English professor works to preserve theatre – and a country’s – history12/17/2015
Art and politics have been bedfellows throughout history.When art responds to contemporary events, it takes on political as well as social dimensions. It can become a focus of controversy and a force of political as well as social change.
A theatre festival in Lithuania in December of 1988 is a powerful example of that force, according to UA literature professor Patrick Chura.
The late 1980s and early 1990s were historic as Soviet Union satellite countries in Eastern Europe overthrew their respective communist regimes. But 15 months before Lithuania declared its political independence, the catalyst for revolution could be seen on stage during the 10-day Atgaiva Drama Festival.
Permanent archive established
Talking to the individuals who made the festival happen and who participated in the experience meant a trip to the country for research and to create a permanent archive, preserving the festival’s importance in Lithuanian history. With support from a grant from the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Lithuania, Chura traveled for two weeks in November to the cities of Šiauliai, Kaunas and Klaipeda.
Chura also had two of his UA classes participate in long-distance learning with the Šiauliai University students. For his Fiction Appreciation class, students read and discussed classic Lithuanian stories. His American Lit students talked about 19th century American feminist author Margaret Fuller, whose views on women’s rights were inspired by a Lithuanian countess.
“Lithuanian students had a more progressive attitude about a woman being president,” remarks Chura, since Lithuania currently has one and the United States has yet to elect a woman. “My students found that interesting, and Hilary Clinton became a topic of conversation.”
Chura sees his oral history project as an ongoing collaboration for the American Lit classes.
This revolution began on stage
“Atgaiva was the first Lithuanian drama festival to take place outside the restrictions of Soviet censorship,” says Chura, who published an article in Lituanus titled “Ten Days That Shook Lithuania” and is now turning it into a book. “The word atgaiva means rebirth or renewal. The event’s goal was to liberate the country’s theatre culture as a way of stimulating discussion about its liberation as a nation,” continues Chura, whose interest is European theatre history.
The festival plays, including works written by previously banned Lithuanian artists, each expressed some form of anti-Soviet protest. And after the performances, the actors and audience members remained in the theatre well past midnight for poetry readings that quickly became political rallies. “The Atgaiva festival was a declaration of artistic independence. It preceded and helped enable the country’s declaration of political independence,” notes Chura.
During his trip he signed a cooperation agreement with the director of the Šiauliai library to establish the Atgaiva Oral History Archive, the first of its kind. While there, Chura recorded the project’s first interviews with actors, directors and organizers of the Atgaiva festival. He is already at work translating the interviews into English to make them available to researchers worldwide. As the library continues to capture interviews, Chura will continue the translations, and those sound recordings, photos and transcripts will be uploaded to the Archive’s website, which is maintained by the Šiauliai library.
“It was amazing to hear people talk about what happened on stage 27 years ago," says Chura. "Everyone we interviewed used the word ‘euphoria’ to describe that time. The Lithuanian press, writing about our archive opening, described Atgaiva as an event that ‘shook society.’ It’s a story worth telling and history worth preserving.”
Media contact: Lisa Craig, 330-972-7429 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Professor Patrick Chura (left) with his Siauliai University master’s students outside the Humanities building on campus.
Professor Patrick Chura (left) signed a cooperation agreement with the director of the Šiauliai library to create the Atgaiva Oral History Archive.
Gytis Padegimas, left, the festival director, shared his first-person account with Professor Patrick Chura.