Theater holds an particularly important place in Samogitian cultural life since it is one of the oldest and most popular Samogitian art forms. The usually reserved Samogitians do not hesitate to open up on stage. They make fun of their own and their friends' weaknesses and hand out moral lessons. Historically, theater also acted as a peculiar mode of battle, where actors would figuratively destroy their opponents by making fun of them in skits that helped people understand the reasons for some current evil.
In Samogitia today almost every larger town or regional center has its own theater.
Samogitian theater has its origins in the 17th and 18th centuries. At that time theater functioned primarily as a means of education.
Jesuit priests are considered to have been the first major supporters of theater in Samogitia.
At the Jesuit school in Kraziai, where a large number of Samogitian youth studied, little instructional plays were performed weekly or monthly. Their goal was to improve the students' knowledge of Latin rhetoric, language, and diction. In the beginning, these plays consisted mainly of monologues and dialogues that later developed into extensive plots with an introduction, a choral epilogue, dances and animated pictures. These dramas were usually written by literature and poetics teachers. From the records and manuscripts of plays that have survived we can gain a sense of what Samogitian theater was like in the 17th and 18th centuries. Since sections of these plays are in the Samogitian language and some scenes include elements of Samogitian everyday life or descriptions of the Samogitian landscape, these plays were certainly written especially for Samogitian students.
When the Carmelite order took over the Kraziai school in 1797, the attention devoted to theater did not initially diminish. The instructors of the school continued to organize plays that usually centered around moralizing and didactically oriented texts. Comedies were organized as well - and were often performed outside the school in towns and small cities. Stories have survived about Shrove tide performances of the schools. However, when the Bernadine prefect Marcelijonas Gudelis-Gudelevicius, whose monastery financially supported the schools of the Telsiai region, wrote a letter of complaint to the inspector of all Lithuanian schools, Priest Bogusa, the comic performances in Telsiai and Kraziai were forbidden. The performances still continued for some time. After the Church withdrew its support, local boyars began to finance Samogitian theater, since they had become used to the performances and did not want to miss out on this pleasure. Plays were now not organized by schools, but privately by interested people or groups of actors. Special equipment and rehearsal and performance space were now needed. In 1815 the "Kurjer Litevski" (No. 74) wrote that at the funeral of the Samogitian tijunas (high rank in Lithuanian in Grand Duchy) Liudvikas Gorskis, after the church services and "after the funeral feast, a big event [took place] in the newly built theater, where amateur actors presented a play that suited the event."
As surviving documents show us, plays continued to take place in Kraziai, if more rarely than before, after Ignas Daujotas took over the direction of the school in 1817.
Under theleadership of the Vilnius director Jonas Sabaliauskas, the theater program in the now public Kraziai school received even more attention than before. Plays were produced and performed quite frequently. Later, the theater tradition in Kraziai and the rest of Samogitia slowly disappeared.
A new era of Samogitian theater dawned in 1899, a period of strict censorship. The first Lithuanian play, the four-act "Amerika pirtyje" ('America in the bathhouse') was performed in Palanga. Why was it performed in Palanga and not in some other city?
At this time Palanga and the coastal region belonged to the Kursas province where the tsarist government took a lighter view of Lithuanian culture activity than in other provinces. Additionally, Samogitian and Lithuanian intelligentsia spent the summer in Palanga. Whatever took place in Palanga became widely-known throughout Lithuania.
News about the first Lithuanian play in Palanga quickly spread to other regions in Lithuania and persuaded a number of Lithuanians to take more consistent measures against censorship in Lithuania.
Slowly Lithuanian evening and plays came into existence. The biggest obstacle was getting permission from the Russian authorities. However, the people who didn't find a solution to this problem usually didn't look very hard. In this regard, Samogitians tended to be both patient and clever.
In the garden of a hostel in Telsiai, a first Lithuanian literary evening was organized as early as 1890.
The first Lithuanian play performed in the Samogitian capitol Telsiai in 1907 was called "Zile galvoj, velnias uodegoj" ('Gray hair on your head, the devil on your tail').
Because of the difficult political and and economic circumstances, Samogitian directors and actors did not come up with profound plays. It was important simply that a play be Lithuanian, preferably Samogitian. The contents of the plays of this decade were simple and easy for audiences to understand.
In 1916 Telsiai artists organized the "Kankles" society that survived until 1935. This group continued the Samogitian theater tradition and staged about 400 plays in Telsiai and other Samogitian towns.
