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Laconic Expressive Imagery
Raimonda Bitinaitė-Širvinskienė
Redesigning visible reality
Although the concept of imagery was still evolving, it was already clearly present in theatre, focusing theatre professionals' attention on "the fluidity of image and movement." Dovydas Judelevičius, „Drąsa pasiteisina“, Tiesa, 1966 07 17. Early on, imagery was associated with modern set design, changes in fluid language, the redesign of visible reality and the effect of non-realistic images. Set designers began to avoid the portrayal of absolute truths and turned away from naturalism, heavy dramatism, pomposity, rigid representation, detailed narratives and superfluous or static objects.
Much like in Western European theatre, artists began to avoid painted sets, replacing them with objects that encompassed volume.
It was innovative to act without a curtain, decorations or historical costumes. Theatres that considered themselves to be innovative 'stripped' themselves bare, along with their costumes, in an attempt to throw off everything that weighed them down or restrained them or linked them to the past. A new struggle against naturalism began. Gražina Mareckaitė, „LTSP Valstybinis jaunimo teatras“, in: Lietuvių tarybinis dramos teatras: 1957–1970, sudarė Algirdas Gaižutis, Vilnius: Vaga, 1987, p. 76.
This was how theatre critics of the day described the changes. Designers, meanwhile, recalled that:
We attempted to implement the entire artistic concept of a set's design so that decorations <...> would not overwhelm the actor, but would rather elevate him, helping to reveal his thoughts and the subtext of the piece. Jonas Surkevičius, „Teatro dailininko šiokiadieniai“, Literatūra ir menas, 1960 12 10.
Not coincidentally, actors found themselves without their usual supporting objects (tables, chairs, sofas or closets), while production creators and audiences alike were encouraged to grow accustomed to contemplate and understand their modern, dynamic and paradoxical world in an environment of new forms.
The so-called "thaw" period saw the return of the understanding that "theatre happens when action replaces the plot and the narrative, and when the stage yields to movement determined by the trajectories of the clashes, battles and physical encounters between the play's heroes." Патрис Пави, Словаръ театра, Москва: Прогресc, 1991, p. 63. Theatre liberated itself from the theory of conflict avoidance. More and more, theatres were drawn to new technologies and methods of expression that could enrich the nature of a dynamic and conflictual era and expand the concept of imagery.
Set design in the 1960s was taken over by young theatre artists who promoted minimalism and light, moving sets, particularly on the stages of dramatic theatres. Basing their work on the universally relevant content of modern dramatic works, these artists abstracted shapes and simplified compositions. The idea of man as the central focus arises (as in the collection of poetry by Eduardas Mieželaitis entitled Žmogus [Man]). Man was seen as constantly changing and improving his world, seeking dialogue with others, with society and with history. As a result, artists began to create set designs emphasising a central space comprised of circular areas, platforms, steps and abstract shapes in an attempt to portray the imagery of new heroic personalities as well as everyday man.
Surkevičius and Jankus, already established set designers, and Arūnas Tarabilda, who came to theatre from the graphic arts, applied bold design solutions and used symbolic imagery. The productions of Balys Sruoga's Apyaušrio dalia (Fate Before Dawn) in 1956 at the State Academic Drama Theatre and Juozas Grušas' Herkus Mantas at the Kaunas State Drama Theatre in 1957 mark the dividing line between two periods in post-Stalinist theatrical art – between the realistic, illustrative set design employed up to this time and the non-realistic set design widely used thereafter.
The imagery of heroic personalities
In seeking to convey the nature of dramatic change and to elevate the role of individuals in this process of change, set designers began to employ the staircase motif.  The idea of a vertical line in space, in the form of stairs, proposed by Adolphe Appia and E.G. Craig, symbolized life's journey and a protagonist's changing emotions and behaviours, conferring epic monumentalism upon the action of the play and suggesting that the play be approached from a philosophical understanding (as seen in productions of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex in 1963, and Shakespeare's Hamlet in 1959). Stairs were associated with upward movement, the pursuit of perfection and, for expressionists, with the condition of restlessness.
