania, and Kaunas is the cradle of the first Republic of Lithuania. It is a multicultural city of old traditions. We have a big heritage of Jewish culture. We haven’t explored it in-depth yet. I think we have to prepare our homework properly and fulfil what we couldn’t earlier when the concept of culture was very narrow. I am very happy that Kaunas has so many creative young people with different opinions and who want innovative city changes. It is slowly happening now. Kaunas had always been inventive and quick to grasp novelties, so the blend of tradition and innovation can guarantee success for the city. Also, I hope that Kaunas will be able to evaluate its heritage buildings. The likes of ‘Pieno centras’ (Eng. ‘Dairy Centre’), Central Post Office, etc. They could become live, functioning cultural objects of attraction in the city. Kaunas can be interesting for people of a wide spectre and needs from various countries. Therefore, it is worth being a European Capital of Culture.

We are celebrating the 150th birthday of the President Kazys Grinius. Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity and invite all city residents to the reading of my play ‘Alksniškės’ dedicated to the President K. Grinius. The reading will take place on December 17th, 6 p.m., in the Historical Presidential Palace of the Republic of Lithuania.

Video: Marius Paplauskas