During this time period popular theaters were active in other Samogitian towns as well. However, the Telsiai theater was creatively the most successful. A number of actors performed regularly and quite professionally. Slowly they lost their amateurism. This group of actors formed a real community that continued to stage performances even after "Kankles" disbanded in 1935.
1940 and 1941 were difficult years for the Telsiai theater. The most talented actors left for larger cities, a number of them resettling in Siauliai.
In late 1941 Butkai Juze and Peter Gintalas decided to create a truly Samogitian theater. They decided to build on a professional foundation, so that the Samogitian public would have the opportunity to encounter professional art and theater as often as possible.
During the war years the following actors formed the core of the Samogitian theater: J. Dulskyte, O. Dainauskiene, J. Gasceviciute, I. Gurinaite, A. Gruodyte, A. Kaviliauskas, O. Knapkyte, S. Paska, A. Petkevicius, A Pikelis, S. Ratkevicius, A. Zadeikis and others.
During the war these actors staged several new performances each year. Audiences enjoyed Busonas' melodrama "Nezinomoji" ('The unknown woman'), S. Laucius' "Signalas" ('Signal'), Schiller's "Klasta ir Meile" ('Love and Perfidity'), P. Vaiciunas' "Naujieji Zmones" ('New People"), K. Binkis' "Atzalynas" ('Young Wood'), P. Gintalas' "Kraziu skerdynes" ('Slaughter of the Crosses'), Sudermanas' "Teviske" ('Fatherland') and other plays.
The Telsiai theater became fully professional in 1943 and lasted as such until 1949.
Telsiai directors during the war period included N. Bernotas, A. Zalikevicaite-Petrauskiene, R. Juknevicius, B. Lukosius, M. Mikuta, A. Radzevicius, and N. Vosyliute. T. Valius was one of the main set designers.
During this period the theater also employed a musical ensemble under the direction of V.Visockas.
In 1949 the professional Samogitian actors merged with the Siauliai theater, whose directors helped the Telsiai theater stage new and revived productions.
During the war years attempts were made to found professional theaters in Mazeikiai, Plunge and other larger Samogitian towns, but amateurs continued to provide the bulk of actors.
The Telsiai theater was reopened on June 25, 1959.
After the 1964 E. Radzius' production of Zemaite's "Petras Kurmelis" the Telsiai theater was renamed "Zemaite Theater".
Today the Telsiai Zemaite Theater successfully stages more Samogitian plays that any other theater in the region. A large number of the works performed are based on Zemaite's writings. Recently these have included "Trys mylimos" ('Three Loves'), "Marti" ('Daughter-in-law'), "Petras Kurmelis," "Pirslybos" ('Matchmaking'), and "Stebuklingas daktaras" ('The Miracle-doctor'). In 1994 the theater staged the first Samogitian play based on poetry written by Samogitian authors, "Zemaiteske zuode pauksteles ciolb" ('Birds Sing Samogitian Words').
Currently, Samogitian amateur theaters are among the the most active and well-known in the country. They distinguish themselves by their exceptional repertoire that includes many Samogitian plays performed in the Samogitian dialect. According to the theater specialist P. Vielsis, most of the actors have an excellent grasp on the specifics of acting in a theater, even though the majority never received any formal theatrical training and decided to perform for their own pleasure.
Long-standing amateur theater traditions exist in Plunge, Kretinga, Rietavas, Taurage, Kelme, Jurbarkas, Mazeikiai, Palanga, Akmene, and Skuodas. Most of these theaters have earned the prestigious B. Dauguvietis award of the Lithuanian Republic.
Most recently, steps have been taken to form a professional theater in the Samogitian town of Silute.
In recent years, opportunities for local theater companies to perform for each other and learn from each others' work have multiplied. There are a large number of Samogitian theater festivals. The festivals "Nuogne grazi Zemaiteje" and "Cha cha!" take place yearly in Telsiai. The town Tauragiskiai organizes the yearly "Tytuva" festival. A summer festival "Saules taku" ('Following the sun') takes places in Palanga and Kretinga stages a traditional gathering on a threshing floor.
Samogitian theaters frequently go on tours and participate in national and international amateur theater festivals, where they regularly receive positive critiques.
The heart and soul of the Samogitian and Lithuanian amateur theater scene is the Samogitian director of the Center for Folk Culture, Vacys Vicius.
© Samogitian Cultural
Association Editorial Board, 1998.