Laisvės al. 71
number of theatre staff
theatre building opened
Algimantas Grigas, Paulius Tautvydas Laurinaitis
In the line of buildings on the main pedestrian street of Kaunas, the National Drama Theatre can be firstly recognized because of the characteristic sculptures of Romualdas Kazlauskas adorning its façade. Other than that, there is little drama in the expression of the rest of the building: it hardly stands out from its surrounding context and it integrates into the historic style of Laisvės Alley quite harmoniously. From a pedestrian perspective, the theatre building makes a greater impression due to its height rather than its width. And yet, this is deceptive. In reality, the building occupies a significant part of Downtown block. Looking from a bird’s-eye view, one can notice the huge volumes of the building, a proof of the complex and confusing internal structure of the building.
The history of drama in Kaunas goes on for almost a century, during which many significant shifts took place. The history of not only the theatre itself but also its home-building is multifaceted and sometimes misleading. From the establishment of the country’s main drama place and the first highlights in the former State Theatre to the establishment of the current institution in the post-war years as well as many years of successful operation. From the adaptation of the former cinema to the needs of the institution in the 1950s to the reconstruction of our time, customising the building to the needs of the 21st century.
The narrow main façade of the theatre is what is left of the former house here, where an arcade used to lead to the impressive cinema palace in the courtyard. Eventually, both of these buildings became part of the NKDT building. From the block’s interior and the surrounding courtyards one can see the multi-layered nature of the building. The inner courtyard is faced by a wide variety of windows, superstructures and extensions, determined by historical leyering and reflecting the architectural legacy of different periods and values. Even fewer theatre-goers know which of these parts of the building are home to the workshops, garages, and guest rooms where auxiliary halls, administration offices or storage rooms are located.
In Laisvės Alley, the façade of Kaunas Drama Theatre is tucked in between other buildings. The early social realism building is distinguished by the “pulled in” part of the building on the ground floor. Here you can not only find shelter from the rain, but also check out theatre posters and buy a ticket at the box office. Entering through the front door you will find an elongated space where tickets are checked. Once upon a time, this space was an alley leading to the inner courtyard, through a building that appeared here in 1929. Until the Second World War, the present theatre café and cloakroom housed the famous “Pale Ale” beer bar, as well as tableware and textile shops. In the cloakroom we are now greeted by shining ceilings of a bright coloured composition, inspired by the ones of the Dutch modernist painter Piet Mondrian with red, blue and yellow squares (graphic artist Kęstutis Grigaliūnas). The interpretation of the historic arcade in the modern building is a bow to history by architect Algimantas and architectural historian Jolita Kančai. The rounding on the left side of the ceiling, highlighted by a black curtain (also a hint to the past) is the location of the rear façade of the building described earlier.
Upon entering the former entrance to the building, the townspeople used to be greeted by the “Metropolitain” cinema, which was pulled back from the street too – it appeared a few years earlier than the newer project of the owner of the land lot at the time. The theatre was one of the first buildings built specifically y for this function. It was famous not only for its luxurious interiors – even today it can be mentioned as a particularly rare example of “zigzag” art deco in Lithuania.
Now these buildings have become one – the inner courtyard that separated them is already in the lobby area today. The bathroom next to the main foyer is the former box office of the cinema “Metropolitain”. The look and feel of the main theatre is coded in its original cinematic form, with only ongoing improvements. As it was, so did the parterre, the balcony (extended to the sides), the ever-increasing scene. Only the central entrance was shifted to the sides, and in the place of box lodges, the premises of the sound operator and technician were installed.
Even before the Soviet occupation, the “Metropolitain” was mentioned among the potential spaces where the drama section could move from the increasingly cramped premises of the State Theatre. This should come as no surprise, as it was still the largest cinema in the temporary capital in the mid-1930s. Still, the drama came here after the war. The current building is one of the most characteristic representatives of the architectural style of socialist realism in the centre of Kaunas.
