Laisvės al. 91
number of theatre staff
theatre building opened
Algimantas Grigas, Paulius Tautvydas Laurinaitis
The current Kaunas State Musical Theatre is a building of many layers. This is the building where not only professional Lithuanian drama, opera and ballet was born, but also where the Lithuanian state was created.
The history of the building dates back to the 19th century. In the middle of the century, Kaunas began to expand its old boundaries: a city development plan was made, based on which later the body of the current Naujamiestis (Downtown) was built. With the demolition of the cemetery immediately beyond the old eastern city wall, this place eventually transformed into what we know today as the City Garden. A small square theatre building was erected next to it in 1892 for touring troupes and other performances. Like many of the most important public buildings in the city at the time, the theatre was designed by Kaunas province architect Justinas Golinevičius. Thus, one of the first theatre buildings at that instant territory of Lithuania appeared: the previous one survived only in Klaipėda, which then was part of the German Empire. The collection of Lithuanian architecture was supplemented with a completely new type of structures – buildings that were specially made for theatre.
During the Interwar period, the development of a compact tsarist theatre building was driven not only by the need of art. Kaunas, which suddenly became the temporary capital of the State in general lacked spaces and representative premises. Thus, during the period of the First Republic, the building became not only the main stage of the country’s theatre, but also one of the main stages of the State. At that time, the State Theater had to play a number of significant historical roles: the first meetings of the City Council and later of the Constituent Seimas took place precisely here.
The first performances of Antanas Sutkus “National Theater” were performed here as early as 1919, and from the following year the drama and opera halls of the Lithuanian Artists’ Association were established here. In 1922, these were nationalized and the State Theatre was established. With just 450 seats, the two-story deep and uncomfortable balconies were far too small for the country’s main theatre and representational event space. Although there were aspirations (even organized tolls) to build a new palace suitable for both drama and opera, eventually the decision was made to reconstruct the building.
Studies of the condition of the theatre showed that the best solution wasto demolish building and build a new theatre palace in its place. However, the country’s financial situation was not very favourable at that time: resources were saved even for the most important objects. A quite massive renovation was carried out to meet the most important needs, with the team of two famous architects of that time, Vladimir Dubeneckis and Mykolas Songaila, as well as engineer Pranas Markūnas. At that time, the architecture of the still young State was looking for a new direction: as in some other European countries, there was a trend to search for the so-called national architectural style. One of the approaches to the pursuit of such a style was neo-baroque forms, for the interpretations of which the architects drew inspiration from the silhouettes of Vilnius Baroque. Thus, in the first place the ‘face’ of the theatre changed: the neoclassical forms that dominated the elevated main façade were replaced by neo-baroque interpretations. The rather inexpressive old pediment was replaced by the undulating forms of the new, high arched windows appearing in the centre – this becaming almost the main distinguished feature of the building. Behind these windows, one of the rooms in the lobby of the old theatre became the salon of the presidential lodge, and behind the rounded side parts of the façade hid the stairs to the second floor of the theatre.
One of the main aims of this reconstruction, completed in 1925, was the expansion and modernization of the stage and the hall. For today’s visitor, the fruits of this remodelling are perhaps most evident through the stylistic changes in the hall: the new décor gave the space its distinctive Art Deco features.
Still, the authors of the project left a much larger footprint than it might seem at first glance. These are planned structural transformations: new staircases were introduced, as many as 7 separate entrances appeared on the ground floor, and the most impressive creative task was to change the balcony geometry by tilting them towards the stage and constructing a third balcony with a curved handrail without changing the two-floor building’s structure and without lifting the hall’s roof.
By the dawn of the 1930s, modest standards for the „urgent” reconstruction of early independence were obsolete and the palace was starting to become cramped. Vytautas Landsbergis-Žemkalnis, who with his work had already managed to leave the first visible traces in Kaunas, performed the second reconstruction of the State Theater Palace in 1931. The renovation of the building was planned to take place between theatre seasons, in just three or four months. In the plans prepared by the architect, the side single-storey wings were added a second floor, and after the delivery of new extensions with high, large windows from Kęstučio Street, the building as a matter of fact acquired a new face. A third stylistic layer appeared at the origins of the building’s historicism and later baroque interpretations, in which both simplified classical forms and early hints of Kaunas modernism are visible.
The second major interwar transformation cost 0.7 million Lithuanian litas: an amount not so great compared to some other state projects developed at that time. However, the ambitions were high: an additional 12,000 cubic meters were built in a particularly short time. The successful implementation of this project later led the architect to set up a private office and devote himself exclusively to the design work. Significant changes were made inside the building, adapting to both the old parts of the building and the modernized working conditions. The premises were expanded, better functionally connected. Instead of a reinforced concrete horizon view of the stage, a rolling fabric was installed, and the stage was equipped with a modern fire curtain, lowered and raised by a special motor in the basement using ropes.