The first decisive step away from passive, routine solutions in Lithuanian theatre was taken for the production of Balys Sruoga's Apyaušrio dalia (Fate Before Dawn), staged at the Academic Drama Theatre in 1956 (Figure 10). In his set designs, artist Jonas Surkevičius took into account Sruoga's expressive language and the dramatic conflicts between characters created by director Romualdas Juknevičius. Surkevičius proposed constructing the facade of a building on stage with a long staircase on which actors would ascend and descend, thus accentuating the themes of liberation and oppression. The novelty of the production was also enhanced through the designer's use of chains symbolizing brutal coercion and slavery.
Set designer Jonas Jankus portrayed the "grand setting" and monumental characters of director Henrikas Vancevičius' Herkus Mantas by creating a massive hill comprised of terraced planes on which the director could craft the play's action. Vancevičius explained the significance of Jankus' concept:
When the artist conceived of the mound, everything seemed to change organically. The solution also resonated in the final tableau that appeared to be set on rocks, on a raised hill with steps and uneven surfaces that allowed a fluid placement of actors on different planes. Algis Samulionis, Neramios šviesos pasauliai: knyga apie dramaturgą Juozą Grušą, Vilnius: Vaga, 1976, p. 84.
In the Klaipėda Drama Theatre's staging of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex in 1966, set designer Arūnas Tarabilda used a laconic, graphic approach to emphasize the tiers of a set of steps, raising them high above the stage. Tarabilda established a hierarchical place for the most significant character, forcing the actor to perch on the precipitous edge of a decision, allowing director Povilas Gaidys to heighten the influence of the tragic character. The spiritual motif that prevailed in Tarabilda's set designs had only symbolic associations with architecture.
During the "thaw" period, Lithuanian set design began to exhibit features characteristic of 20th century modern productions, such as symbolic imagery that could be interpreted individually and that brought artistic and directorial concepts closer together, reinforcing the unity of fluid imagery and setting and evoking a more sensitive understanding of characters' personalities and the mortal experience of change associated with these characters' aspirations.
Imagining the simple man
Most of the new set imagery that depicted an openly abstract view of the surrounding environment appeared with changes in the repertoires of dramatic theatres. New interest arose in the plight of the simple, "small" man: the experience of loneliness, the incongruity between illusion and reality, social inequality.
The socially aware plays of Bertold Brecht gained global recognition, as did the Berliner Ensemble theatre that he established in 1949.  Tours by Brecht's theatre company in many countries popularised concise, functional set designs that emphasised the tragedy of the simple man in a hostile world. Naturally, such set designs also influenced Lithuanian theatre. It was difficult to resist delving into the experiments of Brecht's theatre artists – Caspar Neher and Karl von Appen – and their "mini decorations" of grotesque and satirical tone, depicting reality through an emphasis on details and objects.
Set designs similar to Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle (1955) began to spread to theatres around the world. Round, centrally placed spaces accompanied by various background imagery (projections, sketches, inscriptions) began to dominate theatrical productions.
Lithuanian set designs created in the 1950s and 1960s followed similar principles: in Mečislovas Bulaka's work for Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (Panevėžys Drama Theatre, 1959, Figure 12); Feliksas Navickas' creations (all at the Kaunas State Drama Theatre) for Kazys Binkis' Dress Rehearsal (1959, Figure 13), Aleksei Arbuzov's An Irkutsk Story (1960) and Kazys Inčiūra's Žemaitė (1964); Janina Malinauskaitė's designs for Aleksandras Ridas' Plačiaburnė (The Wide-Mouthed Woman) (Kaunas State Drama Theatre, 1961, Figure 14); and Joana Taujanskienė's creations for Theodore Dreiser's Jennie Gerhardt (Šiauliai Drama Theatre, 1962).
Lithuanian and German set design shared an embrace of using fragments of reality on stage and in the background.  The entire world of the protagonist could fit within the confines of small, defined space, often symbolic of the earth itself. This world was depicted in Lithuanian set design as being fragile and vulnerable, poetically highlighting man's spiritual tension.
Feliksas Navickas found an equivalent for tragicomic dramaturgy in the distortion of shapes. Percov and Surkevičius concentrated on movement in set design. Percov constructed a set that rotated on its axis for a production of Vytautas Rimkevičius' play Ratas (The Wheel) (1963, Figure 15), illustrating the cyclical nature of recurring events in human lives. Surkevičius, meanwhile, built a monumental pyramid for a 1960 staging of Nazim Hikmet's The Forgotten Man, finding within the structure a metaphor for man's ambition and frailty.