In the 1950s, a number of buildings in the centre of Kaunas were planned to be reconstructed according to the doctrines typical of the Stalinist period – in other words, in the architectural style of socialist realism. In most cases it did not happen, but one of the few representatives of this style was destined to become the former “Metropolitain”, which was again foreseen for drama. Architect Kazimieras Bučas was commissioned to design the building, whose initial design was made in 1953 and which aimed for quite radical alterations and a richly decorated façade typical of the style. The design was not realised due to the lack of funds. It is also worth mentioning that after Stalin’s death, architecture tended to abandon the so-called “excessesive” character. This is also reflected in the second project, completed in 1956, which preserved much more parts of the old buildings and the façade is much more reserved stylistically. The main accent here was the four sculptures decorating the entrance (sculptor R. Kazlauskas). These are two boys and two girls dressed in ideally typical rural folk clothes holding simple musical instruments. The building continued the tendency for buildings designed according to the canons of socialist realism, in Kaunas, which already had deep modernist architectural traditions, to become much less excessive.
The reconstruction of the Soviet period focused on the main face of the theatre in Laisvės Alley and the changed Interwar spatial structure, which determined the complicated activities of the entire theatre in the future. The modern reconstruction of A.Kančas’ studio (2005–2013) tried to correct the “gloominess” of the greenish chair fabric.Next the lobby was heightened by demolishing the floor of second floor., Architect A.Kančas proposed grey colour palette, placed accents on the authentic art deco past (the luxurious foyer lamp, large mirrors) however you can still feel the aesthetic compromises being made here and there. After all, despite many changes and attempts to improve it, today’s main hall of the National Kaunas Drama Theatre can accommodate almost 500 people, which is two hundred less than the “Metropolitain” cinema in the Interwar period.
The large hall of the drama theatre greets the audience with its ornaments: an authentic chandelier shines on the ceiling, the side walls are filled with decorative metal grilles, and intricate, multi-layered plasterwork hangs on the ceiling above the wavy balcony.
The parterre volume is the same hall of both the interwar cinema and the theatre reconstructed during the Soviet era, where art deco’s corrugated plaster and decorative column crowns are mixed. During the Soviet era, the balconies were expanded – they were expanded to the sides of the hall. Larger changes in space, combined with compromises to preserve both periods, took place during the reconstruction of A.Kančas. The floor with no basement underneath was dismantled. Layers of earth and sand were re-laid, and a further slope of the hall was created by constructing and laying a new floor. The entire parterre of the audience was leaned down towards the stage, an orchestra pit was installed. The stage was expanded by 2 meters, plenty of technological equipment was acquired.
During the reconstruction works in 2009, adapting the former cinema stage to the needs of the drama theatre – it was deepened and the stage box raised. Another detail: before the reconstruction of A.Kančas, the theatre had the narrowest proscenium arch of all Lithuanian theatres. Therefore, it was needed to increase the overall width and height of the stage. For this purpose, new floors were installed, the under-stage was deepened and the stage lowered. After moving these weights, the arch separating the stage from the auditorium was not only elevated but also widened by 2 meters (total width of the stage – 10 meters). The beam above the stage had to be moved up along with the entire technical bridge of the illuminator. The ring and wheel were mounted on the stage: 11 and 8 meters in diameter, able to rotate independently. During the latest reconstruction, the floor of the stage was lowered, resulting in a slight inconsistency with the adjacent premises, such as the prop warehouse (resulting in additional ramps and stairs). The total height of the stage is 19-20 meters, where 32 “Trekwerk” fly bars, weighing up to 500 kg, move up and down with such precision that they can go down suddenly and stop a few centimetres before reaching the floor. There are also 4 metal frames that hold all the chandeliers and spotlights, 4 inter-cars. The entire equipment of the stage cost about LTL 11 million, the total cost of the modern reconstruction was LTL 64 million. Also, in an effort to adapt to modern needs, in 2020 all stage lightning was replaced with LED lamps, resulting in doubled energy savings.
The front of the stage consists of three mobile platforms with spring lifts. The platforms can be levelled with the stage, the audience floor or lowered to the level of the orchestra pit. This was especially helpful in the reconstruction of the Kaunas Musical Theatre, when for a short time the operetta troupe moved to the National Kaunas Drama Theatre.
The reconstruction of such a heterogeneous building is a huge challenge. By adapting the building to our day, the most valuable features of the Great Hall and the foyer spaces were identified, which A. Kančas’ studio preserved and connected between different periods. The former dark second-floor hall of the Soviet period was opened by opening up a ceiling between the first and second floors. Part of the space on the second-floor hall has become a leisure area accessible only to workers, with an chandelier of impressive size in socialist modernism style. The newly created spectator hall space is surrounded by frameless glass railings and signs of the time – the railings with floristic motifs were taken away. Although such handrails can still be found in one of the staircases created during the reconstruction made by K. Bučas (1953–1959) leading to the “Rūta” Hall. Here the white and grey tones of the walls, the authentic protected polished concrete floor turn the staircase into a estheticaly pleasing space. Natural daylight fills it, yet at the same time revealing that the quality of metal welding works performed during the Soviet era is not equal to the earlier master craft of Kaunas interwar modernist staircases.