It was the latter solution that had to be tested in practice soon. Once a rehearsal of the upcoming premiere of ‘Upside Down Life’ was taking place in the theatre on a noon on the spring of 1931, when the townspeople noticed rising smoke above the theatre building – a fire broke out in the decoration warehouse. It was said that only 20 seconds separated the story of the entire building from destruction. It was during this time that a curtain (later cooled with water) descended, allowing people to evacuate, protecting a representative part of the newly reconstructed building from destruction. Although the fire was extinguished effectively, it spread to the so-called costume wing. The final works of the second reconstruction coincided with the restoration of the parts of the theatre affected by the fire.
At the end of the 1930s, the opera, the drama and the ballet plays that had already taken place here until then, simply did not fit all together in the building anymore. Various options for moving the drama functions to other buildings were considered, but at the time there was no time to implement those plans. In 1940, the building played probably its last significant political role: the further fate of Lithuania was symbolically determined here – on July 21, the so-called People’s Seimas declared the founding of Lithuania a Socialist Soviet Republic. In the same year, the State Theatre was abolished. During occupation, the walls of the theatre lived many changes of names, merging and disconnecting troupes. After the war, opera and ballet troupes left Kaunas, and after a number of transformations in 1959, the Drama and Musical Theatres finally made their separate homes where they are today.
Smaller and larger renovations were made here more than once during the Soviet era, but it was not until the 1980s that the building received serious attention from renovators. Today’s visitors of the theatre, who leave their clothes in the care of the cloakroom workers, probably don’t even wonder why this space is so disproportionately large compared to the rather compact entrance area and lobby. Today’s theatre guests leave their coats and hats in a completely different place than the visitors of the State Theatre – the cloakrooms of that time were located on the left side, right next to the then non-existent stairs leading to the current cloakrooms in the basement. These large spaces, which are often the place for the first meetings and the exchange of impressions about cultural news, are the result of a reconstruction carried out in 1984 by the team of the Institute for the Restoration of Monuments (project authors K. Žalnierius, A. Staskevičius and engineer V. Liaudanskas). Visitors descending into the cloakroom or waiting for a performance here find themselves already outside the old State Theatre, underground: in fact, they enter under the theatre as part of the surrounding City Garden.
In the 21st century, Kaunas Musical Theatre and its spaces had to adapt to today’s needs. In order to renovate the building and adapt the service spaces, the latest reconstruction of the theatre has been undertaken. It was a big challenge, because the accumulated works could not be done in a short period of time, and closing the theatre completely for the season or even a few would mean stopping the activities of the whole Musical Theatre as an institution. Thus, various renovation works had to be undertaken over a series of years, taking on different tasks and goals each year, using the time of summer holidays. Renovation work was gradually carried out: the technical stage equipment was updated, the fire alarm system was modernized, the hall decorations were gilded once more. Such complex works have been going on for eight years and only now are currently being completed.
The project of the latest reconstruction work was prepared by Kančas studio (architect A. Kančas, V. Jakubėnienė). The design work was implemented scrupulously and with great attention to detail. One of the most significant changes proposed by the architect A. Kančas in the halls of the first floor hall is the wooden railings replacing the marble slabs installed during the Soviet-era reconstruction, by copying the surviving example on the second floor. Such original railings appeared in the theatre during the reconstruction of V. Landsbergis in the 1930s and perfectly reflect the style of Kaunas Art Deco.
The last renovation of the theatre was not a shocking one – the spirit of the theatre formed in different historical decades was preserved and was only accentuated by new elements, such as the aged oak parquet flooring in the lobbies of the first floor. The marble slabs on the walls were left in the Soviet-era cloakrooms, and the shades of purple introduced during the same period disappeared from the main hall. No more visually heavy purple stage curtains, purple chairs, and instead a solid, subtle red colour dominated the interior, introduced by the studio of architect A. Kančas.
For the theatre-goers, visits to the old 19th-century theatre began at the main entrance, leading into the small lobby: next to the hall on the first floor and next to the lodges on the second floor. During the first reconstruction in 1925, two wings were added: on the right side, for the workers, and on the left – a wing, highlighted by a small elevation, for the spectators. There was also a small cloakroom here, and in the corner a buffet. Important guests sitting in the lobby were greeted by the ‘wardrobe’ storage room in the stairwells of the second floor, and by a separate, solemn lobby above the main entrance.
During the second reconstruction in 1931, the architect V. Landsbergis-Žemkalnis connected the two rooms of the first floor lobby into a common L-shaped space, despite the historical difference in floor level after the demolition of the former outdoor wall. A wide, representative staircase to the second-floor lobby was created. Although the second floor was still used as an additional rehearsal room, there was a small library and reading room nearby – the need to build an audience experience was stronger. Thus, during the Soviet-era renovations, the buffet was moved from the ground floor to the second-floor lobby, further expanding the lobby space. On the second floor, representative works of monumental art – ceramic panels by authors Stasys and Teresė Petraičiai – appeared, which ensured the interest of spectators and encouraged their movement through the lobbies.