Lithuanian artists were also familiar with the documentary precision of Karl von Appen, a representative of the Brechtian theatre aesthetic, and his propensity to use real objects in his sets, such as bicycles, photographs, even automobiles. Janina Malinauskaitė adopted this method in her designs for a 1968 staging of Mar Baijiyev's Dvivoka (The Duel), in which she used photography, an actual automobile and a set of swings. The design, however, was made on a small, intimate scale, without the presence of cold, rational elements. Natural objects were used as metaphors based on a Brechtian form: a photograph featured a magnified image of a threatening jumble of rocks, while a broken-down car and objects strewn around a stretched, worn piece of tarp spoke of loss. Functional Brechtian principles were given a unique interpretation.
A new concept of employing tightly constrained spaces developed at the turn of the 1960s in the work of Caspar Neher, set designer for Bertold Brecht's theatre. In the 1960s, this idea took root in the work of Russian set designers David Borovsky, Valery Levental and Boris Meserer, while Polish director Jerzy Grotowksi  and set designer Jerzy Gurawksi expanded the concept, establishing an arena in which actors and audiences interacted.
Lithuanian theatres also took inspiration from these developments, using them as an ideal way to stage plays on themes examining man's isolation, such as John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1966) and Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba (1964). In the latter production, set designer Feliksas Navickas constructed a tall, cowled stone wall topped by a massive arch that left no hope for liberation.
In this way, Lithuanian theatre designers seeking creative renewal turned to the West, uniquely developing versatile and compact set designs to express social activism and internal conflict and, in the process, creating what Rachilė Krukaitė has called "a performing space." Rachilė Krukaitė, „Reginys dinamikoje“, in: Muzika ir teatras: Almanachas, Vilnius: Vaga, 1966, p. 57.
Portraying destiny
Set designs of the 1950s and 1960s began to embrace the use of roads or paths to symbolize man's life and destiny.
The road motif appeared in the mid-1950s in the works of Polish artists Wiesław Lange, Józef Szajna and Andrzej Sadowsky, who were inclined to interpret it from a surrealist perspective. For them, road imagery became a symbol of the senselessness and dramatic destiny of man's life. In early productions between 1955 to 1956, the roads portrayed by these Polish designers led to infinity, to a dangerous space beyond, offering little in the way of hope.
Russian set designers, on the other hand, were inclined to greater optimism. Paths usually were circular or spiral. Leading through a series of challenges and wars, these paths symbolised a return to life (for example, in Anatoli Bosulayev's design for Optimistic Tragedy in 1955). This method later took hold in the works of artists in many countries, appearing also in Lithuanian set designs toward the end of the 1950s.
Artist Juzefa Čeičytė became known for her use of road imagery in set design. She employed a path winding around two established spaces for a 1959 production of Ethel Lilian Voynich's The Gadfly at the Klaipėda Drama Theatre, vividly revealing the conflicts torturing the play's protagonist. Čeičytė further developed her fluid staging language in her designs for Kraujas ir pelenai (Blood and Ashes) by Justinas Marcinkevičius (production at the Academic Drama Theatre in 1961), in which she crafted a path that closely encircled a small performance space, symbolically depicting the tragedy of an oppressed nation. For a staging of Kazys Saja's Nerimas (Anxiety) in 1962, Čeičytė used a dangerously perched incline to portray the instability of rampant careerism.
At the start of the 1960s, set design was able to move beyond its previous rigidity concerning the setting of dramatic action and its prior role as an informational agent, and began a new, influential chapter of exploring the subtext of imagery, symbolically connecting material motifs and spiritual life.


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Sources and links

Dovydas Judelevičius
„Drąsa pasiteisina“
Tiesa, 1966 07 17
Rachilė Krukaitė
„Reginys dinamikoje“
Muzika ir teatras: Almanachas, Vilnius: Vaga, 1966
Gražina Mareckaitė
„LTSP Valstybinis jaunimo teatras“
Lietuvių tarybinis dramos teatras: 1957–1970, sudarė Algirdas Gaižutis, Vilnius: Vaga, 1987
Algis Samulionis
Neramios šviesos pasauliai: knyga apie dramaturgą Juozą Grušą
Vilnius: Vaga, 1976
Jonas Surkevičius
„Teatro dailininko šiokiadieniai“
Literatūra ir menas, 1960 12 10
Патрис Пави
Словаръ театра
Москва: Прогресc, 1991
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