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The Set Designer's Theatre
Raimonda Bitinaitė-Širvinskienė
All of the accomplishments of the 1960s resulted in the emergence of authorial theatre by designers. Set designer Igor Ivanov began directing in 1967, selecting his own plays, actors and assuming full responsibility for the staging of productions.
The start of the so-called "designer's theatre" can be traced to theatrical productions of the 17th century, which took place without actors in dramas specially created by playwrights based on the decorations used on stage. Bold experiments in set design took place in the early 20th century, with avant-garde productions associated with the ideas of mechanical theatre staged independently by set artists, but these works were limited and local in scope.
Authorial theatre by set designers was given new impetus in the 1950s by the work of Polish theatre designer Tadeusz Kantor. In 1955, Kantor established and led the "Cricot 2" theatre, an extraordinary event at the time. Kantor embraced such theatrical concepts as "formless (informel) theatre", "zero theatre", "happening theatre", "impossible theatre" and the "theatre of death." Kantor's theatrical creations were closely linked to his art. Artistic objects and set designs in his productions took on performance roles alongside the actors, becoming as equally expressive as the spoken word. Objects and actors appeared to coalesce, joining into one element called a "bio-object."
Another Polish theatre artist, Józef Szajna, also concerned himself with the idea of a theatrical production as an independent, autonomous visual creation. The start of his authorial theatre work coincided with Jerzy Grotowski's direction of Stanisław Wyspiański's Akropolis in 1962, in which Szajna was both designer and set builder. Szajna's theatrical creations were distinguished by the use of mannequins, dolls, and items and objects standing in for actors, for example clocks that suddenly begin working on their own, moving from one production to another. Perhaps the most important "character" in nearly every designer's production was the ladder. Many of Szajna's object-actors were misshapen, conveying the chaotic life of his characters. Szajna later developed his most fundamental theme: portraying a concentration camp as an abstracted world of man's most horrible suffering—the embodiment of man's humiliation and the image of death and coercion.
Many artists took interest in the work of these designers. It is quite possible that they inspired Russian artist Igor Ivanov, then residing in Lithuania, to pursue his own independent work and directorial pursuits in the theatre. At that time in Lithuania, new theatres were actively seeking out directors.  It is likely that a production directed by Ivanov emerged on the stage of the Youth Theatre not only because of the lack of talented directors, but also as a result of Ivanov's own creative ambition, as evidenced by a phrase that Ivanov often repeated to directors: "I told you it would be genius." Aurelija Ragauskaitė, Režisierės užrašai, Vilnius: Scena, 2000, p. 115. And no one could argue with him. Director Aurelija Ragauskaitė once revealed that Ivanov's talent and his novel concepts compelled her to admit that her "experience thus far with the play being rehearsed was unsuitable, and that I had to seek out something else, something I myself did not yet know of." Aurelija Ragauskaitė, Režisierės užrašai, Vilnius: Scena, 2000, p. 116.
Ivanov's independently staged production of Joan, based on the work of Jean Anouilh, marked his attempt to distance himself from the usual imagery of objects, realistic forms and a superficial view of life. His set design featured a repeated depiction of a death motif in the shape of gallows, outlining his stage with a large frame covered in running paint. Ivanov's style was somewhat more subdued than that of his Polish colleagues, focused more on the eloquence of visual art. The intense movement of colours resonated alongside the expressive explosion of passion of his protagonist, but it also testified to the historical drama experienced by the work's creator. The production demonstrated a designer's ability to express himself more broadly, moving beyond the confines of his workshop to enter the context of European theatrical artistic pursuits.
Indeed, as is evident from the evolving artistic language and the proliferation of themes dealing with spiritual struggles, this education of audiences developed along the lines of theatre's European experience in pursuit of universality. One of the most significant achievements in theatre between the years 1956 and 1968 was that directors found like-minded designers.  ("Juknevičius was happy to have met a conceptual, creative partner.") Irena Aleksaitė, Režisierius Romualdas Juknevičius, Vilnius: Baltos lankos, 1998, p. 318. Most importantly, however, set designers became equal partners in the staging of a production, participating throughout the entire creative process, no longer limited to just presenting options for a future production's sets or decorations. Egmontas Jansonas, „Kauno valstybinis dramos teatras“, in: Lietuvių tarybinis dramos teatras: 1957–1970, sudarė Algirdas Gaižutis, Vilnius: Vaga, 1987, p. 99.
Lithuanian theatrical design set out on the path of theatrical modernisation of the second half of the 20th century, even though it was still slightly out of step with the rest of European theatre. Retreating from realistic canons, set design took on universal forms that energised the stage space. Preserving a Lithuanian poetic approach to design and adapting their own humble technical capabilities, set designers firmly established a theatrical imagery that served both the action and the significance of their productions.


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Sources and links

Irena Aleksaitė
Režisierius Romualdas Juknevičius
Vilnius: Baltos lankos, 1998
Egmontas Jansonas
„Kauno valstybinis dramos teatras“
Lietuvių tarybinis dramos teatras: 1957–1970, sudarė Algirdas Gaižutis, Vilnius: Vaga, 1987
Aurelija Ragauskaitė
Režisierės užrašai
Vilnius: Scena, 2000
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