Perhaps the most significant event in the beginning of this year in the theatrical life of the Uzbekistan’s capital city was the appeal of the Ilkhom Theater to the general public published on February 12, 2020. The famous theater, founded back in 1976, could survive even after the brutal murder of Mark Wail, the founder of the theater– the famous director in the post-Soviet era.
But today the fate of the theater depends on the decision of the authorities and the new owner of the building where the Ilkhom Theater rents premises. As stated in the appeal of the theater staff, they don’t have the means and opportunities to acquire a new building and recreate the theater in it again, and the loss of their space actually means a death sentence to the Ilkhom Theater.

What is the idea of Mark Wail’s heritage and why is it important to preserve the theater he created? How does it survive, being independent and not having support from the state budget? Where does Ilkhom draw its creative resources from? Is the very existence of this theater in the Soviet and post-Soviet era a phenomenon? Boris Gafurov, the artistic director of the theater, Irina Bharat, the deputy theater director and Tahir Yuldashev, the art critic talk about all this in an interview to CAAN.
What are the fundamental specific characteristics of the Ilkhom Theater?
Boris Gafurov: This is the first and only independent theater in Uzbekistan. There are independent student and amateur theaters in our country, but there are no independent professional groups without state support and subsidies, with the Ilkhom Theater being an exception.

The main distinguishing characteristic is the repertoire policy. Ilkhom was born as an independent theater and its first performances were staged based on plays that were on the so-called “black list”, i.e. from the forbidden list in the seventies of the last century. Not a single theater in the USSR could afford to play what Ilkhom played on its stage in the Soviet era.
I would like to mention another important point that distinguishes Ilkhom from other theaters. Since Soviet times, we had an understanding of Uzbek, Russian, Korean theater, etc. In other words, theaters differed in nationalities and cultures. Ilkhom was born as a multinational team and it broke these boundaries, created an intercultural and multinational team, where Uzbeks, Russians, Jews, Koreans, Armenians and representatives of other nationalities play. On the stage of the theater sounds Russian, Uzbek, English and French.

What is the secret to success and popularity of the Ilkhom Theater abroad?
Tahir Yuldashev:In my opinion, the main success factor is that the Ilkhom performances meet the relevant and modern requirements of the global theater practice. And another very important point: the performances of Mark Wail are the most conditional. I believe this convention helps the stage atmosphere be infinite and at the same time informative. Therefore, the foreign audience perceives well Ilkhom performances. At one time, I traveled with Ilkhom to Bulgaria, where the performance “Bourgeois Wedding” was a huge success. Other successful examples are “Care with Pomegranate” with oriental flavor and “Happy Beggars”.

About Mark Wail’s legacy
One of the first in the history of the former Soviet Union professional non-governmental theater Ilkhom was founded in 1976 by director Mark Wail and a group of graduates from the Tashkent Theater and Art Institute. Originally it was called ESTY “Ilkhom” – Experimental Studio of Theatrical Youth. From the very beginning, the theater was formed as a group, consisting of soloists who would freely improvise and sensitively hear each other. Young playwrights made their debut in this theater who subsequently formed the “new wave” drama.

When it comes to the Ilkhom Theater, we often hear about Mark Wail’s legacy. What is the point of this legacy? Does his legacy reflect in the director’s style?

Boris Gafurov:I am one of the first students of Mark Wail. I graduated from the first studio at the Ilkhom Theater, worked with him for many years and now I head this theater. Of course, his enormous work and skill invested in this theater cannot disappear without a trace. The school of Mark Wail, created by his methodology of teaching young actors, continues to work and bear fruit to this day. We have already composed the eleventh studio and preserved the entire training methodology.
But the directing style changes over time, since the theater is not a museum. A modern theater is a living organism, something is added or transformed. But its foundation and basis were laid by Mark Wail.

Which performances created by Mark Wail still stay in the stage of the theater to this day, and which have already been removed from the repertoire of the theater and why?

Boris Gafurov:
Unfortunately, today’s theater repertoire doesn’t contain many performances staged by Mark Wail. The reasons are different – often this is a change in the team of actors. Many artists who worked under Mark Wail left Uzbekistan, and it’s a very difficult task to keep in the repertoire the performances created by a certain team, actors and main characters. But despite this, we managed to keep from his repertoire such performances as “Happy Beggars” (based on the play by Carlo Gozzi), “Tortilla Flat” (John Steinbeck), “White, White Black Stork” (based on the works of Abdulla Kadiri) and “Free novel” (based on the works of Alexander Pushkin). All these performances to this day gather full halls of the audience with all the tickets sold out.

Post-Mark Wail’s Ilkhom
How has the repertoire of the theater changed after Mark Wail, in terms of productions’ themes and the penetration of plays?