Many visitors to the Musical Theatre would agree that a break with a cup of coffee or another drink in this lobby on the second floor is an integral part of the theatrical ritual. According to the modern reconstruction project prepared by Kančas studio, a long, monumental curved table top, round bar furniture and a new artistic installation appeared along the ceramic panel. The installation, dedicated for the staff and artists of the Musical Theatre, consists of two-layer composition that can be observed both from a distance and from very close up. This is the wall of memory dedicated to the theatre staff: from a distance we see incisions, gaps, but only at a closer look we discover the second glittering surface with the names of the lead actors, directors and other theatre people.
The main hall of the Musical Theatre is characterised by historical solemnity. The spacious auditorium of the Musical Theatre is surrounded by three highly sophisticated Art Deco balconies, their railings decorated with star gilding, and the hall is topped by a round dome. The balconies are supported by three pairs of columns and walls separating the three box lodges. At the top of the auditorium you can see a huge authentic dome, the engineering installation implemented by Pranas Markūnas, the „superstar” of the country’s construction engineering at the time. The original decorative ceiling vault with integrated luminaire has survived as it was designed – made of reeds and plaster and hung on wooden structures and metal straps.
Both the dome with the ceiling of the hall and the third floor of the balcony have been seen by the audience in the theatre for almost a hundred years. These are the fruits of the joint work of architects and constructors: the reconstruction carried out in 1925 by M. Songaila and V. Dubeneckis. During it, not only was the orchestra pit created, the number of spectators in the hall increased to 763 with the creation of a third balcony, but visibility generally improved by changing the tilting angle of the balconies. Due to the changes that have taken place in the huge round chandelier, other diamond-shaped chandeliers allow you to see not only the stage but also other spectators. In the old theatres of the 18th and 19th centuries, the focus was not only on what was happening on the stage, but also on the meeting of the audiences and the interaction between the audience in the hall. Examples of public theatre in Western Europe may have influenced the construction of the Kaunas Musical Theatre building. This is evidenced by the shape of the great hall: a cultural space that is adapted to people’s encounters and collective experiences.
Until the seventies and eighties, the stage of Kaunas Musical Theatre was the highest in Lithuania (the height to the top of the fly bars was 21 m, a total of 25.5 m). During the reconstruction, in 1922–1925, an impressive amount of both structural and technological stage improvement work was carried out consulting with German specialists. The volume of stage was not only raised, but also expanded in depth and width thus becoming slightly larger than the spectator’s hall.
One of the most notable improvements in the interwar period was the installation of a new 15×12 m horizon at the end of the stage, a concave vertical reinforced concrete wall ending in a vault. The new lighting equipment was advanced technological feature at that time: 300 star-lamps were installed on the horizon, helping to create an outdoor atmosphere for the performances. With these devices, it was possible to create the illusion of a night sky, and with the help of cloud devices, set a daytime mood. The building also had a modern for the time heating and ventilation system. One of the most interesting elements of the stage equipment today is only a historical artefact. It is a German fire curtain lifting device that saved the theatre from complete destruction 90 years ago. It was placed in a separate room and lowered or raised the fire curtain (8×6 m) and its counterweights. Although the ropes today are cut, the original mechanism has been preserved in the basement.
During the latest reconstruction, the stage was substantially modernized: 39 fly bars, 5 soffits, and a lifting curtain were introduced. Something new – after the reconstruction, stage lifts appeared, lifting up to 250 kg on one line A special LED backlight was created to mark the perimeter of the stage. Also 4 traps were installed on the stage: a Dutch elevator can be placed below any one of them, raising the scenography elements or the actors to the stage, exactly where it is needed.
There is a make-up room in the far corner of the right wing building facing the park. Here, away from the hustle and bustle, surrounded by prop warehouses, headgear and wig storages, make-up artists do their work, physically transforming the actors into the characters they create. Algis Banys has been working here for almost 30 years – he’s probably the only male theatre make-up artist in Lithuania. He is also a direct student of the legendary theatre make-up artist Petras Korsakas, who started working at the State Theatre in the interwar period and was engaged in his profession for 64 years.
Other activities essential in production of musicals of various genres are costume tailoring, composing clothing and accessories and storing all of these products until the next show. The tailoring studios are located further from the front façade and face the enclosed inner terrace. The inner windows of the building show the protected details of the theatrical costume: hats, historical costumes, shoes, props. These functionally important parts of the building were added during the second reconstruction in 1931.
A leading actor or actress who has and is able to transform and convincingly create characters from different historical periods throughout their long career, is a great paraphrase of this theatre building: they are like the history of Kaunas Musical Theatre that has developed over many years. It accommodates both nuanced roundings from the Vilnius Baroque, bright art deco interpretations, as well as later graceful functional interior solutions, characteristic of the spirit of modernism.
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