The Republic of Lithuania (Lithuanian: Lietuvos Respublika), one of the three Baltic States in Northern Europe, borders Latvia, Belarus, Poland. Lithuania’s capital and largest city is Vilnius; Kaunas, the second-largest city, has historically been a leading centre of Lithuanian economic, academic, and cultural life.
The ancient history of puppet theatre in Lithuania is obscure. It seems to resemble the history of neighbouring regions, especially Poland, with which Lithuania was conjoined from the end of the 14th to the end of the 18th century. During the 17th century, itinerant troupes of puppeteers, particularly Italians, came looking for an audience, as they did in other countries of Northern Europe. In the 18th century, aristocratic families invited actors and puppeteers to perform at their residences, but there too these troupes were made up of foreigners. Only one puppeteer was known, a certain Helman, who was probably German.
When the country passed into Russian hands, performances in Lithuanian were banned. The art of puppetry was barely maintained through modest performances at festivals, religious or special events. Mardi Gras was the occasion when masks, animal effigies and puppets were most commonly seen. During this period, actual puppet shows were rare, and one would only seldom see a character representing Lithuanian national spirit. We find a description of this precarious situation in Broliai, a novel by Aleksandras GudaitisGuzevičius (19081969), who portrays a show presented during the spring festival (Kaziukas) in Lukiskiu Square in Vilnius in 1918.
The year 1931 was an important milestone. That year the Kaunas School of Arts added to its faculty of artists the painter Stasys Ušinskas (1905-1974). Ušinskas had studied in Paris, and his work from then on would be linked to the birth of professional puppet theatre in Lithuania. In 1934, Ušinskas created his first puppets and began performing with theatre actors. His team included playwright Antanas Gustaitis (1907-1990), composer G. Kuprevièius and G. Kaèinskas, who directed. Very interested in Ušinskas’ approach to theatre, Antanas Gustaitis contributed a poetic story about the good doctor Silvestras Dūdele (Silvestras Dūdele). Ušinskas created the necessary sets and puppets with joiner Svidras, and then pulled together a troupe of actors, M. Mironaitë, J. Kalvaitis, P. Zulonas and N. Nakas. The premiere was held in Kaunas, the capital at the time, before an audience comprised of the art school staff and journalists. The critics were upbeat, and on May 6, 1936, the first professional puppet performance in Lithuania, which involved four puppeteers for twenty-two characters, took place in the hall of the restaurant, the Metropoliten. The show was a considerable success and some three hundred people attended each performance. The puppets were much admired for their expressiveness and agility, despite their large size, some being up to 1.50 metres tall. In spite of financial hardships the troupe then set another milestone by making Lithuania’s first short (18-minute) puppet-animated sound film, Storulio sapnas (The Dream of the Fat Man/The Dream of the Fatty). This venture received no official support. Although Ušinskas eventually won two medals at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1937 (for puppets and scenography) and the company participated in the New York World’s Fair in 1939, his theatre ceased to exist.
A national puppet theatre opened on October 11, 1944 in Vilnius, but it burned down in 1946. After a series of financial difficulties and due, too, to a lack of qualified personnel, it closed in 1949.
Due to the efforts of Stasys Ratkevičius, his wife Valerija Gruodytė-Ratkevičienė and Balys Lukošius, puppet theatre was reborn in 1958 with the founding of the Kapsukas Puppet Theatre (which moved to Kaunas in 1960) and the Vilnius Puppet Theatre, also in 1958. The former theatre became known as the Kauno Valstybinis Lėlių Teatras (Kaunas State Puppet Theatre), the latter would be renamed the Vilniaus Teatras “Lėlė” (Vilnius Theatre “Lėlė”). Both of these theatres are still active. The most well known of Lithuanian puppetry artists, set designer and stage director Vitalijus Mazuras directed the theatre in Vilnius for many years. In the meantime, in 1985, Antanas Markuckis founded his own professional company, Panevėžio Lėlių Vežimo Teatras (Panevėžys Puppet Wagon Theatre).
During the past few decades, theatre companies have dedicated a portion of their repertoire to puppetry or to work incorporating the techniques of puppet theatre. An experimental effort by the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre in Vilnius to train puppeteers was cut short by the scarcity of work opportunities. However, at present the Faculty of Arts at Klaipėda University (Klaipėdos Universitetas or KU, located in the Lithuanian seaport Klaipėda) has just such a programme in place. In 2004, the faculty welcomed its second batch of future puppeteers.
It was in the same year, 2004, that Lithuania added itself to UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionnette), as an independent State, and no longer as a Soviet republic.