A country in the Caucasus region of Eurasia, on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, Georgia (Georgian: საქართველო, Sakartvelo) is located at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe. Georgia’s capital and largest city is Tbilisi.
The most-developed theatrical tradition of Georgia was berikaoba, an improvised mask theatre practised from Antiquity until the early 20th century. Puppets at first performed in ancient rituals and satirical entertainments.
The Tbilisi Theatre Museum exhibits small mobile figures which were animated by a performer playing a panduri (traditional stringed instrument) who sang and animated the figures with strings attached to his left hand, so that playing on the instrument made the puppets move at the same time.
In different regions of Georgia puppets have different names: kouki, gouga, tchoupri, djoudja-nain, kondara, moshpardali, dzidza-kali, dedophala, and todja-todjuna. The puppeteer, or koukne, handed down his professional practice from generation to generation, but only under certain conditions. Every koukne was to make his own puppets, and invent his own shows and the manner of their performance, while his predecessor’s puppets were to be destroyed – all but the character of Bentera – and ritually buried. If these conditions were respected, a puppeteer inherited the right to perform.
Bentera is the Georgian Polichinelle – bright, voluble, and cunning. At the beginning of the 20th century, due to the links with Russia, Bentera grew closer to the Russian Petrushka and took the name of Petrikela.
In the 19th century, the Karagöz shadow theatre shows imported from Persia and Turkey were widespread in urban areas where the puppet’s brand of comedy and satire became extremely popular in the coffee-houses, where he alternated with folk singer-storytellers (ashug).
The first professional puppet theatre – The People’s Puppet Theatre (or The Popular Theatre of Puppets) – was founded in 1934 by Georgy Mikeladze. It continues to operate today under the name of the Tibilisi Georgy Mikeladze State Puppet Theatre. It was founded with the collaboration of many prominent actors such as Mikhail Saraouli, Vera Nikolaishvili, and Ethery Tskhitishvili, the playwright Akaky Beliashkhvili, the director Georgy Roseba and some designers among whom was Irakly Mdivani who remained in the company for nearly forty years. The director Givi Sarchimelidze, who joined in 1970, invited in various young artists. Some of these, such as Shota Tsutskiridze, conformed to the current obligatory model set by Sergei Obraztsov, but others searched for a more typically Georgian approach. In 1979, Vakhtang Maglaferidze became the general manager of the company, while Sarchimelidze served as artistic director and Grigol Abakelia as chief scenographer.
Supported by the State and enjoying all the privileges given by the Soviet system to cultural institutions, the company produced several shows in each season. Ideological rigour imposed many Russian plays such as Ivan the Great by Sergei Obraztsov and Sergei Preobrazhensky (1957, directed by Georgy Mikeladze, with designs by Nika Kazbegui), but in a relatively more liberal time poetic foreign plays were permitted, such as Sunbeam by the Romanian Alexandru Popescu (1972, directed by Givi Sarchimelidze, with designs by Robert Kondaksadze). The company endeavoured to promote a national repertory and succeeded with such plays as The Vagabonds by Mzija Khetagouri (1979, directed by Givi Sarchimelidze, with designs by Robert Kondaksadze).
The company toured extensively, in Georgia as elsewhere in the USSR, often representing its country in international festivals. The break-up of the Soviet Union allowed it to focus on Georgian national culture.
The Georgy Mikeladze company is linked to the Puppet Department of the Shota Rustaveli Theatre Institute where, in 1981, Givi Sarchimelidze initiated courses in directing for puppets.
In 2005, State theatres co-exist with private enterprises: Tbilisi Russian Puppet Theatre (founded by Nikolai Marshak in 1936); the Yakov Goguebashvili Puppet Theatre (founded by Mikeladze in the city of Kutaisi in 1938), the Tbilisi Marionette Theatre of Rezo Gabriadze, and the Shadow Theatre, among others.