Boris Gafurov:
Time changes, so do events around us, we also change, accordingly the repertoire of our theater changes too. As I said already, theater is a living organism and it is sensitive to what is happening around us. This is evidenced by the recent premiere of the play “Tomorrow” based on the play by Nikita Makarenko. It clearly, sharply and honestly speaks of what is happening now with us, with our city and country, about the demolitions of houses, tragedies and dramas that people experience with these changes, about the little man who is now facing a market economy and new rules of the game. Time changes, the theme changes. We also talk about love and human, today’s circumstances and today’s man within these circumstances. This is the main thing what the Ilkhom Theater lives today with.

Among the repertoire created after the death of Mark Wail, which performances became blockbusters?
Boris Gafurov:
These are the productions: “Seven Moons” based on the work of Alisher Navoi, “Rain Behind the Wall” based on the play by Yuri Klavdiev and “Dog Heart” after the same name novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. These are the blockbusters of the Ilkhom repertoire created after Mark Wail.

Do blockbusters differ in Uzbekistan and abroad during foreign tours?
Boris Gafurov:
Rather not. They almost coincide. In my opinion, this is because our viewer is the same everywhere, whether in Uzbekistan or abroad.

What are the trends of recent years at the Ilkhom Theater?
Irina Bharat:
Over the past few years, we have created the so-called synthetic theater in the theater + music laboratory. Musicians work in our performances, which sets us apart from other theaters. We practically do not use a phonogram, more often in our performances we play author’s music, which is composed specifically for each production. Musicians with instruments on stage perform like actors. This is a kind of synthesis of theater and music, this is our laboratory work – complex in technical terms, but made on a professional level.

How do you select a play for the Ilkhom scene? Is there a range of playwrights and writers to whom you often approach (Russian, Uzbek and Western)?
Boris Gafurov:I know that there are theaters with their own writers and playwrights, whom they often call on. But Ilkhom does not have such a tradition and the choice of play is always accidental. For example, you read the material and it starts to touch you, you want to produce it. It does not matter whose work it is – a Russian, Uzbek or Western playwright.

What is it like sharing the same blood with Ilkhom?
The interaction between the audience and the actions that take place on the theater stage directly depends on the director and his/her aspirations. His/her main task is to break the material barrier between the public and the actors. The director is responsible for organizing and structuring all the elements of the theatrical performance to create a single, harmonious and holistic performance.

By what principles and considerations are directors invited to Ilkhom for productions? Do you collaborate with young directors?
Irina Bharat:
We receive a lot of offers and we very carefully approach the issue of choosing directors for productions on our stage. Our team is at a high professional level and it is important for us that the director aligns with our team. In other words, he/she must speak the same language as our team and share “the same blood”. One example of such a successful tandem is cooperation with Vladimir Pankov, the director of SoundDrama Moscow studio. When he staged his first performance in Ilkhom, “Seven Moons,” based on the work of Alisher Navoi, we realized that this was our director. Subsequently, we became great friends and do joint projects with his team in SoundDrama.
We had several cases when the directors came and started working, but they “stalled” and did not pull the team. Therefore, we are always in search of such directors with whom the “blood type” matches.
We are trying to cooperate with young directors; in our theater we host the Central Asian Laboratory of Young Directors, which attracts 20-30 people. They are saturated with the aesthetics of Ilkhom, and we hope for further cooperation with them in the form of joint projects, and that they will carry the energy of Ilkhom. Some of them are already trying their hand at our stage.

How is the Ilkhom cast selected? Do you “grow” creative resources in your schools, as is done in some theater studios in Uzbekistan? Or do you have different approaches to this issue?

Boris Gafurov:
Our theater has its own studio, where acting technique is taught and 90% of the actors who play on the Ilkhom stage are the graduates of our studio. The training lasts 3 years. Students come to our studio after school or college, and some even after graduating from the Theater Institute. At the end of training, they go on stage, the best graduates remain in the Ilkhom Theater. The remaining 10% are the invited actors from other theaters, these are people who are close to us in spirit, they understand this life the same way we do.
What was the need to create your own Studio? After all, acting technique is also taught at the Theater Institute.

Boris Gafurov:
Sometimes graduates of the Theater Institute come to us, there are wonderful and talented guys. But they are trained in a completely different way and they will have to be “broken”, because our aesthetics and understanding of the profession are completely different, the approach varies. I am not saying that they are worse or better, they just have a different understanding of this profession than ours.