Yet, besides the aesthetic part, the biggest challenge for A. Kančas’ studio was to improve the functional layout of such a large building in such a self-contained and complex construction of building blocks. Courtyards became corridors and staircases. Former outbuildings, offices and warehouses intertwined with workshop spaces. The authors of the reconstruction had to put in a lot of work to try to create a coherent structure for the building. Three new elevators, a new staircase, and many separate stairways connecting the different levels were installed. The authors of the reconstruction performed a compositional analysis of the courtyard façades and created a new, harmonized image. The two rows of rhythmic windows hide the storerooms of the stage costumes and the sewing studio above them, where daylight is needed. However, the volumes created by a kind of self-implemented history, with added technological decorations such as elevator shafts or ventilation units, still appear to be disordered.
Preparatory work for reconstructions, which began in 2003, led to the appearing of new, smaller theatre halls. These are the “Rūta” Hall with 170 seats, the Small Stage with 105 seats and the mysterious rehearsal hall.
According to the original plans, a rehearsal hall was to be installed above the Great Hall, but after putting the new floor, it was decided to make an additional hall there, albeit not very comfortable nor practical for it’s elongated shape. The “Rūta” Hall is almost like a real black box hall, which is necessary for smaller, non-standard theatre productions or modern dance. It is not clear why it has not got transformable seats typical for a black box hall, why it is impossible to change the orientation of the scene, why the walls are not entirely black. On the other hand, the “Rūta” Hall was complimented by a cosy, red-coloured lobby as an exhibition space, lit from above through skylights.
The rehearsal hall was moved even further – to the south wing attic above the scenography workshop. It’s “mysterious” because it is inaccessible to spectators. The main advantage of this hall is that it is designed of the same size as the main stage. This allowed longer rehearsals and shortened the adaptation process of the performance (actors start rehearsing on the main stage some time before the performance) from a month to 2 weeks. Also, large tables were placed next to a small window where a little light gets in through the day. This is where the production of theater show begins: the actors and the director get together and start the first readings of the play, the roles get distributed.
The Small Hall was placed in the attic of the main building of Laisvės Alley, when the fifth floor was added. It is easily accessible by a newly installed lift and staircase, as well as a glass gallery that extends the lobby spaces to the roof terrace. Initially, the Small Hall was hidden under a sloping tin roof, and later it was disguised by an artistic light installation. After installing a ribbed 2.5-meter-high illuminated theatre installation-parapet, the overall height of the building coincided with the building designed in 1953.
The theatre’s decorators, props, and sculptor are located in the south wing of the building, on the third floor, where the largest windows were cut out. Here, in a double-height room with a mezzanine, creative work takes place and the scenography of the plays is created. Along one wall there is a shelf full of paper models created by scenographers. The adjacent offices include private work areas, a painting room, next – a freight elevator opens its doors, connecting to the stage and the prop warehouse. The props for the plays are usually made of lightweight yet durable material so as not to get the actors weary and serve in long-term. A broken or damaged prop can be repaired, glued or repainted right here and right away. The spatial structure of the Kaunas Drama Theatre is partly reminiscent of such an old theatre prop, moulded by different creators according to the requirements of directors and political systems. Repaired, pasted, perhaps with slightly altered proportions, but painted with fresh paint – this could be the paraphrase of today’s National Kaunas Drama Theatre building. This is by no means a reproach to the architects of the reconstruction or to the staff of the current theatre – it is rather a reflection based on the physical structure of the building and the conditions of the employees who use it today.
Today, one can only speculate as to what a separate, newly built theatre would have looked like without the attempt to recreate or interpret the spirit of the destroyed art deco cinema. Even at the dawn of Lithuania’s independence, there were aspirations not to compromise with the socialist realism building, but to establish the Drama Theatre in a completely new space. Perhaps the old building would have changed its function once again and today would serve as an exotic home for yet another kind of art: circus or contemporary dance…
The Kaunas National Drama Theatre is a huge, complex building, the internal structure of which, bearing the signs and intersections of the time, undoubtedly leaves a unique emotion, yet sets a tone of intercommunication between theatre employees and visitors.
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