Irina Bharat:
We are not an academic theater, we have a blackbox chamber platform – when you are in direct contact with the viewer, there are no curtains or backstage area. In the space of the blackbox chamber theater there is no distance between the viewer and the actor, it’s the same as going out and not hiding anything, being ready to exist a meter away from the audience’s eyes. In order to exist in such a space you need to learn. Many theaters have their own studios and schools, their methods are sharpened for staff training in the direction in which they work. It was a wise decision by Mark Wail to create his own School-studio. He realized that in order for a theater to live, it was necessary to nourish and produce personnel on our own. The school of the Ilkhom Theater has existed for more than 25 years.
Theater is a loss-making enterprise.
Ticket prices to Ilkhom are one of the most expensive when compared with the ones to other Tashkent theaters performances. Since it is a non-governmental and independent cultural institution, there is a perception among Tashkent residents that Ilkhom is a commercial and profitable enterprise.

Does the Ilkhom Theater exist only at the expense of the proceeds from the sale of tickets or are there other sources for theater support maintenance, for example, commercial projects, funds of patrons and advertisers?

Irina Bharat:
Only 30% of our budget is covered by the sale of tickets. Unfortunately, our theater cannot exist only due to the proceeds from the cash desk, since we have only 150 seats. If we set the ticket prices even higher than now, we’ll lose our viewer. Therefore, we set prices so that our viewer can afford it. We already have rather high ticket prices, but we keep a 50% discount system for senior citizens and students.
The remaining 70% of the budget is covered by other sources. Unfortunately, we have not yet found patrons among the Uzbek business community, the institution of patronage is not yet developed in our country. Apparently, companies are still making money for themselves; supporting art is probably the next stage in the development of Uzbekistan’s economy. As for advertisers, they are more interested in placing their banners in large spaces, for example, near large markets, etc., than placing advertisements in the Ilkhom Theater. Therefore, advertising is not our story; probably, the advertiser should be interested in image advertising. But, we don’t have it yet.
We work with some companies that regularly support us, for example, Knauf. This company periodically allocates funds for the implementation of our projects. The first time they supported us was when we launched the laboratories of an inclusive theater and worked in a project with people with disabilities. The company provided financial support in order to create a space around the theater accessible specifically for such people. “My taxi” also participated in this project. In addition, we cooperate with the Goethe Institute (Tashkent) and the Swiss Cooperation Office. We turn to various international funds in order to find at least some financing. Of these 100 requests, one can be a “shot”; it is a very difficult job.

Boris Gafurov:
I often hear comments from people, including viewers, who don’t understand who’s funding the Ilkhom Theater and how it lives. We are often accused of inflated ticket prices and they say that our theater is “well heeled” and “self-indulged”, where a lot of money is “circulating”. I must say the price set for tickets is a necessary measure so that the theater can simply survive, and not swim in luxury. And that is why we are one of the most expensive theaters in Uzbekistan. If we lower the prices, we don’t have enough money to live on, pay salaries to the actors, come up with new performances and keep the old performances in proper form. We do not receive any funds from the state, we live by market mechanisms.
Theater a priori is a loss-making enterprise. No theater in the world can exist without the support of either the state or business and philanthropists, even if it is the most eminent and famous.

Is Ilkhom a phenomenon?
Since the late 80s and early 90s of the last century, the Ilkhom Theater was considered an oasis of free expression in conditions of censorship over the cultural life of society.
How can you explain such a phenomenon as the existence of theater in the Islam Karimov’s era?

Boris Gafurov:
The fact that the Ilkhom Theater was what it should have been, even in the era of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, is already a phenomenon; the fact that the theater survived this period is also a phenomenon. The explanation for this is most likely the same as the existence of the Moscow Taganka Theater in Soviet times – to show the fact of the existence of freedom of speech in one form or another against accusations from outside on its complete absence. At all these times, the Ilkhom Theater lived and did not give up its positions, it was a place beyond censorship, our performances were not regulated by anyone and no one would tell us what was permitted and what was not. We have always been an independent platform and formed our repertoire on our own.

How is the era of reforms we’ve been observing in Uzbekistan over the past three years reflected in the activities of the Ilkhom Theater? Have performances about the events, problems and life of society in the current period appeared on the Ilkhom stage?
Irina Bharat:
“Airport” is the new play that appeared in our repertoire during this period. It was very relevant and gathered a full house, talking about the reforms ongoing in Uzbekistan from a critical point of view. But it was removed from the repertoire six months ago, because from our perspective this performance has lost its relevance. Recently, we hosted the premiere of the “Tomorrow” about the problems that concern us today: the felling of trees, the demolitions of houses, the fates of people who are left behind and cannot solve these problems not on an emotional, but psychological level.
We need Ilkhom and it will live…
According to Boris Gafurov, the artistic director of the theater, in the current situation the question is not who is right or wrong (the private company that now owns this building or the Ilkhom Theater), but how much modern Tashkent needs this theater and art recognized in many countries.

At what stage or condition is the resolution of this issue now?
Irina Bharat:
Now negotiations are ongoing at different levels and we were assured that the problem with the premises would be solved positively for Ilkhom. This means that we remain here, in the same place that our team considers its home. We expect this to be confirmed formally and legally documented.